Buying an EM pinball
An Instructive Story
You have been thinking for a long time how nice it would be to have an own pinball machine.
The kind with ringing bells, flashing lights and gorgeous chicks on backglass. And now you
find an advertisement on a newspapers "for sale" department.
For sale, a pinball machine.
Old style, with scoring reels.
Works on coins, some minor problems. Offers tel. 1234567
Of course you take the phone and arrange for a meeting. A couple of hours later
you are in a basement where there is a dusty Williams Swinger from 1972 under a dim lamp.
You remember a summer in pinball arcade, when you were playing your last coin on a Swinger.
Ball goes to upper eject hole, Swing Reel moves to #7 and the knocker sounds!
"How much...?" you ask. "Well, these mechanical games aren't cheap these days, as you know"
says the seller. "Yeah..." you respond. "How much?" "Well, I must get at least 500 Euros for this".
Five hundred. Wow. But this used to be your favourite game. Last time you saw one, was ten
years ago and even then it did not work. "But this doesn't work, and some parts are missing?", you say
with slightly insecure voice. "Take it or leave it. A few collectors have been asking for it already.
OK, since it needs some minor repairs, I will give it to you for only 450 Euros. Any mechanic
will fix it in a breeze." The seller begins to look annoyed, so you look the machine one more
time, remembering how nice game it was 25 years ago, and reach for your wallet.
Of course the game doesn't fit in your car so you must leave without it. Having already paid for the game,
you just hope the seller still remembers you on the next day...
The next morning you come to the place with a friend who happens to own a van. You manage to carry
the heavy game up the stairs. Now you see it in daylight, and realize a few things: backglass paint
is flaking badly, some playfield plastics are missing, bare wood is showing on playfield and
someone has repainted the cabinet with a nice and peaceful gray color.
Anyway it is a Williams SWINGER. It is yours to keep! And, it is almost 30 years old, so what else
can you expect? You get the game home and plug it in. Some lights are lit, but nothing else happens.
You find the coin switch and push that. A motor starts running inside, but again nothing more. You start
thinking. What have I done? 450 Euros for junk? No way, this must be fixed but you don't
know anything on pinball maintenance. A pal of your friend knows a pinball mechanic, who you
call. He charges 20 Euros for a ten minute visit and tells you that the game is hopelessly beyond any repairs.
Lots of parts are missing, and the playfield paint is in bad shape. But you decide it must be fixed whatever
it costs! The guy says he will return and comes on the next day with a van to pick up your game.
After a month he calls you and tells that the game needs spare parts for at least 150 Euros,
and the work would cost another 150. But you do not want to back up anymore, and promise to
pay whatever he wants.
After a couple of months the mechanic says your game sort of works now, and it costs you
250 Euros. You start to think... How much have I paid for this? 450 e + 250 e = 700 e. Crazy, but however it is a Swinger!
You get the machine home. Backglass paint is still flaking. The game looks a little beaten
but it works. You find a painter, who will try to restore the cabinet painting for 100 Euros.
You are still trying to find the original score and instruction cards, and you have a feeling
the bumper caps look a bit strange, as if from some other game...
Tips for the buyer
What did we learn from this? At least that evaluating a pinball's condition can be real hard.
It is easy to think that a game can have many cosmetic faults as long as it works.
Actually it is just the opposite. Technical problems are always easier and cheaper to fix
than cosmetic ones. Burned or missing coil is easily replaced, but a missing backglass or
playfield plastic is hard to find. Pricing and instruction cards are important for the looks,
but can be really tough to find after 30 years.
If you do not necessarily want and old EM machine, get a relatively new solid state game
from the 1990's. Their spare parts are more easily found and they are usually more interesting
to play. Of course, from nostalgy reasons, many are interested in getting an older game, but
if you choose that way, be prepared to disappointments and loss of money. However, there might
be treasures waiting for you in many basements. Just keep your eyes open! New games are sold
by other collectors and pinball oprators, older ones are mainly found from collectors only.
Used pinball machines prices vary much, depending on condition from 100 to 1000 Euros. Before
buying a newer WPC game, check out APz's pages (in Finnish only).
Inspecting an EM pinball
An EM pinball is more or less filled with relays, solenoids and moving parts. The
game logic is built on relays and wires. No electronic components are used, except
maybe a rectifier bridge in some late 1970's games. This means that troubleshooting
and game checkout does not require any computer knowledge. There might be a some tens
of relays, a few solenoid operated units, a motor and of course the scoring reels.
Most of these parts can be checked by just looking at them.
When you are buying a pinball, first ask the owner to play one game. If this is not
possible, because for example there is no electricity available, or the game is not
set up, be careful! After all you are paying money to the seller, and for that money
he should be able to set up the game and provide an extension cord.
If the game has been stored for years, it will probably not work. Then you must do a
visual check to ensure all parts are in place. If the storage is damp, or the game has
been spilled with water, there might be rust inside. If there is a lot of rust, forget
the game and look for another. The cabinets wooden parts glue joints may be failing,
but you can fix that yourself.
Some basic things
If a test game is not possible, you must at least see the machine's innards. Ask the
owner to open the game. At this point you should note if the keys or lock are missing.
There are usually two keys, one for the front door and the other for backbox. Check that
both are available, and that the backbox lid is still in place. They seem to get lost.
In EM machines the backbox is not hinged on the cabinet, but is bolted down with 4 bolts.
The wires attach with a few connectors. Check that the backbox belongs to a same game than
the cabinet! There are different lengths of legs. If the seller has many games, check that
he gives you correct legs!
When you start digging in the inside, make sure that the power cord is disconnected!
Just turning the power switch to OFF is not enough to make it safe. Inspect the relay
panel at the bottom of cabinet, and the playfield. Remember also to look inside backbox.
It would be great to have with you a friend, who knows electric stuff, or at the best, pinballs.
But do not try to impress the seller with your immense knowledge. Check that there are
no cut wires or wire bunches, which are a sign of missing parts. Even if you didn't know
what parts should be there, you will see from the cut wires if something is missing.
Note the general state of the games inside, if you find mouse droppings and other garbage,
the game is probably not in best possible shape. Some dust or soot is normal. Look at the
solenoid wrapping papers. If they are browned, the coil has overheated at some time.
You can get new coils, but be sure that the overheated coil has not melted any plastic
parts nearby. They might be hard to get. Do not try to move mechanic units if you are not
sure what you are doing. You can try pushing the solenoid plungers and check that they move.
The main thing is to check that nothing is missing. After you get the game home you will
have time to clean and check everything. Looking in the backbox, check that all score reels
are in place. Again take note of burned coils or melted plastic parts.
A test game
See that all score reels reset at starting a new game. The game may be for 1, 2 or 4 players.
Check that scoring works for every player and that it resets at game start. If you let
the seller play the game, you can observe the machine's working without concentrating
too much on the playing - you will have time to play later. Does everything look OK?
Flippers flip, bumpers and slingshots work, ball doesn't get stuck in eject holes etc.
The game may be dirty and have burned lightbulbs. Ignore that for now.
Now you have checked that the game is technically OK. The truth is, that appearance
is more important and harder to fix than operation of relays. If there is much paint
missing from playfield, it is not easy to restore. You can remove dirt but putting back
the missing paint is another thing. There are usually small cracks from ball hitting
the playfield. These are found in every game and no not affect game play or looks very much.
You will change all rubbers, so if they are missing or rotten, ignore that.
But see that all plastics above slingshots etc, and bumper caps are in place.
Some plastic posts may be missing, but they are still available. What you want is
all game-specific parts to be there.
Check the backglass carefully. If the paint is flaking but most of it is still there,
it can be restored. Particularly the red ink used in old Gottlieb's tends to flake and fade.
If there are large areas with missing paint, re-consider buying the game. The backglass
is the most visible part in the game. You might be able to find a spare glass, but then
you might not. Some classic backglasses have also been reproduced, but even those may
be hard to find.
Backglass paint condition is best checked from the backside. This is done differently
in different games. There might be two locking bars at insode top of backbox. Pull those
and lift the glass out from the front. Be careful! Some games have the backbox chassis
on hinges at the bottom, and there is a lock lever on top of backbox. Turn the lever
and you can tilt the chassis. If the backbox is not attached to a game, it falls over
easily at this phase. Be careful! With a flashlight you can inspect the paint and
see if the glass can be restored.
When leaving the factory, all machines included a schematic diagram, an instruction
booklet and many kinds of instruction, score, and pricing cards. If they are still
there, the game has probably been well looked after. Often they are missing. You can
obtain schematics from Mr. Pinball, and if you
at least have a schematic of some other game of this vintage, it will be helpful.
Instruction and score cards are found on the Internet.
Despite what I wrote above, the decision on what to buy is yours. Already the fact
that you are buying an EM pinball, shows that you take this hobby seriously. Even if
you couldn't fix the game by yourself now, you will learn the basics, and of course
there are other hobbyists to ask from. For your first EM game, it might be wise to
try finding one that doesn't have any major problems. Fixing is easier when you have
seen it working, and know how it should behave. Your second game can then be more
challenging. If you can afford it and have space, get some spare parts machines.
Anyway, good luck in finding the first one!
Instructive story inspired by: Bueschel: Pinball 1