Clean up the white goop on postwar Lionel and American Flyer with a hair dryer

I picked up some dilapidated postwar American Flyer wheels at the local train store this afternoon to fix up some stuff from my junk box. The wheels were covered in milky white goo/powder/gunk/residue/stuff–whatever you want to call it. Almost anything molded of black plastic–wheels, couplers, truck sides–by Lionel or American Flyer in the 1940s and 1950s is prone to this. Fortunately, the fix is easy. Aim a hair dryer on high at it, and watch the whiteness melt away, leaving clean plastic behind.

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The greatest European tinplate train collection in the United States is on display

Two years ago, Jerry Greene made a splash when he attempted to put his huge, one-of-a-kind train collection up for auction. He had quietly amassed 35,000 train items, and only a handful of people knew about it.

Transporting the collection to Sotheby’s let that cat out of the bag. It became the subject of a short feature in the October 2012 issue of Classic Toy Trains, and relentless speculation on all of the major online toy train forums.

The collection, now known as the “Jerni collection,” didn’t sell–it was a one-buyer-take-all affair–so now portions of it are on display at the New York Historical Society. Read more

Measuring the voltage and amperage of your train transformer’s output

Sometimes you want to know how many volts your train transformer is feeding your trains, in order to avoid damaging the motors. And it’s also helpful to know how many amps you’re pulling from your electric train transformer, so you don’t damage the transformer.

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The difference between local and traveling train shows

I took my family to a train show–The Great Train Expo–this past weekend. I’ve been going to shows for about 8 years or so, and while we had fun, I ended up not spending any of the money I brought with me. At least not on myself. I think I have an idea why. There’s a difference between local and traveling train shows.
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How to disassemble a Lionel 2026 or 2037 locomotive

Years ago, I tried to take apart my dad’s Lionel 2026 to fix it, and I gave up trying to figure it out. Today I scored a similar 2037 locomotive at an estate sale in fixer-upper condition. To my knowledge, no book has ever gone into detail on how to disassemble this model, so I’ll explain it here. This time I was able to drop the motor out to get at what I needed to repair it.

There are also five additional Lionel postwar-era locomotives, the 637, 2016, 2029, and 2036, that come apart the same way.

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Transformers for vintage trains

Transformers for vintage trains

A common question is whether transformers for vintage American Flyer, Lionel, and Marx are interchangeable, and what to do if a transformer won’t work.

The simple answer is, yes, a train from one of those makes will run on a transformer from any of the others. They all ran on 0-24 volts AC.

There are two caveats. Read more

Cars for trains

Vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion on the various O and S gauge train forms. At times these discussions can get rather heated.

Since use on train layouts is rarely the objective of the companies making various diecast vehicles, there’s no true right answer to what one should or shouldn’t use. This is my personal philosophy. Take it for what it’s worth.

I run prewar and postwar Lionel and Marx trains on my layout, primarily. Most of them are undersize O27; I only have a handful of American Flyer cars that might perhaps approach proper 1:48 O scale.

Prior to the early 1970s, Lionel paid no particular attention to scale. Therefore I see little need to break out the scale ruler and be anal retentive about what vehicles will and won’t go on my layout. A Lionel 6014 Baby Ruth boxcar is very close to 1:64 scale, although it’s riding on trucks that are very close to 1:48. The famous Lionel 6464 boxcars are about 1:55 scale. Marx had a whole line of 1:64 scale O gauge trains; its cheaper plastic cars are also very close to 1:64. Some of its “deluxe” cars were closer to 1:60–somewhere in between the Lionel 6014 and 6464 in size. Maybe making them bigger than the 6014 for about the same price made them seem to be a better value for the money.

And for that matter, while A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer division paid more attention to scale, Gilbert wasn’t shy about shipping off-scale stuff with the American Flyer name on it either. The trains themselves were pretty close to scale, but many of the accessories and buildings were too large or too small.

Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me then that a Matchbox VW Beetle is 1:55 scale but a Matchbox model of a larger vehicle, say a ’57 Chevy, will be 1:64 or perhaps even a bit smaller. If it’s the right era, I’ll use it.

Besides, park any of them outside a Plasticville house, and it’s clear to anyone that it’ll fit inside that garage. Therefore, it will look believable.

I do pay attention to era. Even a casual passer-by can tell the difference between cars from various decades. And I do think era sets the tone of a layout, so I draw my line at 1949. Postwar fans have it easier, as there are tons and tons of great vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s available. Since I stick to pre-1950, generally speaking I can only count on each manufacturer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox type cars offering one or two vehicles per year that I can use. If I drew the line later, I could probably find a couple dozen cars per year to buy.

Many cars have to be modified to suit my purposes, since I want everyday city street scenes, not a hot rod convention. In the case of the Hot Wheels ’32 Ford Delivery sedan I picked up at Kmart tonight (along with baby formula and a cordless phone–you gotta love it), the car is pretty tame. No jacked up wheels, no overly funky colors. It does have flames. Remove the flames with some nail polish remover or purple cleaner on a cotton swab, and I can probably pass it off as stock to a casual observer. Other times, it’s necessary to drill out the rivets on the bottom, swap out the wheels for more conservative ones, and maybe even strip and repaint the vehicle.

According to a car buff on an S gauge board I read frequently, prior to WWII cars tended to be painted dark shades of green, brown, blue, red, and black. Fenders might be a different shade of the body color. After WWII, the colors lightened up and two-tone paint jobs became popular.

The need to swap wheels means sometimes you have to buy cars just to get their wheels. So I’ll look for cheap vehicles with conservative-looking wheels to use as donors. This adds cost, but consider some people pay $20 and up for each vehicle on their layout. Compared to that, it’s still cheap.

Some people get irritated at having to modify vehicles before using them on the layout. It doesn’t bother me all that much. I think it’s part of the fun, and the result is that I have vehicles that don’t look like anyone else’s.

I was on vacation

I went on vacation and I guess my DSL connection got jealous. As far as I can tell it died two days into the trip. Figures. So that’s why the site’s been dead.

If it interests youm I’ll tell you about my trip.I went with the girlfriend’s family to Orange Beach, Alabama, which is close to Pensacola, Florida. In Alabama the beaches are just about as white and much easier to walk on because it’s softer, but the shell hunting is better across the Florida border.

My St. Louis buddies say I’ve already lost the twang I picked up down there. That’s a good thing. I’m a northern boy.

Train fans will have something to look at near the intersection of highways 59 and 98 in Foley, AL. An old Louisville & Nashville diesel switcher locomotive, L&N caboose and boxcar are there, along with a St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) boxcar. They appear to be in reasonably good condition.

The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola is excellent. I could spend days there. Take the 11 AM restoration tour if at all possible. They take you out into the airfield where planes that won’t fit in the museum are displayed, but they also take you inside the hangar where you can see their works in progress. In front of the hanger was what was left of a Brewster Buffalo, an early Navy fighter from World War II. It’s something of a holy grail today, because its ineffectiveness against the Japanese Zero doomed it early in the war. We sold a bunch of them to Finland and palmed a few more off on the British while the Navy did its best with the Grumman Wildcat, which was slightly less ineffective, while waiting for the Hellcat and Corsair fighters.

But anyway, they had the *censored*pit section of a Buffalo in front of the hangar and another Buffalo inside, which was waiting for its wings to be installed and a trip to the paint shop. They were also working on a replica of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. She wasn’t in the Navy, but her role in aviation and women’s acceptance in it means the museum was interested in the plane. The widespread belief that the Japanese believed her to be a U.S. spy and shot her plane down doesn’t hurt, either.

For great fish and seafood, check out Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, AL. We had an hour and a half wait, which we passed by browsing the adjacent shops. I imagine that’s the source of most of those shops’ business. The shops aren’t earth-shattering but won’t bore you to tears either. The seafood is.

Flounders Chowder House in Pensacola Beach, Florida, is also amazing. Don’t ask me which one’s better. I think Flounders has the better atmosphere but the food in both places is first-rate. While just about every seafood place in the area is going to be better than Red Lobster, it’s easy to find disappointingly mediocre seafood in the area. But these two places knocked my socks off.

I made a new friend outside Papa Rocco’s in Gulf Shores. A sign outside Papa Rocco’s advertises warm beer and lousy pizza. Seriously, that’s what it said. I was walking across the Papa Rocco’s lot on my way to a souvenir shop when a woman started yelling at me. I kept walking but turned a couple of times. When I turned and looked at her, she yelled, "Yeah, I’m talking to you!" She wasn’t anyone I knew and she was obviously drunk. I have no idea why she was upset with me. I picked up my pace and got lost in the souvenir shop as quickly as I could.

I was crossing Papa Rocco’s to get a good look at Tracks To BBQ. Obviously if I’m on the Atlantic coast I’m going to eat seafood, since I can get good BBQ closer to home. But the ad for Tracks To advertised "Antique model train cars on display." So of course I wanted to check it out. Peering into the window, I was able to see that it was a small establishment, with only two or three tables inside. I saw a couple of Lionel posters on the wall and some assorted trinkets in the window. Further back, next to the cash register, I saw a couple of old OO or HO scale train cars that looked pretty old. What appeared to be a locomotive in the original box sat next to them. On a shelf below that I saw a postwar Lionel hopper car. I paid $10 for the same car at a swap meet last month. Nothing earth shattering there, at least not from what I could see inside. That’s not to say there wasn’t something cool running on a shelf under the ceiling, but I couldn’t tell from outside and the establishment was closed.

I’d hoped to see some prewar tinplate. Oh well.

The outlet mall in Foley is large and you can spot the occasional bargain. Some of the shops were handing out 40% off coupons for other shops in the complex. I got a pair of $50 Reebok tennis shoes for $20. I thought about buying a pair of the canvas Reebok Classic shoes as well. They would have been $12 with a coupon. I’ve had a couple of pairs of them in the past and they’re decent shoes. I’ve had shoes that were better looking and lasted longer, but in most cases I also paid $60 for them.

But as with all of these kinds of places, caveat emptor. I tried on plenty of shoes with lumpy soles. Those shoes aren’t worth taking for free because of what they’ll do to your feet. And mixed with the bargains you can find some high-priced items that are trading on reputation. Careful shoppers can save a bundle though.

I also learned that a large sand castle can attract a lot of attention. We built one large enough for a 4-year-old to hide in completely. It drew lots of looks and comments.

Recapturing the charm of Dad’s Lionel train

I unboxed Dad’s old Lionel train Monday night. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Dad’s train led a rough life. My investigative reporting skills tell me he got the train sometime between 1949 and 1952, and then sometime after 1953 he got a new locomotive and cars. And then sometime in the 1960s, the trains ended up in a box. I remember him telling me it came out a few times in the 1970s for Christmas, but most of my memories of Dad’s train are four big pieces of plywood with rusty track mounted on it, sitting in the garage next to a stack of repurposed liquor boxes containing train parts.

Finally, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my incessant pestering paid off and the train found a new home in the basement. Dad and I plugged the track back together, and Dad wired the transformer. Then Dad produced two locomotives out of one of the boxes. Dad’s fanciest locomotive didn’t work at all. The smaller locomotive sputtered and sparked when he put it on the track. That was more than the fancy one did. Dad’s answer to everything mechanical was WD-40, so he went back up to the garage, got the can off the top of the gun safe (there was always a can of WD-40 on top of Dad’s gun safe), came back down, and blasted the locomotive with several spurts of the tinkerer’s favorite. (Incidentally, for those of you here seeking advice on trying to get an old Lionel train to run, this isn’t a good idea.) This time, when Dad put it on the track, the train produced a lot more sparks and a lot more noise, and it even moved a little bit. He picked it back up and blasted it again, with similar results. I asked Dad why the WD-40 helped. He said it would lubricate the moving parts, but it’s also a conductor of electricity.

Dad eventually gave up and started paying more attention to the football game. I ran the train around the track a few times by hand. When I was in the fifth grade, this was more interesting to me than football. For that matter, it might still be more interesting to me than football. When I got bored with that, I decided to go over to the transformer and give the train some juice. The train hesitated, and it sure didn’t move fast, but it moved. I gave it some more juice, and it chugged its way around the track, gradually picking up more speed and creaking less. The more we ran it, the better it got. We started adding scenery. There wasn’t much of anything realistic about it, and Dad didn’t have much scenery short of a plastic diner and two train stations, but it was fun.

Well, we moved a couple more years later, and the train found itself back in boxes again. Eventually it made its way out of the boxes and into the new basement. If I remember right, this was Dad’s doing, and not mine. The second time around, Dad spent more time with the train than I did. But after I went off to college and my parents finished the basement, the train went back into boxes. After Dad died, the trains stayed in boxes in Mom’s basement. After I bought a house, one weekend the trains showed up in my basement, where they stayed for about a year, until this week.

What I found this week was a trio of dusty engines, three trailing tender cars, bits and pieces of scenery, one caboose, and a whole lot of rusty track. That was one more locomotive than I remembered and a lot fewer cars than I remembered. I suspect there’s still a box or two of train cars somewhere in Mom’s basement.

One of the locomotives was very clearly missing a few pieces. I set it aside. I recognized one of the others as the plain-Jane locomotive Dad and I first messed with. The other one was fancier. I took eight straight pieces and eight curved pieces and made a circle. One of the straight pieces had the contact piece for the transformer, so I connected the transformer with two pieces of wire. I put the fancy locomotive on the track, fired up the transformer, and recalled the episode from 17 years earlier.

I skipped the WD-40 this time. I didn’t have any, and the residue it leaves behind tends to attract dust, making the situation it was supposed to correct worse in the long run. I grabbed the other train. It was about as lively as I am first thing in the morning, but it made noise and it moved. I gave it a little push, and it moved even better.

Eventually I searched the Internet, and I consulted with Tom and his mechanically inclined sidekick Tim, and they suggested I clean the track with some 600-grit sandpaper to remove the oxidation. After doing that, both locomotives ran pretty well.

As for the engines, the first thing you want to do is use a soft brush to remove any dust you can find, both on the visible surfaces of the cars and locomotive but especially on the underside. The most common advice suggests a small, soft paintprush. I didn’t have one, so I ended up using an old soft-bristled toothbrush. That was fine, but you want to make sure it’s a soft-bristled one, such as an Oral-B. A paintbrush would definitely be gentler. The idea here is to get the dust off the equipment so it doesn’t find its way onto the track or, worse yet, inside the engine where it can gum up the gears and motor(s).

Next, use a light grease to lubricate the gears and a light machine oil to lubricate the other moving parts. I didn’t have any grease, but I have a little tube of oil I use to keep my electric razor working well, so I applied some of that to a toothpick and lubed some of the moving parts on the two engines. Honestly, I don’t know how much of a difference the oil made. It seems to me that just running the engines, pushing them around the track with power applied until they were able to move on their own, made a bigger difference than anything else I did.

If the only lubricant you have handy is WD-40, skip it. If you happen to have some compressed air, blasting some of that into the crevices after you’ve done a job with the brush probably will knock loose some more of the gunk that’s accumulated inside, but I wouldn’t bother unless the engine isn’t running well.

It doesn’t seem to take much to get a vintage Lionel working again.

There’s a train store on the way home from work that has a Lionel sign in the window. I stopped in on my way home tonight. I bought a very overpriced Lionel-branded maintenance kit–for $14.50 I got a little tube of oil, a little tube of grease, a bottle of some substance with the words “track cleaner” and “biodegradable” on the outside, and a pencil eraser. I bought it mostly for the directions on the back, and to hopefully help ensure that train store will be there a little bit longer.

Perusing the store and perusing the awesome Postwar Lionel Trains Library, I found out, not to my great surprise, that few of the pieces I’d unboxed were particularly rare. The only rarity was Dad’s caboose. That did surprise me. It wasn’t popular, so it wasn’t made very long, so now it attracts interest. Figures. But that’s how it always goes with collectibles.

The store had an elaborate Lionel layout in the front, with three trains and a level of detail I’m more used to seeing in HO- and N-gauge layouts. They used an aftermarket track with wooden ties and the middle rail painted black to make the notoriously unrealistic O-gauge track look much more like real track. The new locomotives had digitized sound effects and the whole layout operated by remote control. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. But the cars and the engines looked cheaper and flimsier than Dad’s stuff made in the fifties.

“For $130 I can add sound effects to your old engine,” he said when I looked less impressed than most people probably are.

It sounded like a cool idea. But for now, I don’t think I want to mess with that. This set’s charm isn’t just about trains, and I’m not sure if jaw-dropping whiz-bang technology would enhance that charm or just cover it up.

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