Last Updated on March 27, 2023 by Dave Farquhar
The Marx Commodore Vanderbilt train engine was one of Marx’s most enduring and beloved locomotives, produced from 1934-1942 and again from 1946-1952. It remains popular with collectors and operators today.
Based loosely on the New York Central’s streamlined Art Deco-style Hudson locomotive introduced in late 1934, Marx typically packed the Commodore Vanderbilt into sets with its six-inch cars and a loop of O27 track. The sets were available anywhere toys were sold, and came in windup and electric versions.
The Marx Commodore Vanderbilt
The real Commodore Vanderbilt train engine immediately became popular, and Marx wasn’t the only company to produce a toy version of it. Lionel did was well. Marx simplified its model considerably, most notably in its wheel arrangement. The real thing had a 4-6-4 arrangement; Marx’s version is an 0-4-0. But the streamlined body hid the wheels so the change was harder to notice.
Marx made its version out of thick tin-plated steel, a slightly heavier gauge than what it used for its cars. Three major components made up the body shell, along with trim pieces.
The New York Central removed the shrouding from the real Commodore Vanderbilt train engine in the 1940s, but Marx continued producing its toy version inspired by the original configuration until 1952. Using a design as long as the tooling still worked was one of the ways Marx controlled costs.
Marx Commodore Vanderbilt variations
Although the real Commodore Vanderbilt was black, Marx made versions in multiple colors. These include all black, black with a chrome front, red, gray, green, and olive drab. The green and olive drab variants are the most valuable, and the green version isn’t in some of the Marx books. Marx gave it catalog number 597, though the number doesn’t appear anywhere on the engine. Electric versions often had a brass plate inscribed with the words “Commodore Vanderbilt.”
The design changed numerous times over the years. Early versions had a swinging peg for a drawbar that connected to Joy Line-style couplers. Marx soon changed to its ubiquitous tab and slot design. The swinging peg version is rare and valuable.
At least 15 combinations exist:
- Black windup, peg coupler, no plates
- Green windup, peg coupler, no plates
- Silver windup, peg coupler, no plates
- Black electric, peg coupler, no plates, manual reverse
- Black electric, brass plates, tab/slot coupler, reverse
- Red electric, brass plates, tab/slot coupler, reverse
- Black electric with chrome front, brass plates, tab/slot coupler, reverse
- Gray electric, brass plates, tab/slot coupler, reverse
- Black electric, black plates, tab/slot coupler, reverse
- Olive drab electric, black plates, tab/slot coupler, reverse. 1942 production.
- Red windup, no plates, tab/slot coupler, whistler
- Red windup, no plates, tab/slot coupler, whistler, black front
- Gray windup, no plates, tab/slot coupler
- Black windup, no plates, reversing
- Black windup, no plates
The huge number of variations can keep collectors searching for decades if they want to try to get them all.
Common versions of the Commodore Vanderbilt are worth around $30 in good condition. A nicer example fetches closer to $50. Rare versions are worth $100 and up.
In addition, Dolphin Products sold a version of the Marx Commodore Vanderbilt in Australia. It was an unpowered floor toy. This variant is very scarce.
Dating the Commodore Vanderbilt
Generally you can date the production by looking at the motor. Prewar versions have wheels with 10 spokes and a two-piece copper pickup shoe in the center. Postwar versions have Baldwin-style wheels and a single-piece copper pickup shoe. Some of the early windups have a battery-powered headlight.
Modifying the Marx Commodore Vanderbilt
There’s no problem with restoring or customizing later-production black Marx Commodore Vanderbilts. They don’t have a lot of value to lose, and they often look better with a fresh coat of paint on them. Repainting or customizing rare variations decreases their value. If you’re not interested in them as collectibles, I would recommend selling or trading them to a collector, then using the proceeds to get common variants. Your money will go further that way.
The Commodore Vanderbilt’s design lends itself well to customizing. Its simple design makes it easy to repaint, and there’s plenty of space inside for other modifications.
There is room inside to add front and rear trucks. The assembly from a Marx 999 will fit inside, including the front trucks, and there is a hole in the motor mount in front of the coupler that would facilitate a rear truck. This modification is easy and completely reversible. It makes the engine look a bit more finished.
Marx left off the trucks for a couple of reasons. It reduced costs, and it reduced derailments since it effectively halved the number of wheels, an important consideration on O27 track at high speed. And since these were toys that presumably young children would play with, the 0-4-0 design made it much easier to put on the track.
Probably the easiest and most common modification is installing a double-reduction electric motor. A damaged Marx 400 can be a good source of this motor. This motor fits in without any difficulty and improves its pulling power and allows it to work on other companies’ switches and crossings. This modification is very easy to reverse, so it doesn’t have any effect on value. If anything, installing a double reduction motor in a common variant may increase its value since it makes the locomotive more versatile.
Electric motors fit into a windup body without issue, if you want to convert a windup to electric.
Some hobbyists have even installed 6-wheel motors from a Marx 333 or 1829. Stuffing in a 6-wheel motor and 4-wheel front and rear trucks to make it more closely resemble the real thing requires lengthening the body.
In a similar vein, some hobbyists have installed a motor assembly from a 666 or 1666 to get a smoke unit. This requires modifying the rear bracket to make it fit.
Who was Commodore Vanderbilt?
Commodore Vanderbilt was a nickname for Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping and railroad tycoon who owned the New York Central Railroad. The nickname “Commodore,” a rank for Navy officers one rank below Admiral, came from his extensive steamboat operations. At the time of his death Vanderbilt was the wealthiest American, and he remains one of the richest Americans in history, with a net worth over $215 billion in today’s dollars.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville was founded in 1873 with a $1 million gift from Vanderbilt. He died in 1877 at the age of 82. His descendants include fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, her son, journalist Anderson Cooper, actor Timothy Olyphant, musician John P. Hammond, and screenwriter James Vanderbilt.
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.