Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw - Clearing out the clutter

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

There were three things that we saw in abundance this time, and I think they were there due to an aging market and shifting tastes.

Victims of the Aging Market

Toy collecting is a nostalgic endeavor, and most collectors focus on the objects of their youth. For the founding members of the TCA, that golden age would be the early 1920s. For the second generation to join, it was the late 1930s-early 1940s. For the third generation (of which I'm a part), it's postwar. 

And then there's a break. Because the third generation -- late Baby Boomers -- are really the last to grow up with toy trains. When the organization was founded, early trains commanded top dollar. That remained so during the second generation but started to decline by the third. And the slide continues.

1. Blue Comet and State Sets

Right before the Great Depression Lionel's top of the line train sets were indeed non plus ultra. The State set (each passenger car bore the name of a state) was a massive standard gauge (bigger than 0-gauge) train. Next in desirability was the Blue Comet.

These sets were made of high-quality metal, with detailed interiors, hinged doors and illumination. But in the early 1930s few families could afford such luxuries, and not many were sold.

An original 1930s Lionel standard gauge Blue Comet. Looks nice on a shelf.
For many, these sets remain the pinnacle of collecting. Even those who weren't especially interested in prewar trains would have a Blue Comet or a State Set if their pockets were deep enough.

At this show we saw an unusually high number of these vintage sets for sale. And while there weren't any real bargains, prices were $500-$1000 below average.

Why? The hobby is shifting from collectors who put trains on shelves to collectors who run trains on layouts. Reproduction Blue Comets and State Sets have hit the market. They cost a little less than the originals, run more reliably, and have modern operating features (like remote control).

The MTH 2014 reproduction. More features (like smoke and sound), and even more cars!

I think the vintage set we saw were the result of down-sizing and estate liquidations.

2. Postwar American Flyer

We noticed the abundance of American Flyer trains at the last show. This time there were even more tables offering postwar American Flyer trains. This Lionel competitor went out of business in 1967.

Original locomotives and rolling stock were scarce. But then in the early 1990s both Lionel and a new company S-Helper began offering new equipment. For the collector/operator, there was no longer a need for the vintage 1950s stuff.

This show I think we saw an acceleration of the change from collector to operator. There's less of a market for vintage Flyer, and plenty of demand for the new.


Last show we saw a lot of vintage ZW transformers. This time, we saw even more for sale.
For layout operators, the Lionel ZW transformer was the Holy Grail. It was the most powerful of Lionel's transformers, rated at 275 watts. It had independent controls for two trains, plus terminals to power accessories and lights.

That ZW (right) may have been powerful, but if you're one from the
late 1940s-early 1950s, it can get real hot real fast.

Lionel offered the ZW from 1948 to 1966. The first generation of collector/operators created a huge demand for refurbished ZWs. But as locomotives acquired on-board electronics, these became less satisfactory.

The Z4000 has more features, plus it's UL-rated.
In the late 1990s MTH offered their own line of transformers for modern 0-gauge locomotives. Their top-of-the-line Z-4000 transformer delivers 400 watts of power, has an internal cooling fan and is UL-rated. If your an operator, it just makes sense to replace that vintage ZW with something that's not only more powerful, but less likely to burn your house down.

What we didn't see

What we didn't see at York supports the theory that toy train operators are now driving the marketplace. What we didn't see are the very things most operators would want on their layouts:

1) Operating accessories, both pre- and postwar (such as coal loaders, beacon lights, etc.). They're right at home on the modern collector/operators' layouts.

2) Post 1990 locomotives and rolling stock from Lionel, Atlas, MTH, and Bachman. If you're running it, you're not going to sell it.

3) Modern reproductions from Weaver, Williams, MTH, and others. Those are the products that are pushing the vintage originals off the shelves and into the market place.

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