Review: The Definitive Guide to Marx Trains, by Walt Hiteshew

A week go I wrote about the newest Greenberg Pocket Guide, which I recommended as a useful, if flawed, resource. Today I’ll talk about one of the best ways to fill in the gaps.

Several years ago, Walt Hiteshew released his Definitive Guide to Marx 6″  and Joy Line Trains on CD-ROM, priced at $29.95. The Definitive Guide covers every known 6″ car Marx produced and includes photos, pricing, and production history. Basically, everything known or that can be reasonably inferred about Marx’s most prolific line. When Mr. Hiteshew says Definitive Guide, he means it.

One of the advantages of the CD-ROM format is that it can be that definitive, and, on top of that, cross-referenced. Want to chase down every variant of the 556 caboose? Done. Want to chase down every silver-framed car? Done. And you get a quality, high-resolution photo of each one, too. There isn’t nearly enough room in book format for all the photos contained on this CD-ROM. Well, not in a reasonably sized book.

On top of that, it’s more complete and more definitive than anything else that’s been published, whether before or since.

So why do you need a Greenberg Pocket Guide when you’ve got this?

Well, most dealers and other collectors, if they have anything, have the Greenberg Pocket Guide. Only around 1,000 people have the Hiteshew CD-ROM. When the Greenberg guide is wrong, or someone misidentifies something because the Greenberg guide is all they have and it doesn’t picture everything, that can work in your favor. You can avoid overpaying, or you can underpay. And you’ll know a whole lot more about the item. It’s not always clear from the Greenberg guide which pieces are prewar and which ones are postwar, since some of them were produced in both eras. But using Hiteshew’s guide, you’ll be able to nail it down more often than not.

Plus, there are variations that exist that just aren’t widely known and don’t appear in the Greenberg Pocket Guide. I would like to think that someday that will change, but until it does, you need other references to fill in the gaps.

And that knowledge helps you both coming and going. When you make an acquisition, you know what you’re getting. And when you sell or trade, being able to tell more about it helps you. If you can pin the release date to a particular year, a piece that otherwise wouldn’t get a second look may become desirable to someone who has an emotional connection to that year. The more you know and can tell about a piece, the better your chances of getting top value for it.

I’ve heard several excuses over the years for not buying the Definitive Guide. I’ll try to address them.

It’s not a book. That’s right, it isn’t. And that’s good and bad. Not being a book makes it harder to carry with you–unless you load it onto a tablet computer–but how often do you carry your full-sized Greenberg reference books around really? I don’t. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t. My full-sized Greenberg books spend 99.99% of their time on my bookshelf, and that might be generous. I get them down when I need to look something up, but at most I spend 2-3 hours per year paging through them.

I’ve looked into what it would cost to print a book comparable to this guide, and given the page count, necessity for 4-color printing, and likely sales volume, it would have to sell for a minimum of $150, perhaps $200. Mr. Hiteshew’s investigations turned out something similar. People don’t want a $200 book. They want a $30 book, and I’ve also heard people say that if they paid $30 for a book, they would want it to cover everything else too–7-inch, 3/16, plastic, die-cast, and accessories.

That’s just plain unreasonable. When new, the Greenberg books spanned three volumes and a full set cost $150. And printing costs more today than it did 20 years ago. The technology is better today, but the cost of ink and wood pulp is higher.

It only covers 6-inch. That’s true. Follow-ups aren’t out of the question, but 6-inch is consistently the most popular of the many types of trains Marx produced between 1927 and 1975. I don’t know what his sales expectations were, but I know this CD’s sales haven’t met them. So there’s little reason to believe one that covers the other types would sell any better. There are people with the expertise and ability to tackle those projects, but they aren’t going to do it if they can’t recoup their expenses in putting it together.

It’s too expensive. A lot of common Marx cars sell for $6, and that’s a lot less than this $29.99 CD. But there are two ways to look at it. The first question is what an expert’s time and research are worth. He spent years putting the CD together, and if his stated sales figures of 1,000 are correct, that means he made less money on it than I made in my first job right out of college. I’ll argue his expertise is worth more than that.

But there’s another way to look at it. If a $30 CD saves you $31–either by helping you underpay or not overpay for something, it’s worth it. This CD can do that without much effort. You don’t even have to move beyond collecting the 550-series cars for that to happen. Here’s an extreme case. There’s a very rare variant of a common 6-inch car that, if you evaluated it solely based on the Greenberg guide, you would conclude probably is worth $12, or perhaps $25. A fair price for that car is far more than that, and far more than you’ll pay for the CD.

And here’s an example you’re likely to run up against at the very next train show you attend. The Greenberg guide lists the value of the UP 3824 caboose at $30, regardless of the color of the frame. The common black-frame variant isn’t worth anywhere near that. Owners of this guide won’t pay more than $10 for that car.

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