In the 1950s and 1960s, it was possible to walk into Sears and see an Allstate electric train on the same shelf as Lionel and American Flyer. These trains are still somewhat common today. That leads to some further questions.
Yes, it’s Allstate, as in the insurance company. What did they have to do with electric trains?
Well, at the time, Sears was a large services conglomerate, not just the largest retailer in the country. And one of the things they owned was Allstate insurance. And Sears has a long history of selling things under their own brand. The “Sears Video Arcade” of the 1980s was just a re-branded Atari 2600. Kenmore appliances are always made by someone else. I can’t speak for their other appliances, but their conventional top-loading washers and matching dryers are made by Whirlpool. They’re actually very good–dependable and cheap to fix yourself.
Like Kenmore appliances, Allstate electric trains were surprisingly good.
Marx was willing to do favors to keep their trains in Sears’ catalog and in their stores. They’d seen Sears make and break their competitor Bing.
Electric trains in the 1950s and 1960s
In the postwar era, electric trains were immensely popular. Sears, like most other retailers, sold Lionel and American Flyer trains. But they wanted their own brand to sell alongside them. So Sears turned to New York-based toy manufacturer Louis Marx and Company, who had been selling electric trains since the 1930s and was the longest-running competitor of Lionel and A.C. Gilbert, the maker of American Flyer.
Marx sold trains in both O gauge, which had been around since the beginning of the century and ran on 3-rail track, and in HO scale, which was gaining in popularity in the 1950s because of its realistic proportions and two-rail track. HO scale is the most popular model railroad scale in use today. Sears sometimes called the O gauge trains “regular gauge,” which is a a bit humorous today. If any size of train is “regular” today, it’s HO scale. But in the ’50s, the smaller HO scale was still something of an upstart, and O gauge was the incumbent Sears had been selling since before World War I.
Marx had an extensive product line, so Sears could meet almost any price point it wanted. They could ask Marx for something comparable to a high-end Lionel set, something less expensive than the cheapest Lionel Scout set, or anything in between.
Why use the name Allstate electric train?
Sears chose Allstate because it sounded more railroad-like than any other brand it controlled. And, let’s face it, it sounds just as credible as “Lionel Lines” or “American Flyer Lines,” which both competitors frequently stamped on their own trains. Sears had Marx letter a few of the cars “Allstate,” and Marx mixed those in along with cars that bore the names of real railroads. The locomotives were identical to what Marx sold everyone else.
Marx was a good choice. Marx made the same motor for nearly 40 years, changing it only to improve its reliability based on what they found from fixing broken motors. They knew firsthand, from keeping a train running in its New York showroom every day, which allowed them to see the effects of wear. And every locomotive Marx shipped made its way from the assembly line to the packing area on its own power, on a length of track, to ensure that it ran. So Marx’s defect rate was very low. The majority of Marx trains I find in basements and attics today still run. Those that don’t run frequently will come to life after a basic cleaning. It’s possible to clean up the track, and the transformer is easy to check for safety, and Marx transformers are easy to repair. The transformers said Allstate on them too, but they were a Marx design.
Allstate electric trains today
Usually when people are looking for information about a train, they also want to know what it’s worth. Marx trains don’t have the following that Lionel and American Flyer do. But I also haven’t seen their values fluctuate nearly as much as the other two brands, either. A good starting point for the value of a common Marx set, and by extension, Allstate, is $50-$100. A set containing a rare car will go higher. Marx made a set for Sears using its scarce William Crooks locomotive, for example. An Allstate electric train won’t be worth thousands of dollars, but a nice one containing a rarity can go for a couple hundred.
I’m not certain when Sears stopped re-branding Marx trains, but it was no later than 1975. Marx produced its last train in November 1975. By then, Marx was no longer an independent company but rather a struggling division of Quaker Oats, managed by Fisher-Price management that wasn’t used to dealing with the seasonal ebbs and flows inherent in so much of Marx’s product line. Trains were no longer a must-have toy by then either. Competitor A.C. Gilbert went out of business in 1967. Lionel left the business in 1969, selling its train line to General Mills, who resumed production in 1970.
By the 1970s, consumers were moving on to other things, so it made more sense for Sears to just sell Lionel and Tyco trains rather than messing with their own branding.