Unlike Lionel and American Flyer, Marx never set out to make the fanciest toy trains when it acquired the rights to the Joy Line train sets in 1934. Its goal from day one was to make the best toy trains at the lowest price. In the Depression, that proved to be a strategy that earned the company and its founder, Louis Marx, rich rewards.
Like the Joy Line trains, the first Marx trains were key wound, made out of inexpensive tin and decorated with lithographed designs and logos. Locomotives cost only a dollar, cars went for a dime.
Unlike the Joy Line trains, which were toys first and foremost, Marx trains were amazingly realistic considering their low cost. Its first train was a Union Pacific Articulated Streamliner, followed by a New York Central Mercury, whose sleek, streamline shape was in tune with the Art Deco aesthetic of the 1930s. The Commodore Vanderbilt locomotives came shortly thereafter (the tenders for these are very hard to find), as did the Nos. 897, 898, and 994 locomotives.
Another early Marx locomotive was the Canadian Pacific, which debuted in Canada in 1936 to celebrate the Canadian Pacific Jubilee train. Marx sold the Canadian Pacific locomotive in one form or another until 1949, but the clockwork-engine version was only sold as a set in 1938, making its cars, particularly the uniquely designed flatcar, very rare.
Behind these locomotives were bright, cheerful boxcars and gondolas, some with working searchlights. Bringing up the rear on most Marx sets would be a caboose, usually labeled New York Central. For Depression-era kids and their parents, a complete Marx railway could be had for the price of a single Lionel train. One way Marx kept costs down was to limit its product line—for every Marx model or accessory, Lionel offered perhaps ten.
That said, Marx’s assortment of accessories ranged for run-of-the-mill signals to nifty barrel loaders. Most ran on track power or were track-activated (crossing signals, for example). Chief among these were the bells and flashers, which would come to life as a train’s wheel triggered it into action, and would remain animated until the train’s entire length had passed by.
In 1952, Marx started making scale trains in plastic in four- and eight-wheel versions. From freight cars to diesel locomotives, plastic soon replaced tin. Some bore the road name of a particular train line, but others featured a Marx line called Marlines. Whatever it was called on the outside, the same motors that had powered the tin trains drove these new plastic models. As for the layouts, the metal ones still worked fine but most customers preferred to purchase the new plastic scenery kits that were being offered...
Marx trains chugged along through the 1960s, but the societal pressures that were putting the squeeze on Lionel were also testing Marx. By 1975, the company’s offerings appeared rather quaint to the young boys who were its target audience, so Marx sold itself to Quaker Oats, which proved to be the end of the line for the once great maker of toy trains for the masses.
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