The sign said "50% off all items $25 and under. Other items, make offer." I spied a table full of beat-up Marx trains. I picked through them. There were two 3/16 scale tinplate boxcars and cabooses, paired with a Marx Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive, marked as a "set." Price: $79. At least two of the cars were missing wheels and the loco had bad paint. Heaven only knew if it ran. The bundle wasn’t worth $20. Likewise for a six-inch bundle. Two common six-inch cars, rusty and one missing a coupler, paired with a locomotive with no wheels or engine or paint–about 90% naked, except for rust–for $65. I’d have been willing to pay $7.
I almost overlooked the three six-inch passenger cars that were almost completely devoid of paint. It’s a good thing I didn’t.At first glance, they looked like Marx 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t do 6-inch passenger cars. I don’t know why; I just don’t like ’em. Then I noticed that one of the cars had wheels that were too big for Marx. I picked it up and flipped it over. It had an uppercase "B" and the words "Made in Germany."
I looked at the price. "Set of 3. $39."
Now let me tell you the significance of the words "Made in Germany." Before World War I, most toy trains were made in Germany. The market leaders were Bing, which was the world’s largest toy company, and Maerklin, which was the company that everybody copied. The biggest U.S. maker was a company called Ives. Some upstart called Lionel was giving all of them a run for the money, but it was an also-ran. After the war, Ives and American Flyer lobbied successfully for protection, essentially pricing the Germans out of the U.S. market.
So this Bing car probably dates back to before World War I.
I picked up the other two cars in the set. "Made in U.S.A. The Lionel Corporation." Ah, so they weren’t a set. I double-checked them to make sure they would couple together. They weren’t a perfect match but they fit. And the wheel height was right.
Well, like I said, I don’t do six-inch passenger cars. Especially six-inch passenger cars that have no paint or have been badly repainted. But these weren’t just any six-inch passenger cars. And even though they were almost completely devoid of paint, amazingly they had little or no rust anywhere on them.
I hesitated. Then I ran through in my mind the value of the cars as parts. The wheels and axles were all in good shape. The couplers were all usable. The roofs were all nice and straight and even had decent paint jobs on them, considering their likely age. The frames were pretty straight. The bodies weren’t perfectly straight but they also weren’t dented, and they were rust-free. They were easily worth $20 as parts, I figured.
So I offered $20. The cashier looked at the price tag, then accepted without hesitation.
Still, it took me a while to justify my purchase. Call it shellshock from looking at Marx priced at 10x book value.
I explained it to my girlfriend this way. Yes, a Standard Gauge Lionel locomotive–the big mamas with the wheels 2 1/8 inches apart–is worth a minimum of $500 if it looks decent. It doesn’t even have to run. Cars are also worth a couple hundred apiece. Some rare sets go for five figures. Lots of people know this, so they automatically assume that any toy train is worth a small fortune.
Reality check: Lionel quit making those trains in 1938 because nobody could afford them. They’re worth that kind of money because they’re old and rare. And they look really cool. But Lionel made millions of trains in the 1950s and they ran forever. With few exceptions, they’re common and cheap. Marx made even more of them. You could buy Marxes anywhere with the change in your pocket. They’re even more common and even cheaper.
It’s like baseball cards. A 1910 Honus Wagner baseball card is worth a million dollars in best-possible condition. But that doesn’t mean my 1983 Johnny Bench baseball cards are worth even $100. They’re probably not even worth $10.
Back to the trains. What else can I tell from looking at them?
I found traces of red paint on the two Lionels and a slightly larger remnant of yellow paint on the German car (I’m guessing it’s a Bing, since the largest German makers were Maerklin, Bing, and Fandor, and only Bing starts with a "B"). I suspect the Lionels were red with black doors, roof, and frame, and the Bing was yellow with black doors, roof, and frame.
As for their age, no doubt they’re pre-War. Only Marx bothered to make six-inch tinplate cars after World War II. And since Bing had difficulty selling trains in the United States after World War I, the Bing might predate World War I. Lionel didn’t catalog O gauge trains until 1913 and they weren’t widely available until 1915. So maybe these are the same age as the Bing, or maybe the Bing is slightly older.
I set them up on a piece of display track. They looked pretty good there. Definitely rustic, but not bad.
But toy trains are meant to run. Even 90-year-old ones. I checked the coupler height against my postwar Marx 551 tender ($4 at Marty’s last week). It fit. I put the three cars on my track on my layout behind the tender, and lashed the tender up to my Marx 490 locomotive ($12 off eBay a few months ago). It looked good. I applied power. The Marx strained, but it pulled them.
After a few laps, I realized those cars probably haven’t seen oil in a good 70 years, maybe more. So I oiled the wheels and axles and spun the wheels to make sure they turned freely. I ran the Marx again, and it pulled them without difficulty.
I probably have no choice but to restore the cars. I expect they’ll rust quickly in my humid house, and chances are what paint remains on them is lead-based. I don’t want toys with lead-based paint in my house. So I’ll strip them down–I hear a long bath in a bucket of generic imitation Pine-Sol is all it takes–and repaint them after I manage to research how the cars were originally painted and lettered.