Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…

Last weekend\’s find

You never know what you’ll find when someone advertises “old trains.”

This is an American Flyer Type 4 locomotive. This variety was manufactured in Chicago from 1927 to 1929. It’s powered by clockwork, as many inexpensive toy trains were at the time. You wound it up with a key. The key for this one is long lost. I may be able to find another one, but keys are easily fabricated from K&S brass parts, available at hobby shops.

Amazingly, the motor still runs. The train doesn’t. It’s missing one of the drive wheels, and the other wheel isn’t soldered to the axle very well. Replacement wheels are still available and I can re-solder the other one. It ought to take about $5 worth of parts and about 15 minutes to get it running again.

It runs on O gauge track, the same as Lionel. But the track has two rails, you say? It sure does, because it’s not an electric train, so there’s no need for the third rail. This train predates American Flyer’s 2-rail S gauge electrics by about 25 years.

The locomotive is made of cast iron, cast in two pieces and held together by a screw. The tender and passenger coach are made of pressed steel, plated with tin. This is commonly called “tinplate”. The graphics on the coach are lithographed, a form of offset printing. This was very common on cheap toys up until the 1950s, when lithographed tinplate was gradually replaced with molded plastic, which was cheaper, could hold more detail, and could be made without any sharp edges.

This item isn’t particularly rare, but it’s an interesting curiosity.

I’m very happy to have it, but the genealogist in me really wishes people would hang on to things like this. This was someone’s grandfather’s train. All too often people’s reaction to an old train is “What’s it worth?” They’re looking for a fast buck.

In this condition, this particular train is worth about 50 bucks, give or take a few dollars.

Any toy that once belonged to any of my grandparents would be worth 10 times that to me.

I\’ll try to check in later this weekend.

It’s a long weekend, and it’s going to be a busy one.

In the meantime, for those of you who like old trains, here’s a link: Standard Gauge Blog. Primarily it’s dedicated to the old Lionel 2 1/8-inch “Standard Gauge” (there wasn’t anything standard about it, in reality). But if you want to talk about showstopper trains, the biggest showstoppers were this style.

I like this guy because he acknowledges there’s more to the world than MTH (and MTH isn’t even the center of the universe!), he talks to experts, and once he even showed how these things were/are made. Worth checking out.

It\’s that time of month again, time to Slashdot the Wikipedia

Slashdot published an interview today with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. I found it entertaining reading. Even though I’m a semi-regular contributor over at Wikipedia, I’ve never encountered its founder, possibly because I do my best these days to stay under the radar over there.The discussion on Slashdot was interesting. As always, someone questioned Wikipedia’s accuracy, wondering how anything but chaos can come from something that anyone can edit at any time. A few people read two articles and came back with the usual “99.9% of Wikipedia articles cite no sources and have inaccuracies in them.” Someone else came back and said he’d made a change to the M1A1 Abrams article and was corrected by an Army mechanic. I always like comments like that. It shows who actually has experience and who’s talking out his butt.

Wales was incredibly idealistic, with a vision of free textbooks educating the world and ridding the world of places where people have no sanitation. Free access to the sum of all human knowledge will solve all the world’s problems.

I wish I could be so idealistic.

Oh well, shoot for the stars and maybe you have a chance of hitting the moon, right?

I found the discussion on credibility more interesting. Someone asked how an encyclopedia produced by anarchy could have more credibility than the mighty Encyclopedia Britannica or even World Book. Linux Kernel hacker Alan Cox weighed in, pointing out that there’s plenty of bias in academia too, that academia is a tyranny of the day’s popular ideas and that generally ideas change by one generation dying out and a new generation with different ideas taking over. At least with Wikipedia, the divergent ideas get a chance to be heard. He had a point.

I disagree with Wales that his project will drive Britannica out of business, but I agree with Cox about credibility. I had an argument with a college professor over using the Internet as a primary source of information. This was in 1995 or 1996. I wrote a short paper on the Irish Republican Army, and I wanted to find out what people sympathetic to the IRA were saying. So I went to Alta Vista, did some searching, and cited what I found. I wanted to know what the people who made the bombs were thinking, and figured the people who made the bombs were more likely to have Web pages than they were to write books that would be in the University of Missouri library. But my professor wanted me to look for books. I decided he was a pompous, arrogant ass and maybe I didn’t want to minor in political science after all, especially if that meant I’d have to deal with him again.

I forgot what my point was. Oh yes. In journalism we have a sort of unwritten rule. You can cite as many sources as you want. In fact, the more sources the better. If a story doesn’t have three sources, it really ought not to be printed. That rule gets selectively enforced at times, but it’s there. Your sources can spout off all they want. That’s opinion. When three sources’ stories match independently, then it’s fact.

So what if Wikipedia is never the Britannica or even the World Book? It’s a source. It’s much more in touch with popular culture than either of those institutions ever will be. Most people will think you’re a bit odd if you sit down with a volume or two of the Britannica or World Book and read it like you would a novel. I know people who claim to have done it, but that doesn’t make the behavior unusual. Hitting random pages of Wikipedia can be entertaining reading, however. As long as you don’t get stuck in a rut of geography articles. But that’s become less and less likely.

So I don’t think it matters if the Wikipedia ever attains the status of the paper encyclopedias. You’ve got what the academics are saying. Wikipedia gives you the word on the street or in the coffee shop. Neither is necessarily a substitute for the other.

I’ve appealed to this before, but I’ll do it again. Visit Wikipedia. See what it has to say about your areas of interest. If it doesn’t say enough, take a few minutes to add to it. Resist the temptation to go to the articles on controversial people like Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler. It’s a good way to get into an edit war and get frustrated. Find something obscure. I mostly write about old computers, old baseball players and old trains. Not too many Wikipedians are interested in those things. Especially the trains, so that’s what I write about most. (Other people seem to be; when I troll the ‘net for more information on those old companies, I frequently find copies of what I’ve already written and put in Wikipedia. It’s flattering.)

I look at it as a way of giving back. It’s relaxing to me. But there’s a community who’s written a ton of software, including an operating system, a web server, and a blogging system, and they’ve given it to me and never asked for a dime in return. I can’t program so I can’t give anything back in that way. But I have interests and I have knowledge in my head that doesn’t seem to be out there on the ‘net, and I have the ability to communicate it. So I give back that way.

It won’t change the world. Maybe all it’ll accomplish is me seeing fewer “Mar” trains on eBay and more Marx trains. But isn’t that something?

Conversation in a hardware store checkout line

Cashier: (Observing the one-inch fender washers in my hand) You playing washers?Me: Actually, I’m going to try to make wheels for an old train.

Cashier: Did you try Hobby Country?

Me: Oh yeah, but they don’t have anything for something like this (pre-War American Flyer). These wheels haven’t been made for almost 70 years.

Cashier: My brother’s into old trains. He and his son go to England to get old trains.

Me: (Eyes getting big.) Oh yeah, Hornby made some really cool stuff!

Cashier: I’m like, why do you have to go all the way over there to buy trains?

Me: Because Hornby made a whole bunch of cool stuff that never made it over here!

I guess I’ve got it kind of bad, huh? I’m not booking flights for England but I know why someone else is, and what they’re probably looking for…

Fixing a Marx 490 O27 toy locomotive

Note: Please don’t do what I did in this post. Chances are you’ll make things worse in the long run.  If you’re looking for information on fixing a Marx train that won’t run, go here for instructions on how to do that.

I fixed my Marx 490 locomotive this weekend. I used the tips in The All Gauge Model Railroading Marx Trains guide. Scroll down to the heading titled, “The Marx motor.”

I was skeptical because these instructions call for WD-40, and it seems I’ve read a hundred other places never to use WD-40 on any model train. But my Marx 490 wasn’t running well, and it would cost more to have it professionally repaired than it’s worth.But before I continue, let me interject something. If you’re here from Google because you just found a box of old trains that say “Mar” on them, the company is Marx, not Mar. And the trains look a lot like Lionel, but they’re not Lionel. In a few rare instances, Marx trains are very valuable. But in most cases, a Marx isn’t worth as much as the box a Lionel came in. Which is why I said it would cost more to repair my Marx than it was worth. I just had two Lionels repaired for $25 each, plus parts. You can usually get a Marx 490 with some cars on eBay for $25.

But that’s not to say Marxes don’t have charm. They certainly do.

There. I feel better now. Back to the story. Where was I? Oh yeah. WD-40. I didn’t use WD-40 on my Marx. I used Gunk Liquid Wrench instead. Two reasons: The main purpose behind WD-40 and similar oils is to clean, rather than lubricate. They leave a little bit of lubricant behind, but not a lot. Gunk Liquid Wrench, like WD-40, is primarily a solvent. But it has synthetic oil in it, whereas WD-40 has kerosene in it. In my mind, this makes Liquid Wrench a better choice for this purpose because what little lubricant it leaves behind when the solvent evaporates will be of higher quality and last longer than WD-40’s lubricant.

But there was a second reason. Liquid Wrench was on sale, so it was cheaper. I also thought long and hard about Marvel Mystery Oil in a spray can–it works in cars and airplanes something wonderful–but opted for Liquid Wrench because the instructions called for a penetrating lubricant, and I didn’t know if the Marvel would exhibit the same kinds of properties. I’m a journalist-turned-computer tech by trade, not a chemist.

But first, I tried omitting the WD-40 step and just cleaned it with Goo Gone and TV tuner cleaner. Like I said, every time I turn around I read somewhere that you shouldn’t go near a model train with WD-40. Between the TV tuner cleaner and the Goo Gone, the train looked brand new very quickly. I was impressed. It ran very nicely too, but the next day it didn’t run at all. Figuring that now I had nothing to lose, I broke out the Liquid Wrench.

After a spraydown with Liquid Wrench, it ran too well–it flew off the track and fell 4 feet to my concrete floor. Ouch. That left a mark. One corner of the cab busted off, and it took me a good 15 minutes to find it. After I’d let the locomotive run 20 minutes–with a big load this time, to slow it down and keep it on the track–I re-glued the broken corner with some Tenax-7R plastic welder. Tenax is great stuff–apply a small amount of it, hold the pieces together for a minute, and they’ll stay. It’ll take 8 hours for the joint to completely dry and reach full strength, but after just a minute, the joint is as strong as it would be with every other glue I’ve ever tried on plastic.

Lesson learned: Keep your test track on the floor. Or surround it with pillows. Or use a Marx transformer that can send just a couple of volts on its lowest setting, so slow actually means slow.

The next day, I ran my 490 the opposite direction on my track–the first time I’d ever run a locomotive that direction on the track. And guess what? I found a bad spot on the track. It derailed–again–and the piece I’d glued fell off in spite of the cushions I’d placed all around my table.

Then I remembered that Tenax is amazing stuff if your two pieces fit snugly, because unlike some glues, Tenax doesn’t fill in the gaps at all. The break must not have been clean enough to give the Tenax adequate surface area to create a very strong bond. So I re-glued with epoxy, since epoxy will fill gaps. It held this time.

So now Marxie has a battle scar and he’s probably worth half what he was worth a week ago, but he runs very well. It’s short on ability but long on heart–it struggles pulling loads that won’t make a Lionel break a sweat. But it’ll pull them, and you can see it working hard doing it. And where a Lionel will just give up on a grade with a curve with a long load of cars, the Marx just keeps spinning its wheels, ever faster, until something manages to catch and it propels on its way.

I think that’s what I like about it. It never gives up.

There are a few other things to like about them too. Like I said before, you can buy a Marx locomotive for less than the price of the box a Lionel locomotive came in. Marxes are easy to take apart–mine’s held together by four joints, easily pried apart with a small slotted screwdriver. And the motor is simpler than a Lionel, so it’s easier to understand. If you want to learn how to fix toy trains, Marxes are easy to learn on, and if you mess up, you ruin a $15 locomotive rather than a $100-$1,000 locomotive.

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