Last Updated on April 13, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
The Marx 400 locomotive was Marx’s entry level plastic locomotive that it sold in inexpensive electric sets.
Introduced in 1952 as a windup and in an electric version in 1953, the 400 was an 0-4-0 steam locomotive made of plastic. Initially, it supplemented pressed tin engines, although plastic eventually overtook metal in the most inexpensive sets. But in 1953, plastic was still somewhat new and novel. So a set with a plastic engine and tender could actually sell at retail for about 10% more than an all metal set.
The Marx 400 is a simple engine and closely resembles the later 490 engine, with the major distinction being the awning over the cab window. But the 490 is also a bit thinner, so the 400 is a bit heavier and more durable. However, it is very common to find either one with a broken cab as a result of taking a tumble off a table after running too fast around a curve.
By modern standards it’s a cheap plastic locomotive. But it allowed a greater level of detail than the earlier pressed metal locomotives like the 897 and 898, so the 400 upped Marx’s starter set game.
Marx 400 vs Lionel 1001: Which is the evil twin?
Marx’s 400 locomotive closely resembles the Lionel 1001, introduced a few years earlier. The 1001 was Lionel’s first plastic locomotive, introduced in 1948. Lionel designed it to compete with Marx, and it wasn’t Lionel’s finest moment. Those who remember the 1001 at all remember it for having a hard time pulling three cars.
The Lionel 1001 came first, so it wasn’t a copy of the 400. While the 400 wasn’t a great puller either, it could pull four or five cars, especially when equipped with Marx’s double reduction motor. Making the 400 closely resemble Lionel’s ill-fated plastic locomotive added insult to injury, whether the resemblance was intentional or not. But it was probably intentional. Joshua Lionel Cowen had threatened for years to introduce a cheap train set to drive Marx out of the market. So it’s easy to imagine Marx employees designing the 400 with two goals in mind: To look like the 1001 and to be able to pull four O27 cars. The idea could have come from Louis Marx himself, but it just as easily could have come from one of his subordinates. Corporate rivalries are like that. Marx would have thought it was hilarious and it would have made Cowen furious.
This is all speculation of course. But something similar has happened at virtually every company I’ve worked for. You can probably think of examples from places you’ve worked too.
The Lionel 1001 ended up not being a Marx killer, and the Marx 400 was a key part of Marx’s lineup during some of its best years.
Marx continued producing the 400 until 1958. Some of the price guides get it wrong and say 1954. But the 400 appeared in sets with cars that were introduced as late as 1958, such as the variations of the 4222 set with the State of Maine boxcar. So it’s clear the Greenberg books that say 1958 are the ones who got it right, or closer to right. The cost-reduced Marx 490, introduced in 1962, replaced the 400 for good. But the 400 was a better engine overall, especially as a windup.
Besides appearing with cars that were introduced in the 1950s, the electric 400 is much too common and inexpensive to have been just a one-year wonder, as some books suggest.
Marx 400 variations
There are some variations of the 400. Some of them came with double reduction motors while some came with single reduction motors. The examples in the nicer sets included a headlight and reverse. But like the later 490, Marx would ship a 400 with the headlight and reverse omitted when they wanted to meet the lowest possible price point. The 400 never came with a liquid smoke unit. But some had a rubber puffer bulb that puffed baking soda to resemble smoke.
Marx also produced an olive drab 400, which it shipped in some of its army sets. The olive drab 400 is scarce and highly collectible. The regular issue black 400s are common and inexpensive. They are very reliable, and much better engines than their $20 going rate suggests.
Marketing the Marx 400
Retailers seemed to like the 400, because they could advertise a set like Marx catalog number 4222 featuring a 400, 3 or 4 cars, an oval of track, and a 45 watt transformer for approximately half the price of a Lionel Scout set. The brass at Lionel would complain it wasn’t a totally fair comparison, but it got customers in the door.
And in the 1950s, you could buy these sets anywhere. In my research, I’ve found retailers of all kinds offering Marx sets for sale, including department stores, five and dime stores, which are the equivalent of today’s dollar stores, hardware stores, drug stores, and even grocery stores. The appeal with Marx was that a child could start off with a windup set that cost half as much as an electric set, and if they maintained an interest, they could upgrade to an electric set fronted by a 400, and the cars from the windup set would still work with it.
Servicing the Marx 400
If you have a Marx 400 locomotive and it’s not running quite how it used to, it’s not hard to tune it up. Marx engines are easy to work on, requiring only simple tools and supplies, and the 400 is no exception. Here are some tips for tuning up Marx locomotives, including the 400.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.
3 thoughts on “Marx 400 locomotive”
Holy cow! That is the EXACT model I have! I love that thing. It doesn’t run as well as it once did but, to me, it is the sight, sound and smell of Christmas.
Between your comment and another question on social media asking why the Marx 400 looks so much like the Lionel 1001, I’ve gone back and made some revisions. Among them being a link to a much earlier blog post on servicing Marx locomotives. They are very easy to work on.
And I agree, that aroma of ozone and old petroleum and the sound of the open frame motor is something I associate with Christmas as well.
I believe that the 400 and the Lionel 1001 were the first plastic locomotives for each company. My fiction for why they are so similar is that a plastic company actually developed the tooling and offered it to both companies at a reduced rate or free to prove that plastic was a suitable material for locomotives and thus to sell more plastic.
The models seem to both be 1:64 scale, which would fit right in with the Marx product line, maybe not so much for Lionel. At that scale, it could also have been offered to American Flyer, though they seem to have declined.
The most striking feature of both locomotives to me is the air horn mounted at the front of the the smoke box. I know Southern Pacific mounted air horns on steam engines, I believe the Milwaukee Road did too, and there may have been other railroads that did. I have never seen a prototype photo, however, with so prominently mounted an air horn.
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