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Sakai trains: The “Japanese Marx”

Sakai trains were made in HO and O gauge by a Tokyo-based manufacturer and sold abroad, particularly in the United States and Australia after World War II. Sakai’s O gauge product bore a curious resemblance to Marx. I have read speculation that Marx once used Sakai as a subcontractor, and Sakai used the tooling to make its own trains rather than returning it to Marx, but there are enough differences that I don’t think that’s the case.

What I do know is that Sakai’s O gauge product was a curious blend of cues from Lionel and Marx and the trains worked pretty well. They’re hard to find today, but not especially valuable since few people know what they are. They turn up on Ebay occasionally.

The Sakai 301 locomotive

Sakai 301 locomotive

The Sakai 301 is a Marx 999-sized copy of Lionel’s popular 675 locomotive. It runs almost as well as a Lionel 675 too. Note the “Hudson & Pacific” roadname on the tender.

The Sakai 301 locomotive was die-cast and looks like a Lionel 675 shrunk down to the size of a Marx 999. It’s about 2 1/2 inches too short to be a 1:64 scale model of the Pennsylvania K5, though its height and width are about right. It looked more detailed and costly than anything Marx made in its price range. It also runs really well, as long as the reverse unit isn’t too dirty–a malady most postwar-era trains share.

The tender, made of pressed tinplate, closely resembles the Marx tender it directly competed with, but there are subtle differences. The most noticeable difference is that Marx’s tender has a slight wedge shape. Sakai squared its tender off. Marx’s design disguised the differences across its product lines, and Sakai had no reason to do that. That’s why I think Sakai made its own tooling, and didn’t blindly copy Marx.

Hutton and Pacific

Sakai’s rolling stock was a close copy of Marx’s 3/16 tin lithographed trains, with Lionel-sized trucks and a Lionel-compatible knuckle coupler made of sheet metal.

Unlike U.S.-made trains that often had real brand names or railroad names on them, Sakai used the name of a fictional railroad. They meant to label them “Hudson and Pacific,” which would have reached nearly across the entire United States, but the early trains were misspelled “Hutton and Pacific.” Sakai corrected the error in later runs. This variant is rather rare.

Hudson and Pacific

Later trains were labeled Hudson and Pacific on the tender, box car, caboose, and gondola. The paint scheme and lettering closely resembles Marx’s New York Central-inspired cars of the early postwar era.

Looking at a U.S. map, Hudson and Pacific probably sounded like a good name for a U.S. railroad. But even the giant Class 1 railroads of today don’t span the continent like a railroad joining the Hudson Bay or Hudson River to the Pacific Ocean would.

Pegasus Oil

Sakai and Marx tankers side by side

The Marx tanker is to the left and the Sakai tanker is to the right. The Sakai clearly took design cues from Marx but you can see where Sakai simplified the design. The handrail position is different. Sakai integrated the dome and platform into a single piece. And finally, Sakai printed details that Marx stamped into the metal.

Tank cars have always been popular. Sakai supplied one lettered “Pegasus,” likely taking a cue from Mobil Oil, whose trademark was a red Pegasus.  The paint scheme and overall layout closely resembles the yellow Shell-lettered tanker that Marx sold in the early postwar era.

But again in this case, there are enough differences between the Marx design and the Sakai copy to indicate Sakai made its own tooling. There’s no reason to believe Sakai used stolen Marx tooling. Nor was the Sakai tooling a 1:1 copy of Marx tooling.

Sakai simplified the design to make it cheaper and easier to produce, including using lithographed details in places Marx used metal adornments. Sakai was clearly trying to hit a lower price point than even Marx.

Track and switches

Sakai sold O27 track that looked a lot like contemporary Marx or Lionel track, but Sakai placed the ties further back from the end and didn’t paint or blacken the ties. Sakai’s switches are similar internally to the Marx 1590, although the controller wires up differently. You can use a Marx or Atlas #56 controller with them if the controller is missing, and if you want to make them non-derailing, you can use my instructions for Marx switches. Sakai’s switches work pretty well with either Marx or Lionel trains due to their design. The controller left something to be desired so they’ve been maligned over the years, and they’re prone to developing internal shorts. So be sure to test them out before you install them on the layout, and consider a different controller.

Running Sakai trains

The 301 locomotive is usually rather dependable and it runs very smoothly, like a costlier Lionel or American Flyer train. The knuckle coupler is similar enough to Lionel that you can mix Lionel cars into a Sakai consist or vice-versa if you want some variety. And since Marx cars so closely resemble Sakai, they look good together. You can put Lionel trucks on common Marx cars to run them with Sakai, or swap a Lionel coupler for a Marx one. And before people realized Sakai trains aren’t very easy to find, it was common for Marx fans to put Marx trucks on Sakai rolling stock to get more variety.

I’m not convinced that changing the trucks on Sakai rolling stock does much to harm their value. But I would hesitate to modify pristine Sakai items. Especially when it’s so easy to find common Marx items to use as transition cars between the two.

The company

Sakai’s eventual fate is unknown. Sakai is a common Japanese word that means border. So contemporary use of the brand name probably bears no relation to the company that made tin trains that irritated Marx in the 1950s. Most likely they faded away like other smaller O gauge makers like American Model Toys and Kusan as public tastes shifted from trains to other things.

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2 thoughts on “Sakai trains: The “Japanese Marx””

  1. You did not mention Sakai accessories, which I just had to have a couple years ago. I like the looks of them and will use some of them on my layout in progress. Any info you have on these classics would be appreciated, or if you know of articles that have been written about them…

    1. There’s not much out there about Sakai’s accessories. I even looked in the TCA’s Train Collectors Quarterly and they only did two mentions of Sakai, ever, once way back in the 1960s and once again in the mid 1980s. I know they made a crossing flasher and a block signal. They were oversized like Marx accessories and had (I think) diecast bases, usually bright red. Not a lot of people know what they are.

      I like Sakai and plan to buy more of it as I find it.

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