The unheralded bargain in O gauge trains

Toy trains are a funny thing. Vintage Lionel trains are almost a status symbol, and their value has almost taken a mythical quality. Marx, on the other hand, was the working class brand in the 1950s, the company that had something for you no matter how much you had available to spend.

For the most part, today’s prices reflect that. Lionels are expensive and Marxes are cheap.

Sort of.If you read the various pages on the Web, that’s certainly the impression you get. But for whatever reason, Marx prices seem to be rising. Search on eBay and you see inflated prices. Maybe the secret’s out.

Let’s get a disclaimer out of the way. I don’t recommend toy trains as an investment. Yes, vintage trains are almost certain to hold their value. Yes, many will increase in value. But their values tend to be more unpredictable than stocks, and certainly less proven. This is true of all collectibles. Your investment money needs to go to the bank or the stock market. Spend entertainment money on collectibles. They’ll retain more of their value, on average, than CDs and DVDs will, and they’re almost certainly worth more than empty beer cans or movie ticket stubs.

End disclaimer. For whatever reason, Marx isn’t the value that it used to be. Maybe it’s because Marx made so much other stuff and has a large collector following, causing Marx prices to rise along with the values of its other toys because of its appeal outside of train fans.

So where do you go for a bargain these days?

Lionel.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lionel made starter sets. Unlike their higher-priced items, these didn’t have operating couplers, and sometimes they were made of cheaper plastics. In 1969, Lionel Corporation went bankrupt and sold its tooling and licensed its name to General Mills, whose subsidiary Model Products Corporation manufactured and marketed Lionel trains. MPC cut a few more corners, and the trains manufactured by MPC from 1969 until the mid-1980s are cheaper still.

They do have a collector following, but the following is much less than that of Lionel of other eras, or Marx, or anything else for that matter. And the prices reflect that.

I bought a box of junk this weekend for $35. Inside was a figure-8 of slot car track, some pieces of old slot cars, a few random pieces of Lionel track, and a Lionel Scout set from the 1962-1966 time period. Included was a Lionel 2-4-2 steam locomotive (model number 242, appropriately) and corresponding tender, a flatcar, a hopper, a gondola, and a plain red unlettered caboose.

While the writers in the train magazines dismiss Lionel’s cheap Scout locomotives as junk, I’ve found them reliable and, additionally, they’re more tolerant of bad track than the more expensive offerings. I can see how they’re more difficult to fix, and maybe they don’t hold up as well when they’re run for hours at a time, but when they’re worth between $10 and $15 I don’t see much room for complaint, either. If the motor dies in a few years, buy another locomotive and keep the old one for parts. Maybe you’ll find a deal on a mechanically sound Scout with a bad body.

As for the cars, they have a bit more plastic shine than I’d like. But at $5-$10 a pop, why complain? K-Line sells new box cars for $10, but you can’t get new freight cars for much less than $20. Given the choice between a $20 K-Line or Industrial Rail hopper or a $5 Lionel hopper from the ’60s or ’70s, I’ll take the Lionel every time. The Lionel isn’t going to decrease in value. The others will. The Lionel may not hold the track as well, but that $15 savings will more than pay for some upgraded trucks (wheel sets) if it needs them.

Meanwhile, the equivalent Marx hopper will probably cost you $12.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t pass up a nice Marx, but if I’m looking for cheap cars to pad out a long train, Lionel’s offerings from its darkest hours are the better bet.

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