Toy Trains Have Become Valuable Collectibles and Aren't Just for Kids Anymore
From the Print Edition:
Fidel Castro, Summer 94
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Largest in size is standard gauge, in which a single loop of track is 44 inches in diameter. Standard gauge was popular from the turn of the century up until the Second World War, when houses began to get smaller and space was at a premium. Dropping down in size by approximately half is O gauge, with a circle of track that measures approximately 27 inches in diameter (there are many variations of O gauge), a much more practical circumference to set up in most of today's condominiums and apartments. O-gauge trains, especially those made by Lionel, were tremendously popular during the 1950s.
The next step down in size by about one third is S gauge, which has the distinction of being the only gauge that can actually handle scale-proportioned trains on a curve. American Flyer has been the reigning S gauge brand from the postwar years to the present.
Finally, there is G gauge, or Large gauge, a relatively modern plastic-bodied derivative that got its start in Europe as an outdoor or garden railroad and has been enthusiastically adopted by American train buffs as a modern alternative to the older standard gauge.
By far the most popular toy trains among collectors today are the postwar O-gauge trains made by Lionel, with their nonprototypical three-rail track. Although that company is still very much in existence and is producing reissues of many of its trains of the past as well as new locomotives and cars, the actual trains many of us remember as kids still command the biggest bucks. Ironically, the new Lionels often cost as much as the originals from which they are copied.
Next in terms of desirability are standard-gauge trains. Although a few entrepreneurial companies continue to produce new designs of standard-gauge-sized trains, original versions by the original manufacturers still seem to hold the edge over reproductions as far as price and salability are concerned. Lionel even tried reissuing some of their standard-gauge classics from the prewar years--with limited success.
The lack of acceptance of the new Lionel standard-gauge trains is puzzling, for they were far easier to acquire than the originals and came with a factory warranty, whereas the originals came with only spider webs and frayed wiring. The reissues also filled a gap in a collection when the original model was rare and too costly to acquire. Still, it can be a feeling of elation when you add a Lionel standard-gauge trolley to a collection for $300 when an original of that same model would have cost well over $1,000.
As a collector who has acquired a fair number of original trains, there is something special about watching a pre-war standard gauge sparking and clattering around your living- room layout. Perhaps it is the realization that it is the very same train that was rumbling along someone else's household tracks in the years when there was no television and the only other entertainment was "The Burns and Allen Show" on the radio.
As far as investments go, the early tin trains hold the most long-range promise, for they are often coveted by antique collectors as well as train buffs. Those trains holding the least potential are the S-gauge varieties, although a small but vocal minority has kept this two-rail scale toy alive far beyond its natural lifespan. (It should have died out in the 1960s.) By far the fastest-growing segment of the toy-train world is LGB, those large German-made trains that are slightly bigger than the standard- gauge trains of yesteryear.
Quiet-running and available in a tremendous variety of both European and American prototypes, these trains can run indoors or out, rain or shine. But they can be expensive, especially the larger engines and cars.
Which brings us to the question of what to look for when buying a toy train. Obviously, with the newly made trains like Lionel and LGB, you simply search the various train magazine ads and hobby stores for the model you want and the best price. But what about the older trains that are no longer made?
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