A Bing in Marx clothing

The sign said "50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer." I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a "set." Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.

I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.At first glance, they looked like Marx 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t do 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t know why; I just don’t like ’em. Then I noticed that one of the cars had wheels that were too big for Marx. I picked it up and flipped it over. It had an uppercase "B" and the words "Made in Germany."

I looked at the price. "Set of 3. $39."

Now let me tell you the significance of the words "Made in Germany." Before World War I, most toy trains were made in Germany. The market leaders were Bing, which was the world’s largest toy company, and Maerklin, which was the company that everybody copied. The biggest U.S. maker was a company called Ives. Some upstart called Lionel was giving all of them a run for the money, but it was an also-ran. After the war, Ives and American Flyer lobbied successfully for protection, essentially pricing the Germans out of the U.S. market.

So this Bing car probably dates back to before World War I.

I picked up the other two cars in the set. "Made in U.S.A. The Lionel Corporation." Ah, so they weren’t a set. I double-checked them to make sure they would couple together. They weren’t a perfect match but they fit. And the wheel height was right.

Well, like I said, I don’t do six-inch passenger cars. Especially six-inch passenger cars that have no paint or have been badly repainted. But these weren’t just any six-inch passenger cars. And even though they were almost completely devoid of paint, amazingly they had little or no rust anywhere on them.

I hesitated. Then I ran through in my mind the value of the cars as parts. The wheels and axles were all in good shape. The couplers were all usable. The roofs were all nice and straight and even had decent paint jobs on them, considering their likely age. The frames were pretty straight. The bodies weren’t perfectly straight but they also weren’t dented, and they were rust-free. They were easily worth $20 as parts, I figured.

So I offered $20. The cashier looked at the price tag, then accepted without hesitation.

Still, it took me a while to justify my purchase. Call it shellshock from looking at Marx priced at 10x book value.

I explained it to my girlfriend this way. Yes, a Standard Gauge Lionel locomotive–the big mamas with the wheels 2 1/8 inches apart–is worth a minimum of $500 if it looks decent. It doesn’t even have to run. Cars are also worth a couple hundred apiece. Some rare sets go for five figures. Lots of people know this, so they automatically assume that any toy train is worth a small fortune.

Reality check: Lionel quit making those trains in 1938 because nobody could afford them. They’re worth that kind of money because they’re old and rare. And they look really cool. But Lionel made millions of trains in the 1950s and they ran forever. With few exceptions, they’re common and cheap. Marx made even more of them. You could buy Marxes anywhere with the change in your pocket. They’re even more common and even cheaper.

It’s like baseball cards. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card is worth a million dollars in best-possible condition. But that doesn’t mean my 1983 Johnny Bench baseball cards are worth even $100. They’re probably not even worth $10.

Back to the trains. What else can I tell from looking at them?

I found traces of red paint on the two Lionels and a slightly larger remnant of yellow paint on the German car (I’m guessing it’s a Bing, since the largest German makers were Maerklin, Bing, and Fandor, and only Bing starts with a "B"). I suspect the Lionels were red with black doors, roof, and frame, and the Bing was yellow with black doors, roof, and frame.

As for their age, no doubt they’re pre-War. Only Marx bothered to make six-inch tinplate cars after World War II. And since Bing had difficulty selling trains in the United States after World War I, the Bing might predate World War I. Lionel didn’t catalog O gauge trains until 1913 and they weren’t widely available until 1915. So maybe these are the same age as the Bing, or maybe the Bing is slightly older.

I set them up on a piece of display track. They looked pretty good there. Definitely rustic, but not bad.

But toy trains are meant to run. Even 90-year-old ones. I checked the coupler height against my postwar Marx 551 tender ($4 at Marty’s last week). It fit. I put the three cars on my track on my layout behind the tender, and lashed the tender up to my Marx 490 locomotive ($12 off eBay a few months ago). It looked good. I applied power. The Marx strained, but it pulled them.

After a few laps, I realized those cars probably haven’t seen oil in a good 70 years, maybe more. So I oiled the wheels and axles and spun the wheels to make sure they turned freely. I ran the Marx again, and it pulled them without difficulty.

I probably have no choice but to restore the cars. I expect they’ll rust quickly in my humid house, and chances are what paint remains on them is lead-based. I don’t want toys with lead-based paint in my house. So I’ll strip them down–I hear a long bath in a bucket of generic imitation Pine-Sol is all it takes–and repaint them after I manage to research how the cars were originally painted and lettered.

Congratulations to Wikipedia for two Webby nominations

Wikipedia has been nominated for two Webby awards this year.

It’s up against some heavy hitters (currently losing to Google and LiveJournal in its two categories), but just a nomination is an acomplishment, let alone a second-place finish, which looks like a probability.

Wikipedia, in case you don’t know, is an effort to create a free and complete encyclopedia. Anyone can contribute to it, which is the best and worst thing about it. As time goes on, that becomes more of a good thing than a bad thing. There are topics in Wikipedia that get ample coverage that an encyclopedia written by academics would never touch, either because the subject is too taboo, or because it’s too obscure.

Wikipedia is growing at an explosive rate. Its article count hit 200,000 earlier this year and has already hit 250,000. (I’m surprised this didn’t get mention on Slashdot, but earlier milestones have.) I recommend you check it out. As time goes on, you’ll stumble across it more and more when you search the Web for information.

At least one person who read about Wikipedia initially on this site has gone on to become an editor over there. To which I say, congratulations.

I don’t contribute to Wikipedia at nearly the rate I once did. To be a major contributor, at least at one point, was to invite conflict–and conflict was something I neither had time nor energy for. I had better things to do than battle with someone with a too-big ego. The person I had the most conflicts with has since left the project, and I resigned myself to more obscure topics: First, 1980s computing, and later, model railroading. These days, I guess I appear to be strictly an O gauge specialist. But that’s OK. There’s a lot of information out there that people want and can’t find.

So that’s what I encourage you to do. You don’t have to become an every-day contributor, or even a regular one. Check out what Wikipedia has to say about your hometown and add one detail that might be missing. Do the same for an organization you belong to or admire, or maybe a company that you happen to know a lot about. If your favorite hobby isn’t anywhere to be found, write up an introduction. Frequently when a new article appears, someone else notices it and contributes something. And soon, what once was nothing becomes a pretty good encyclopedia entry.

Wikipedia is definitely something I recommend to anyone who wants to write professionally. Write a couple of entries and watch the changes people make to them. Some will be good, and some will be terrible. Learning to tell the difference is the skill that separates a competent writer from a good or even great one.

I need to build this in O gauge

I visited the site because the link promised billboards. I got so much more. Now the fine Scot in me really wants to build this box car.

Since my trains are O27, not HO, I can’t use his artwork directly. But his HO scale decals might be suitable for a tinplate 6-inch car like those American Flyer and Marx used to sell, since those 6-inch Marxes basically look like double-height HO cars.This is precisely why I’m not a rivet-counter. Trains are supposed to be fun. This car doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun. The Second Amendment Gun Shop with a sign in the window saying “No weapons allowed” doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun.

I try to keep elements of what I do believable–you won’t see any low-rider Honda Civics running around my layout, which is supposed to look like the 1950s because my trains were built in the ’50s–but since I can’t build models of a specific time and place, what’s the point of getting uptight about whether M-K-T box car 45001 really existed?

But hey. For some people that’s the best part of the hobby. That’s OK. Just don’t try to stop me from having my fun.

A Soviet train on eBay!?

I’ve read about Soviet toy trains, but I’ve never actually seen one for sale, until today.

I expect this Soviet O gauge toy train car on eBay to go for $200, possibly more.Of course, the Soviet trains are more of a novelty or curiosity than anything else. They’ll run on Lionel track, and the voltage is close enough that a Lionel or compatible transformer will run them just fine. But running them?

The Soviet trains are a close enough copy of 1939-1941 American Flyer that I suspect it would couple up to a Flyer train just fine. That would be the trick to running any of this stuff. Modern Lionel trucks and couplers would probably bolt on just fine, but I wouldn’t dare modify something like this. I won’t even change the couplers on any vintage train, even a $15 Lionel caboose, unless the originals were damaged.

I’d debate even running a Soviet train car on track, but then I remember, these were toys and they were meant to be enjoyed, so if it ran once–which it almost certainly did–it should run again.

So I’d buy a couple of Flyer passenger cars, change the coupler on the front car so it would couple with a Lionel locomotive and tender, and have that bad boy running around on track again in the middle of a Flyer train. If I had $200-$250 that I didn’t know what to do with, that is.

Few of these Soviet trains were made. They were made to be given as gifts to boys who found favor with the Soviet government. Some made it out of the country for various reasons, as could be expected, but supposedly it’s now illegal to take one out of the country, as the Russian government has declared them a national treasure.

Sure I want one. But hey, there are lots of things I want. I won’t be placing that bid.

Wikipedia hits 200,000

Over the weekend, Wikipedia reached the milestone of 200,000 entries in its free encyclopedia. Dan Gillmor praised it in his syndicated column.As usual, Slashdot got wind of it, and as usual, people who’ve never even seen the thing started spouting off about how something that anyone can change can’t possibly be accurate or useful. (Wonder how many of those people run Linux?) At least one person ran over there and vandalized some pages to demonstrate his point. And I’m sure the edit got reversed within a few minutes when someone noticed a change in a watchlist. I, for one, visit occasionally and whenever a change pops up in my watchlist, I look at it out of curiosity. Sometimes I learn something and sometimes I find defacement, which I can then fix.

But I guess if Slashdot discussions were the only thing I ever read, then I wouldn’t have that high of an opinion of something written by random people at will, either.

A more valid criticism is that Wikipedia, by its very nature, can never be accepted as a source for scholarly work. But then I thought back to the papers I wrote in college, and I don’t believe I ever used an entry out of any encyclopedia as a source in any paper that I wrote. And being a journalism major who was 3 credit hours away from a history minor and who filled most of his electives with English and political science classes, I wrote a lot of papers in college. When I wrote my paper on the influence of William Randolph Hearst on the William McKinley administration, I may have looked up both Hearst and McKinley in an encyclopedia to get background information, but I doubt it. Why use an encyclopedia when there are so many good, specialized texts available?

There is still valid use for questionable sources in scholarly work anyway. One professor actually encouraged us to look in Mother Jones and American Spectator when possible, just to get the views from two extremes on the topic at hand. And Wikipedia can give you leads to follow, even if you don’t end up citing it in your bibliography. The material in Wikipedia came from somewhere, after all.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia for the past year or so. I left it entirely when I got tired of an overzealous editor deleting my additions. I guess I wasn’t the only one who complained about her; she’s since disappeared. I used to look at the day in history and try to fill in the gaps; for example, I noticed on one of Jesse James’ anniversaries that he didn’t have an entry, so I put one together. Unfortunately, high-profile stuff seems to be what attracts both vandals and overzealous editors.

So when I came back, I decided to concentrate on things like baseball, obscure old computers, and things that have connections to Missouri, particularly Kansas City and St. Louis. Those are more my areas of expertise anyway, which makes writing them a lot less work, and the topics are obscure enough that I’ve been mostly left alone. Those edits that do pop up usually are true improvements, rather than someone going on a power trip. My entries get linked much less frequently on the front page now, but I’m happier.

Another thing that I’ve taken to doing is to always check Wikipedia whenever I’m researching something. Sometimes Wikipedia has good information, but may be missing some detail I found elsewhere. Sometimes it has very little information. In either case, I try to enter the information I found. I recently created entries for Lionel Corporation, American Flyer, and Louis Marx and Company. Of course I got interested in them because of my recent renewed interest in toy trains, and during the time period I’m interested in, those companies were the big three in the United States. Some of the information about those companies is difficult to find online. Or it was. Now it’s in Wikipedia, which makes it easier to track down.

According to Wikipedia’s records, I’ve contributed to 323 entries. Most of those are pretty minor. There are lots of people who’ve contributed a whole lot more than me.

But I often notice a domino effect on my entries. Soon after writing the Lionel entry, I wrote one for O gauge model railroading in particular, and made an addition or two to the main model railroading article. Soon, other people were making their additions to specific gauges and scales, or creating them when entries didn’t exist. Within a few days, Wikipedia had some good information on the topic. It’s anything but exhaustive, but I’ll put it up against any other encyclopedia’s offering.

One difference that I have definitely noticed about Wikipedia, as opposed to conventional encyclopedias: Wikipedia has a much better pulse on pop culture. I’ve often lamented that people who have entries in the more traditional encyclopedias don’t have entries in Wikipedia, but every teenybopper band that’s come along in the past couple of years has an entry. But I guess ultimately that’s going to prove to be Wikipedia’s strength. In 30 years, it’ll be possible to go to Wikipedia to find out what the hubbub about Justin Timberlake was about. And in 30 years it may be the only place. (One can only hope.)

And in 30 years, those people who deserve more attention undoubtedly will have gotten their entries as well.

I definitely encourage people to look up their topics of interest over there and think about adding some of their knowledge.

Troubleshooting Marx remote turnouts

Yesterday I hooked up Dad’s old Marx O27 remote turnouts, and again found one of them dodgy.
I can’t find any troubleshooting information about Marx O gauge switches online. I went to the library and checked out all the toy train repair books I could find. Nothing. One of Ray L. Plummer’s books offered advice on repairing Lionel turnouts. But the Marx turnouts are slightly different. Emboldened, I set off on my own.

Before you destroy what little collector value your switches have (The words “switch” and “turnout” are often used interchangeably; forgive me if I try to feed Google to get more traffic), let me tell you how to test them first. All you need your turnout(s) (don’t connect them–just keep them loose), two pieces of wire, and a transformer. I used a 25-watt Marx transformer from an entry-level train set I bought off eBay for $20. This eliminates the control panel, track, and everything else from the equation. Of course, you should use a transformer that you already know to be in working order.

Some transformers have posts for both trains and accessories. Some (like the one I used) don’t. Don’t worry about it; we’ll just use the train posts for this exercise.

Don’t plug the transformer in yet. Run a wire from the center post of the turnout (sometimes labeled “B” or “black,” although not on Dad’s) to one of the posts on your transformer. Connect another wire to the other post, but leave the other end loose.

Now, before you plug in your transformer, please keep in mind that you’re working with electricity and use common sense. Keep your hands dry, don’t do this if you’re bleeding, etc. I’m not responsible for what happens next, OK? If you’ve never done anything like this before, take it to a hobby shop and let a pro handle it–a switch that will cost you $15 on eBay in working order isn’t worth personal injury. Or you can buy a new Lionel or K-Line switch from the local hobby shop for $30-$35. Yes, a 50-year-old Marx turnout is worth less than a new one from Lionel or K-Line. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Got all that? Good. Still with me? Great. Plug in the transformer. Turn it on. Switches like to run at 16-20 volts AC, so crank the transformer’s lever to full speed. Touch the loose wire to either of the outer posts on the switch. Then pick it up and touch it to the other one. Alternate between the two a few times.

If the accessory is still in working order, the track should change positions based on which post you touched the wire to. If it doesn’t, there’s probably a loose or frayed wire somewhere inside.

If the switch works this way but not when you connect the Marx control panel, your control panel is dodgy. I read on The All-Gauge Model Railroading Page that Atlas controllers for their HO turnouts work fine with Marx O27 turnouts. I also read in the same place that Lionel and K-Line controllers will not.

You can also pick up a Marx control panel on eBay. I saw one sell for $5 this past weekend.

Or if you’re handy with wiring, you ought to be able to fashion your own with a couple of push buttons or momentary switches from your local Radio Shack or equivalent–just make sure whatever switches you buy can handle 20-24 volts of current. (Always over-engineer on this kind of stuff.) If you want to go this route and you’ve never done any model railroading wiring before, pick up one of the books on wiring Lionel/Marx/American Flyer layouts–many hobby shops, larger bookstores, and even a lot of libraries have them–and follow its precautions. I’m not responsible for whatever happens if you go this route.

How do you fix a Marx control panel? It’s held shut by four rivets, so opening it for cleaning isn’t an easy endeavor. I fixed my dodgy control panel by blasting some Radio Shack TV tuner cleaner ($9 for a big can) into the openings, then flipping the unit over a few times to get it circulating, then working all four of the buttons. Seeing as the switch is little more than a couple of handfuls of contact points, there’s a decent chance that’ll take care of you. There really isn’t much inside there that can go wrong.

If TV tuner cleaner doesn’t help, it’s probably corrosion. You can open it up and clean any and all electrical contacts with a piece of 600-grit sandpaper, or fashion replacements from some conductive material (copper foil would be best, but aluminum would work). But you’re on your own from here.

If the switch doesn’t work, period, there’s probably a loose or frayed wire somewhere inside. Fortunately, there are only five wires inside.

Opening the switch’s case is a bit of a chore. It’s held shut by two rivets, easily found by flipping the turnout over and looking for indentations. Disconnect the outside wires and power off your transformer (of course). The proper tool to remove rivets isn’t exactly a household item (at least not in mine), so you can do what I did: Pinch the edges of each rivet with a pair of needle-nose pliers until it pushes through the case. The bottom should then come right off. You’ll notice three screws inside. There should be a wire connected to each. Overzealous loosening of the nuts on the top of the case followed by some jostling can loosen those wires. Tighten the screws (if they’re severely corroded, you might consider replacing them). If any of the wires appear frayed, replace them, or have someone handy with a soldering iron replace them.

If you find wires detached from screws and want to keep it from happening again, you can solder the wires to the screws, but this is probably overkill.

The small box on the top of the switch is held in place by six or so tabs on the bottom of the unit. This houses the electromagnet. You can gain access by gently bending the tabs with a small slotted screwdriver. Check to make sure those three wires are still soldered in place. The biggest place for something to go wrong on a Marx turnout is over by those screws it uses for terminals, however, so chances are there’s nothing wrong over in the electromagnet’s neighborhood.

Closing up shop can be as easy or difficult as you like. Since I don’t care about collector value on a pair of switches that might fetch $25, tops, on eBay, I replaced the rivets with a pair of very thin and short machine screws. If you care about collector value, procure a pair of small brass rivets to replace the two you just ruined.

A more permanent home for Dad’s Lionel

Gatermann and I spent the afternoon building a train table. I started building one about a month ago but got too busy to finish it. Today was the day I’d set aside to get some work done on it.
It’s slightly larger than 3’x5′, which is pretty much the minimum size you can do in O gauge if you want anything more than a big circle. I built it using lumber that was sitting in a corner of the basement, left by the people who sold me my house. It was a bit warped, and we had to do some piecing together, but the price was right, and it’s certainly good enough for now.

A proper O gauge layout really ought to be 4’x8′, minimum, and a lot of people believe a more realistic minimum is two 4’x8’s. But I don’t have enough track or buildings to fill a 4’x8′ table.

It’s hard to put together a layout in such a small space like mine without a plan. Fortunately, there are lots of free plans available at Thortrains.net, for a variety of sizes.

As we prepared to screw down the track (the trick is to screw it down just enough to hold it in place, but not enough to make it buckle), Gatermann experimented. I had a couple of hold turnouts I pulled out to measure with. They were Dad’s, way back when. We hooked them up once, probably more than 15 years ago. One of them worked but the other didn’t. As it was riveted together and so far as we knew impossible to take apart, we put the turnouts and the control panel back in the box. As this layout required some turnouts, I bought two pair of secondhand manual Marx turnouts from Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton. A third pair of turnouts would have allowed me to do one of the more complex layouts, but, alas, Marty’s didn’t have any more manual ones when I bought my set.

The disadvantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them, and you have to get the order right. The advantages of manual turnouts are that you have to get off your butt and go switch them so you get a little exercise, they cost about 1/3 as much as remote turnouts, and unless you do something stupid like back over them with your car, they won’t break.

At one point I flipped one of Dad’s turnouts over and spotted the Marx logo. I’d figured he was a Lionel partisan. As it turns out, maybe not.

Marx made toy trains in the 1950s as well. Lionel and American Flyer were the big names, and they were what kids asked for. Marx made trains that looked a lot like Lionel, and the tracks and transformers and accessories were all compatible with one another, but an entire Marx set sold for about what a Lionel locomotive would cost all alone. The saying was that if your dad had a good job, you had a Lionel or a Flyer. If your dad didn’t have a good job, you had a Marx.

Since Dad’s dad was something of an aristocrat, you can imagine my surprise at finding Marx gear in Dad’s stash. Either Dad bought those turnouts with his own money, or Dad’s dad, a notorious cheapskate, tried to get the best of both worlds by buying a Lionel starter set and expanding it with Marx track.

Well, now knowing that I had one working and one non-working Marx turnout, I searched the Net for information. There is no advice on troubleshooting Marx turnouts. They’re basically two electromagnets. Pushing a button deactivates the active electromagnet and activates the other. There isn’t much of anything to troubleshoot.

I did find a wiring diagram and a copy of the original instructions. I don’t remember much about how Dad and I wired the turnouts, but I’m pretty sure we tried to power them off the track, the same way you normally power Lionel accessories. The instructions explicitly say they have to run straight off the transformer. The wiring was a bit less than intuitive–the markings that are supposed to be on the turnouts aren’t–so for all I know, we didn’t wire them right either. Either reason may be why only one switch worked.

Since these turnouts would cost $30 a pop to replace (maybe $20 if I can find used ones), I’m definitely hoping that with proper wiring, they’ll start working again.

Meanwhile, my search turned up The Girard and Oak Park Railroad, a site by a hobbyist who got bored with his HO scale layout and replaced it with a large Marx O27 layout, largely by buying junkers on eBay and repairing and/or repainting them.

My layout doesn’t look as impressive as that one, but it runs. My Marx locomotive (a recent eBay find) ran fine on it once we added some weight to its front. The Lionel 1110 that must have been Dad’s first locomotive also runs fine. It takes a little time to figure out the right speed to run the trains on track with turnouts–something we found out the hard way, when my Marx 490 derailed and embarked on a four-foot tumble at high speed onto my basement’s concrete floor. Ouch. It survived without damage–certainly, its designers must have anticipated four-foot drops–but still made me nervous.