How To Restoration & Repair Lionel prewar locomotive parts give this electric new life

Lionel prewar locomotive parts give this electric new life

By Hal Miller | May 3, 2023

Wheels and other bits return this No. 252 to the rails

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Lionel prewar locomotive parts are readily available these days, allowing you to return your vintage motive power to the job.

One of the great things about old Lionel engines – even really old ones – is they generally will run, even after decades of disuse. This prewar 252 electric, made in the early 1930s, is a prime example. It came to us as part of a collection a co-worker had inherited.

I could tell this engine had been run a lot. The paint was chipped in spots and some parts were missing. The biggest issue with it, though, was the pot-metal wheels had cracked and split, totally locking the mechanism. This “zinc pest” is common with trains and other items of the era.

My goal wasn’t to restore this engine, but merely to get it in running shape. The techniques I use here aren’t unique to the 252. They are applicable to many Lionel steam and electric profile O and Standard gauge engines of the period as there were similar and shared mechanicals underneath the bodies.

With new parts, a few hours work, and basic tools, you can return one of these engines to the rails in operating condition.

Lionel prewar locomotive parts on a No. 252 engine
The original condition of the Lionel No. 252.

As we received it, the 252 had chipped paint and a few pieces missing, including the front coupler. I didn’t worry about it as I only need the rear one. The condition tells a story of its own and shows how much it was played with.

Lionel 252 underside view with bad wheels
The underside of the engine and bad wheels.

The bigger problem with the engine is the wheels. They suffer from zinc pest and their cores have swollen and split. As a result, the mechanism is locked up.

Close-up of a bad Lionel wheel with zinc pest
A closeup of one of the wheels shows the damage to the pot metal.

A closer look at the wheels reveals the core made of pot metal way beyond its expiration date. The flanges crumbled as I handled it. A ferrous metal cap on top makes it electrically conductive.

Hood of Lionel 252 and headlight casing
The engine was missing a headlight and controller lever.

Important missing parts included the 18-volt headlight bulb and the lever for forward and reverse. These engines had a manual “controller” rather than an E-unit for changing direction.

Removing a headlight from a Lionel 252
Removing the headlight casting.

The first step is taking the engine apart. To start, remove the headlight housing screw underneath the hood and slip the bulb holder off. Put all small parts aside in a safe place.

Removing the body shell from a Lionel 252
Remove two screws and the body shell slips off.

A small screw at each end holds the body to the frame. Use a flat-bladed screwdriver to remove them.

Lionel prewar O gauge motor
The Lionel prewar O gauge motors were the same in a number of models.

After slipping the body off, it’s time to remove the frame from the motor. Four screws attach them; remove and slide the pieces apart.

Lionel 252 body motor and frame
The main assemblies of the Lionel 252.

At this point you should have three major components. Set the body and frame aside for now.

Using a wheel puller on a Lionel prewar motor
This puller from PE Design & Manufacturing made quick work of the old wheels.

You can remove the wheels from the motor a few ways. I recommend using a tool like the Large-Gauge Wheel Puller (LWP-STD-COMB) from PE Design & Manufacturing. This combo kit works on S, O, and Standard gauge. The company recommends giving the top of the screw (where my index finger is) two or three sharp raps with a small hammer before pulling the wheel. This will break any rust that has formed and make the job easier.

Removing gear from Lionel locomotive wheel
Use a tapered tool to separate the gear from the old wheel.

Once the wheels are off, remove the two drive gears from them. I worked the tip of a flat-blade screwdriver underneath to separate them. Don’t worry about breaking the old wheels, their next stop is the trash.

Hub in Lionel gear
You might have to remove the bad hub from the gear.

The square “key” might break off in the old gear; it’s no cause for alarm. Just put the gear on a hard surface and bang the middle with a small hammer. Just do it hard enough to break the pot metal free from the gear without bending the gear. It’s OK if the “hub” shatters in the process, it’s going in the garbage.

Disassembled Lionel prewar locomotive motor
The Lionel prewar motor parts after disassembly.

When disassembled, here are the parts of the motor. The secondary drive gears are made of Bakelite and fortunately all teeth were intact. Metal replacements are available if needed.

Cleaning Lionel prewar motor
A good cleaning is in order.

Clean the frame using an old t-shirt or lint-free cloth with isopropyl alcohol (this is 99 percent) or lighter fluid that contains naphtha in a well-ventilated space or outside. I should have been wearing nitrile gloves for this step. If wiring needs to be repaired, this is the time to open the frame and do it. Fortunately, it was in good shape on this motor.

Lionel prewar motor rotor and brushes
The rotor face is easy to get to for cleaning without disassembly.

I didn’t do a full teardown of the motor, but I did clean the rotor with electrical contact spray. I recommend decanting some into a container, dipping a cotton swab in it, and then cleaning the copper area where the carbon brushes ride.

Filing replacement wheel for Lionel prewar motor
Some filing is required before pressing on the gear.

With the motor cleaned, it’s time for reassembly. I ordered a new set of wheels from Henning’s Trains (part SLS-35). The square keys on two of them are slightly larger than the corresponding holes on the gears. File the sides a little at a time until the two pieces fit snugly. Do not file so much there is play between the key and the square gear opening. Take it slow and remove a little at a time.

Gear on Lionel prewar motor wheel
The gear on the new wheel.

When the two pieces fit, the gear must be pressed down on the key. Use an old socket with an opening slightly larger than the square. Put it over the square and tap it with a hammer a few times (a drill press will also work) until the wheel key is just slightly proud of the surface of the gear. Then tap the corners of the key until the metal deforms slightly and holds the gear to the wheel. Make sure the gear is parallel to the back surface of the wheel.

Putting wheel on axle of Lionel prewar motor
Reassembling the axles and gears.

I actually used the wheel puller in reverse to put the two non-geared wheels on the axles. It just so happens the axle fits in the screw part if you remove the pin. Then I slipped the axles through the bearings and pressed on the geared wheels just enough to stay on the axles. I used a bench vice to press the wheels the rest of the way on. Make sure the gears mesh and that there’s a millimeter or so of play. At the maximum amount you still want the wheel gear engaged with the small secondary gear.

Oiling axles on Lionel prewar motor
Oil both axles on the motor.

Once the wheels are pressed on, lubricate the axles with a drop of oil. I used Labelle No. 107. Clean the pickup rollers; I used an abrasive track-cleaning eraser. Then test-run the motor on a track. If it runs smoothly it’s ready to go.

Cleaning Lionel 252 body with Goo Gone and cotton swabs
Use plenty of cotton swabs to get all the gunk off.

I cleaned the body shell with Goo Gone and an old T-shirt. Use cotton swabs to get into the nooks and crannies. Also check to make sure the handrails are tight by adjusting the attachment tabs from the inside with a flat-bladed screwdriver.

Lionel 252 hood with headlight contact tab
The contact tab must be this way for the headlight to work.

When you reassemble the engine, make sure the headlight contact faces forward. If it doesn’t your headlight won’t illuminate. The silver bracket should hold up the contact from inside.

Cleaned and reassembled Lionel 252
Ready for action again.

With a new headlight, also from Henning’s (1447C Small Head Clear Screw-in Bulb), and a No. 8-22 Brass Prewar Controller Handle sourced from Trainz, the No. 252 returned to the rails. Now all it needs is a matching terra-cotta set of 529 Pullmans and a 530 Observation car to go with it.

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