While most serious collectors of vintage model trains specialize by scale, gauge, or manufacturer, purchasing their engines, rolling stock, and sections of track on an à la carte basis, just about everybody got into the hobby via some sort of model-train set. Model-train sets range from basic starter sets with a locomotive, some track, and a few cars to all-inclusive collections that allow model-train enthusiasts to erect entire towns and rail yards, or recreate particular eras. There are also newer collectible sets that match locomotives to the vintage passenger cars they would have pulled, in the appropriate colors.

Although the concept of model-train sets sounds modern, it actually goes back at least to 1910, when the Edmonds-Metzel Manufacturing Company produced a line of passenger-train sets known as “Chicago Cars.” During the “train wars” of the mid-1910s, when the import of German train brands such as Märklin and Bing was interrupted by World War One, U.S. manufacturers such as Ives, American Flyer, Dorfan, and Lionel all used train sets to differentiate themselves from their competitors, although sometimes this differentiation was only partial. For example, in 1925, American Flyer offered a premium line of “Wonder” train sets, whose locomotives and cars were designed to run on Lionel’s standard-gauge tracks—American Flyer simply rebranded its copy as “Wide Gauge.”

After World War Two, Lionel released model-train sets in an attempt to prove the relevancy of toy trains in the age of automobiles and freeways. Most infamous was its “Lady Lionel” set from 1957, whose pink color was supposed to make the hobby attractive to girls. The pink trains bombed, with most of the unsold inventory destroyed, but not as hard as a companion baby-blue train set for boys—that product was never even released.

More successful were the Marx model-train sets of the same era, which were themed around TV shows (“Tales of Wells Fargo”) and topics (“Army & Air Force Training Center”) in the same way as the company’s non-train toy playsets. In recent decades, LEGO has lent its brand to model trains, offering young and adult train buffs alike all manner of imaginative sets.


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