Two years ago (“Some Classic Train Sets,” December 2020 Collector Consist), I asked: if you could buy any train set from any hobby manufacturer’s catalog throughout the history of the hobby, what sets would make your list? There is no model railroading enthusiast worth their fishplates who doesn’t think back fondly on their first train sets, especially this time of the year. Many collectors can’t resist adding one of these classic or contemporary releases to their collections around the holidays.
I can’t pick up a vintage product catalog without looking over the train sets and thinking which ones would have been fun to receive. Current train sets often make my reservation list, as you’ll read about with this year’s arrival of an S gauge American Flyer release. My survey for this installment visits classic train sets, again ranging a wide span of eras, scales, and manufacturers.
ABOVE: These “Railroad in a Box” train sets from Mantua’s first releases of Tyco-branded models in the 1950s included track, but no power pack.
Railroad in a Box
An example of this interesting 1950s HO release surfaced recently and sent me researching to confirm what it was and when it was offered. The image is from one of the first TYCO catalogs from the 1950s (when Mantua was establishing this new brand as its ready-to-run line). This impressive collection was exactly as described: a handsome metal hinged walnut finish wood case with metal identification badge. The “Railroad in a Box” (T-10) set carried a $99.50 retail in the 1950s (equal to about $1,000 in 2022 dollars).
The equipment included a pair of HO steam locomotives (2-8-2 Mikado and 0-6-0 Tank) lettered for “T.Y.C.O.” (as was the caboose in this set). The example that appeared recently included Baltimore & Ohio-lettered equipment and is thought to be a late version of this release. The rolling stock provides samples of some of the earliest injection-molded plastic rolling stock offered (the signature streamlined cupola caboose helps date this set to 1955).
In addition to the then-new caboose, the set included seven freight cars and track, though no power pack was included. TYCO would change radically from this 1950s high point with a prestige set packaged in walnut to the mass-produced low-end releases of its final years marketing HO electric trains.
ABOVE: ABOVE: American Flyer’s S gauge “Sunshine Special” of the late 1950s included an “action caboose” with animated rear brakeman figure.
Many serious hobbyists of today got their early start with a first train set in three-rail O scale. I’ve learned to never underestimate the S fans and their appreciation for their scale (1:64), whether it’s two-rail toy trains or later scale reproductions. American Flyer’s late 1950s “Sunshine Special” (5655RH) provided a pair of “swamp holly orange” Texas & Pacific GP7s, including one equipped with electronic horn and diesel “roar” sounds.
The set, which retailed for $57.50 (equal to about $575 in 2022 dollars), included five freight cars with an “action” caboose with animated brakeman figure, plus oval of the line’s “T-track.” I found a recent Lionel Texas & Pacific Deluxe Freight (2217010) with GP7s irresistible to me, so I added it to my collection (and reviewed it in December 2022’s Model Railroad News)…