Diecast toys first appeared on the market in the 1920s, but the conservative Marx was slow to adopt it. Diecast toys from the 1920s and even much of the 1930s often have issues with breaking down over time. By the early 1940s, toymakers had worked out the issues. So early in 1941, Marx started developing its first diecast train, the Marx 999 locomotive.
Marx intended for the 999 to be a 1/64 scale locomotive to compete with American Flyer’s 1/64 scale O gauge line. It’s unclear how many Marx 999s made it out the door in 1941. Marx did sell limited numbers of them in 1942, but the start of World War II curtailed toy production. I’ve seen 1942 sets that would have included a 999, but Marx substituted whatever other locomotives they had on hand to sell through its inventory. Marx reintroduced the 999 in 1946 and produced it until 1959.
Why the Marx 999 locomotive is popular
The Marx 999 is common but very popular due to its versatility. Marx designed it for its 3/16 scale cars, but its size doesn’t dwarf the 6-inch and 7-inch cars so it looks fine pulling those as well. It’s also close in size to the 400 and 490 plastic locomotives, so you can sub it in for a 400 or 490 and it looks fine pulling later Marx plastic trains, with the advantage of being a diecast locomotive.
It was cheaper than the American Flyer 565 and outlasted it. Flyer 3/16 locmotives frequently had issues with zinc pest in their wheels. Marx got around that particular issue by using stamped metal wheels. But ultimately, Marx stopped making 999s in the United States in 1959 because it wanted to compete with Lionel’s larger trains, and the larger diecast locomotives, the 333 and 666, or the larger plastic locomotives, the 1829 and 1666, were closer in size to Lionel locomotives.
Major variations of the Marx 999 locomotive
Marx produced six variations of the Marx 999 locomotive over the course of its long production run. They aren’t all in the various Marx price guides, so sometimes what appears to be a $10 engine is something scarce and valuable.
If you happen to land a rare variant of a Marx 999 or other locomotive, I don’t recommend customizing it. I’ve had people argue with me about this, but hear me out. If you bought a locomotive for $10 but can sell it for $100, doesn’t it make more sense to sell it, then buy more with the proceeds? I think it does. When you get a bargain and have an opportunity to profit from it, that’s called capitalism. Nobody makes these anymore so it makes sense to sell the scarce ones to people who want them and customize the common ones.
We howl when someone lists a $10 locomotive for $100. So logic states that when someone sells a $100 locomotive for $10, that’s also an exception.
When I looked on Ebay while writing this, there were a total of 58 different Marx 999s for sale. Only one of them was a scarce variant. You won’t have any trouble reselling a scarce Marx 999 to a collector who wants one, either via Ebay or one of the many online forums where Marx collectors hang out.
Open-spoke pilot Marx 999
The first 999s featured a cowcatcher, or pilot, with open spokes on the front of the engine, so collectors refer to it as the open-spoke 999. This version of the pilot broke easily during play, leaving kids with an awkward looking train. Durability problems sunk one maker of toy trains, Dorfan, in the 1930s, and Marx didn’t want to repeat those mistakes. Marx didn’t want to risk harm to its reputation and it also didn’t want the expense of having to replace a lot of damaged locomotive bodies.
Marx quickly pulled this from production so this version is rather rare today.
One other thing to note with early 999s is paint loss. The paint doesn’t tolerate high temperatures or humidity as well as the paint Lionel and A.C. Gilbert used on their trains. I don’t find early 999s very often, and when I do find them, they often have damaged paint.
When you find this version of a 999 with a broken pilot and the pieces are long gone, it’s possible to reconstruct the missing spokes using K&S square tube and JB-Weld to hold them in place and fill any gaps. A repaired open-spoke 999 isn’t worth nearly as much as a pristine one, but is still more valuable than a common version.
Neil Besougloff wrote a one-page piece on this variant in the May 2003 issue of Classic Toy Trains, noting they had bought one for $20 out of a junk bin and used it in a locomotive drag race. Even with bad paint and a broken pilot it would have been worth more than $20. And for the record, I recommend using regular 999s for drag racing.
Closed-spoke pilot Marx 999
Marx attempted to remedy the early 999 locomotive’s problems by reinforcing the spokes with a bit more metal, creating a closed-spoke pilot. This provided a simple, inexpensive way for the cost-averse Marx to try to remedy the problem with the 999 quickly. This version is called the closed spoke or embossed 999.
The result is attractive, but unfortunately this version wasn’t much sturdier than the original, so Marx quickly withdrew this version as well. Part of the selling point of diecast was its durability, so Marx didn’t want to be selling locomotives whose pilots broke off easily.
Some collectors believe the closed-spoke Marx 999 locomotive is even rarer than the open-spoke version. Like the open-spoke 999, when I do find these, they often have paint loss. Marx sold its trains at a much lower price point than its competitors, so it may have used a cheaper paint than they did. None of them used primer, but there have always been different grades of paint and Marx was making toys intending them to last one generation. If they lasted longer than that, it was a bonus. Book value on this variant is $50-$75 but I typically see properly identified examples sell for more than that.
Plain pilot Marx 999
Common 999s feature a plain, flat pilot with a few rivets across the top and bottom. This version proved durable and Marx produced it in large quantities for a number of years in the 1940s and 1950s.
It’s easier to find a common 999 without paint loss. I don’t know if this is because Marx improved the paint or because they spent a decade less in storage since they’re probably newer. It’s also possible these were produced in such large quantities that you can find one with nice paint if you just wait another week.
Buying common 999s in poor condition and customizing them with new paint is a popular pastime with Marx enthusiasts. Or you can restore them back to something resembling their original configuration. These engines are worth around $20 in nice condition. A 999 with problems, such as missing parts or bad paint, often sells for $10 or slightly less.
Bar pilot Marx 999
Late in its production run, Marx revised the 999 tooling and added back the bars and rivet detail the early versions had on their pilot while leaving the center solid. The resulting locomotive looks a little more ornate while remaining sturdy. This version is also rather common and doesn’t carry any price premium over the plain-pilot version, with one exception.
Logo on cab Marx 999
This version is one that only fairly advanced Marx collectors are familiar with. It isn’t in any of the price guides. Near the end of its production run, Marx re-tooled the 999 mold yet again. They made several subtle changes. They moved the Marx logo from the boiler to the cab of the locomotive. This version also lacks the big, prominent “Made in U.S.A.” stamped on the back of the locomotive. This variation is called the logo on cab 999.
Most of these locomotives also featured the later double-reduction motor, which is geared lower so it has more pulling power. Unlike other variants, this version of the Marx 999 locomotive can navigate Lionel and other non-Marx switches and crossovers. Very late production logo-on-cab 999s have diecast wheels instead of the more common stamped sheet metal wheels.
Marx didn’t produce this version very long, as by the late 1950s, the rest of Marx’s product line squeezed the 999 out of its niche. Marx shipped the tooling to Mexico, where Plastimarx continued using it.
Since this version isn’t in any of the price guides, it’s hard to estimate value. I paid $65 to a longtime Marx collector for mine and didn’t flinch. They don’t turn up very often, and they very rarely turn up properly identified. If you see an auction for what seems to be an ordinary Marx 999 go over $50, chances are it’s one of these and two people who know their Marx are fighting for it.
Fake double-reduction 999s
If you find a double-reduction motor in a 999 that has the logo on the boiler instead of the cab, don’t pay much of a premium for it. It’s a basement special, not factory. With a better motor in it, it’s worth a little extra to someone who wants to operate it. But it’s not a rare variant. I don’t recommend paying more than $35 for one.
If you ever find a single-reduction 666 or 1666, it’s also a basement special. It means someone plundered the motor, possibly for a 999.
Mexican diecast and plastic Marx 999
After 1959, Marx sent the tooling for the Marx 999 to Mexico, where its Mexican subsidiary, Plastimarx, used it. Early Plastimarx 999s were diecast and had double reduction motors in them. Marx shipped motor parts to Mexico where Plastimarx assembled them. Plastimarx blanked out the logo on the cab. Plastimarx made trains in Mexico for sale in all of South America, sometimes using some motor parts sourced from the United States. Tariffs kept Plastimarx trains out of the United States.
You can use plastic in diecast molds, and Plastimarx took advantage of this to make a nicer plastic locomotive than the common 400 or 490 engines. Marx never made a plastic-body 999 in the United States, but Plastimarx made one in Mexico. This version is in early editions of the O’Brien Collecting Toy Trains guide. But Doyle’s 6th edition of the O’Brien guide and the Greenberg books missed it.
Plastimarx 999s of any kind are rather rare and prized in the United States. The quality tailed off over the years so most of the plastic 999s are more interesting to collect than to run. Plastimarx 999s don’t turn up on Ebay all that often; they seem to be rarer than the Plastimarx trains made from Hafner tooling.
The Plastimarx connection is also the reason why K-Line never produced a 999-derived locomotive.