TM's Commodore Vanderbilt

by Joseph Stachler

Lionel's Commodore Vanderbilt Hudson was first produced in 1996. It was a fine looking model, but as everyone knows, some questions arose concerning the legitimacy of the color.

Two years later, Lionel brought out the Commodore Vanderbilt again, this time in a much darker gray that seemed to be more accurate. The drivers of the original Lionel Commodore Vanderbilt were Scullin Disc-type and made of solid sintered iron because the locomotive had Magne-Traction.

No. 18063 Commodore Vanderbilt as built by Lionel in 1999

When the dark gray version of the engine was released it also had Magne-Traction, but this time the solid wheels had the spoke design similar to the 773 Hudson. This detracted from an otherwise great-looking streamlined locomotive. It looked like a scale Hudson streamlined boiler was placed on a 773 chassis.

The real Commodore Vanderbilt was created in 1934 by placing a streamlined shroud over the 5344 J1-E Hudson. This was the first streamlined steam locomotive in America. The Commodore Vanderbilt originally kept the spoked drivers on 5344. According the book Thoroughbreds, less than a year later several changes were made to the Vanderbilt including new Scullin Disc drivers replacing the spoked drivers.
Some time ago, TM had acquired an extra chassis and drivers assembly built for the 5340 scale Hudson from 1990. All the domestic production Lionel Hudsons made since 1950 use the same basic components including motor, baker valve assembly, and smoke unit. The chassis and components are interchangeable between all domestically-produced Hudsons, ranging from the first 773 to the last Commodore Vanderbilt.

The idea came to us of improving our Commodore Vanderbilt with addition of scale drivers. We looked into what would be involved with changing the parts out. We found two major differences between the chassis of the 5340 Hudson and the newer Commodore Vanderbilt. One concerns the connections of infrared tether leads. Two sets of wires are connected together at a junction board connected to the chassis. One set of wires comes through a straight-edged hole in the diecast frame. The second difference is the pilot end of the 5340 chassis has two edges sticking out on the sides for the flagstaffs and ladders. These edges would have to come off so the shroud could fit over the chassis. The changes would be easy to make, but would certainly alter the frame part forever. Components such as the motor, valve gear, center rail pick-up rollers, and smoke unit would change out perfectly. 

The front of the chassis on the left is from the Commodore Vanderbilt. On the right is the 5340 chassis before the flagstaff ends were cut off.
Another factor to consider was that with these changes we would be losing Magne- Traction. The 5340 scale Hudson doesn't have Magne-Traction because the open drivers could not conduct magnetic current. We tested the pulling power of the 5340 using a complete set of heavyweight Pullmans designed to go with the Vanderbilt. The locomotive had no problems at all, but it did require at least 16 volts to get moving.

We also made sure that we could change the Commodore Vanderbilt completely back to the original factory condition with the original chassis.

No changes were needed for the tender.

The decision was made to continue with the project. The alterations to the chassis were made quickly. Then we set about disassembling the Commodore Vanderbilt. The pilot and booster trucks came off first. The IR tether leads were disconnected from the junction board connected to the chassis. The shroud was removed along with the antenna leads connected to the handrails. The headlight leads were also disconnected. All of the electronics were carefully removed and set aside. Then the motor, smoke unit, side rods, and other parts were removed.

The first thing to be installed on the 5340 chassis was the motor, and the rest was built up from there. Everything fit perfectly as expected. After the electronics were installed, we did a test run of the unit. It ran smoothly and quietly, and the TrainMaster Command Control functions worked great. The only hang-up concerned the IR tether leads. We decided to connect two new leads directly between the main LCRU board and the truck, thereby eliminating the junction board.

Another liberty we took was to install an original Postwar smoke unit. We prefer the Postwar smoke. It is thicker, whiter, and it smells better. The only problem is the smoke stack is too small to put a smoke pellet in to. You have to break it in half first, and stick the two halves in separately.

Our "new" Commodore Vanderbilt with scale Hudson drivers, plated side rods, and scale pilot trucks

Because the nickel tires of the scale Hudson drivers are plated, the dull look of the modern side rods did not match. So we replaced the side rods with the 5340 versions which were also plated. The effect is striking, a vast improvement. Now the Commodore Vanderbilt looks like a scale Hudson is under that shroud, which is exactly how it should look.

We shot the new Commodore Vanderbilt in action for I Love Toy Trains 11. This segment discusses the various streamlined steam locomotives of the New York Central.

Although making these changes altered the factory condition of the locomotive, it is still made entirely of Lionel parts. For us, watching it round the curves pulling a full consist of Heavyweight passenger cars, it actually looks like the historic Commodore Vanderbilt from the 1930s.

That's the idea, right?