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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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.

Estimating the value of a Marx train

One of the most frequent questions I see or receive directly about Marx trains is what a Marx train is worth, or the value of a Marx train. Of course without seeing the train, it’s nearly impossible to give a good estimate, but there are some general rules that you can follow, either to protect yourself as a buyer, or to keep your expectations realistic as a seller.

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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.

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You might need a new router

Do you need a new router? If your Internet is slow after upgrading to a faster service, and if your wifi range and reception is poor, or your Internet connection just generally misbehaves a lot, you might need a new router.

Even the New York Times, of all places, has published articles extolling the virtues of new routers. If your wi-fi at home is bad, they say, think about picking up a TP-Link Archer C7 router. I like the Asus RT-AC66U myself,  but in my experience, and the experience of my colleagues, a new router makes a huge difference.

When one longtime friend upgraded to a TP-Link Archer, he told me his wi-fi improved so much his wired network was suddenly struggling to keep up with it.

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My 11th ’35 Goudey: Four Dodgers

Like my 10th card, my 11th card was also an Ebay win. It featured four Dodgers players. It’s a common card, with no Hall of Famers, but all of the players were starters for the Dodgers–no filling up space with utility infielders or middle relievers on this card, at least. A Dodgers fan unwrapping this card in 1935 wouldn’t have been too disappointed.

And even though there are no Hall of Famers on the card, there are some interesting stories here. Two of the players were once traded for each other before becoming teammates, and one of the players was the oldest surviving player to play for all three New York teams when he died at the age of 99.

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My sixth 1935 Goudey: Bill Terry

My sixth ’35 featured four Giants players. I didn’t realize at first what a good card it was, that it featured four All-Stars and not one but two Hall of Famers. Bill Terry was the obvious one, but it’s easy to forget how good the Giants were then given that Terry and Mel Ott and Carl Hubbell towered over the rest of the team.

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This one hurts.

I tried to write the day it happened. I couldn’t write anything that made any sense. Mostly I sat and stared. I told myself when the Royals made the Wild Card, I’d be happy with whatever happened, because it was postseason baseball for the first time in 29 years.

But as they kept hanging on and steamrolling opponents, I got greedy. And it’s hard to feel guilty for getting greedy. Because I don’t know when this will happen again. Read more

The desperation economy

The sharing economy is more of a desperation economy, argues New York magazine.

Someone was ranting to me about this last month, blaming the president. The problem is, this problem’s roots have existed since the 1970s, if not the 1960s, which means nobody’s solved it. Two presidents from two different political parties applied quick fixes that worked for a while–I’m thinking of Reagan and Clinton–but nobody has ever successfully addressed the root cause of the income gap. While top earners–the 90th percentile and higher–generally do better year over year, as you move lower on the earnings scale, you see people doing well to hold steady. At the bottom of the scale, you see people earning less and less year over year.

I think the problem is with society. And one thing I learned almost minoring in history in college–I was one class short of a minor–is that when society looks to a leader to solve problems a leader can’t solve, history suggests you run a great danger of it leading to dictatorship.

I think the underlying and overlying problem is materialism–we want too much and aren’t willing to wait long enough to be able to afford it. We’ve spent my lifetime figuring out how to make things cheaper, but then society just tells us we need more things. When I was growing up in the 1980s, two televisions in a home was fairly normal, and one of them was probably a 13-inch model. A 13-inch TV cost $200, so three TVs was extravagance. When I was growing up, I lived across the street from a millionaire who had three TVs. He owned half the town, and literally owned the whole side of the street he lived on, and at one point he had four cars, but he had three TVs.

We figured out how to make TVs a lot cheaper, so now some middle-class people have them in every room. Elvis had a room with eight TVs in it for watching football, and somehow we’ve gotten it in our heads that someone who makes $40,000 a year needs a room with eight TVs too.

In the process of fixing up an old house, I found some old light switches with the price tags still on them: $2.19. Today light switches cost 70 cents. The old switches were made close to here. Now they’re made overseas. The people who used to make things like light switches compete for a smaller number of jobs of that type. There aren’t a lot of those, so some of those people get by doing whatever they can. It helps overseas economies get on their feet and that will be great in the long term, but what do we do about the short term here?

Probably we’ll do what we always do–we’ll put the other political party in power and tell them to solve it. They’ll try a quick fix. As long as the quick fix shows improvement in some part of the economy, they’ll keep getting another four years. If it doesn’t, the other party will get four years. Some of us will climb the ladder enough that it’s no longer a problem for us. I’m not sure what we’ll do about those who don’t.

And as long as everyone has food and entertainment, everything will be just fine for those at the top, and close enough to OK for all but the very worst off that I don’t expect we as a society will address the issue voluntarily.

Greenberg Marx errors: The Union Pacific 3824 caboose

Let’s pick up again with another error in the Greenberg Marx Trains Pocket Price Guide: The UP 3824 6-inch caboose. The guide lists the 3824 as a brown and yellow caboose, available on both a black or brown frame, valued at $20 in good condition and $30 in excellent.

The description is correct, but the price is only half right. Read more