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.
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?
Condition is all important. Repaints are not as desirable as original paint, even if there are a few scratches on the boiler or cab. However, an O-gauge or standard-gauge train that has been outfitted with reproduction replacement parts usually will not have its value affected by much. In fact, some completely restored prewar trains command as much money as if they were all original. In this respect toy trains are unlike most other collectibles, where original condition has a definite link to price. With trains, very often the main criteria are simply that they look authentic and that they run.
Those innocent days when you could find an antique toy train in a garage sale for a few dollars are long gone, although it still happens occasionally. Unfortunately, most of the old trains have been snapped up by an enthusiastic and sometimes ruthless collecting fraternity. The good news is that these smokestacked treasures from the past eventually resurface for sale. Therefore, your best bet will be to join a train collecting club, where periodic "For Sale" bulletins are mailed out to all the members.
The two biggest organizations are the Train Collectors Association and the Toy Train Operating Society (see page 150). Then start attending the local train meet of these clubs, where there are always tables of trains being offered for sale. Two mammoth train swap meets are held annually at York, Pennsylvania and Pasadena, California, (contact the TCA and the TTOS, respectively, for more information). Subscribe to some of the other club and toy-train periodicals and start reading up on the types of trains that interest you.
Whether you decide to run your train on a permanent layout in the basement, a temporary stretch of track under the coffee table or are simply content to display a locomotive and couple of cars on a shelf, you'll be joining a diversified group of individuals who aren't afraid to admit to a second childhood, no matter what their ages.
Frank Sinatra runs his O-gauge trains around a layout designed to resemble his hometown neighborhood of Hoboken, New Jersey. Hugh Hefner has a seasonal LGB train racing around his Christmas tree. Opting for a more outdoorsy theme, Joe Regalbuto, who plays the part of Frank Fontana in the television series "Murphy Brown," has built an entire LGB empire in his backyard. And Jonathan Winters collects cast-iron pull trains.
It is an old cliché that he who dies with the most toys wins, but as far as toy trains are concerned, no truer words were ever written. Whether it's the nostalgia of prewar O gauge, the practicality and memories of postwar O gauge, the antique appeal of early tin and iron, or the novelty of LGB, toy trains are definitely a hobby designed to keep you on the right track
Rick Hacker is a writer based in Southern California.He is the author of The Ultimate Cigar Book. (Self-published, 1993, 300 pages, $34.95. P.O. Box 634, Beverly Hills, Calif. 90213.)
TOY TRAIN CLUBS
Train Collectors Association
P.O. Box 248
Strasburg, Pa. 17579
Toy Train Operating Society
25 West Walnut Street
Pasadena, Calif. 91103
Lionel Collector's Club of America
P.O. Box 479
LaSalle, Ill. 61301
Lionel Railroad Club
P.O. Box 748
New Baltimore, Mich. 48047-0748
Lionel Operating Train Society
Cincinnati, Ohio 45241
LGB Model Railroad Club
P.O. Box 26
Baden, Pa. 15005
The American Flyer Collectors Club
P.O. Box 13269
Pittsburgh, Pa. 15243
Classic Toy Trains
P.O. Box 1612
Waukesha, Wis. 531878