How well do old Athearn blue box locomotives run?

zaulden Nov 16, 2018

  1. zaulden

    zaulden TrainBoard Member

    130
    52
    6
    Anyone have experience with old Athearn blue box locomotives? How well have you experienced they run, particularly at low speeds?
     
  2. dalebaker

    dalebaker TrainBoard Member

    961
    576
    17
    Lot of open ends on that question. Tell us what you know about the locomotive.
     
    zaulden likes this.
  3. zaulden

    zaulden TrainBoard Member

    130
    52
    6
    It's an EMD SW1200 Athearn Blue box locomotive in HO. I can't find much information about how well these guys ran. I assume they generally don't have newer and smoother can motors?
     
  4. astrotrain

    astrotrain TrainBoard Member

    35
    32
    10
    Back in the 90's they were a fine loco for the money. I have many. They were only like $30 to $40 then. But compared to the new stuff like Atlas gold' Scaletrains' Kato ect their not much fun. Their loud 'slow to start' stiff' With my Powercab control most of the newer Loco's will start going at 1or2 on the throttle where as the old Atherns takes to about 4to5. The newer stuff is just so smooth that I only converted one blue box to dcc and I never even use it because I am spoiled by the newer trains. Your mileage may vary. I just keep mind on display to look at now. But back in the day they were fun.
     
  5. zaulden

    zaulden TrainBoard Member

    130
    52
    6
    Thanks. I have a 2015 Kato HO locomotive. Sounds like the older stuff won't compare. Good to know.
     
  6. Akirasho

    Akirasho TrainBoard Member

    430
    720
    24
    I have no first hand experience with what I'm about to post (pulsed DC but no DCC) but consider this...

    Athearn drives of that era seemed to respond positively to "tuning".

    In the past, I noticed that "breaking in" and lubricating the gearboxes improved performance (stock & re-motored (NWSL)).

    My rule of thumb was to place a few drops of "Pearl Drops" (mildly abrasive dental product) into the gearboxes during a static break in period (15 minutes at moderate RPM). After disassembly, cleaning and re-lubing (LaBelle's) the drives seemed more efficient and quieter.

    Again, this is my subjectively objective observation yet I've got tooo much old stuff to simply pack or sell off!

    Anyone else have similar or conflicting experiences?
     
  7. Eilif

    Eilif TrainBoard Member

    29
    17
    3
    I've got a fair number of old Athearns. The ones I've got do draw a bit more power but can crawl along pretty slow and run smooth.
    I've had especially good low-speed function with a troller pulse-power pack, though I've heard that such a pack is not compatible with DCC. Also, they are fairly easy to repair and service. They are noisier than current production stuff.

    As for the motor itself, a wide variety of motors have been used in them over the years from open oddities to more modern can motors. and the drivetrain has loose enough tolerances that a motor upgrade should be a fairly easy operation if you decide to do one.

    Overall, it's mostly about expectations. If you're expecting them to complete with the best of today's locos in smoothness, noise and detail then you'll be disappointed. If you want something that's mostly-prototypical, reliable, sturdy, easy to service and a quarter (or less) of the cost then they may be just the thing for you.

    As luck would have it, I've got an old Athearn SW7 on the way that I assume is very similar to the SW1200 you are looking at. Should be here by Monday. I'd be happy to report on it's function and pop it open and snap a pic for you when it arrives.
     
    dalebaker likes this.
  8. WM183

    WM183 TrainBoard Member

    301
    267
    6
    When I was into ho 15 or so years ago, my best running loco was a BB Athearn GP38. Fun engine, in the old three color CSX paint scheme.
     
    astrotrain likes this.
  9. fordy744

    fordy744 TrainBoard Member

    93
    44
    11
    Of their time they were great, nothing else at the time could compete, however in today's hobby they are very much entry level and basic, however if you like to get your teeth into a project you can turn them into competition winning examples with tuning to the drive train, new motor and a box load of detail parts and brass wire.
     
    dalebaker likes this.
  10. Eilif

    Eilif TrainBoard Member

    29
    17
    3
    Here's the interior of the SW7 I got.
    [​IMG]
    Ran it and it's a bit louder than I thought but it's a different sound that I usually associate with Athearns. It's not a clicking or grinding though and I was pleased to find that it has a rather long range of slow speeds on the dial. I'm going to ask some folks who know more than me if maybe it has received a re-gearing?

    All this to say, you might not want to judge other SW's by this one, but at least you can see the guts which appear to be -with the possible exception of gears- all stock. Noisy or not, I'm really pleased with it for it's functionality and for what I paid.

    Here are both the locos I bought. I think these may both be custom paint and decal jobs that clearly look to be built, upgraded (both have added grabs, drivers and some add-on parts) and weathered by the same builder who seems to have based them on actual locomotives.
    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Nov 27, 2018
    dalebaker and astrotrain like this.
  11. fordy744

    fordy744 TrainBoard Member

    93
    44
    11
    They both look custom, and both look nicely done. typical of 70s/80s upgraded Athearn BB locos.

    I've found that the switchers were geared lower than the road units so might well be stock.

    most i've seen have brass flywheels so those steel ones are out of the ordinary to me.
     
  12. BarstowRick

    BarstowRick TrainBoard Supporter

    7,095
    290
    88
    The problems with the early Athearn Geeps was the motors. Most were high amperage and needed more then 1.5 amps to run them (late 50's & early 60"s). The next thing was the brass connectors loosing contact, popping off, oxidation build up between contacts. I made an attempt to resolve these issues by soldering in wires. Never mind how bad that looked. The gearing used was exceptional for it's time and set the standard to be achieved by other toy train manufacturers. So they aren't bad runners and most of mine were good pullers. About ten cars up a better then 2% grade.

    The first flywheels that came out were steel. Cheaper and easier to market. Later the Athearn family switched over to brass but by then the price had gone up and they were competing in a market where Life Like's Proto series and Bachmann's Spectrum provided a decided advantage (late 80's into the 90's) . Still toys but what the heck.

    The real problem of the 60's era was finding locomotives and motors that would run together right out of the box. Tyco, Revel and later Life Like and Bachmann would not run with each other. On the other hand Athearn engines once past the HiFI and Super Geared did run together. You could lash them up and you were good to go.

    Of course this wall all before DCC. Oh but the good news is you could isolate the motor from the frame and install a decoder. Very little if any shaving of the chassis needed to make it happen.

    If I was operating in HO Scale today, I'd have no problem buying a blue box anything because I know the product line. Years of experience. The only thing a kid who mows lawns, polishes cars and sweeps the street in front of several businesses... could afford. I and others knew Irv Athearn well, via phone visits and occasionally stopping in at his plant in Southern California, to say hell-o.

    As far as freight car or passenger car blue box kits. Go for it. Switch out the trucks to Kadee trucks and couplers and your good.

    The biggest blessing to come along was Momentum. Now we had a way to make our locomotives crawl and with the Athearn Diesels/motors it worked remarkably well although a bit halting at times.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2018
  13. acptulsa

    acptulsa TrainBoard Member

    1,282
    448
    24
    Can't tell. There were triple-reduction gearing sets available back in the day, but all those gears went inside the trucks. If you know what shoulder gears and spur gears are, it's easy to tell if you have one of those sets installed, but you have to open the truck to do it.

    Yes, they were godawful noisy.

    They also didn't help much. Low speed control was marginally improved because even at full throttle scale speed wasn't high. I didn't see any improvement in pulling power, because those old Athearn motors had plenty of low speed torque; you didn't need the horsepower. If you find you got those in a used switcher, try them and see if you can stand the noise. I got a power pack with better low power control and ditched the reduction gears in my switcher. They are far more pain than gain in a road locomotive.

    Well, no. There were several brands we could afford. And there were a few brands that ran well, due to all wheel pickup, all wheel drive and flywheels. Athearn, however, was the only brand that fit both categories.

    I soldered wires to the motor and drilled and tapped the truck top contacts for 2-56 screws. Made it easier to disassemble. Had to use very short screws.
     
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2018
  14. Eilif

    Eilif TrainBoard Member

    29
    17
    3
    Not to hijack the thread, but here's a quick update.

    I added a bit of lube to the gears (still haven't given them a full clean-n-lube though) and ran the two Athearns I received for a while and they quieted down a bit. Still have a nice smooth sweep of the low speeds so I'm a happy camper.

    I have an Earnst Athearn re-gearing kit that I haven't used yet, but it's for 3-axle trucks. I've got two identical SD45's, one of which needs some work and if I can get them both running well I may regear one and do a comparison. At this point I'm now pretty sure these have their original gearing.

    I haven't done deliberate wiring to replace the copper contact strips (though I did rewire one that came rewired and was disconnected). However, the flat copper work on these is easy to remove. Toss it in a jar of vinegar for a bit and give it a rinse and polish and you're good-to-go.

    All this to say, this experience has only made me appreciate used Athearn's even more. They're not perfect, but they still represent what might be my ideal intersection of price-paid, appearance and reliable running.
     
  15. BarstowRick

    BarstowRick TrainBoard Supporter

    7,095
    290
    88
    It's true there were other toy train manufacturers in the late 50's through the 60's but none I could afford Rivarossi, ConCor, the cussed brass of the time. Revel, I didn't like. Tyco, smooth runners, realistic motor placement (in the trucks) but I couldn't lash them up to my Athearn Diesels. Besides the local hobby shop, gun shop, sports shop, bait and tackle shop (no it wasn't in Wabasha) could only get a limited number of brands. So the world I grew up and cut my teeth on model trains (still toys) was limited at best.

    Funny but I saw them as toy trains back then and still do today.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 4:50 PM
  16. Eilif

    Eilif TrainBoard Member

    29
    17
    3
    I definitely do too. I understand that some folks dislike the term, and I call them "models" too, but they'll always be toys to me.
     
  17. YoHo

    YoHo TrainBoard Member

    5,304
    978
    78
    Just to clarify, the Brass Athearn Flywheels came out years before Life Like Proto. The vast majority of the units made in the 80s had brass. And the the gold can motor is also from that era.


    As others have said, the performance and abilities of the locomotive are very much dependent on which revision you have. Pull the shell off and share a picture of the innards.

    There are also lots of upgrades you can do to improve the performance. Already mentioned was using some toothpaste to clean out the gear towers. NWSL thrust washers. Replace the wheels with Nickle Silver which, dirty little secret, are scale 40" instead of 42" so there is an ever so slight improvement in low speed.
    Also make sure any split gears on the wheelsets are replaced. That's GOING to happen on old Athearns.
    And if you are putting in a DCC decoder, then there are many adjustments you can make. In fact, if you want to get into the speed tables, you can make a gold flat can Athearn as responsive as anything.
     
  18. vince p

    vince p TrainBoard Member

    278
    103
    5
    I ran an Ernst low gearing set in a U33C and almost immediately replaced them with stock gears as it would not run or play nice with anything else.

    Due to it dropping the gear ratio to a lot slower speed, even the top end was effected .

    Unless your going to equip all units with Ernst gearing have fun.

    I'll stick with the factory gears
     
  19. BarstowRick

    BarstowRick TrainBoard Supporter

    7,095
    290
    88
    The original flywheels which showed up on the early Athearn diesels, sometime in the mid 60's was steel. Sometime in the late 60's early 70's at the suggestion of a number of us Irv Athearn, switched over to Brass flywheels. Not that they ran any better but ithe brass looked sharp and the loping disappeared. Kind of ran odd with the steel ones. Not balanced? Was the question of the day.

    Getting back to something I said earlier. By the time Athearn made many of the needed improvements they found themselves competing with other manufacturers, already listed. Era is late 80's into the 90's. Up till then they pretty much covered the HO market and at a very reasonable and competitive pricing structure. With new product announcements about twice a year.

    It was good times and I enjoyed those days despite the lack of proper sizing, details and those blessed rivets in the right place. Gosh, they always missed one or two. Darn them. :mad::confused::eek::p
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 8:43 PM
  20. vince p

    vince p TrainBoard Member

    278
    103
    5
    As late as 1988 I was still buying sd40-2's with steel flywheel and the old open frame motor.
     

Share This Page