Troubleshoot your locomotives on the floor!

Last Updated on January 27, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

I’m not going to write up a comprehensive tutorial on troubleshooting old Lionel, American Flyer, Marx, and Ives trains just yet. But I’m going to present a hard-learned lesson.

When troubleshooting a locomotive, set it up on the floor, not on a table.I was working on an Ives locomotive this evening. A lot of Ives frames were made of cast iron, where Lionel and American Flyer had a tendency to use pressed steel, or when they were feeling saucy, brass. And Ives locomotives were top heavy.

Now that I’ve totally trashed Ives’ quality, let me say that their lithography was gorgeous and their motor design is absolutely brilliant and so simple that anyone can understand it, and therefore, has a chance of fixing it if something goes wrong.

Lionel was afraid of Ives. Very afraid. Ives was the most trusted toymaker in the United States at the turn of the previous century. When Ives decided to start making electric trains instead of just windups, Joshua Lionel Cowen approached Ives & son with an offer. He wanted to sell out.

The elder Ives wasn’t impressed and said no.

That was the wrong thing to do because J. Lionel Cowen was a very ruthless man. He soon took out advertisements comparing his quality with Ives’. He always compared his priciest offering with Ives’ cheapest, but that didn’t matter. In one of the ads, Lionel showed what happened when both an Ives locomotive and a Lionel locomotive fell four feet off a table.

The Ives broke into a large number of pieces. I don’t remember if it was 17 or 24. The Lionel suffered dents and paint scratches.

There was an upstart called Dorfan whose locomotives would usually survive without a dent if you threw them, let alone if they fell, but Lionel prefered battles he could win. Dorfan went bust when impurities crept into its alloy and caused it to crumble. So time could do what throwing a Dorfan across the room at a concrete wall would not. But I digress.

I now know from personal experience what happens when an Ives locomotive of that vintage falls to the floor.

Mine’s only in four pieces. Today we have glues that can put such problems back together. Those didn’t exist in 1920. We also have putties that can fill or disguise any seams or gaps that result from gluing it back together. Those didn’t exist in 1920 either.

If we have to, we can even cut a length of brass to fit and cover it with putty textured to look like cast iron if we can’t find one of those pieces, which is what happened to me.

Fortunately for me, this Ives locomotive had virtually no collector value because it had been repainted, badly. Its only value is to someone who wants to run it, and a reconstructed frame isn’t going to affect that at all.

Even still, watching an 85-year-old locomotive tumble to the floor isn’t an experience I wish on anybody. Even if you have the ability to fix it up like it never happened. And even if the locomotive you’re working on is a Marx 490 that’s worth about $7.

So, as you’re doing your preliminary break-in after cleaning the driver wheels and the commutator and applying a bit of light machine oil, run it on the floor. Once it’s running smoothly as Phil Hartman’s Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor again and can pull some cars, then it’s safe to put it on the table.

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