Tweaking Locomotive Mechanisms

Today’s brass models run wonderfully, but in earlier times, more than a few brass models were poor runners.  No reason to mention the names of companies, because a free market handles things. Those locomotives from that era that don’t run well now have poor resale value. And modern brass almost always runs well because the importers recognize the value of a smooth mechanism. With DCC now having a prominent place in the marketplace, a better mechanism is absolutely required.

Because of their intrinsic value, many brass models were simply put on display shelves, never to be run.  More than a few modelers would put their shiny brass locomotive on display and gaze at it fondly, blissfully unaware that if put on track and powered up, that the locomotive would run badly, if at all. There also was the apocryphal story of the brass importer who learned that they had purchased a bad batch of motors for their locomotives. They went out and purchased enough replacements to cover all warranty claims, but were never contacted by any end purchasers. Nobody was running them. In many cases, the brass locomotive’s retail price point had been lowered to an acceptable market level by avoiding the effort of making the engine run properly in the first place.

Woe be to the individual who actually wanted to run those early brass trains.  To do so often required the skills of a locomotive tuner to make these beautiful looking engines also run in a commensurate manner. I know, because I tweaked more than a few brass locomotives in 0-Scale.  In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, I had a modest cottage business that fixed problem brass locomotives.

Up front, the problem was as much with the locomotive’s owner as with the locomotive itself. On a practical basis, fixing a problem locomotive wasn’t as hard as much as it was time consuming. And “time” spells out as “money”, which many of the brass locomotive owners were unwilling to expend.  They had just spent a substantial amount on a fine brass locomotive only to find out that they needed to spend more if they planned on running it.  There was a lot of moaning and chest grabbing as I broke that small fact to them.  And, more than a few picked up their choo-choo and left in a huff. Over the years, I learned to be a little more diplomatic, but facts are facts. Do you want it fixed or not?

I am eternally thankful to a modeler here in Atlanta named Arthur Hambrick, who taught me the art, such as it was. The tweaking process was relatively simple.  Basically, you took the locomotive mechanism completely apart and then rebuilt it, one piece at a time.  The big secret was remembering how things were put back together. As you began reassembling, you tested the movement thoroughly, each step along the way. 

Eventually, you would add a new piece to the drive and discover that the mechanism now had a bind or tight spot.  Knowing this, you would closely examine the parts and how they fit together. Usually, there was a small burr of metal or a slightly out of center hole and such.  Once you found the problem, you could correct it and continue the assembly.  With a light touch of oil on the moving parts and grease on the gears, this process would yield glass smooth movement as you pushed the mechanism along the test track.  Adding the motor completed the process and the client was usually happy.

In large part, this practice works with all model railroad mechanisms, brass or otherwise, but one reality remains. If the drive design is a bad one, then no amount of tweaking is going to solve the problem.  And that’s where the resale market takes over. The older brass locomotives are really valuable for their nostalgia value. And as such, a lot of them deserve to be up on a shelf looking pretty.

There’s a nice overview of quality brass locomotives, here.