My $8 secondhand Lionel

I hear stories all the time about the Lionel train that someone found at a garage sale for $10. Or sometimes it’s a Marx. The one that bothered me the most was the story about a 65-year-old American Flyer locomotive for $10, and the guy who got it didn’t even like O gauge.

Whatever. Today was my day. I found a Lionel starter set from 1999. The price marked on it: $8. I didn’t haggle. I handed over Alexander Hamilton, scooped up the train set, grabbed a couple of Washingtons, and headed to the car with a train set under my arm.For $8, I didn’t expect much. But I knew the locomotive alone was worth that. I got it home this afternoon and looked it over.

It was a set Lionel made for Keebler: The Keebler Elfin Express. Nope, no real railroad names on this set. The locomotive was cast from the same Scout mold that Lionel has been using for its starter sets since the early 1950s. But this one had a 4-wheel truck up front, making it a 4-4-2 Atlantic.

The cars are traditional 6464-sized: a boxcar and a flat car. The boxcar advertises Keebler products, and the flat has a cardboard load of, you guessed it, Pillsbury products. Nope, more Keebler.

The same traditional SP-style caboose that Lionel has been using since the early ’50s brings up the rear.

It didn’t look like the set had seen much use. The instructions were long gone, but a lot of the accessories are still on the plastic sprue. The lockon was on the track and the transformer was wired to it, so I knew it had been used a little. I set it up on a loop of O27 track and let it rip. It ran nicely. To my surprise, the locomotive has smoke, and the tender has a whistle, so the train smokes and whistles. Not bad for 8 bucks.

A couple of the track pieces were bent, as if they’d been stepped on. I can fix them. For the price I paid, I’m not going to complain. I’d be able to get clean used O27 curves for a dime or a quarter each at the Boeing Employee Model Railroad Club show in September. But I’ve got plenty of O27 curves in my basement. Those things breed.

It took me forever to find the lockout switch for the reverse on the bottom of the locomotive. At first I figured it had no reverse, but looking at the underside, I noticed it had a lot of electronics in it–far more than would be needed just to convert the AC current from the transformer to the DC current the can motor needed. (Yes, Lionel builds a lot of inefficiencies into its modern equipment to keep it compatible with the old stuff–and that drives up cost.) Finally I found the switch, unlocked it, and the locomotive gained neutral and reverse capabilities.

I don’t mess around with modern-issue Lionel much. I like the old stuff. But for 8 bucks, I won’t be picky.

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