“Cute.” How I hated to hear that word used to describe trains, as I was growing up. Trains weren’t cute. They were big. They were grimy and smoky. They made noise. They hauled thousands of tons across the countryside. (Or, in my world, they were models that represented such things.) But I picked up a vintage Varney Dockside at the RIT show last month, and it’s…

…yup. I can’t deny it.

For HO scale hobbyists of a certain age (greater than mine, I should add), the Varney Dockside was the perfect starter engine. You could get the kit for $15, which was a pretty attractive deal in the late ’40s, put it together with a screwdriver, and be railroading before bedtime. It had a heavy, nicely-detailed die-cast shell and a simple drivetrain. A wide variety of aftermarket details and upgrades became available for it. What’s not to like?

My recent venture into the hitherto-unexplored world of HO scale left me with a desire for one of these little beasts, so I hunted around and picked this one up for the princely sum of $27. It’s in pretty good condition, and it runs. It came with some Kadee couplers already on, but they were poorly installed with glue and wire, so I pried them off, filed the pockets a bit more, drilled and tapped for 2-56 screws, and put some fresh ones on. (The Dockside is a rare exception to the Kadee-number-5s-just-drop-in rule, because this engine actually predates the introduction of Kadees.) While I had it apart, I put a little oil here and there. Not the fancy stuff I use for N scale, just regular 3-in-1 household oil, which is perfectly appropriate for a vintage engine like this. There’s no plastic anywhere to worry about.

I plopped Windlenook on the floor for a test run. By modern standards, the Dockside is noisy, but slow-speed running wasn’t bad at all. (NorthWest Short Line still sells a remotoring kit to fit this engine.) It tended to waggle down the track, which is probably just a consequence of having such a short wheelbase. It stalled on the Atlas turnouts, which I expected. Not on the plastic frogs, however—on the points. I put the meter to them, and found that the pivot rivets weren’t conducting power. That wasn’t surprising, since they’re so loose. (Athearn switchers, with 8-wheel pickup, roll right across them, naturally.) The problem was solved easily enough, with the help of my soldering iron and a few leftover bits of 30-gauge wire from decoder installations. Once the points were properly fed, the Dockside went through the turnouts quite nicely.

So, it runs, it couples, and it pulls. It’s bound to show up at a future Windlenook exhibition. Kids love cute things, right?