Tag Archives: marx

Selling Marx trains

Since my advice on selling Tyco trains was well received, I thought I would give similar advice on selling Marx trains. Marx never got the respect that its competitors got, but its trains have built up a following over the years, and in the last decade as I’ve watched prices on competing trains slide, Marx has held its value.

Don’t expect to get rich selling off your Marx trains, but if you keep your expectations realistic, you’ll find an eager buyer, or ideally, at least two interested buyers so you’ll realize a good price at auction.

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Remove and install Marx coupler springs

I did not invent this technique. Last week Al Osterud, a veteran Marx collector of many decades, shared a technique for removing and installing Marx coupler springs without the skills and steady hand of a microsurgeon.

All you need is a piece of 1/8-inch K&S square tube, which resembles the tool Marx used to install them at the factory, and a toothpick or a straightened paper clip. Marx wouldn’t make anything that wasn’t easy to put together, which made its couplers so maddening to work on. Why was it easy in the factory and nearly impossible at home? With the right tools, it is indeed easy.

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The common post on a Marx transformer

When you want to phase transformers, it’s good to know the common (in Lionel terms) or base (in American Flyer terms) post. It’s a shame that Marx didn’t label which of its posts was common.

But it’s easy enough to figure it out. That’s a good thing, because Marx transformers are dirt cheap. I bought one for exactly one dollar at the last train show I attended, and the vendor wanted to sell me a box full of them for $5.

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Repair a Marx 1209 transformer

Want to repair a Marx 1209 transformer? There are two schools of thought. One is that small, sub-75 watt transformers aren’t worth fixing because they are so cheap. The other is that since they are so cheap, you have nothing to lose by trying.

Marx didn’t design its transformers to be fixed, but the design is extremely simple. The hardest part really is getting the case apart and then getting it back together. If Marx had designed them to be serviced, like its competitors did, they would have cost more, so we wouldn’t have as many Marx trains to enjoy today. So it’s easy enough to forgive Marx for this.

Let’s dive in.

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Sakai trains: The “Japanese Marx”

Sakai trains were made in HO and O gauge by a Tokyo-based manufacturer and sold abroad, particularly in the United States and Australia after World War II. Sakai’s O gauge product bore a curious resemblance to Marx. I have read speculation that Marx once used Sakai as a subcontractor, and Sakai used the tooling to make its own trains rather than returning it to Marx, but there are enough differences that I don’t think that’s the case.

What I do know is that Sakai’s O gauge product was a curious blend of cues from Lionel and Marx and the trains worked pretty well. They’re hard to find today, but not especially valuable since few people know what they are. They turn up on Ebay occasionally.

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The low-effort fix for a Marx motor

I had a Marx motor that wouldn’t run, and I fixed it with almost no effort. If you need to get a Marx motor running again but can’t put a lot of time and effort into it, I’ve developed a quick fix. It’s only temporary, but if you want to run trains today instead of fixing them, it can get you out of a pinch.

You need a screwdriver and one drop of Rail-Zip.

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Repairing Marx one-way couplers

Marx one-way couplers were an effort to provide trains that could automatically couple and uncouple. The design was exceptionally reliable, as long as the trains were carefully stored after use. It’s not uncommon today to find them in inoperable condition, but it’s possible to repair them.

Prior to World War II, every train manufacturer tried different ways to make trains that could automatically couple and uncouple, with varying degrees of success. None were particularly realistic, and Marx’s design was probably the ugliest, but did I mention it worked really well?

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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.

Focus

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.

Quality

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.

Scale

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.

Fix a Marx 999 that derails a lot

Marx’s most popular locomotive might be the 999, because it can pull anything Marx made–6-inch tin, 7-inch tin, 3/16-scale tin, 4-wheel plastic, and 8-wheel plastic–without looking out of place. It really only has one problem: The front trucks on many 999s are prone to derailments.

Counterintuitively, the fix for a 999 is the opposite of how you fix the same problem on many other O gauge electric trains.

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