Copyright 1999 T. Sheil and A. Sheil   All Rights Reserved

O27 On The Cheap

How to enjoy O27 on without spending a bundle

First Class Inexpensive Train Running

A look through manufacturers' catalogs makes one thing obvious: O/O27 can be VERY expensive! The price of the "postwar" reissues alone are frightening, and the idea of $60 for a boxcar is equally shocking. One might think that O / O27 was only for those with the money. Actually, O/O27 is for everybody. You can enjoy all the benefits of these large, well-made trains without great expense. Postwar reissues and fancy collectibles are not the only show in town! With a little knowledge, common sense and cunning, you can build a superb railroad for yourself. It is all in how you approach the hobby.

Why Does it Seem So Expensive?

The apparent expense is mainly a matter of business. Some makers are aimed at the collector's market. They are counting on their products being considered "collectible" and thereby commanding a higher price. After all, why sell a small, low-cost product when you can sell a big, expensive one? It is cheaper to sell to collectors than to advertise outside the hobby - or so they think.

Actually, there is plenty available for non-collectors. Part of buying cheaply is to recognize how O / O27 has been marketed lately. Most of the promotional efforts go to selling high-ticket items. The advertising folks do all they can to make the big items look good. In a way, it detracts from smaller stuff. BUT think about you really need digital control? After all, the more complicated the equipment, the more that can go wrong. Do all those high-end bells and whistles really matter? Or is the main thing having a good, reliable train that runs well, looks good and provides hours of pleasure? Instead of following the pack and collecting what other people consider "collectible," why not collect the things that you like? You can have a lot of fun and best of all, do it affordably.

Buying New

You can buy new things cheaply. Despite the expense of popular items, there are other well-made trains which are new, affordable and built to last. They don't make the big ads in Classic Toy Trains or O Gauge Railroading because those ads are aimed at collectors. When a business buys ad space, it tried to get as much return as possible. To do that, they list only the items that bring a bigger profit. Low-profit items are not worth listing in that limited space. You have to look elsewhere.

Also, a big part of cheaper trains is finding discounts, specials and closeouts. The trick is to avoid getting hyped. Ads list the suggested retail price, then the new discount price. Wow! Looks like a great savings, right? Sometimes it is, but sometimes you are still paying more than you would if you knew the more affordable brands. For cheaper train running, you have to break out of the mold. A name brand is just that - a name on a box. What counts is what you get inside the box.

How the Market Works

O / O27 trains are part of the Toy Market. This market is really weird, when you come right down to it. It has a seasonal thing about it. The Toy Market is aimed at its prime buying season, from October to December. Early every February, there is a Toy Convention where companies release their new products for the year. These are the toys that will be on the shelves by April or May. For Hobbies, the East Coast convention in Spring is when many of the new products actually start reaching customers. Between January and April, makers and distributors try to make room for new products by selling off the last year's items at a discount. It is the prime "dumping season" when things that cost a bundle prior to Christmas are being offered at cut rate prices. Things slow down for train vendors in Summer, however, and you can find an occasional sale.

The NMRA convention is held in Summer, and allows manufacturers to show their stuff plus a few additions made in Spring. What you see at the NMRA convention is what is being pushed for Autumn, the prime selling season. Vendors, distributors, retailers and customers get a good look at the new stuff at the NMRA convention.

Most holiday ads and plans are laid in July. They might be amended after the big convention, but not that much. The next convention in October by the RCHTA is an afterthought, because by then all the trains have been ordered for the big season. October is the small dumping season, when items that didn't catch on are dumped. You get a few new items that had a poor showing, and some more of leftover stock from the year before. Makers are already clearing space for the next year's production.

In late November and December, distributors usually dump any remaining Yule-based items for the year. They figure that they've already sold all of the Yule stuff (Christmas cars, Santa Claus trains, etc.) for that year. It's time to unload anything for Christmas that's still around, so it won't be on the shelves next year. You can pick up Christmas and Hanukkah cars, Yule trains, etc cheaply. Not bad if you want cars for repainting or kitbashing....

About two to three weeks after Christmas, the big annual dumping starts. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers are clearing space for the New Year's new stock. They sell at very low prices - sometimes at cost! This is the time to buy in quantity. You can't go by magazines ads, however. They are planned about three to four months in advance. You have to wait until April or May for ads that offer the best closeout and clearance bargains. Here's where it pays to have a regular dealer who knows you. Call him or visit in January and ask for any specials. This is when you can get the big breaks.

Other Brands

Lionel is the big name in O / O27. However, it is not the only brand. There are other brands of O / O27 which are less expensive and offer comparable quality to Lionel. One is Industrial Models, which makes a small line of O27 cars. Williams makes a nice assortment of O gauge locomotives, passenger cars and frieght cars.  These are very affordably priced.  They quality is there, too!  Williams' locomotives are some of the best running trains on the market.  K - Line, a major manufacturer makes locomotives (steam, diesel and electric), freight cars, passenger liners, track, operating accessories, scenery kits and transformers. K - Line started by buying the old Marx molds for plastic locomotives and rolling stock. It improved the product and offered a wider assortment with better motors, trucks, wheels and couplers. K - Line also produces entirely new cars and locomotives. K -Line used ot be the best bargain around, as its prices averaged about 30% lower than Lionel on rolling stock, and its quality was equal or better. K - Line's passenger cars and Classic O gauge lines are the better product, while costing about a third less. Since 1998, however, K-Line prices have increased significantly. Industrial Rail is a relative newcomer to O27, and despite disappointing sales in 1998, they have come back with more of their affordable, well-made freight cars.

Mike's Train House offers two lines: Premier and Railking. Railking is its less-expensive O27 line. Some items are priced low enough to be a savings, although most MTH loco production is still in the "over $300" category. You can find some nice prices in their Railking line, especially on diesel locomotives, passenger cars and starter sets.  Freight and passenger cars are not significantly lower than Lionel.

Williams Trains has some locomotive deals which are lower than $300. They are worth checking out if you plan to spend over $100 on a locomotive.

Links to these makers can be found on this site's Links page

Old Trains

Most old trains cost very much, because they are considered collectible. Those which do not command high prices are either unpopular lines, junkers or off brands. An entire series of Lionel steam locos with plastic shell boilers sells cheaply - the "Scout" line was introduced in the 50s as a low-cost alternative. You need to know a little about Lionel Postwar to successfully navigate the used train market and make a good deal. What looks like "too good to be true" can end up being VERY expensive!

One of the hidden marvels of the old train market is the Marx train. Not the new "Marx Trains" which markets high-priced collectible tinplate sets, but the original Marx brand sold until the 1970s. Old Marx do not command exorbitant prices, except for a few odd cases. You can find great deals on locomotives if you know what to look for.

The major problem with Marx is that locomotives made in the old days have a thick geared wheel which cannot navigate modern switches. It is found on such popular older locomotives as the CP 464/465, the 897, 898, and 999 - to name a few. More recent locomotives have the wheels which can handle modern switches, including all plastic-bodied diesel locomotives and switchers, the 666 and 333 diecast locomotives, and the 1666 and 1829 plastic-bodied locomotives. Some of the 400 and 490 series have the double-reduction gears, too.

Marx's 666 is a 2-4-2 diecast locomotive made in smoking and nonsmoking versions; the 1666 is its plastic-bodied equivalent. You can get a 666 in very good to excellent condition for $30 to $50; a 1666 costs between $20 and $40. Both are powerful, good-running steam locomotives which have plenty of power and reliability.

The 333 is a 4-6-2 diecast Pacific steamer that runs between $75 and $150. The 1829 is a 4-6-4 counterpart with a plastic body. Both are found in smoking and nonsmoking versions. Note that the 333 is now made by K - Line, with some improvements.

Marx made two types of diesel switcher, a small four-wheel version generally called a "70 tonner" and an 8-wheel "S3". The S3 is now made by K - Line as an S2, with improved motor. An S3 from Marx can run from $25 to $75, and a collectible version would cost much more. The 70 tonners is usually around $25 to $35. There is one Lehigh Valley version that has a DC motor, however, and cannot run on AC track.

The standard plastic-bodied diesel was the E8, available in AA or AB versions. These are economical alternatives to more expensive cab units (F3s, F7s)by Lionel, MTH or K - Line. A common E8 might run from $75 to $150, and rare types cost much more. Be on the lookout for Penn Central in turquoise green, as it is collectible! The E8s have lighted cabs and they run well.It's a mainline diesel at a bargain price!

Marx switches can be found, and they will handle the old trains.

(Check our links page for dealers of original Marx.)

Marx cars are not as big a bargain. K - Line makes updated equivalents, so you're going to save more. Note that Marx couplers are not interchangeable with Lionel or K - Line. Our way around this is to rig a coupler for diesels. For steamers, we either use a Lionel tender or take a Marx tender and replace the old trucks with K - Line's

To use a Marx car with modern cars, you would have to rig the couplers, or swap Marx with K - Line. It is better to get the K - Line O27 car combos, which average $10 per car and come with the right couplers.


3-rail track is cheap. Buy bulk track (unpackaged) for better savings. You can usually find a hobby shop that stocks it and offers a good price.  O27 runs about $0.85 to $1.00 per piece, O runs between $1.50 and $2.00

Used track is not the bargain you may think. First, there's the problem of corrosion. Once track gets enough rust, it is useless. Second, track may have had rough or frequent handling. The insulation under the middle rail could be worn; connections to ties might be loose.. Track pins may slip out of track that's been "stretched" too many times. Unless you can actually see the track and check it by hand, or know from experience that the seller's used track is good enough for running, avoid used track. The price for new is not that much higher, generally.

If you have the money on hand, arrange for your local shop to bulk order for you. Make sure you arrange a discount off the normal retail price when you order case lots of track. The sizes to order in bulk are standard straights and curves. ONLY if you plan to use a lot of it, should you order larger radii in bulk (42", 54", 72", etc).

Buy a couple packs of steel and fibre / insulated track pins. You can never have enough!

O27 track is 40% to 60% cheaper than O31. Most trains can handle O27, but there are some which cannot. For instance, the new Chessie scale caboose by K - Line had trouble with O27 switches. If you have a lot of older Lionel or a few favorites that run on O31 only, you're better off buying O31. However, if your current stock is all capable of handling O27, then save money by choosing the smaller size.

O27 is cheaper in several ways. First, the actual price per piece of track can be up to 50% cheaper. Second, accessories like switches and crossovers are generally much cheaper for O27. If you decide to play with old Marx, you will find that most of its products are designed for the O27 track.

Standard hi-rail galvanized steel track is by far the cheapest. It is also very sturdy. This track was made for play. It is intended to be set up, taken down and set up again many times. Though its three metal ties hardly look prototype, the price and durability make up for any aesthetic loss.

One rule about track: take care of it. Clean it, protect it from rust, and treat it with the care it deserves. Track can last a LONG time - we're talking two or three generations!

Junkerism - the Art of Junk

Model railroaders like terms like kitbashing and scratchbuilding, both of which revolve around taking one kit or car and making an entirely new piece. Kitbashing is the use of spare parts and other kits to provide materials; scratchbuilding is the art of making parts yourself. Junkerism is an art that applies both techniques to take old cars and make newer, better ones.

There are occasions when you can buy a load of broken cars. They might be in the local hobby shop's junk bin, or found at a train show. Broken cars and locos are the raw materials bywhich new cars are made. Though not always the cheapest route, it is a good source of new rolling stock and motive power.

One thing: before buying junkers, consider the cost. If a junker is sold for $15 and the new car is $25, you might be better off buying new. When you add up the cost of new trucks, fittings, doors, paint, etc., you could end up losing money on a junker. Cheaper is not always cheaper in the long run.

To begin successful junkering, you need the essential parts. A stock of wheeled trucks with couplers helps. We recommend the K - Line plastic freight trucks, and a few K - Line or Lionel diecast freight trucks. If you junker enough ,you will find occasion to use both. Other prime parts are brakewheels, locomotive horns and bells, boxcar doors and door runners, wire for handrails, and ladders for cabooses, tankers and boxcars. A couple of roller pickup trucks help when restoring lighted cars. So, too, are the more common bulbs. Locomotive parts are a bit harder to plan. At the very least, keep insulated wire on hand for repairs.

The lessyou pay for junkers, the better. Each junk car has to be assessed. Some can be restored with a little model glue, putty, paint and a brakewheel. Others need more extensive work, and then some are just too far gone for renewal. The ones that cannot be restored can be cannibalized for parts, and will yield up any number of things. Roofs, ladders, brakewheels, doors and runners, tanker domes, handrails, coal loads, trucks, couplers, wheels....nothing is wasted. A shattered boxcar can still yield up its bulkheads, which are cut free with a hobby saw. These have many uses when restoring cars. The end caps, dome and handrails of a hopelessly shattered tank cart can be cut free and used to build a new tank. (A plastic tube the right diameter, cut to length, can be refitted with the salvaged caps, dome and rails.) Trucks that are beyond repair can still give up their wheels. Wheelsets are worth saving. Occasionally, all it takes is a pair of wheels to get an old car on the road again.

Have some loads on hand. Crates, cars, tractors, I- beams, logs and other common loads can be found in toy stores. Many an inexpensive toy has found itself the rider of a salvaged flat car! Logs can be cut from thin branches or dowels. 1/43, 1/48 and 1/50 diecast cars go well with O27.

The common toy tank included with Tim Mee / Processed Plastic Company bags of toy soldiers is almost exactly 1/48. (In fact, its designation is M48!) Paint the tracks a steel color, touch up some trim and put on a few star decals and you have a tank load. Culverts can be made from scrap plastic. Use your ingenuity to find loads for your flats and gondolas. Crates make good boxcar loads, by the way.

An easy coal load can be made with light Styrofoam. Cut a piece of scrap Styrofoam to fit snugly inside a hopper or gondola. Paint it black. Make sure there is « to 1/4 inch from the top of the Styrofoam to the rim of the car. Place the painted piece inside the car and cover the top with glue. Sprinkle on some fake coal. After the glue has dried, pile on more coal and fix it with ballast cement.

If you do steam, be on the lookout for tenders. By adding diecast trucks, you add weight to the front of the train. This enables better handling of long trains. Of course, you can also use plastic trucks with good results. Lionel tenders will match with Marx locos, so if you have a Lionel tender with all the parts, it can give your Marx loco the ability to haul trains with normal knuckle couplers.

Restoration Jobs: Making old locos run like new

Restoring a locomotive takes a lot of work. Lionel and most K - Line locos require some knowledge and a reference guide. Those you might wish to leave to professionals. Original Marx is another story. Many Marx locos have come back to life after years of neglect.

Our protocol for Marx locos is to brush off the motor, clean the wheels and contacts, andgive it a test spin. Rarely does it run smoothly the first time around. Sometimes it will only run one direction. No problem. Let it run a few minutes. These resilient motors warm up nicely, and in no time that stalling loco is moving nicely in both directions.

Take the body off the loco and prepare to work your magic. First, clean the motor. Brush and wipe off any dirt and grime. Goo Gone and similar cleaners work well. Spray inside the motor with TV Tuner spray to dislodge old carbon build-up. Wipe off any rust with a good rust remover.

Move the wheels by hand, so the motor spins. Moving the parts helps in cleaning. You might need to give the motor's inside another shot of tuner spray. Check wires and other parts. Now, oil the axles and the motor's axis. Use grease on the exposed gears. Be careful to keep wheels clean. We usually finish by wiping wheels with Goo Gone and then rubbing them dry.

Let the motor sit a few minutes, then put it on the track again. Run it. This allows oil and grease to get into the little spaces where they are needed. In a few minutes, the locomotive will increase speed as lubricants do their work. Keep an eye on that motor so it doesn't fly off the track!

The results: one locomotive ready to run! Just replace the body and you're set.

Repainting metal locomotives is tricky. First, you have to remove as much old pain and rust as you can. Next, use a good metal primer.

Prepare for final coat by painting crevices and nooks by brush, and letting them dry. Follow up by airbrush or spray paint. Several thin, even coats are better than one thick coat. If you're good with a brush, touch up details. Bronze is good for painting bells. Steel, gunmetal and silver can be used for whistles and handrails. You can use photos of real locomotives to help you with trimming colors and the like. You can use decals for numbers and road names. A satin clear fixative on the finished product is a nice touch. Always cover lights and other parts you don't want to paint, before beginning the process.

With locomotives like the #666 and #1666, changing roadnames is a matter of swapping tenders. You can have several tenders which are painted with the roadnames you prefer. Make sure tenders will couple with modern couplers.

When Cheap is Costly

Don't get stupid. Don't let your search for low prices descend into penny pinching and corner cutting. Cheap is fine when it means a low price, but awful when it means poor quality. "Penny wise and pound foolish" and "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" certainly apply here.

For example: At a train show, two fellows asked a vendor for the lowest prices on trains. One was looking for quality, but his friend wanted low prices and, as he put it, "Will it last?" He expected to pay as little as possible for something that would endure all kinds of heavy handling. The vendor explained that his prices were low and that his product were good. He had name-brand items of reliable quality. All that second man asked over and over was "Will it last?" I was standing nearby, and he turned to me and asked, "Do you know it this stuff is going to last, or will it fall apart?"

"Handle it right and it will be okay," I replied.

"Yes, but can I get it cheaper?" he then asked.

I didn't want to get involved in this thing any further, so I said, "You get what you pay for, buddy. Some things are cheap because they're made that way. Those trains are okay for $20."

"Then can I get them cheaper?" he asked.

I just shrugged and walked away. Ten minutes later, I saw the same duo at another table. The fellow who kept asking "Will it last?" was buying locomotives at $12 apiece. They were a brand known for being underpowered and cheap. $12 was too much! The man could have had much better quality for $20, but had forgotten "Will it last?" when confronted with a $12 price. I doubt those trains performed to his standards. Pound wise and penny foolish - if it looks too good to be true, it usually is!

There are people whose only criterion for buying is a low price. The more they get for less, the more likely they will buy. Quality is virtually meaningless. Some folks thrive on getting something cheap, and so pass up any dignity or the joy of having something new. In their mind, the dirty used things that cost $3.00 will always win over the clean, new-in-box items at $5.00.

Here's another case: a fellow tried to order from someone, and it turned into a mess. The man lucky to get his money back. A few months later, the same vendor with whom he had problems advertised an offer that seemed "too good to pass up." Forgetting pat misfortune, the man sent in the order. It was another mess and disappointment. The rule is simple: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

If you see a string of complaints in the message boards, pay heed. One or two complaints might not mean much - it might be an unsatisfyable customer whose post attracted another impossible customer. When you see three or more complaints, then something might be up. Realize that some folks use Bad Dealer posts as payback or spite. Realize also that sometimes they are genuine. Ask around, if you must. You can see when a complaint is based on the customer's mistake or the dealer's. Use discretion. One complaint doth not a demon make! However, once a bad guy is named and it's obvious the reports are true, then it's up to you to take your business elsewhere.

I have seen duds prattling in their mind-numbing way of the "great deals" they got, and sneering at any who paid more than "$5.00 for three!" What the duds invariably bought were low-quality junk that someone was trying to dump. To the dud mentality, anyone who pays more - regardless of quality - is a fool. You have to see them in action to appreciate the silliness.

A good hedge against junk is to demand to inspect and test. At train shows, use the test track before you buy. In any market, but especially fairs, shows and flea markets, it is wise to look before you buy.

Know what makes a good product. I figure that if you have good stuff, you know what to look for. Things that count are materials, workmanship and details. A well-made car is worth more. Even if you get it at a bargain, it will cost more than crap. I have trains by Lionel, K - Line and Marx in varying grades. There are the collectible grade (Lionel O, K - Line Classic O), the regular grade and the train set grade. By knowing which is which, I can tell if an offer at a show is worth it. I might pay more than $20 for a collectible grade boxcar, but not for a train set car. Knowing makes a difference.

Buy quality. While junkers are nice if you can restore quality, if you're buying new or used, buy something that will perform. Quality is not the price or the name, but the materials, craftsmanship and details. A more expensive car is not necessarily better.

Set your standards

Before you go buying, think about what you are doing. Why O/O27? Do you just want to run trains? Is there a type you prefer? Steam or diesel, perhaps? Northeastern or Southern railroads? Freight or passenger or mixed? Consider your objectives before you shop for more.

Thinking judiciously leads to getting what works for YOU.

Collect what YOU want, not what professional collectors tell you to collect. I like odd boxcars, for instance. Though I don't collect them as such, I will buy one when I see one I like. Right before me is a K - Line Hershey's Cocoa Beans boxcar in white and red, with attractive type and images. Inside is the Diet Coke piggyback car. Both were bought because they are unusual and interesting. Maybe you prefer to collect regional boxcars, unusual passenger liners or MOW cars. Collect what pleases you and looks good on your railroad.

Good Deals:

Check our links page for these vendors: Island Trains, Vienna Station, Bob's Trains, Ed's Toy Train Town, JDP. They have some good deals. Shop around on their sites and hunt out the deals you like. We all need a place to start, and these fellows have done okay by us.

Use BACK browser button to return to Index

Copyright 1999 T. Sheil and A. Sheil   All Rights Reserved