Last Updated on January 27, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
The Marx 897 was a tin lithographed steam locomotive produced prior to World War II. It depicts a much more common steam locomotive than the Commodore Vanderbilt or Canadian Pacific and came in both clockwork and electric variations.
The Marx 897 looks like what a classic Marx locomotive ought to look like, made of pressed tin with lithographed detail. But it only stayed on the market a few years because of World War II, and the emergence of newer technologies. But if you like tin lithography and you like Marx, you probably like the 897.
Marx 897 overview
Marx produced the 897 for a relatively short time, from 1939-1942. It came in black and white or olive drab. The black/white version is more common but still harder to find than a Commodore Vanderbilt. The olive drab version is rarer, and extremely popular. Marx army trains are very sought after.
Being a lithographed tin litho locomotive, it sounds like it ought to have a classic look, but lithographed locomotives were actually somewhat unusual even during tinplate’s heyday. Locomotives tended to be painted, rather than lithographed. Adding lithography did allow Marx to include piping and other detail that wasn’t practical to do in stamped metal, so it gives a level of detail comparable to diecast, but with the charm of pressed tin.
But the era of diecast was well underway even in 1939. Marx waited for die casting to become a mature technology before adopting it, but the 999 came out soon after the 897. And to a contemporary viewer in 1941, the 897 probably looked like a cheap toy. I think it’s aged well, but in 1946, Marx wasn’t thinking about 2019. The tooling didn’t go to waste though. The non-lithographed variation, the 898, stayed in production into the 1950s.
Marx 897 mechanics
Mechanically, the Marx 897 is just like other prewar Marx locomotives, using the exact same motor mechanism and assembly. The common Marx 4-wheel electric motor with a reverse unit and headlight drops right into an 897, as does the 4-wheel Marx clockwork motor. But if you find an 897 with a postwar one-piece pickup and/or postwar Baldwin drivers instead of the 10-spoke wheels, the motor has been changed. For an operator, a postwar motor may be slightly better because Marx improved the motor over the years, though a collector may prefer the original motor. The hardest part of the swap is locating a suitable motor.
Marx used the same body for both clockwork and electric engines, so electric engines have a hole for a windup key. You’ll see the hole if you know where to look, but it doesn’t detract much from the locomotive’s appearance.
If you have an 897 that needs repair or tuneup, my standard advice for Marx locomotives applies.
Why the Marx 897 didn’t last long
So why didn’t the Marx 897 stay on the market longer? Timing, most likely. The Marx 999 came out shortly after the 897, offering the enhanced detail of diecast. It was still a fairly new technology and by 1939, zinc pest was well known, having sunk Dorfan, the pioneer of diecast trains. Marx showed up late to the diecast game, likely aware of these issues. To me, the 897 looks like an insurance policy. Marx released a new locomotive with nice lithographed detail, then once it worked out the problems with the early 999, it didn’t really need the 897 anymore. The 999 filled Marx’s need for a detailed locomotive. So Marx reused the tooling and created the all-black 898 to get a low-end engine. Like a good soldier, the 897 stood aside once the rest of Marx’s product line was ready.
The problem with lithography in its heyday
Today many of us see lithography as charming. But in the 1930s, tin litho was the equivalent of the cheap plastic toy of today. The word “tinny,” which means cheap, comes from this period. Lionel attacked lithography rather viciously, deriding it as a cheap, fragile process. It wasn’t, but Lionel’s marketing worked. Lionel and Gilbert stopped producing lithographed trains in the 1930s. Marx produced lithographed train cars until 1972. But it only used them in its cheapest sets after 1952. And after 1952, its steam locomotives were diecast or plastic. Even when Unique Art burst onto the market in 1949 with a full line of tin lithographed trains to rival Marx, including a lithographed steam engine, Marx’s responded with the 994, a big tin steam engine with a simple all-black paint scheme.
Marx did produce lithographed diesel engines after WWII, but diesel locomotives’ simpler lines lended themselves well to lithography. And those lithographed engines soon gave way to plastic as well.
Marx prided itself in making durable, reliable trains at a low price. But if they could avoid making them look cheap, they would. Today, the Marx 400 and 490 look cheaper than the 897, but in the 1940s and 50s, that wasn’t the case.