Types of Lionel knuckle couplers

There have been three major types of Lionel knuckle couplers produced since resuming train production in 1946. Lionel knew it would have to make a splash when it brought its trains back after the end of the War, and the knuckle coupler was one of the keys.

Two of these coupler types are compatible with one another, but one has a gotcha.

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Selling Marx trains

Since my advice on selling other makes of trains was popular, 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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Selling Tyco trains

I got an inquiry last week about selling Tyco trains. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I certainly remember Tyco, and in recent years Tyco has gained a bit of a following.

If you’re looking to sell some Tyco gear, you certainly can do it, but you have to keep your expectations realistic. You’ll probably be able to sell it, but don’t expect to get rich off it.

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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.

Fixing a Lionel 2034 that ran super slowly

The Lionel 2034 with the bent cab had another problem. It would run, but only in super slow-mo, and that was when it would run at all. If I was really patient, sometimes I could get it to run a little after a few minutes, but it had minimal pulling power even then.

The motor needed some maintenance, but it didn’t need any parts. Here’s how I fixed it in less than an hour.

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What’s an Allstate electric train?

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was possible to walk into Sears and see an Allstate electric train on the same shelf as Lionel and American Flyer. These trains are still somewhat common today. That leads to some further questions.

Yes, it’s Allstate, as in the insurance company. What did they have to do with electric trains?

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Are video games a good investment?

An article on Slashdot asked this weekend whether video games were a good investment. So are video games a good investment? Will they appreciate over time?

The answer is generally no. Collectibles in general are not–they follow a boom and bust cycle. I’ve seen it happen in my own lifetime.

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Cars (as in vehicles) for train layouts

I was at Kmart today, and as I usually do, I wandered down the toy aisle on the off chance I might find some cars that might work on my train layout.

I did a lot better than I usually do–Jada and Maisto came through for me.I won’t talk about HO and N scale trains because for those scales, you can walk in to any hobby shop in the country and find pretty much anything you want. Us Lionel and American Flyer fans have it a lot tougher.

Lionel O scale is roughly 1:48. You won’t find 1:48 vehicles anywhere these days, but you can find 1:43 and 1:50. Some people fret that 1:43 is way too big, but sometimes you can hold up one maker’s 1:43 vehicle next to a similar 1:50 vehicle from another make and find they’re just about the same size. Maisto and New Ray are two makes of cars that size.

Lionel and Marx O27 is 1:64, more or less. Maisto, Jada, and Ertl make lots of 1:64 cars. Some Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars are close, but most are closer to 1:72, which is a bit small.

American Flyer O gauge trains made after 1937 are 1:64 scale, and all American Flyer S gauge trains are 1:64.

Since I run O27, I have lots of vehicles to choose from, but the problem is finding something era-appropriate. Contemporary vehicles are no problem to find, but if you want something old, it’s hard to find much other than a ’57 Chevy. Well, you can find a handful of late ’50s cars of various makes, but it tends to lean towards the late ’50s, and from looking at the stuff in the diecast aisle, you would think Ford and GM were the only two companies making cars in the ’50s. Want a Studebaker or a Hudson or (gasp) a Dodge? Good luck.

Of course I had to make things more difficult. I like really old trains, so a ’57 Chevy isn’t exactly going to cut it. I need 1930s and 1940s cars.

Maisto just happens to be offering a 1:64 ’36 Ford Coupe as part of its G Ridez series. It has homey-ized rims and thin tires, but other than that, it looks pretty stock. Hot Wheels has offered a ’36 Ford since I was a little kid, but it was always a hotrod.

Maisto also offers a ’37 Ford, but it has a prominently chopped roof

And Jada is offering a 1:64 ’39 Chevy Master Deluxe as part of its Dub City Old Skool line. Like the Maisto, it has thin tires and weird rims, but aside from that, it looks stock, and it’s black. This is a very nice car to have because it’s a late 1930s station wagon–a family car. It looks just like the cars you see families using in the movies set in the ’30s and ’40s. I hope I can find a few more of these because it’s the kind of ordinary car that will look natural even if I had several on the layout.

So if your toy train preferences lean towards American Flyer S gauge or Lionel or Marx O27, a trip down the toy aisle at your local Kmart or Target would probably be a good idea.

One thing I’ve learned is that I have to be patient. Usable cars are out there, but there may only be a handful of them issued every year–including anything Mattel releases under the Hot Wheels or Matchbox brands, undersize or not. I take what I can get. But improving the layout a little bit at a time over the course of years is part of the hobby’s appeal. At least it’s supposed to be.

Dealing with being laid off

Well, it’s been just over a year since I was laid off from the only job I was ever willing to relocate for. Layoffs are never fun. Dealing with being laid off is hard. Looking back, with the perspective of a year and two days now, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

But I’ll be honest: That doesn’t make it hurt much less. But I know the shoes I was in a year ago try on someone new every day, and every year around this time, one or more of my former coworkers finds themselves in those shoes. I don’t know if I can help, but I’m going to try.

It’s harder for guys. For men, work is a big part of their identity. In most parts of the world, when you’re introduced, the second question people ask after your name is what you do for a living. (In St. Louis, that’s the question they ask after where you went to high school). But seriously, losing your job involuntarily is a really big deal, so feeling bad about feeling bad about it is counterproductive. Of course you feel bad about it. Grieve. Don’t hold it in–you’ll just get depressed, and everyone around you will sense you’re depressed, and it’ll make it that much harder to get another job.

Be a miser. You just lost your job. You don’t need it to cause you to lose everything else. I haven’t talked to a lot of homeless people, but more than one of them was once a highly skilled, productive worker with a lot of education. Homelessness is a complex thing, but loss of job plus depression plus running out of money can equal that.

You can’t know when you’ll have another paycheck, but you can figure out how long the money you have will last. You have a pretty good idea what your mortgage or rent and utilities cost. Throw in a couple hundred for expenses like groceries and gasoline, then divide that total by what you have left, and you have a pretty good idea how quickly you need to find a job.

Cut all the non-essentials. Quit eating out, buy generic products instead of name-brand, and do what you have to do to stretch what you have left.

Occasionally, my lunch was a package of Ramen noodles, half a can of fruit and half a can of mixed vegetables. Extreme? You bet. Fun? No way. But it helped keep me out of debt while I looked for work.

Search. Go to the library and get your hands on a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? The current year’s edition is always checked out. Don’t worry about it. Things change year to year, but that doesn’t mean the 2003 edition is worthless. The world doesn’t change that quickly. This book helps you find a job, but the more important thing it does is help you figure out what you should be doing. If your job isn’t worth having, trust me, Bill Lumbergh will notice it, and you’ll be on his list of jobs to cut. Lumbergh may not know anything about running a business, but he knows enough to keep the people who are happy to be there.

Interview. I called up everyone I knew who might know about a job opening somewhere that I would be qualified to do. I got my first job interview less than a week after I lost my old job. I lost the job on a Thursday, and I think I had an interview on Tuesday. I didn’t get the job, and I didn’t get one from the second place I interviewed with either, but they got me in the mode.

I will say one thing: If you get a second interview somewhere, don’t turn down an interview somewhere else. I quit looking for a couple of days because I thought I had a job in the bag. That didn’t pan out, and I lost valuable time and momentum. Interview at multiple jobs–you know they’re all interviewing multiple candidates, after all.

There are books that coach you on interviewing. Reading about interviewing is helpful, but frankly, a magazine article’s worth of advice on interviewing is all you need. Dress like you’re interviewing for the position of CEO, make sure you give a firm, warm handshake (visit the bathroom and wash your hands with hot water and dry vigorously just before the interview if you’re like me and you’re known for having cold hands), and be confident and personable. You don’t really need a 200-page book to tell you how to do that. Practice is what you need the most.

Trust me. From ages 16 to 25, I interviewed for exactly five jobs, and I got all five of them. At 25, I interviewed for another one and didn’t get it, but the guy interviewing me had his mind made up that he wanted a C++ programmer, something I’ve never pretended to be, so I didn’t get that. I’m 2 for 6 since age 30–but given what was going on at those four companies that didn’t hire me, nobody would feel bad about being turned down by them.

Think twice about taking the first offer. I got my first job offer about five weeks after my layoff. The main interviewer told me during the interview that the company was in trouble. One of the guys with him didn’t like me from the start and I could tell. They offered me the job. I took it, for a variety of reasons. I was going stir crazy. I’d just gotten married and my wife wasn’t working either. It paid $6,000 a year more than I had been making, with less responsibility.

I had a bad feeling about it, but I was desperate. I took it. It might or might not have been the best decision. Five months later I was looking for a job again. It wasn’t anything personal, they were just out of work for me to do. Had I clicked better, they may or may not have tried harder to find work for me to do. I’ll never know.

My point is, if you have a bad feeling about it, talk it over before you say yes.

Find someone to talk to. When it’s been a couple of days since the phone last rang and you’re feeling down about the situation, find someone to talk to. Talk to a trusted friend in the same job field. Talk it over with your SO. Talk it over with family members.

If you can’t do that, or you need more, there are other places to turn. The State of Missouri happens to have a career center within walking distance of my house. Had I not gotten my current job when I did, I probably would have gone there the next week. I would imagine every state has that type of resource–employed workers are good for the state, and unemployed workers are bad for it, after all.

Barring that, find a church. Seriously–even if that’s the last place you’d ever go for any reason. Walk in and tell whoever’s there that you just lost your job and you don’t know what to do next. Tell ’em you’re not asking for money, you just need some idea what to do next. A large percentage of pastors today weren’t always pastors, so they’ve dealt with being in the workforce and the issues that go along with it. And pastors in some denominations can be dismissed from their church with little or no notice, so some pastors live with less job security than everyone else is used to having.

Take a chance. While I was trying to find work, I also prowled the library, looking for books about business, trying to come up with a business to start.

I didn’t find a lot of viable ideas. There are better books out today than there were a year ago, but even those aren’t perfect. I probably had a dozen ideas. I actually tried three. The third one–the one that seemed like the longest shot–was the one that worked.

What that business was doesn’t matter. What matters is finding something with low overhead that you can do better than anyone else–something that matches your skills and interests.

My wife was the key on this. For the most part her strengths are where I’m weak, and vice-versa, so we cover each other’s weaknesses. I’ve always suspected I’d be good at selling a product I believed in, and it seems I was right. And as it turns out, my wife is good at it too.

She kept the business going after I went back to work. I help out on Saturdays and on the occasional evening. Some months she makes more money doing this than I made at the job I lost in the first place.

Stay away from “network marketing” (a fancy word for pyramid schemes). You want to actually be in business for yourself. Look for some business books, and if you find places where the author is wrong, you’re on the right track. Think about things you like. If you like music, think about reselling vinyl records. If you like sports, think about reselling baseball cards. If you’re really good with computers and not an extreme introvert like me, go into business doing computer service.

If you happen to be outgoing, you really have it made. The secret of the most successful sellers of vintage Lionel and similar trains is that they talk to everyone about it–they literally hand out their business card to the other people standing in line at the grocery store and say, “If you’ve got old trains or if any of your neighbors do, I’ll buy them. If you refer anyone to me, I’ll give you a commission.” I would imagine the same trick would work a whole lot better for computer service. These days, everyone has a computer, and nobody’s happy with how well it works. And people don’t look at you funny if you talk to them out of the blue about computers.

If I had enough nerve to talk to five strangers a day, I’d probably be a millionaire.

So starting a business might be a good way to go. You’ll probably need to find a regular job for a while, since many businesses are actually a drain on your resources for the first 18 months or so, but if you can find a job to keep you on your feet in the meantime, being in business for yourself could be the ultimate solution to dealing with a layoff.

Recapturing the charm of someone else’s dad’s American Flyer train

My buddy Todd brought over his dad’s American Flyer train today. It had been a gift from his dad on his first Christmas. It was from 1938.

That was a peculiar year, because it was the first year that A.C. Gilbert, of Erector fame, built American Flyer trains. Previously American Flyer had been an independent company in Chicago.

This model was a Gilbert design, and at most produced from 1938 to 1941.Late last year, Todd had asked our mutual friend Tom about how to go about getting the train repaired. Tom referred Todd to me, since 3-rail O gauge isn’t Tom’s specialty. Of course Tom knew the answer: Marty Glass, of Marty’s Model Railroads in Affton.

So Todd took it to Marty earlier this year, once the Christmas rush had died down. Todd called me yesterday and said Marty had finished it. He brought it over.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he brought out an intricate 4-6-4 Pacific. It had far more detail than anything Marx ever made, and far more detail than any O27 locomotive Lionel ever made too. It had an intricate set of linkages, which turned out to be its downfall because they got bound up on us once. Marty had run the train for Todd when he picked it up–I suggested Todd have him do that, since 68-year-old trains always need some adjustments after they’ve been repaired. It ran fine on Marty’s layout.

Before we ran the train, I fixed the light in the Pullman car Todd brought over. He hadn’t taken that to Marty. The wire had come loose from the pickup on the underside of the car, and the light bulb was rattling around inside. I fished the bulb out, examined it (it looked fine; the old light bulbs in these trains is almost always fine, even after being shipped across the country), put the bulb in the socket, and re-soldered the wire to the pickup. I solder like a plumber, but judging from the pickup on that train, so did the Gilbert employee who built it.

With the car ready to go, I put it and the locomotive and tender on the track. We quickly found that the oddball American Flyer link and pin couplers didn’t line up right. Time for some more adjustments. I finally got the coupler heights adjusted correctly, then I hit the power, expecting since it had run in the store, it would run just fine on my layout.

Not so much. It ran for a few feet, then stopped in a shower of blue sparks, leaving a buzzing sound on the layout that I’ve come to associate with a short circuit.

The handrails were the biggest problem. There are two holes in the cowcatcher assembly that the handrails are supposed to slide into. Had I been doing the design, I would have made the rails longer, so they could be bent further underneath. But that’s irrelevant now. With the handrails not in the holes, they were pushing the cowcatcher down low, there it could short out the third rail. S gaugers can gloat that this wouldn’t be a problem on 2-rail S gauge track, but they really ought to respect their elders.

So I fixed the rails, and put a dab of solder on the underside to hold them in place (solder won’t stick to the zamac boiler). I noted the Phillips head screws Marty used to put it all back together. I’ll have to give him a hard time about that the next time I see him. Phillips screws didn’t come into widespread use on toys until the ’50s.

With that problem taken care of, it ran, but then it locked up hard. I gave it another thorough examination, and found that some of the intricacies on the drive rods had come misaligned, causing it all to bind up. I had to take it apart to free up enough space to realign everything. I took off the front truck, then the cowcatcher, guided everything where it was supposed to go, and reassembled everything.

And what do you know… It ran. It was a bit herky-jerky at first, but in my experience, old motors are always that way when they’ve been sitting for decades. They seem to need to get some running time in before they get used to running smoothly again. Todd told me that Marty said the motor was fine; the only problems he found were structural. From the sound of the motor, Marty obviously had lubed it–they tend to squeal a lot after 50 years, let alone 68, and this motor sounded like new–but I guess that’s all it had needed.

I found out the hard way that this locomotive (an American Flyer 531) really hates O27 curves. It derails every time, even on curves where you lead into the O27 and back out with a wider curve. So we moved it from my inner loop to my outer loop, which is mostly O42 except in one corner, where I had to do O34 to make everything fit. It made me nervous on O34 curves, but it did manage to stay on the track. It was much happier on the O42, which makes sense, because American Flyer O gauge track was 40 inches in diameter, just like its S gauge track.

Once we were confident it was running, we packed it back up. Todd was going to go surprise his dad with it. It’s been a long time since its last run. I hope he’ll enjoy seeing it roam the rails again.

Now that I’ve seen some of the late prewar 3/16 scale American Flyer up close and personal, I have a new admiration for it. I own a number of the Flyer freight cars from that period, but none of the locomotives. The detail is very good, and they run smooth and are geared low, so they have plenty of pulling power.

I’m sure Todd’s dad will be happy to see it running again. I know I sure enjoyed fine-tuning it.

Excuse me while I go check eBay…