Lionel Scout train sets: Entry level Lionel

“It’s a Lionel Scout,” the auctioneer said breathlessly. I walked out the door without placing a bid. If you found a Lionel Scout train set and you think you found something valuable, I’m about to dash your hopes and dreams. That’s not to say Lionel Scouts aren’t interesting. But they were Lionel’s economy sets of the postwar era.

Lionel Scout train sets

Lionel Scout train set
Lionel sold similar outfits as early as 1941, but this 1948 Lionel Scout set was the first to bear the Scout name.

The Lionel Scout line came about out of necessity. Lionel was the market leader in electric trains. But Louis Marx, a huge maker of toys of all kinds, made trains very similar to Lionel. They were cheaper, and that was a problem. Lionel didn’t want to cede the low end of the market to Marx and miss out on the chance for repeat sales.

So in 1948, Lionel put together a low-dose set to compete. They dusted off the prewar tooling for their 1655 2-4-2 locomotive and gave it the Marx treatment. Marx would omit anything from a locomotive to hit a price point. Lionel did the same, transforming the prewar 1684 locomotive into a bare bones, unadorned low-end locomotive with a 2-4-2 wheel arrangement that resembled a slightly overgrown Marx 999. Initially Lionel planned to use a plastic body but had to change at the last minute, because the cost-reduced motor they planned to use couldn’t get enough traction in a lightweight plastic body. So the early Scout sets had diecast engines.

Lionel played with the formula throughout the postwar era, including eventually developing a successful plastic-bodied locomotive to pull them. But the general formula remained the same: a 2-4-2 steam locomotive and tender pulling a train of 3-4 cost-reduced cars, with fixed couplers rather than operating knuckle couplers, on O27 track.

The initial 1948 set sold for $18.95, $11 less than Lionel’s regular outfits. It looked like a cut-down version of a set Marx sold for $24.95 that year. The train was similar. Marx just gave you more track and a set of switches.

The number of sets that survived tells us Lionel sold a lot of them.

My Dad’s Lionel Scout

Lionel Scout train set
Dad’s Lionel Scout consist was fairly typical. Some sets substituted a tank car for the orange Baby Ruth boxcar.

My Dad’s first train set was a Lionel Scout. He most likely got it around 1952. For kids growing up right after World War II, an electric train was like a game console. It was the thing to have, even if you didn’t have any great love for real trains. The saying was that if your dad had a good job, you had a Lionel or American Flyer train, and if he didn’t have a good job, you had a Marx. My grandfather was the town doctor. Presumably, for the doctor’s son, a Marx wouldn’t do.

Examining the 1952 Sears Christmas catalog, a Lionel Scout set cost $22.50 that year. But that was half the price of the bigger Lionel sets, and $2 less than the best Marx set. But Dad had a bunch of Marx stuff mixed in with his childhood trains. I don’t know if my grandfather figured it out on his own or someone told him, but one way or another, he got the idea to buy the cheap Lionel set, then expand it with cheaper Marx track. Lionel track cost 25 cents per section, while Marx cost 18. Once you mounted the track on the table, you couldn’t tell the difference.

A couple of years later, Dad got another, nicer Lionel set, something one step up from the Scout sets. It had a nicer engine with a bigger wheel arrangement, a neutral gear in addition to forward and reverse, and it puffed smoke.

Dad had it all set up in the large bedroom he shared with his brother, mounted on a table. Eventually they outgrew the trains and they ended up in boxes.

My first train: Same as Dad’s first train

The original Lionel Scout coupler was incompatible with the couplers on Lionel’s nicer cars.

Eventually Dad got married and eventually I showed up. I don’t know when I first noticed the boards with the track mounted on them rusting in the garage, but it had to have been before I was in kindergarten. I asked what they were, and either Mom or Dad told me they were Dad’s train tracks. Of course you know what my next question was.

Six years later, Dad dragged the track and two or three boxes down into the basement from the garage. Once assembled, it formed an oval that was probably six feet wide by eight feet long. Then he unboxed the trains and set them on the track. He pulled out his nicer locomotive, but it just sat on the track and buzzed at us. We couldn’t get it running. Dad pulled out his humble #1110 Lionel Scout engine. It was anything but eager to highball around the track but at least it showed some signs of life. Dad lost patience after a while but I was enthralled. I pushed it around the track with the power on to see if I could get it moving. And after a while, it could run around the track on its own power.

It might have been the worst locomotive Lionel made during the postwar era, but out of the two Dad had, it was the one we could get to work. So it endeared itself to me, even if it was a bit of a fluke.

What was wrong with the Lionel Scout locomotive

Two decades later, I was hanging out at Marty’s Model Railroads, a train store in suburban St. Louis co-owned by the father of one of my high school classmates. Marty was messing around with a train set he’d bought that day. It was a lot like my Dad’s set, with the same #1110 engine. The cars were similar too, though the mix wasn’t quite the same as what my Dad had.

Marty held up the engine. “Guaranteed to make it around the track once!” he said.

He didn’t like the 1110 because its value only increased by about $10 if it worked. If he tried to fix it, he ran the risk of breaking it worse, and could easily put two hours of labor into trying to get that last $10 worth of value. If it hadn’t had the boxes and paperwork, he probably would have parted the engine out.

The Lionel Scout motor

Lionel Scout motor
This is a closeup of the typical Lionel Scout motor. Note the hollow pickup sliders and the plastic body.

The problem with the 1110 and other similar Lionel engines was the motor. In a regular Lionel motor, when the brushes wear out, it’s a minor repair. It takes five minutes to drop the motor, install new brushes, and put it back together.

The Scout motor is a complex beast, with lots of extraneous moving parts to let the motor change directions without an expensive e-unit component. The motor was cheap to make, apparently, because Lionel kept making it for a decade and a half. And it worked fine, when it was new. But once the carbon brushes wore out, replacing them was an ordeal. When you take it apart, without the benefit of whatever tools and jigs Lionel had, the motor doesn’t go back together again. At least not easily.

Lionel 2034 motor
When a Scout motor wore out, Lionel recommended swapping the whole thing with this upgraded unit. Note the metal plate and the solid rollers.

In the service manuals for the Scout locomotives, Lionel recommended junking the motor if one came in for repair, and swapping in a motor intended for a 2034 locomotive. The 2034 was a half breed. It had essentially the same body as a Scout, but a motor that was based on the ones in the higher-end engines, including the three-position e-unit.

When Dad’s 1110 motor started giving me trouble around 2016, I opted for a motor swap. The original motor just needed a cleaning and new brushes, but I can’t get it back together properly. Maybe someday I’ll find someone who can. In the meantime, that old 1110 engine runs great with the upgraded motor in it. But it’s a shame that I’ve essentially had to scrap a motor over 25 cents worth of parts.

The carbon brushes do eventually wear out, so any plastic-bodied Scout motor is running on borrowed time.

What else came with the Lionel Scout sets

Lionel doesn’t call them Scouts anymore, at least not usually, but the least expensive sets Lionel sells today don’t deviate much from the original 1948 formula. Lionel swapped out the front truck to turn the engine into a 4-4-2 Atlantic and today they use a can motor and an electronic e-unit, but it’s still a direct descendant of the Lionel 204 and 1684 engines introduced way back in 1940.

Scout sets came with an engine and tender, two or three freight cars, and a caboose. The early Scout sets used a fixed knuckle coupler that wasn’t compatible with the more expensive sets. That meant if you bought a nicer set later on, you couldn’t mix and match the cars from the two sets. Eventually Lionel released a conversion part, Lionel part number 480-25. But I didn’t find out about that until adulthood.

Lacking that adapter part, I lashed together Dad’s incompatible cars with some thin craft wire, but it wasn’t exactly elegant. Eventually Lionel figured out they could make a fixed coupler that was compatible with their more expensive operating knuckle coupler and have an easier time selling future upgrades. The cars also had plastic trucks with nice detail, but they were lightweight. The early ones were also prone to developing a mysterious white film, though that’s fixable.

Aside from that, you didn’t get much. The set came with a loop of O27 track, eight curves and four straights, and a basic transformer, perhaps as little as 35 watts.

Lionel Scout sets vs higher end sets

The Scout was just a way for Lionel to avoid ceding the low end of the market to Marx. It was better than Marx’s most basic sets, not as good as Marx’s best sets, and priced somewhere in between too. You still got more for your money with Marx, but it didn’t have the Lionel brand name.

Like anything else, the high-end sets were what everyone really wanted. They just didn’t necessarily want to pay for them. The next step up, which cost nearly double, had the same loop of track and the same number of cars, but the cars had operating knuckle couplers so you could remotely couple and uncouple them. The engine added a neutral gear and smoke. It also had more moving parts, for more realistic motion as the train ran. It also came with a heavier transformer to deliver the additional power needed for the smoke.

The higher up you stepped in the line, the bigger the locomotives got, and you frequently got a couple of additional track sections and an additional car. The top end set in any given catalog often came with the heavier duty O gauge track. The cars in the higher end sets also tended to be slightly larger. Lionel Scout cars were usually about 7.5 inches long, where the cars in the higher-end sets were usually 8.5 inches long. Early Scout cars had “Lionel” or “Lionel Lines” printed on them, while the higher-end sets were more likely to have real railroad names on the cars. Over time, Lionel started putting real road names on the lower-end Scout cars as well.

The value on all Lionel postwar is down from what it was at its peak in the late 90s. Time has been more kind to the higher end offerings than it has been to the Scouts.

Value of a Lionel Scout set

I hesitate to say anything about a Lionel Scout set’s value, but I’ll get questions if I don’t. Generally speaking, a Scout engine with a plastic body is worth around $15. A metal-bodied engine is worth closer to $35. They’re worth a bit more if they have the upgraded motor in them. The best indicator of the upgraded motor is if they have a metal plate on the bottom that says “Lionel O27” and rollers in the center that spin, rather than just spring-loaded metal contacts. If the set has a box car, the box car is worth around $10. The other cars in the set tend to sell for around $5 each. If the track is clean and usable, it’s worth 25 cents per section. The transformer is worth $10 if it’s in good condition and in good working order. If the power cord is damaged, the transformer is junk.

If the set still has its original box, the value increases. I’ve seen boxed Scout sets sell for $100-$150.

The 2012 Lionel Scout re-issue

In 2012, Lionel issued a set that it called “The Scout,” which commemorated the Scout sets of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s cast from the same molds as the older Scout sets, but the engine and tender are adorned in garish Lionel blue and orange. I’ve seen boxed examples of this set offered for as much as $225, but the examples that someone actually bought sold for $100-$150. Even that price seems high, considering these sets are over-the-top celebrations of mediocrity. Getting excited over this feels to me like getting excited over a commemorative reissue of the 1980 Ford Escort.

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