One of the things Lionel did that set its electric trains apart from its competitors was integrating a whistle in the tender that was included with its steam locomotives. Because of the added play value and charm, the whistling tender is a sought-after feature, even in this era when electronic sounds are so inexpensive that even dollar store toys sometimes have them.
Here’s how to quickly tell if a Lionel tender has a whistle.
First, some terminology: the tender is the car that sits directly behind the locomotive and carries coal. Sometimes people erroneously call them “coal cars,” but those are different. Trains carry coal in gondolas or hoppers, if that matters to you. That’s probably not the information you came here seeking, so I digress.
When you flip the tender over, take a look at the wheels. A tender that has a whistle will have rollers in between the wheels that picks up voltage from the center rail, and a wire running from those rollers up through the frame and into the body of the tender. If there are no pickup rollers and no wires, the tender doesn’t have a whistle.
If you’re at a train show at a table with a strict no-touch policy, or you’re looking at a listing online and there’s no picture of the underside, here’s a trick. Look for vents near the top of the tender on the front, opposite the coal pile. The whistle needs airflow to work, so if there are no vents, there’s probably no whistle.
This won’t help you if you can’t pick it up, but whistling tenders are considerably heavier than non-whistling tenders. Whistling tenders have a heavy electric motor in them.
Note that besides a whistle, you also need a way to activate the whistle. All but the cheapest Lionel transformers have a button to activate the whistle. If your transformer doesn’t have the button, whistle controllers are easy to find on Ebay for $10-$15. Or you can pick up a transformer like a Lionel 1033.
If you have a whistling tender and a whistle controller but can’t get it to work, I wrote some troubleshooting tips a few years ago.
If you want to upgrade your locomotive with a whistling tender, they’re relatively easy to find on Ebay. Lionel sold hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions, over the decades. You can expect to pay $30-$40 for one in good working order.