Marx Trains, also variously known as New Marx, Modern Marx, and Ameritrains, was originally the brainchild of Jim and Debby Flynn, a husband and wife who collected Marx trains, especially the tin variants. They produced a line of tinplate trains in the same style of vintage Louis Marx tin trains. Marx stopped making trains out of tinplate in 1972.
Marx Trains had a run of about 15 years, from 1992 to around 2007, with a brief resumption in 2012. The trains had a small, dedicated following but did not achieve the market penetration of larger rivals like MTH.
The connection to Louis Marx, or lack thereof
There was no direct connection between Marx Trains and the defunct Louis Marx and Company, although the first ads for modern Marx trains suggested otherwise. Jim and Debby Flynn collected Marx trains and frequently wrote about them in Classic Toy Trains magazine. The Flynns knew Jay Horowitz, the owner of the trademark, and initially tried to convince him to resume train production. Horowitz looked into it but declined, though he was willing to license the name if someone else wanted to do it.
Jim Flynn had training and skill in graphic design, and Debby Flynn worked for a metal stamping company. So over time the pieces fell into place. They located a company that could lithograph on metal the way the originals were made until the early 1970s. The owner of the Marx trademark thought the tools and dies for Marx’s tin trains still existed and could be purchased. That lead didn’t pan out, but the Flynns were able to get new tooling produced.
After licensing the name, the Flynns began production using the Marx Trains name and released a small number of tin passenger cars, lithographed and manufactured in the United States near Chicago, in 1992.
Marx Trains’ philosophy
As collectors, Jim and Debby Flynn didn’t want their work to be confused with the original. So they sought to produce trains in the style of Marx, but with subtle, noticeable differences so that no one familiar with vintage Marx production would confuse it with original Marx production from 1934 to 1972. There had been Lionel reproductions from the second half of the 20th century that were difficult or impossible to distinguish from original production, and the Flynns’ efforts made it impossible to use their work to commit fraud.
Their connections in the hobby gave them access to numerous Marx prototypes that survived in private collections, so they were able to produce items, such as a tin diner, that looked like items Marx designed decades ago. Other designs filled gaps in Marx’s original production, using the same road names and similar styling.
Marx Trains production
The Flynns started by introducing tin rolling stock in the style of Marx’s 6-inch and 3/16 scale lines. Their cars were the same size and proportion as the originals, sometimes with changes to improve interoperability. For example, the Flynn’s 3/16 coupler design had a slot to accommodate a tab-in-slot coupler that the original lacked.
After their rolling stock caught on, in 1995 Marx Trains introduced a locomotive based on the vintage Marx Canadian Pacific design. It was a tin locomotive with a modern can motor inside. The design differed considerably from the vintage Marx open frame motor, but with some adjustments, it’s possible to fit a Flynn-era motor mechanism into a vintage Marx locomotive, or a vintage motor into a Flynn-era locomotive.
The Flynns did not produce track or a transformer. When they sold train sets, they sourced track and transformers from K-Line.
Sale to Ameritrains
In 2004, the Flynns sold their venture to a new owner, who changed the name to Ameritrains. Ameritrains had ambitious plans and in 2005 announced a new diesel locomotive based on a Fairbanks-Morse prototype, similar to the small tin diesel locomotives Louis Marx had sold. Although Ameritrains did show a pre-production model at shows, it never produced the item. Ameritrains quietly folded sometime in 2007.
Ameritrains, for whatever reason, declined to renew the rights to continue using the Marx trademark. Whether this was to lower overhead or another reason, we’re not privy to the decision. Whether this was a good idea or not, we can only speculate. The trains were expensive to produce and expensive to sell. A name like “Ameritrains” had less name recognition, but the audience was also a fairly captive audience. The company had exactly two magazines to advertise in, and it had an existing dealer network. It was a calculated risk. The audience would recognize the product regardless of whose name was on it.
A brief resurgence
Sometime around 2011, a Chicago-area man purchased a building and discovered the Ameritrains tooling inside. He had the background to recognize the tooling as potentially valuable, and investigated. He was able to track down hobbyists who identified the tooling and put him in contact with the printing company Ameritrains had used. The new owner was able to purchase some sheets Ameritrains had ordered but never paid for. He resumed production in 2012 under the name Joe’s Trains, but it was never a full-time venture for him.
Wrangling over the Marx trademark
There was a great deal of speculation in the 2004-2007 timeframe over the sale of Marx Trains and Ameritrains’ demise. At the same time that was going on, there was a legal battle over the Marx trademark between Jay Horowitz, whose company had purchased Marx Toys in 1982, and Toytrackerz, another group claiming rights to use the name. There was a great deal of speculation that this legal action spooked the Flynns into selling their company, and/or that the legal action also affected Ameritrains.
Neither Jim nor Debby Flynn have ever publicly commented on the trademark. Jim Flynn has simply stated they were unable to grow the company the way they wanted, and decided to sell in 2004. As for Ameritrains, it seems to be more a matter of bad timing. The U.S. economy was headed toward recession in 2007 and the target market for the product was aging.
Why New Marx didn’t take off
As hobbyists, we have a tendency to overestimate the size of the companies who make our trains. At one time, Marx and Lionel and Gilbert counted themselves among the largest toy companies in the world. But modern-era Lionel and its rival, MTH, are small businesses with a few dozen employees each. The Flynns’ operation was smaller still, with both of them working at it part time and contracting out the rest of the work. Most “companies” in this field are small operations.
If they sold each car for $50 and it cost $25 to manufacture each car, they would have had to sell 3,360 cars a year to produce $85,000 in profit. In Chicago where the Flynns lived, $85,000 is the median income. That works out to selling 13 train cars per business day to be middle class.
While the various Marx discussion groups online have a couple hundred members, it’s unlikely all of those people were buying 13 cars a year, which would have made the math work. Even if that following represented 10 percent of the people who collect Marx, making the numbers work is difficult.
Flynn-era trains have held their value well. But there’s a difference between those cars holding their value and selling quickly on the secondary market and selling in enough volume to let someone make a living.
Buying Modern Marx trains today
New Marx trains do turn up on Ebay from time to time, usually selling for close to what they sold for during 1992-2007. Frequently they are boxed. Flynn-era boxes tend to be printed on glossier cardboard than original Marx, and will contain a warning that they are an adult collectible, not intended as toys for children, and they will say “Marx Trains” on them rather than a reference to Louis Marx.