I get a lot of inquiries about “the copper piece on a locomotive.” They mean a toy train locomotive. Depending on the make of the train, there may be one copper piece on the motor, or there may be two.
Here’s what those pieces are called, how to find them, and how to care for them.
At the last train show I attended, I bought a Marx locomotive that lacked a reverse unit. I found a mess of wires in its place, and of course it didn’t run. So I had to figure out how to wire a Marx motor without a reverse unit. When I wired it up to run correctly, it surprised me. It ran really nicely.
Years ago, I decided I wanted to take a different approach with my trains. I heard about a guy in Springfield who has a traditional toy train layout with no plastic on it. I wanted to see if I could do something similar.
At the time, information about this approach was rare. So I’ve collected here what I know about tin buildings made prior to 1970 (the approximate end of the postwar era). You won’t find everything you want in pre-1970 buildings, so if you need something more modern to fill in the gaps, see my other post tin buildings for train layouts.
Comparing Bachmann vs Lionel is a contrast between two very old, established names in electric trains. Lionel, in one form or another, has been selling trains since 1900. Bachmann, the largest seller of trains in the world, was founded in 1833, though they started selling trains in 1966.
Ironically, it was Lionel that got Bachmann into the train business. In the 1940s and 1950s, when every kid wanted a Lionel or American Flyer train, Bachmann sold buildings under its Plasticville brand so kids and dads could build towns for those trains to run in. As the focus shifted to smaller scales in the 1960s, Bachmann moved with it, with greater success than the companies it once shared a symbiotic relationship with.
Plasticville buildings in less than stellar condition are dirt cheap, but restoring them is often possible. There is no need to be afraid of a dirty lot of Plasticville from a train show or Ebay–cleaning up Plasticville is easy.
Of course these tricks work for Plasticville-like buildings from the 1950s as well, such as Littletown, Skyline, Ideal, and Marx.
I saw an old tip recently regarding using sew-on snaps to replace missing Lionel brakewheels. Reproduction brakewheels generally are available, but sew-on snaps work well, are readily available at any store that sells sewing supplies, and they’re cheap.
When you want to phase transformers, it’s good to know the common (in Lionel terms) or base (in American Flyer terms) post. It’s a shame that Marx didn’t label which of its posts was common. So here’s how to find the common post on a Marx transformer.
It’s a good thing this is fairly easy to figure out, because Marx transformers are dirt cheap. I bought one for exactly one dollar at the last train show I attended, and the vendor wanted to sell me a box full of them for $5.
One of the things Lionel did that set its electric trains apart from its competitors was integrating a whistle in the tender that was included with its steam locomotives. Because of the added play value and charm, the whistling tender is a sought-after feature, even in this era when electronic sounds are so inexpensive that even dollar store toys sometimes have them.
Here’s how to quickly tell if a Lionel tender has a whistle.
I’ve written before about the Greenberg Pocket Price Guide for Marx, and I frequently recommend it, especially to newcomers, because it’s very easy to end up spending $30 on a car that’s only worth $10. I know when starting out we prefer to spend our train money on trains. But by saving you from overpaying, the guide quickly pays for itself. Here’s how I use mine. The guide isn’t perfect, though. One of the items it omits is the Marx windup 490 steam locomotive.
Marx made clockwork locomotives longer than anyone else and they typically aren’t worth a lot today. But the 490 is different. There are always exceptions with Marx. Read more
In the late 1950s, Marx sold a flatcar, labeled #5545 and lettered for the CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy), with a large black clip in the middle. Marx shipped it with a pair of miniature trailers. These frequently got separated from the flatcar, so frequently you’ll find the car, sans vehicles, in the cheapie boxes at train stores and under the tables at train shows. The trailers are worth considerably more than the flatcar alone.
But there are some common, relatively inexpensive toys that work well on these common plastic freight cars.