Marx isn’t as synonymous with electric trains as some of its competitors, but Louis Marx had a good run. It outlasted numerous other more-storied brands. Here’s a brief look back at Marx trains history, which spanned about four decades.
Marx sold its trains pretty much anywhere, as opposed to Lionel and American Flyer, which primarily sold in hobby shops and department stores. The low price gave Marx a blue-collar reputation that tended to hold its value down over time. But the Marx designs were reliable and attractive. This gives them a following that endures more than four decades after Louis Marx made its last train.
Any discussion of Marx trains has to include the company founder, Louis Marx. Marx was an accomplished salesman and a good businessman. He started his career working for the toy maker Ferdinand Strauss, but Strauss’ board fired him in 1917. Marx bought the tooling for a couple of obsolete toys from his erstwhile employer, designed new lithography for them, and turned them into best sellers. By 1927, Strauss was out of business and Louis Marx was a multimillionaire.
Marx jealously guarded the budget toy market, and also noted his own ascension, carefully structuring his company to prevent someone from doing to him what he had done to Ferdinand Strauss. This helped Marx dominate the toy industry in the 1950s, but led to decline in the 1960s as Louis Marx aged. The arrangement protected Marx personally but ultimately didn’t work out as well for the company that bore his name.
Marx mostly sold trains under its own brand, but would do private-label arrangements, notably for Sears.
You can divide Marx trains history into about four eras: Joy line, 6-inch tin, 3:16 scale, and plastic. The four eras overlapped somewhat, particularly the 6-inch line, but each line had its period of dominance.
That said, many parts remain interchangeable between eras. Marx’s secret was keeping prices low, and one way Marx did that was by reducing overhead. Keeping parts in production longer meant lower overhead due to reduced tooling costs and complexity.
Girard Model Works of Girard, Penn., produced a line of toy trains it called Joy Line. One of its distributors was Louis Marx, who started reselling Joy Line trains in 1928. In 1934 or 1935, Marx bought out Joy Line entirely and continued its train production. But Marx quickly phased out Joy Line production in favor of its own design, although the Joy Line influence remained visible for some time. The Marx motor, for instance, is an improved version of the Joy Line motor, and the overall design similarities are easy to see.
Marx produced trains from the Girard factory for 40 years.
Soon after purchasing Joy Line, Marx phased out the Joy Line design. It replaced it with something that reflected the times: a streamlined Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive and slightly larger, heavier cars, about six inches in length with real railroad names on them. The initial line included New York Central tender number 551, Rock Island gondola number 552, Santa Fe tank car number 553, Northern Pacific hopper number 554, Colorado and Southern box car number 555, and New York Central caboose number 556.
Marx soon introduced other locomotives into this line, and the basic 6-inch design remained in production until 1972. Lionel and American Flyer phased out tin designs soon after World War II, but Marx kept making them until the trains and equipment used to make them couldn’t meet safety standards. But it’s easy to mistake early 1970s Marx tin trains for 1930s designs, the telltale signs being the plastic wheels and couplers.
In late 1941, Marx introduced a line of 3/16-scale tin cars to compete with similar cars from American Flyer, introduced in 1939. Marx also introduced a new diecast locomotive, the 999, to go with it. The war effort halted production of these cars in early 1942. Marx resumed production in 1946, with the same lithography, and continued producing them until 1954. These cars were 1:64 scale that ran on O gauge track on slightly shorter trucks than what Lionel used in its postwar trains. In 1948, Marx added its 333 locomotive to the line, with a 4-6-2 wheel arrangement. It was the largest steam locomotive it would produce.
These trains introduced a new automatic coupler that tilted with a spring, shaped like a butterfly. Tilting them would uncouple them.
Sakai of Japan produced a knockoff train that closely resembles the Marx 3/16 line.
In 1950, Marx introduced a short-lived line of 7-inch cars to compete with a former partner, Unique Art Manufacturing Co of New Jersey. Unique had introduced its own line of cars in 1949, between the Marx 6-inch cars and Lionel in size. Marx introduced these as a way to compete.
Unique’s efforts proved unsuccessful. As a result it withdrew its train line in 1951 and sold out to Marx in 1952. Marx considered reintroducing some of Unique’s train designs but ultimately shifted to plastic instead.
Buying a competitor and burying its product was something Marx would repeat in 1956, when it bought Wyandotte and sent its train tooling, based on old Hafner designs, to its subsidiary in Mexico. This kept it out of the hands of any other would-be competitors.
Marx experimented with a plastic locomotive in 1948, but took a little longer to introduce a full line of plastic cars than its competitors did, introducing its long running plastic line in 1952. To go with them, Marx introduced a number of plastic and diecast locomotives to go with them, including the plastic 400, the die-cast 666, and numerous plastic diesels. Marx continued production of the 333 for a few years, but also introduced the 1829, a similar locomotive in plastic. These postwar offerings looked a lot like Lionel.
During this time, Marx also introduced a line of HO scale trains which proved successful. Marx was less concerned than Lionel or American Flyer about its new smaller trains hurting sales of its O gauge trains.
Up until this time, Marx refreshed its designs every 7-10 years. Marx skipped the cycle in the early 1960s. It was a reflection of the times. Train demand was slowing, and perhaps it made sense to just milk what they had for whatever else they could get from it. Lionel and American Flyer were fading at this point. Marx, who was less dependent on trains, didn’t fade out quite as quickly.
Sale to Quaker Oats and the end of production
The plastic O gauge and HO scale lines remained in production until 1974. Quaker Oats purchased Marx in 1972. This may sound like an odd pairing, but cereal companies were diversifying by buying toy companies in the early 1970s. General Mills purchased Lionel’s struggling train line in 1969. Louis Marx wanted to retire, and had nobody inside the company to turn over control. This was partly by design, as Marx didn’t want a rival to rise up from within his own company. So the only logical exit plan was to sell out.
Quaker revised the plastic line with new paint schemes and roadnames in 1973, but the American love affair with trains was over and the revisions didn’t do much to boost sales. Quaker discontinued Marx trains in 1974, drawing Marx trains history to a close. It was a good run. Of its US competitors, only Lionel and American Flyer lasted longer in the marketplace.
What happened to the Marx tooling
Much of Marx’s train tooling eventually ended up at K-Line, where it enjoyed a couple more decades of production. The Marx tooling was also behind the 1980s Rock Island battery-operated toy train set.
Two Marx enthusiasts, Jim and Debby Flynn, revived the Marx tinplate trains line in the 1990s. The operation had about a 15-year run under three different owners.