Make display shelves out of rusty track

Some people try to fix rusty track, while others argue it isn’t worth the bother. But if you’re in the latter camp, you still have options besides trashing it: Make display shelves out of it.

My local train shop offers questionable track to his regular customers for free whenever he gets it, rather than trashing it or selling something that an unfamiliar customer might be unhappy with. I turned down a box of O31 track recently, then came to regret it a couple of weeks later when I remembered I could have used it. But that’s OK–he’ll probably have more next Saturday. Or the Saturday after that if not. I had plenty of disused track in a big tub under my layout anyway.

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Marx vs. Lionel

In the 1950s, Marx and Lionel took turns being the biggest toy company in the world, largely riding on the popularity of O gauge trains. Neither company particularly liked the other, but both owed some degree of their success to being compatible with one another. Because of their interoperability, the two makes of trains are frequently compared and contrasted even today.


Marx was diversified–they made trains, but because they were a popular toy. Two enduring, iconic toys that are still on the market today, the red and yellow Big Wheel and the game Rock’em Sock’em Robots, were developed by Marx in the late 1960s.

Lionel started out as an electric novelties company, but it was the electric train that proved to be its big seller. Lionel tried to diversify over the years, experimenting with toy cars and toy boats in the 1930s and slot cars and construction sets in the 1950s and 1960s, but was never as diversified as Marx.

The result was that when electric trains declined in popularity, it hit Lionel harder than it hit Marx. Marx just simplified the sets and lowered prices; Lionel faded out and ended up selling out to General Mills in 1969. Marx remained independent until 1972. Not many people realize this, but Marx outlived its two postwar competitors.


Both companies made quality products. Marx’s quality was a bit more consistent; its cheapest trains run just as reliably as its most expensive ones and they even use a lot of the same parts.

Lionel’s cheapest sets were headed up by throwaway locomotives; with a few exceptions, you couldn’t just clean up a Scout locomotive, replace the brushes, and get another decade out of it. They worked well until they wore out, but once they wore out, you didn’t have a lot of options. On the other hand, Lionel’s high-end products ran like Swiss watches. Lionel’s middle-road products weren’t as intricate or as smooth running as the high-end trains, but they were extremely reliable.

With the exception of the Lionel Scouts, it’s not hard to work on either Lionel or Marx trains and keep them running, although the Marx trains tend to be a bit simpler to get apart and the Marx motor is easier to work on. If you want to learn to fix old trains, it’s not a bad idea to learn on Marx and then tackle Lionel.

Price then

In the 1952 Sears Christmas catalog, Lionel sets ranged in price from $22.50 for a basic set to $62.50 for a set headed up by one of their high-end locomotives that ran like a Swiss watch. Marx electric sets ranged from $4.98 to $24.89. The $24.45 Marx steam set wasn’t as good as the $62.50 Lionel steam set, but it stacked up well against a $39.98 Lionel set in the same catalog. Lionel gave you a bigger transformer but Marx gave you one more car and four more sections of track.

Lionel had a diesel set priced at $57.50. Marx had a diesel set priced at $24.89. Marx gave you one fewer freight cars but they threw in a set of passenger cars.

Before you get too excited about the prices, after you adjust for inflation, the Lionel prices ranged from $203-$564 in 2015 dollars. The Marx prices ranged from $44.95 to $220.59. So the Marx trains weren’t as cheap as they sound today, while Lionel was definitely a premium-priced brand.

The cheapest Marx set had no Lionel equivalent. It was very similar to sets Marx had been making since the 1930s. Lionel made comparable outfits only very briefly, during the height of the Depression. One way Marx kept its prices down was by keeping trains in production as long as was practical. That brings up another difference between the two: Marx made windup and battery-powered trains right up to 1974. Lionel only made windups during the Depression.

Price now

Generally speaking, Lionel trains are still worth more than Marx trains, but that’s an oversimplificaton. The sets that Marx sold in 1952 through Sears for around $25 are worth more today than their equivalent Lionel sets, for example.

If you’re like me and you like tin lithographed trains, 1950s Marx tin litho is still cheap today. The common engines from the old Marx $5 sets are worth about $10-$35 today, and most of the cars from those sets are worth around $10 today as well.

If diecast and plastic are more your thing, common Marx engines in those categories range in value from $20 to $100.

Lionel prices are all over the map. Gondolas and cabooses are worth about $5, and the cheap Scout locomotives are worth $15-$20. But prices for 6464 boxcars start at around $25 and can go up to hundreds of dollars, and Lionel’s Berkshire locomotives can sell for hundreds as well. You don’t want a $15 Lionel locomotive–a $15 Marx runs much better and you can actually fix it–but there are plenty of postwar Lionel locomotives out there that are worth $75-$200.

If you want something that looks like a vintage Lionel on a tight budget, get a Marx locomotive, a Lionel tender, and an assortment of Lionel freight cars–6014 boxcars, gondolas, and cabooses are all rather affordable. Few people will know the difference and it will run forever.


Lionel’s cheapest trains were roughly 1:64 scale. Its pricier trains were closer to 1:55 scale. Marx’s cheapest trains featured train cars that were six inches long, with no particular scale. They also had a line of trains that were 1:64 scale, and in the mid 1950s they introduced some trains that were closer to 1:60 scale to compete with Lionel’s pricer trains.

“Proper” O scale is 1:48; neither company produced much that was anywhere near 1:48 scale in the postwar era.

HO scale

Lionel’s attempts to enter the HO scale market were generally not successful. Marx, on the other hand, had a very successful HO scale line, and after Marx’s demise, Model Power acquired the Marx molds and still uses them to produce inexpensive HO scale sets.

Made in the USA

Lionel trains were made in Irvington, New Jersey. Irvington is a New Jersey suburb of New York City. Marx trains were made in Girard, Pennsylvania. Girard is north of Pittsburgh, off Lake Erie. Marx undoubtedly had less overhead making its trains in Girard.

Lionel’s successor company experimented with manufacturing in Mexico in the 1980s but wasn’t happy with the results. Offshore production in Asia started in the 1990s. Lionel briefly experimented with assembling boxcars in the United States this decade but the majority of its trains made in recent decades were made in China or South Korea.

Where are they now?

Lionel’s story is a bit complicated. Lionel Corporation sold its trains to General Mills, the cereal company, in 1969, then became an operator of toy stores. So for a while there was a situation where Lionel Corporation was selling Lionel-branded trains manufactured by General Mills in its stores. General Mills divested its toy company holdings in the 1980s and Lionel became independent again. Modern-era Lionel has changed hands and reorganized a couple of times since. The original Lionel Corporation went bankrupt in the 1980s, and Lionel the train company bought its trademarks after the bankruptcy. Old brands often take some odd journeys in their lifetime, and Lionel is no exception.

Marx actually outlived Lionel, or at least its first incarnation. In 1972 Louis Marx retired and sold his company to Quaker Oats, another cereal company. That acquisition didn’t go well and Quaker divested itself of Marx in 1978, selling it to a British company that promptly went out of business. Quaker discontinued the Marx trains in 1974. Numerous hobbyists have attempted to re-launch the Marx name, including Jim and Debby Flynn and their Marx Trains venture of the 1990s, but there was considerable legal action around the Marx trademark in the 2000s. The old Marx trademark still has value in the collector market, but little to none in the broad consumer market.

Many of Marx’s toys are still being produced by other companies, such as the Big Wheel and Rock’em Sock’em Robots. Marx’s HO scale trains are now being made by Model Power, and Marx’s surviving O gauge molds ended up in the hands of K-Line, who competed with Lionel with some degree of success for about two decades ending in 2005. K-Line’s tooling, including the Marx tooling, has changed hands several times since K-Line went out of business, but it’s entirely possible that some of the old Marx O gauge products will reappear yet again, under yet another name.

Scratchbuilding, Marx-style: Finishing the roof

This is a continuation of something I wrote well over a year ago detailing how I build Marx-style boxcars out of simple materials. Train season is starting up again soon, so it’s about time I finished this story.

Once the box that will become your Marx-style boxcar is dry, it’s time to tend to the roof.

This method won’t produce a contest-quality roof by any stretch, but it will produce something that will blend in well with Marx cars. The idea here is to produce something that most hobbyists can accomplish in an evening and that won’t overwhelm the other cars in the train. Read more

Scratchbuilding, Marx-style

I saw a modern-production Lionel box car in a hobby shop one weekend. I wanted it, but I really wanted it in Marx 3/16 style, so it would look right with my Marx #54 KCS diesels pulling it. But I face very long odds of ever getting that car in Marx 3/16 unless I build it myself.

So I started building. And you can too.

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I don’t think this basement layout abandoned since 1967 is necessarily a tragedy

A query appeared on one of the train forums and has slowly spread through several discussion groups I’m aware of, regarding a 2-rail O scale train layout, built by a hobbyist in the 1950s and 1960s, who died in 1967. The layout sat for 45 years, and now someone has approached a couple of hobbyists about possibly liquidating it.

Of course, lots of armchair pundits have their own ideas about what should have happened to that layout in 1967, when the builder died.

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Cars for trains

Vehicles are a frequent topic of discussion on the various O and S gauge train forms. At times these discussions can get rather heated.

Since use on train layouts is rarely the objective of the companies making various diecast vehicles, there’s no true right answer to what one should or shouldn’t use. This is my personal philosophy. Take it for what it’s worth.

I run prewar and postwar Lionel and Marx trains on my layout, primarily. Most of them are undersize O27; I only have a handful of American Flyer cars that might perhaps approach proper 1:48 O scale.

Prior to the early 1970s, Lionel paid no particular attention to scale. Therefore I see little need to break out the scale ruler and be anal retentive about what vehicles will and won’t go on my layout. A Lionel 6014 Baby Ruth boxcar is very close to 1:64 scale, although it’s riding on trucks that are very close to 1:48. The famous Lionel 6464 boxcars are about 1:55 scale. Marx had a whole line of 1:64 scale O gauge trains; its cheaper plastic cars are also very close to 1:64. Some of its “deluxe” cars were closer to 1:60–somewhere in between the Lionel 6014 and 6464 in size. Maybe making them bigger than the 6014 for about the same price made them seem to be a better value for the money.

And for that matter, while A.C. Gilbert’s American Flyer division paid more attention to scale, Gilbert wasn’t shy about shipping off-scale stuff with the American Flyer name on it either. The trains themselves were pretty close to scale, but many of the accessories and buildings were too large or too small.

Needless to say, it doesn’t bother me then that a Matchbox VW Beetle is 1:55 scale but a Matchbox model of a larger vehicle, say a ’57 Chevy, will be 1:64 or perhaps even a bit smaller. If it’s the right era, I’ll use it.

Besides, park any of them outside a Plasticville house, and it’s clear to anyone that it’ll fit inside that garage. Therefore, it will look believable.

I do pay attention to era. Even a casual passer-by can tell the difference between cars from various decades. And I do think era sets the tone of a layout, so I draw my line at 1949. Postwar fans have it easier, as there are tons and tons of great vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s available. Since I stick to pre-1950, generally speaking I can only count on each manufacturer of Hot Wheels and Matchbox type cars offering one or two vehicles per year that I can use. If I drew the line later, I could probably find a couple dozen cars per year to buy.

Many cars have to be modified to suit my purposes, since I want everyday city street scenes, not a hot rod convention. In the case of the Hot Wheels ’32 Ford Delivery sedan I picked up at Kmart tonight (along with baby formula and a cordless phone–you gotta love it), the car is pretty tame. No jacked up wheels, no overly funky colors. It does have flames. Remove the flames with some nail polish remover or purple cleaner on a cotton swab, and I can probably pass it off as stock to a casual observer. Other times, it’s necessary to drill out the rivets on the bottom, swap out the wheels for more conservative ones, and maybe even strip and repaint the vehicle.

According to a car buff on an S gauge board I read frequently, prior to WWII cars tended to be painted dark shades of green, brown, blue, red, and black. Fenders might be a different shade of the body color. After WWII, the colors lightened up and two-tone paint jobs became popular.

The need to swap wheels means sometimes you have to buy cars just to get their wheels. So I’ll look for cheap vehicles with conservative-looking wheels to use as donors. This adds cost, but consider some people pay $20 and up for each vehicle on their layout. Compared to that, it’s still cheap.

Some people get irritated at having to modify vehicles before using them on the layout. It doesn’t bother me all that much. I think it’s part of the fun, and the result is that I have vehicles that don’t look like anyone else’s.

Setting up the tree and the train

Although some of the people in our neighborhood had their Christmas stuff up well in advance of Thanksgiving, my wife and I did the traditional thing, setting the tree up the day after Thanksgiving.We use a pre-lit artificial tree. Growing up, I remember stringing lights on the tree and taking them back down was always the most tedious part of the job, so I decided that if someone didn’t invent it before me, I’d invent the pre-lit Christmas tree.

Someone else did, of course. The next time I get a great idea I need to move on it more quickly.

The angel wouldn’t light, so I got out the spare strand of lights, yanked one bulb, and started yanking bulbs out of the angel and plugging them into the strand to see if I could find the bad one. That got tedious, so I eventually decided to try the fuses. I swapped in the two spares off the spare strand, after checking the rating of course, and the angel came back to life.

The Christmas village is almost entirely secondhand. My wife found five Department 56 buildings–three houses, a church, and a store–at a yard sale a couple of years ago. Last year she found a secondhand bookstore, which she gave me for my birthday. For figures, we use the Cobblestone Corners figures from Dollar Tree, which are sized more appropriately for the buildings than the giant figures Department 56 sells. Plus, they come three or four to a package for a dollar, instead of selling for three or four dollars apiece.

Rather than use the big, clunky lights that come with the buildings, I lit them using a string of LED lights. They run cool and use almost no power. Once warm white LEDs become easier to find (the strand I have is a very cold blue light) I have half a mind to figure out how to convert the tree itself to LEDs. For lighting buildings, the strand of LED lights takes up less space, uses one plug instead of five, and uses less power.

For the train, I put down a simple loop of Lionel Fastrack. In the past I’ve done a dogbone with a reverse loop on each end, but that takes up a lot of space. A loop of Fastrack can take up as little as three feet by four feet.

The train is short and simple–two boxcars and a caboose, all 1950s vintage. The boxcars are Marx and American Flyer bodies I bought for a couple of dollars at a train show. I made replacement bases for them out of basswood from a hobby shop, and screwed a couple of cheap Lionel trucks with fixed couplers onto the base using wood screws, with a fender washer in between and a little bit of white grease between the truck and the washer. The total cost of each car was less than $6. From an operational standpoint the fixed couplers are a liability, but for running around a tree they’re ideal because they won’t come uncoupled. The caboose is a lighted Southern Pacific style caboose I got off eBay as part of a damaged goods lot. When I got it, the only problem with it was that the bulbs had some out of their sockets.

The locomotive is a Lionel 2026 that belonged to Dad. I had it professionally refurbished in 2003, so it probably runs better now than it did 50 years ago.

All in all, it was a nice way to spend the evening after Thanksgiving. We had half a mind to drive downtown to see the new old-style window displays at the downtown Macy’s (formerly Famous-Barr), but we’ll save that for another night.

Aliens on my train layout

I bought a couple of aliens for my train consist today. At the annual TCA Ozark Division train show at Lutheran South that happens every December, I spotted some lonely American Flyer bodies sitting neglected on a table. There were two steam locomotives, a gondola, a boxcar, and a caboose. I looked at the locomotives but there wasn’t any way I could remotor them with parts I had available. I did buy the boxcar, and then came back for the gondola.

I spent a total of $3 for these artifacts from 1958. Not bad.The problem for me is, they’re from 1958. American Flyer was doing S gauge in 1958. I’m into O gauge.

But that’s OK.  S gauge is 1:64 scale. O27 (which is the flavor of O I like, because it’s what I grew up with) is supposed to be 1:64 scale. Hold an American Flyer S gauge gondola up next to a Lionel or Marx O27 gondola, and they’re awfully close to the same size. Sure, there’s some difference, but when you look at real trains, not every boxcar is exactly the same height, and not every gondola is exactly the same height and length either.

K-Line took some criticism when it dusted off the old Marx O27 molds, outfitted them with S gauge trucks, and tried to market them to S gaugers because the Marx boxcars are taller than the American Flyers, and when you measure the Marx car with a scale ruler, it’s a funny length. But most people don’t notice. When I put a Marx O27 boxcar next to my Flyer 805 with O27 trucks on it, the difference wasn’t as pronounced. You can tell the Flyer is shorter, but something about the O gauge trucks makes the difference harder to notice.

It took me about 10 minutes to outfit the Flyer gondola with some spare Lionel trucks I had kicking around. Then I decided I wanted a conversion car, so I put a Marx truck on one end and a Lionel on the other. It looks good with my Marx and Lionel gondolas.

It took me considerably longer to get the boxcar in running order, since I had to fashion a frame for it. So I grabbed a bunch of junk from the scrap box and I fashioned a frame. That ended up taking me a couple of hours to do (I can do it a lot faster when I’m doing several at once and I have all my tools and materials in order). For what I make per hour, I could have bought several nice boxcars, I know. But this was more fun than what I get paid to do, and besides, nobody was offering to pay me to do anything today. And besides, rescuing a lonely boxcar off the scrap heap is a whole lot more meaningful than just plunking down some cash.

Once it was all together, I grabbed Dad’s old Lionel 2037 and put it on a loop of track on the floor with the Flyer 803 and 805 and a Marx boxcar that I rescued from a similar fate about a year ago. I had to work out a few kinks of course, but it wasn’t long before the consist was running smoothly.

I know a lot of people who run 1950s trains tend to do so homogeneously. It tends to be all Flyer or all Lionel or all Marx. But all of them have their strengths. For one, all of them did cars that the others didn’t. While American Flyer’s locomotives are amazingly smooth runners–even their cheapies–I don’t think American Flyer made anything that has all of the positive attributes of the Lionel 2037: It’s no slouch in the smooth running department itself, it’s a great puller, it’s reliable, and it’s common as dirt so you can easily find a good one for around $70. And as much as I like Marx, Marx never made anything quite like the 2037 either. The Marx 333 can’t pull with a 2037, it’s nowhere near as common, and these days it’s more expensive too.

But Marx and American Flyer made plenty of cars in plenty of roadnames and paint schemes Lionel never made. And when they did overlap, there tended to be some differences, just like you see in real life. So turning some dilapidated American Flyer cars into O27s was a nice way to add some unique rolling stock to my roster.

I’m happy. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more American Flyer cars that need running gear.

The most overlooked toy train maker of the 1950s

While almost everyone knows American Flyer and Lionel, and a lot of people have heard of Marx, there was a fourth maker of toy trains in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was much smaller, although very innovative, and today is nearly forgotten: Auburn, Indiana-based American Model Toys.

Its legacy, however, ties into virtually every major producer of O gauge trains in business today.AMT tended to take more risks than Lionel, and its cars were slightly larger, slightly closer to scale, and well-made. Its beginnings predate World War II, when Jack Ferris, a tool and die maker, designed trains the way his son liked them. Initially selling its products to other companies, Ferris founded his company in 1948 after producing a set of aluminum passenger cars that could negotiate Lionel track. Their realism and style was unmatched by anything Lionel produced for several years.

Eventually Lionel caught up, and AMT survived by finding weaknesses in Lionel’s product line and producing models that filled those weaknesses, contenting itself as an aftermarket producer who would sell its items to Lionel’s customers. In 1952, AMT started producing box cars in the latest, most colorful paint schemes they could find in use by real railroads, and made them to more realistic proportions than Lionel. The next year, Lionel responded with its famous 6464 boxcars, which were better than anything it had produced before, but still did not match AMT’s realism.

The following year, AMT decided to produce a model of a diesel locomotive, which also permitted them to sell train sets for the first time.

Demand wasn’t as high as expected, and in 1954, AMT reorganized and changed its name to Auburn Model Trains. Although Auburn’s offerings are highly regarded today, they were not very popular, and by the autumn of 1954, Auburn sold out to Kusan, a plastics and toy company based in Nashville, Tennessee.

Kusan produced train sets from the AMT tooling, as well new designs of their own, largely with atomic and military themes. Kusan is also credited with making the first O gauge trains that could run on both 2-rail and 3-rail track (an idea MTH would rehash some 40 years later). But the market had peaked in 1954, and Kusan, dissatisfied with its share in a declining market, ceased production in 1960.

Kusan then sold its tooling to a hobbyist named Andy Kriswaulis (or Kriswalus) in Endicott, New York, who operated as Kris Model Trains, or KMT. Kriswaulis only produced rolling stock, not locomotives. After Kriswaulis’ death on Sept. 6, 1990, KMT dissolved and much of the tooling was sold to Williams Electric Trains, a small Maryland-based toymaker who had begun reproducing Lionel’s prewar tinplate equipment in the late 1960s. Coincidentally, Williams employed a contractor by the name of Mike Wolf (who would go on to found MTH Electric Trains). Williams soon decided to change focus, selling the tinplate tooling to Wolf, and concentrating its efforts on 1950s-style trains.

(Wolf would then work as a subcontractor to Lionel, before a disagreement led him to go off on his own and found MTH.)

The remainder of the AMT/Kusan/KMT tooling went to K-Line, a North Carolina-based toymaker who had bought much of Marx’s tooling when Marx dissolved in 1978 and was using it to produce inexpensive trains that competed with Lionel’s entry-level offerings. Like Williams, K-Line used the old AMT/Kusan/KMT tooling to produce rolling stock that directly competed with Lionel at higher ends of the marketplace.

A relic of the Kusan era, a small, nonprototypical (but realistic-looking enough to be convincing) switcher ended up at Williams. Nicknamed the “Beep” (for Baby Geep), Williams manufactured it briefly but resold the tooling to Ready Made Toys, a company that subcontracted for Taylor Made Trucks, who had gained a license to put the Lionel logo on die-cast vehicles. In 2001, RMT used the Beep tooling to produce a Lionel-logoed mini-locomotive, which TMT placed on a freight truck. But when collectors realized the body could be removed from the semi-permanently attached chassis on the truck bed and placed on a Beep chassis, making a powered non-Lionel Lionel locomotive, Lionel revoked TMT’s license. This RMT/TMT Beep remains the only Lionel-logoed locomotive ever produced by and marketed by someone other than Lionel.

Ready Made Toys released the Beep in a powered version, priced at $49.95 and lettered for numerous railroads, in late 2003. Released at a time when few brand-new locomotives retail for less than $400 and fewer still for under $200, the Beep is much more popular this time around.

A Bing in Marx clothing

The sign said "50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer." I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a "set." Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.

I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.At first glance, they looked like Marx 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t do 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t know why; I just don’t like ’em. Then I noticed that one of the cars had wheels that were too big for Marx. I picked it up and flipped it over. It had an uppercase "B" and the words "Made in Germany."

I looked at the price. "Set of 3. $39."

Now let me tell you the significance of the words "Made in Germany." Before World War I, most toy trains were made in Germany. The market leaders were Bing, which was the world’s largest toy company, and Maerklin, which was the company that everybody copied. The biggest U.S. maker was a company called Ives. Some upstart called Lionel was giving all of them a run for the money, but it was an also-ran. After the war, Ives and American Flyer lobbied successfully for protection, essentially pricing the Germans out of the U.S. market.

So this Bing car probably dates back to before World War I.

I picked up the other two cars in the set. "Made in U.S.A. The Lionel Corporation." Ah, so they weren’t a set. I double-checked them to make sure they would couple together. They weren’t a perfect match but they fit. And the wheel height was right.

Well, like I said, I don’t do six-inch passenger cars. Especially six-inch passenger cars that have no paint or have been badly repainted. But these weren’t just any six-inch passenger cars. And even though they were almost completely devoid of paint, amazingly they had little or no rust anywhere on them.

I hesitated. Then I ran through in my mind the value of the cars as parts. The wheels and axles were all in good shape. The couplers were all usable. The roofs were all nice and straight and even had decent paint jobs on them, considering their likely age. The frames were pretty straight. The bodies weren’t perfectly straight but they also weren’t dented, and they were rust-free. They were easily worth $20 as parts, I figured.

So I offered $20. The cashier looked at the price tag, then accepted without hesitation.

Still, it took me a while to justify my purchase. Call it shellshock from looking at Marx priced at 10x book value.

I explained it to my girlfriend this way. Yes, a Standard Gauge Lionel locomotive–the big mamas with the wheels 2 1/8 inches apart–is worth a minimum of $500 if it looks decent. It doesn’t even have to run. Cars are also worth a couple hundred apiece. Some rare sets go for five figures. Lots of people know this, so they automatically assume that any toy train is worth a small fortune.

Reality check: Lionel quit making those trains in 1938 because nobody could afford them. They’re worth that kind of money because they’re old and rare. And they look really cool. But Lionel made millions of trains in the 1950s and they ran forever. With few exceptions, they’re common and cheap. Marx made even more of them. You could buy Marxes anywhere with the change in your pocket. They’re even more common and even cheaper.

It’s like baseball cards. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card is worth a million dollars in best-possible condition. But that doesn’t mean my 1983 Johnny Bench baseball cards are worth even $100. They’re probably not even worth $10.

Back to the trains. What else can I tell from looking at them?

I found traces of red paint on the two Lionels and a slightly larger remnant of yellow paint on the German car (I’m guessing it’s a Bing, since the largest German makers were Maerklin, Bing, and Fandor, and only Bing starts with a "B"). I suspect the Lionels were red with black doors, roof, and frame, and the Bing was yellow with black doors, roof, and frame.

As for their age, no doubt they’re pre-War. Only Marx bothered to make six-inch tinplate cars after World War II. And since Bing had difficulty selling trains in the United States after World War I, the Bing might predate World War I. Lionel didn’t catalog O gauge trains until 1913 and they weren’t widely available until 1915. So maybe these are the same age as the Bing, or maybe the Bing is slightly older.

I set them up on a piece of display track. They looked pretty good there. Definitely rustic, but not bad.

But toy trains are meant to run. Even 90-year-old ones. I checked the coupler height against my postwar Marx 551 tender ($4 at Marty’s last week). It fit. I put the three cars on my track on my layout behind the tender, and lashed the tender up to my Marx 490 locomotive ($12 off eBay a few months ago). It looked good. I applied power. The Marx strained, but it pulled them.

After a few laps, I realized those cars probably haven’t seen oil in a good 70 years, maybe more. So I oiled the wheels and axles and spun the wheels to make sure they turned freely. I ran the Marx again, and it pulled them without difficulty.

I probably have no choice but to restore the cars. I expect they’ll rust quickly in my humid house, and chances are what paint remains on them is lead-based. I don’t want toys with lead-based paint in my house. So I’ll strip them down–I hear a long bath in a bucket of generic imitation Pine-Sol is all it takes–and repaint them after I manage to research how the cars were originally painted and lettered.