Running Marx and Lionel trains together

Someone asked (not me specifically) whether it’s possible or desirable to run Marx and Lionel trains as part of the same layout, what the caveats are, and how to do it.

It seems to be a pretty dark secret. The answer is, yes it’s possible, and yes, it might very well be desirable, but it’s possible to run into some pitfalls.

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You still think outsourcing is a good idea?

Don’t be fooled by the topic I put this in: This has potential implications for any area of manufacturing.

Lionel, the most famous U.S. maker of toy trains and model railroads, has been found guilty of industrial espionage and ordered to pay $40 million to competitor MTH Electric Trains.

What happened? Well, both Lionel and MTH outsource their production. As it turned out, some work that was done for MTH ended up in Lionel designs as well.I really don’t think anyone has a good grasp of what happened, but the story I heard is that a contractor who worked for MTH’s subcontractor designing locomotives moonlighted for Lionel’s subcontractor, and that he reused some work that he did on an MTH design on a Lionel design. MTH claims Lionel knew about this. Lionel claims it did not.

Regardless of who you believe, somebody was wronged. R&D work for one company ended up benefiting its competitor, and now that mistake is costing lots of money.

As a consumer, I’m disappointed because I’ve been led to believe that Lionel and MTH do their own designs and outsource production to Korea and China. Evidently they outsource some of their lucrative R&D as well.

Apologists for both companies have said that Korean companies tend to be related by blood or marriage and that workers routinely move from company to company, taking trade secrets with them and using them. That’s the corporate culture. U.S. corporate culture, of course, is exactly the opposite. We demand that you somehow forget all of your proprietary trade secrets when you change employers. Or at least don’t use them in your new job.

The products involved in this case aren’t the $20 locomotives you see at Hobby Lobby or Toys ‘R Us either. We’re talking premium products that sell for five figures here. I’ve seen them in person–they’re definitely impressive looking. But they’re playthings for people who make six figures per year, minimum. I like O gauge Lionel stuff an awful lot. But I don’t expect to ever own one. They cost more than I’m willing to pay for a computer.

I suspect that with those kinds of profit margins, they could have afforded to build them in Michigan or New Jersey, where Lionel understands how its workers work and its workers understand how its employer works. That’s the scenario if you assume Lionel is innocent. If you assume Lionel is guilty, well, that scenario makes industrial espionage much more unlikely. It’s always best not to allow yourself to be tempted to do something wrong–it’s easier to avoid temptation than it is to resist it.

And if they’d had to raise the price of a $1,400 locomotive by another $100, I doubt too many people would have screamed. Especially if the words “Proudly made in USA” were prominently featured on the package.

There’s some question whether there’s even room in a $100 million hobby for both Lionel and MTH. When your industry is worth $100 million as a whole, and you have to share that pie with four or five competitors, you can’t really afford a $40 million jury award, can you?

Saving a few bucks in labor and R&D may have just cost Lionel its life.

A Bing in Marx clothing

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.

Building some cheap train shelves

Needing a place to store my trains, I decided to build some shelves so I could simultaneously store and display them when they’re not on the track. I used materials that I had on hand, exclusively. Other materials would have been better, but I didn’t have them.

I built the shelves on the front of my table. That space is otherwise unused, and four feet of shelf can hold five or six train cars.I used 1x1s to build the shelf supports. I cut them about six inches long, held them up to the table leg, drilled pilot holes, and then screwed them in. I placed them about 5 inches apart, so that the shelves would have enough clearance to comfortably pick up and replace cars.

The shelves themselves are made of 2x4s. Thinner wood would be much better–I could have had another shelf if I’d had anything thinner–but I wanted to use what I had. I have lots of 2x4s and could build the shelves with those in less time than it would take to go to the hardware store. I’ll buy thinner boards the next time I’m out someplace that sells lumber. I still have lots of table space to convert to shelves.

To hold the cars, one could lay a bunch of track on the shelves. Since most hobbyists have lots of track, and many of us had O27 and then upgraded to something else, this would be an economical and true-to-spirit choice.

I didn’t have enough straight O27 track for the job. So I cut 1-inch strips of cardboard, then screwed those to the top of the board. Yes, it’s cheap, but the cars hide the cardboard. One could also use 1-inch strips of balsa or basswood to give a better look.

Or, given the proper tools, one could simply cut two grooves an inch apart lengthwise into the wood.

One advantage of cardboard, wood, or grooves over track is that the cars roll very poorly on it, so cardboard or wood tends to hold the cars in place better.

With the strips secured onto the top of the boards, I then placed the boards on the supports, drilled pilot holes, and then drove one screw into each side to hold it in place.

At some point I will want to replace the wood with something thinner and nicer-looking than pine, and stain it to make it look good. But in the meantime, I have cheap storage for about 16 cars in about four feet of space that had otherwise been going to waste previously, and it only took me about an hour to do it. And it doesn’t look terrible either.

Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.

Conversation in a hardware store checkout line

Cashier: (Observing the one-inch fender washers in my hand) You playing washers?Me: Actually, I’m going to try to make wheels for an old train.

Cashier: Did you try Hobby Country?

Me: Oh yeah, but they don’t have anything for something like this (pre-War American Flyer). These wheels haven’t been made for almost 70 years.

Cashier: My brother’s into old trains. He and his son go to England to get old trains.

Me: (Eyes getting big.) Oh yeah, Hornby made some really cool stuff!

Cashier: I’m like, why do you have to go all the way over there to buy trains?

Me: Because Hornby made a whole bunch of cool stuff that never made it over here!

I guess I’ve got it kind of bad, huh? I’m not booking flights for England but I know why someone else is, and what they’re probably looking for…

I need to build this in O gauge

I visited the site because the link promised billboards. I got so much more. Now the fine Scot in me really wants to build this box car.

Since my trains are O27, not HO, I can’t use his artwork directly. But his HO scale decals might be suitable for a tinplate 6-inch car like those American Flyer and Marx used to sell, since those 6-inch Marxes basically look like double-height HO cars.This is precisely why I’m not a rivet-counter. Trains are supposed to be fun. This car doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun. The Second Amendment Gun Shop with a sign in the window saying “No weapons allowed” doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s fun.

I try to keep elements of what I do believable–you won’t see any low-rider Honda Civics running around my layout, which is supposed to look like the 1950s because my trains were built in the ’50s–but since I can’t build models of a specific time and place, what’s the point of getting uptight about whether M-K-T box car 45001 really existed?

But hey. For some people that’s the best part of the hobby. That’s OK. Just don’t try to stop me from having my fun.

A Soviet train on eBay!?

I’ve read about Soviet toy trains, but I’ve never actually seen one for sale, until today.

I expect this Soviet O gauge toy train car on eBay to go for $200, possibly more.Of course, the Soviet trains are more of a novelty or curiosity than anything else. They’ll run on Lionel track, and the voltage is close enough that a Lionel or compatible transformer will run them just fine. But running them?

The Soviet trains are a close enough copy of 1939-1941 American Flyer that I suspect it would couple up to a Flyer train just fine. That would be the trick to running any of this stuff. Modern Lionel trucks and couplers would probably bolt on just fine, but I wouldn’t dare modify something like this. I won’t even change the couplers on any vintage train, even a $15 Lionel caboose, unless the originals were damaged.

I’d debate even running a Soviet train car on track, but then I remember, these were toys and they were meant to be enjoyed, so if it ran once–which it almost certainly did–it should run again.

So I’d buy a couple of Flyer passenger cars, change the coupler on the front car so it would couple with a Lionel locomotive and tender, and have that bad boy running around on track again in the middle of a Flyer train. If I had $200-$250 that I didn’t know what to do with, that is.

Few of these Soviet trains were made. They were made to be given as gifts to boys who found favor with the Soviet government. Some made it out of the country for various reasons, as could be expected, but supposedly it’s now illegal to take one out of the country, as the Russian government has declared them a national treasure.

Sure I want one. But hey, there are lots of things I want. I won’t be placing that bid.

A link for the artistically inclined

If you ever need to etch something out of metal–building lettering for your model railroad, funky lettering or a custom fan grill guard for your l337 modded-up computer case, or anything else that floats your boat, here’s a link you’ll want to bookmark:

Cheap photoetching, step by step.You need little more than a bottle of photo etchant from Radio Shack ($4), a can of lacquer thinner ($3 at Kmart), some aluminum cans, a permanent marker (I’ll bet you’ve got one of those), and a handful of other household items.

One tip: The author suggests using a permanent marker to color in the side opposite your drawing. Depending on what you’re wanting to make, that could take a while. You might want to invest in a spray can of the cheapest paint primer you can find, and use that for the opposite side.

Just keep a few cautions in mind when working with this stuff.

Aluminum cans are very light gauge. If you’ve ever sliced your hand open while working in a $12 computer case, the hazards are the same. Wear work gloves while cutting and handling the aluminum prior to etching.

Lacquer thinner is nasty, nasty stuff. One chemical commonly used in it, methyl ethyl ketone (a.k.a. MEK) is alleged to cause cancer, and its fumes are bad for your liver. It would be prudent to wear rubber gloves and a mask while working with it, and only work with it outside.