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On Track

Toy Trains Have Become Valuable Collectibles and Aren't Just for Kids Anymore
Rick Hacker
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94

Walking by the Cahuenga Electric Shop triggered a wave of lost memories, memories of childhood evenings sitting on the floor fitting together pieces of track and playing with a toy train. There in the window was an electric toy-train set that the ancient store still had on display. It must have been left over from the preslot car days. Inside the store, the orange-and-blue cartons with Lionel splashed across them released an even stronger flood of memories. There was no resisting this childhood icon, and, within the hour, a 1950s-era Lionel 2026, diecast steam locomotive with a small oval of track was set up on the living-room floor.

"But where are the cars?" someone asked. The next day Cahuenga Electric Shop was shorter on its inventory of boxcars, tank cars, gondolas and the obligatory caboose, together with another locomotive to help pull them all. And some more track. And a crossing gate. Another childhood addiction had been revived, and it wouldn't stop until a new miniature railroad empire had taken shape.

It's not unusual today for collectors to have more than 200 different toy trains. The items can range from an ultrarare live steam locomotive made in 1875 by the French firm of Radiguet, to a modern computer-chip-enhanced boxcar that emits mooing sounds as it rumbles along the track. Between these two extremes are freight and passenger trains of all eras and descriptions: hefty Standard Gauge behemoths from the first half of this century, with lacquered locomotives, which require two hands to hold, made of stamped steel with shiny nickel and brass fittings; palm-sized, cast-iron windup trains (called clockwork by collectors) pulling brightly colored lithographed tin cars; hand-painted pull-toy locomotive from the 1890s, with loops on the cowcatcher so that a string could be added for child-powered movement in the days before D-cell batteries; lightweight tin trains that actually ran on live steam, just like the real thing, and were notorious for dripping hot oil and water on the floor.

These collectible playthings were made by ghost companies of the past, with names like Ives, Dorfan and Hafner, in addition to products from such resurrected brands as American Flyer, Lionel and Marx. There are an estimated 200,000 toy-train collectors stationed at their transformers around the country--all with a passion for the miniature flanged wheel. Indeed, in an era when real-life trains have literally been passed up by cars and passed over by planes, the whimsical toy train has not only survived, but has actually increased in popularity in recent years.

Sparking and sputtering around the confines of a single loop of track, it's a marvel that the electric train's appeal survives in an age of video games and virtual-reality headgear. Certainly nostalgia plays a big role. For many, an electric train is a pleasant reminder of those innocent days of childhood when a cast-metal locomotive chased its caboose around the base of a Christmas tree and emitted the faintly familiar odor of ozone.

For others, toy trains are an investment, especially when dealing with the older models from the 1950s and before the Second World War. These toys have escalated in value by percentages that would put the most bullish stock market to shame. But there is more to it than that. Simply put, toy trains are fun to play with. Moreover, they create a diversion that enables us to escape from the realities of the everyday world. It is a hobby that knows no age limits. It also has no price barriers.

Even in their heyday, the best toy trains were never cheap, and today that same criterion holds true. But the cost can often be rationalized by the fact that older, out-of-production models usually escalate in value. The same cannot be said for new trains, although it is still too soon to tell what some of today's toy trains will do in the future.

The Second World War is the dividing line for collectors of toy trains, who classify them as either prewar (which includes all of the train types previously listed) or postwar, which generally encompasses only electric trains. But no matter on which side of the Second World War they were made, all toy trains are generically referred to by collectors as "tinplate," a reference to the tinplated wheels found on most of the early electric trains.

Unlike scale models, which are dimensionally exact miniature replicas of real trains, tinplate trains have no such inhibitions. They can be any size or design. That is part of their whimsical appeal. This is especially noticeable in prewar toy trains, many of which are so out of proportion to reality that, if they were full sized, they would topple and derail at the very first curve.

The size of a toy train is an important aspect to consider when contemplating starting your own toy-train railroad or collection. Some trains take up more room than others. Toy-train size is measured in gauges, which simply refer to the width of the track rather than the actual size of the train itself, although there is obviously a very close relationship between the two.

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