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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.

Department 56 scale: The definitive guide

The Department 56 product line is rather extensive, but there are items they don’t produce and likely never will. If you want to complete your village with other items, or use Department 56 in other settings, such as a train layout, then scale might matter to you—and “Department 56 scale” is undefined. Here’s how to make sure the things you want to use together will go together, size-wise.

The answer, by Department 56’s own admission, is that it varies. But since I see the question come up again and again, I’m going to tackle it. It varies, but there’s a method to it the madness.

Continue reading Department 56 scale: The definitive guide

The Marx connection to Hafner

Hafner was a Chicago-based maker of clockwork-powered O gauge trains during most of the first half of the 20th century. The trains were inexpensive but durable. William Hafner developed the clockwork motor as a hobby around the turn of the previous century and put the motor in toys. Eventually he decided to make a train–perhaps he thought his two sons would like one–and he did. He even sold a set or two, but didn’t have the facilities to mass produce them, or the money to buy such a facility. So he approached William Coleman, who had an interest in a struggling farm tool company, and after Hafner secured an order for $15,000 worth of trains, Coleman agreed to use the company’s excess capacity to produce the trains.

And so began American Flyer, the company that battled Lionel for the hearts and minds of train enthusiasts for about sixty years.

But for reasons that Coleman and Hafner took to their graves, the partnership dissolved in 1914. The sons didn’t know exactly what happened. John Hafner said Coleman had promised his father a larger share of the company if the trains proved successful, then broke his promise. John Hafner said the two families had animosity afterward. But Robert Hafner recalled receiving wedding gifts from the Colemans in 1917, and said the dissolution was purely for business reasons. Going it alone, William Hafner formed his own company, rented factory space for $50 a month, and started a product line that would last into the 1950s.

Unlike his erstwhile partner, Hafner didn’t have to deal much with Lionel. Hafner’s greater concern was with this upstart named Louis Marx. Continue reading The Marx connection to Hafner

We need to fix CISPA, not kill it

Here’s a good plan for fixing CISPA. And CISPA needs to be *fixed*, not stopped. We have three alternatives right now:

Secure the Internet
Voluntarily pare back the Internet
Wait for the Internet to fall apart and/or become too dangerous to use anymore

Given the unpleasant side effects of options 2 and 3, option 1 is all that’s left. Otherwise, the Internet will become a weapon of mass destruction. Keeping a hacktivist group or rogue nation from shutting down all gas and electric power in New York City on the coldest day in January is CISPA’s goal. Continue reading We need to fix CISPA, not kill it

Happy late birthday, OS/2

Twenty-five years ago this month, on April 2, IBM announced its new PS/2 computers and a new multitasking operating system to run on (most of) them–OS/2. They even lured a bunch of the actors from M*A*S*H to do an ad campaign for them.

It didn’t seem like it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end of IBM’s PC business.
Continue reading Happy late birthday, OS/2

Christmas Eve, a train that wouldn’t run, and a happy ending

It was Christmas Eve. I finished playing Santa, then I plopped down in front of the computer to unwind and signed into Facebook. Internet pal John Dominik posted a status update about buying a Bachmann N-scale train set and it not working, and how he knew he should have tried it out before Christmas Eve. I offered to help. He related the epic troubleshooting he went through–OK, perhaps it wasn’t epic, but his account of the things he tried was longer than the Book of Jude and several other books of the Bible–and, frankly, there wasn’t anything I would have thought of that he hadn’t already tried. He went beyond that and even tried things I wouldn’t have tried. Or recommend, for that matter, but that’s OK. He mentioned he’d had a set of HO trains when he was younger, and that gave me an idea. I asked if he still had that power pack, because, if he was willing to do a little creative and sloppy wiring, he’d be able to get that new Bachmann set working with it. He said he did.

The temporary fix worked, and Christmas Eve was salvaged. John said he hoped Bachmann would be cooperative about the bad power pack.

Continue reading Christmas Eve, a train that wouldn’t run, and a happy ending

Why I generally buy AMD

I was talking to a new coworker today and of course the topic of our first PCs came up. It was Cyrix-based. I didn’t mention my first PC (it seems I’m about four years older–it was an Am486SX2/66).

With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve always bought non-Intel PCs. Most of the Intel PCs I have bought have been used. One boss once went so far as to call me anti-corporate.

I’m not so much anti-corporate as I am pro-competition.I was a second-generation AMD fanboy, not first. When the Am386DX/40 hit town, I was aware it was the best value in the industry, giving better performance than an Intel 486SX/25 for the price of an Intel 386DX/33, but I didn’t really care because I was still an Amiga guy at that point in time.

But that’s the reason I’m an AMD guy today. One of the reasons the computer market is so stagnant today is because it’s dominated by Microsoft. There’s nothing exciting going on there. There hasn’t been anything exciting coming out of Microsoft since the mid 1990s when they had to compete with OS/2. OS/2 never captured a huge amount of market share, but OS/2 promised to be a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows, and to a large extent it delivered. Say what you want about OS/2, but I could load Tony La Russa Baseball 2 up in a DOS Window under OS/2 and it would run faster than it ran under DOS, even though the game didn’t have the machine’s full attention. OS/2 2.1 (and later 3.0) had Microsoft running scared, because it ran all of the software that was available in the early 1990s and it ran it quickly, in a fully pre-emptive multitasking environment. Microsoft responded with Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 because it had to–Windows 3.1 just couldn’t compete with OS/2’s stability, and booting into DOS using a custom boot disk for every game they wanted to run wasn’t something the public was going to put up with forever.

And what’s happened since then? Windows 98 was basically a service pack, improving the stability of Windows 95 but not offering anything revolutionary. Windows 2000 was a lot better than NT 4.0 but not the kind of jump that Windows 95 was over 3.1. Windows XP did a lot to improve backward compatibility with old DOS and Windows 9x games, and while it was a big leap from Windows 98 or ME, it wasn’t a tremendous improvement over Windows 2000. I haven’t heard anyone say anything good about Vista. At least the Windows 95 box was pretty, but Vista doesn’t really even have that going for it.

Microsoft’s primary competition today is illegal copies of its own operating system, so its main concern with Vista is keeping people from making copies of it. And it shows.

Apple is trying to compete, but its market share is around 10 percent. We don’t exactly have a duopoly.

When I got interested in computers in the 1980s, there was all sorts of interesting stuff going on. IBM and DOS were things you used at work to do accounting. At home we used all these weird and wonderful 8-bit computers that were technically obsolete, but engineers kept figuring out how to squeeze more capability out of them. Revisionist historians talk about Apple dominating the 8-bit era, but that wasn’t true. At its peak, Commodore sold as many C-64s in a single year as Apple sold Apple IIs in that line’s entire lifetime. Although Commodore was the king of sales, Atari arguably had the best 8-bit computer (the 800/XE/XL family). Tandy had its Color Computer line, and while it couldn’t match the graphics and sound capability that Commodore and Atari had, it had a far more powerful CPU. Coleco’s Adam is little more than the butt of a joke today, but on paper it should have done well. Coleco took several chips that Texas Instruments had used in its failed TI-99/4A, paired them up with a more conventional CPU (the popular Zilog Z-80), and made a competitive computer with it. Its biggest problem was that it was late to market and plagued with reliability problems at first. Kind of like Windows Vista.

And that’s the beauty of competition. In the 1980s, if you delivered a product like the Coleco Adam, you went out of business. But if your name is Microsoft and you have 85% of the marketplace, you can deliver something like the Coleco Adam and keep on chugging.

The really exciting stuff in the 1980s wasn’t in the 8-bit arena though. The Motorola 68000-based computers were where the action was. The most famous of these, of course, was the first-generation Macintosh. But the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga used the 68000 too, and unlike the first Macs, they paired the powerful CPU with color and powerful sound. The three companies threw bricks at each other a lot, but they kept each other honest. Apple ended up having to add color and sound and expansion slots to its Macs in order to compete. Commodore designed a low-cost Amiga to compete with Atari, and a higher-priced model with lots of drive bays and expansion slots to compete with Apple.

These three companies, ironically, built the kind of machine Bill Gates tried to get IBM to build in 1981. Gates wanted IBM to use a Motorola 68000, and then they would have used Xenix, Microsoft’s version of Unix, for an operating system.

The result was Microsoft trying to play catch-up. Windows was in development before these machines hit the market, but Microsoft knew the Mac was coming long before it happened. Microsoft had a prototype and was one of the first Mac developers. In typical Microsoft fashion, Microsoft was talking about Windows in 1983, but didn’t deliver anything until 1985, and what they delivered wasn’t useful for very much. It wasn’t until Windows 3.0 came out in 1990 that it hit prime time. By then the code was stable enough that you could use it for a few hours at a time, and PC CPUs were powerful enough that Windows could keep up with an Amiga or ST or Mac without embarrassing itself.

And that was the beginning of the end. It was one thing for Commodore and Atari to compete with 286 clones that could barely run Windows. But within a year or two, they were competing with Tandy 386s that sold for $1,200 at every Radio Shack in the country. Whether you lived in New York City or Buffalo, Missouri, you could walk into Radio Shack and see a computer running Windows and buy it on the spot. Neither Commodore nor Atari had a dealer network anything like that. And if you lived in a big enough city, you could walk into a "superstore" like Best Buy or Circuit City or Silo that were sweeping the nation at the time and buy a Packard Bell for even less.

By 1993, Commodore and Atari were non-factors in the marketplace. It was down to Apple and the PC clones running Windows.

So what does any of this have to do with AMD and Intel?

AMD and Intel keep each other honest. When Intel released the Itanium, AMD countered with its AMD64 architecture. While the Itanium gives better 64-bit performance, AMD64 does a much better job of running the 32-bit applications we all run today. Itanium has a better long-term approach, but it’s designed for a future that will never come on its own because people still want to play their old copy of The Sims and have it run well on their new computer. AMD’s answer for 64-bit computing was AMD64, and its success forced Intel to clone it.

The CPU isn’t as important today because Intel and AMD are making CPUs that have more power than today’s software knows what to do with. But that’s not Intel’s fault, and it’s not AMD’s fault. Microsoft can’t think of a good use for all the power or a way to harness it, and the industry doesn’t have the scrappy underdog companies like Commodore or Atari anymore to figure out a use for them and drive the industry.

But if one company had a total monopoly on CPUs, I’m afraid of what I’d see. Probably Intel would become more like Microsoft, delivering products that ran slower and at a higher price than each previous generation. It’s unnatural, but it’s the norm for a monopoly.

I’ve heard myself saying several times over the last three or four years that I don’t like computers anymore. But that’s not exactly true. Either I don’t like modern computers, or what HP and Dell sell today aren’t computers.

If either Intel or AMD were to succeed in squeezing the other company out of business, the modern computer would become even more underachieving and uninteresting than it is now.

Whatever happened to risk-takers?

I love Disney like I love the Soviet Union. Mainly it’s because the company clawed its way to the top by taking advantage of obscure aspects of copyright law, and then the company bought enough Congressmen to close up the doors they used to get where they are today.

But I read something today about Disney that I found interesting.Ward Kimball was a high-up at Disney. He was one of Disney’s primary animators and had almost a son-father relationship with Disney himself. He wrote a memoir some years back (the link takes you to some excerpts), and it gives me some idea what’s wrong with Disney and, frankly, what’s wrong with us.

Some poignant sections:

Walter Lantz, who made Woody Woodpecker, never gave a damn about quality a day in his life. He always wanted the quick buck.

If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success, it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of.

It goes against our instincts to do anything like that today. Today, everything’s about the bottom line. If you can save half a cent, you do it. If it comes at the expense of quality, so be it.

He felt that if you put your heart into a project and if you were a perfectionist, people would automatically like it. They would appreciate the quality.

I was going to say I don’t think that’s true anymore, but maybe that’s just because I thought only of the computer industry when I read that. In the automotive industry, part of the reason Toyota is now the second largest carmaker in the world is because of its quality. Twenty years ago Toyota and Honda were two of the least imaginative companies in the industry (and frequently the butt of jokes) but the quality was there almost from the start. So maybe this does still work, provided you manage to not run out of money.

Artists are pretty touchy individuals; they aren’t brick layers. It takes very little to hurt their feelings. Walt was never quite aware of that.

Neither are most people. I guess that gives me more insight into myself than it does into the world, but I found it interesting.

Walt was a rugged individualist. He admired Henry Ford… Maybe Ford and Walt were the last of the great ones, the last of the great rugged individuals. Maybe that was why they were impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes.

Nah, there are plenty of rugged individualists. The problem is they don’t do well when they’re stuck under people with less talent than them. Billy Mitchell is a notorious example. Rugged individualists often aren’t appreciated until they’re gone. I don’t know if I have all of the attributes of one, but “impatient with people of lesser talent and impatient with themselves when they made mistakes” fits me to a tee. I wish I had some insight in how to deal with that attribute.

Guys like L.B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Sam Goldwyn were despots. They were untouchables. You would have to speak to a guy who would speak to a guy who would speak to their secretaries in order to see them. Walt wasn’t like that. He mixed with everybody. You didn’t say Mr. Disney like you said Mr. Mayer or Mr. Warner. [I]f you called Jack Warner by his first name, he’d fire you. Walt didn’t want anybody to call him anything but Walt.

There are a lot more untouchables at the top today than there are approachables. I quickly tire of higher-ups who refuse to call me “Dave.” You’re not my mother! Why not just go all the way and make it “Mr. Farquhar” if that’s the way you’re going to be!

I read a story a while ago about Louis Marx. For much of the 20th century, Marx was the owner of the largest toy company in the world. Somehow he managed to figure out how to consistently produce cheap toys that didn’t break. And when they did break, he usually fixed them for free. Send the broken toy to the factory and they’d fix it for the price of postage, or bring it in person to the headquarters at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York City, and they’d fix it free if they could. Well, I read a story about someone who brought a toy in to be fixed. He had no idea where to go, but he saw a kind-looking old man, so he walked up to him and held up his broken toy. He smiled and asked the child to follow him. The child noticed that everyone treated this man with the utmost respect. He took him to an office where a repairman fixed toys. Well, a few years later this child saw a picture of Louis Marx and he believes the kind old man who helped him was Lou Marx himself.

[Walt Disney] was a man who loved nostalgia before it became fashionable. That’s why so many of his pictures were set in the harmless period of American history, the Gay Nineties or the early 1900’s – because that was when he was a kid.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that you’re the most honest and your work is the most appealing when it harkens back to your childhood. So I guess the money I spent back in 1998 learning how to un-grow up was a wise investment. Not that I needed Ward Kimball or Kurt Vonnegut to tell me that, of course…

He came from a pretty… poor family. He had four brothers and a sister. There wasn’t any extra money to spend… He loved having that soda fountain because as a kid, he couldn’t spend money for ice cream. His youth was scratching for pennies and nickels and tossing whatever he earned into the kitty at home.

I think you appreciate you have a lot more when you’ve had to struggle for a while. That definitely explains the difference between my Dad and his brother. I won’t elaborate on that any more other than to say I learned a little about how not to live by watching Dad, but I learned a lot more of what not to do by watching his sorry excuse for a brother.

Now the Disney operation is a corporation with many, many bosses and committees. The people who run the place don’t have any personal relationships with the creative people. The thing that made Walt great was that he was a creative himself and he recognized creativity in others.

Mega-success stories often begin with the person at the top being the prototype for the type of person the company needs to succeed. At the very least it makes the person at the top able to recognize the people who do the work.

Marx’s ultimate downfall was that he wouldn’t hire anyone too much like him, because he was afraid of someone usurping him. He didn’t get usurped, but without someone to replace him, his company died a very quick death. He was 76 when he finally retired, and he lived to see his company’s assets auctioned off at bankruptcy.

I suspect a second coming of Walt Disney probably wouldn’t last all that long at Disney now.

There’s no longer any innovation or excitement. The new regime just sits around trying to guess how Walt might have done it. That’s quicksand… So it’s boring. It’s a corporation where they play it safe. You copy yourself copying yourself. Walt would never stand for that. He never repeated himself.

If you have to guess how someone else would have done it, you’re much better off just walking up to someone else and asking, “How would you do it?” You’ll get better ideas that way.

He’d frighten everybody half to death by challenging them that way. But then you’d get with it, and new ideas would come. Walt kept everyone on pins and needles. Everybody getting [angry] at him was very healthy. See, you had a guy steering you all the time, and that made you work to capacity. It pulled the best out of you.

I guess I’m just really reflective right now. I don’t ever want to be out of work again, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I’m looking for. I know there has to be a better way to say it, but I think what I’m looking for is someone who takes risks and is usually right.

I don’t believe in rule by committees. I don’t think anything can be done well through group action. This is another thing that made Walt great, because all the decisions on a picture were checked by him, down to the last detail.

Agreed. What else do I need to say?

Lionel filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday

It was all over the various news sites, but Lionel, the train maker, filed Chapter 11 yesterday.

A lot of the news stories got a lot of details wrong.This is the first time Lionel, LLC has filed for bankruptcy. The original Lionel Corporation, which is the company that made the trains your dad’s and grandfather’s friends had, if not the trains they had, in all likelihood, filed bankruptcy three times. The first time was in 1935, when the Great Depression had wiped out most of Lionel’s competitors and the aristocratic J. Lionel Cowen kept on making trains for millionaires’ kids when there weren’t any millionaires left.

Lionel emerged from bankruptcy with a two-pronged approach. On the low end, they started selling $1 windup handcars featuring cartoon characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Today’s hirailers do everything they can to argue that Disney didn’t save their beloved Lionel, but at the very least it made a significant contribution.

Lionel also started paying more attention to hobbyists, making diecast trains that were modeled after real trains, rather than hiring Italian designers to design elaborate, ornate, and some would say gaudy toys that looked like trains. Hirailers say this was what saved Lionel. Whatever.

At any rate, Lionel emerged from bankruptcy and survived the Depression, something only one of its other competitors from the 1920s managed to do. That competitor was Hafner. Heard of it? Probably not. Hafner made cheap windups. Attractive windups, but basically forgotten today. The American Flyer brand name endured, but only because the Coleman family gave it to A.C. Gilbert, of Erector construction toy fame, in exchange for a royalty against future sales. There was also that upstart Louis Marx, who actually made money during the Depression and used some of that money to buy a toy train line, but that’s another story.

Toy production of almost all kinds stopped during World War II because the metal and the production capacity was needed for the war effort. Those who couldn’t make war munitions and other such things made things like bottlecaps. Lionel made nautical equipment. They sold a paper foldup train one Christmas because they were still allowed to do that, but it required the patience of a saint and the coordination of a surgeon to assemble, and once assembled, it served only as a reminder of what kids wanted in the ’30s but the parents couldn’t afford and now that the parents could afford it, it was next to impossible to get (unless you happened to live in New York City and knew about Madison Hardware, which, again, is another story).

So the pent-up demand for toys exploded after the war, and toy trains became a huge fad, giving Lionel, Gilbert, and Marx a license to print money until about 1956, after which the general public decided slot cars would be the next big fad and the people who really liked trains decided they wanted to go to HO scale because they were a lot cheaper, a lot more realistic, and in some cases took up less space.

J. Lionel Cowen decided to retire in 1959 and sold out his share of the company to his grand-nephew. He didn’t mention this to his son, who was only on board because Dad wanted him to be anyway, so he sold his shares too, while they were still worth something. Ray Cohn sought to diversify and make the trains less expensive by using more plastic and less metal, but at best he only slowed the bleeding. By 1967 A. C. Gilbert was being liquidated. Cohn bought the American Flyer brand name and tooling but didn’t have the money to do anything else with it. Later that year, Lionel Corporation filed bankruptcy itself.

Two years later, Lionel decided its chances were better selling toys rather than making them. It sold its train line to General Mills, the cereal people, who also had some toy companies. Lionel opened a chain of toy stores on the east coast, and for a time was the second largest toy store chain in the United States, behind the behemoth Toys R Us.

General Mills kept the Lionel train flame alive, selling O and HO trains branded with the Lionel name throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, it even located the old American Flyer tooling and brought those trains back as well. But in the early 1980s it tried to move manufacturing the Mexico, which angered a lot of Lionel fans. It reversed the move, but started looking for a buyer, shuffling the company around within itself and then palming it off to Kenner Parker, and then, in 1986, a Lionel collector who had made his fortune selling real estate in Detroit bought the company and started operating it as Lionel Trains Inc.

Back to Lionel Corporation. Remember them? In 1991, Lionel Corporation found its toy store chain just couldn’t compete with Toys R Us’ economies of scale, and filed for bankruptcy. Starting in 1993, it liquidated. It sold the trademarks to Richard Kughn, the owner of Lionel Trains.

Kughn sold controlling interest in Lionel Trains in 1996 to Wellspring and Associates, a holding company. Rock star Neil Young also purchased a 20 percent share. The new company was called Lionel LLC.

In the late 1990s, Lionel LLC started using Asian subcontractors more and more. Its biggest competitor (and former partner) MTH Electric Trains had been doing the same thing, and undercutting Lionel in price. By 2001, Lionel was manufacturing none of its own trains, and even outsourcing the design of some of them.

In 2000, MTH sued Lionel for misappropriation of trade secrets. A designer who had worked for MTH’s subcontractor did work for Lionel’s subcontractor as well, and the result was what some call an uncanny similarity between some of Lionel’s and MTH’s locomotives. Not having seen them myself–just like many of the people who call the similarity uncanny, no doubt–I don’t know. What I do know is that MTH and Lionel have had bad blood since the early 1990s, and that Lionel’s executives and financial backers conduct themselves in a much more professional manner in public than their MTH counterparts. That may or may not say something.

At any rate, the jurors who saw the evidence agreed with MTH and awarded it $40.8 million, which was more than MTH had sought. Then, on November 1, a judge upheld the jury’s findings and ordered Lionel to stop production of certain locomotives. Lionel then filed bankruptcy two weeks later. Looking over the filing, it’s easy to see why. They have $43 million in assets. They have substantial debt–including $30 million to what appears to be a South Korean subcontractor, not a financial institution like some news reports are saying.

MTH owner Mike Wolf and his buddy, Washington D.C. trash hauling magnate Tony Lash are hopping mad and accusing Lionel of trying to dodge justice by hiding behind Chapter 11. Considering the amount essentially amounts to the corporate death penalty, one would expect them to do whatever they can to appeal. It’s silly to expect a company to not want to stay in business.

In case you haven’t figured it out, my sympathies lie with Lionel. But it’s more out of a dislike of MTH than a love for Lionel, which has basically reduced itself to an importer. It farms out design and manufacturing to the lowest bidder, slaps its name on it, prices it for trial lawyers and heart surgeons, and wonders why nobody buys its stuff.

But MTH is the Rambus of the train industry. Or SCO. Take your pick. Starting in the 1970s, train enthusiasts started using electronics to control them. Eventually these efforts got combined and led to the creation of an open industry standard called Digital Command Control (DCC). Every major maker of HO and N scale trains uses it, and has been using it for years. MTH came along, and while it was developing its own proprietary train control standard called Digital Command System (DCS), patented some elements of DCC. Then it started suing selected companies who made use of DCC.

J. Lionel Cowen was a ruthless businessman and made a lot of enemies, but he had ethics and was proud of them. Not that that’s relevant because the Lionel he founded went out of business in the 1990s and has no direct connection to Lionel, LLC, as much as Lionel, LLC tries to make it look otherwise.

I’d like to see Lionel, LLC survive but I won’t lose sleep over it. Anyone can contract with Asian firms to design and manufacture trains, and to slap the Lionel name on it, all you need is the trademark. If someone other than Lionel, LLC ends up owning that trademark, I don’t see that it makes one iota of difference.

Unless that person happens to be Mike Wolf.

But Mike Wolf isn’t going to steal my hobby away from me. I buy mostly old stuff anyway. Why should I let the Rambus of Trains ruin my fun?