Mito tin trains: Postwar Japanese tin

The topic of Mito tin trains comes up periodically among Marx train collectors. These Japanese trains are about the size of Marx, and sometimes get mixed in with Marx. But they’re clearly something different. They are a bit obscure, so here’s what I know about them.

Mito the company

Unfortunately I know little or nothing about the company who made these wonderful trains. Mito is a city in Japan, and that’s all I can find. Based on other toy listings that turn up on Ebay, they appear to have been active from 1960 to 1969, and they made other tin toys, like a tin drum and a tin bulldozer.

What Mito trains look like

Mito tin trains
Mito’s copying of the Lionel 6464-900 car allows us to date production to no earlier than 1960. Marx wheels and axles will fit the Mito frame, allowing them to run on O gauge track.

Mito trains are made of lithographed tin, like Marx, but the design is a different style. It’s hard to describe, but I guess the fairest thing to say is that Marx tried for either a realistic depiction or downplayed certain details in its design. The Mito lithography makes sure you can see every detail. You may not be able to read all of the markings on a Marx car, but you can read all of them on a Mito.

Mito used real road names and heralds on its designs, but there’s some artistic liberty in the proportions and the placements. They’re toys, not scale models.

Regardless, Mito’s artists executed the design well. Many of the people I know who got their hands on some Mito stuff immediately looked for more of it.

Mito tin trains
This colorful New Haven box car seems to be harder to find than the New York Central cars, but that could just be my luck, or lack of it.

The most common Mito cars are a New York Central gondola, box car, and caboose. There is also a New Haven boxcar that turns up from time to time. The New York Central boxcar bears the number 6464-900. If that number sounds familiar, Lionel’s New York Central boxcar bore that exact number. The difference is Lionel’s car was green, while Mito chose yellow.

Lionel produced its 6464-900 from 1960 to 1966. This allows us to date Mito’s production to the 1960s.

The Mito sets ran on batteries and came with a diesel engine, a circle of two-rail tin track, and typically three cars.

Mito’s track gauge

Mito tin trains
I’ve seen the body from this Mito gondola attached to a Marx frame. It looked enough like Marx that some people asked whether it could have been a New Marx prototype of some sort.

Although the Mito cars are close in size to Marx’s 6-inch cars, they aren’t O gauge. Their wheels are spaced one inch apart, where O gauge wheels are spaced 1.125 inches apart. It is possible to remove the Mito wheel sets and replace them with Marx wheelsets to regauge them. Sometimes they turn up modified this way. I have also seen a Mito car placed on a Marx frame. I’m not sure what the previous owner had to do to make it fit, but it fit well enough and looked convincing enough to confuse more than one Marx collector.

Modified with a Marx wheelset, the Mito cars would interoperate fine with Marx trains. The coupler design is close enough to work with Marx tab-in-slot couplers.

Other brand names

Mito tin trains
Some Mito tin trains bear the trademark and say Made in Japan, making them easy to identify. Others bear different trademarks, or no trademark at all.

Some of the cars bear Mito’s trademark, which makes them easy to identify. But sometimes the cars turn up unbranded, or under the Plaything or Ichimura brand names. Sometimes the trademark is on the side of the car, and sometimes it’s on the front or back.

Mito train value

Typically, I see the Mito train cars sell for around $10 apiece. I’d hesitate to call them common, but few people know about them. When selling, being sure to mention the brand name could help to drum up interest, assuming someone who recently discovered Mito is out looking for more.

Japanese tin toys, trains and otherwise

The heyday of tin toys in the United States was before World War II. There was a period after the war when we produced tin toys domestically, but it was clear even in the late 1930s that plastic was the future, and plastic quickly took over as the 1950s wore on.

As American companies shifted to plastic, that ceded the cheap tin toy market to other countries, including Japan and Germany. Dwight Eisenhower’s philosophy was that if our former enemies were making products and we were buying them, we’d be less likely to have another conflict. Eisenhower encouraged toy production in Germany and Japan, and tin toys made in Japan became a fixture in U.S. dime stores for decades, much like Chinese toys dominate modern dollar stores.

The Japanese toymakers worked at various price points. Sakai is an example of another make of Japanese train that aimed higher in the market. And Japanese tin litho vehicles are also very attractive. The concept of a tin train layout made entirely of Japanese postwar tin is very compelling unexplored territory.

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