Christmas Time Classic: The Long Serving, Long Loved Lionel Train

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Curbside Classic is about so much more than just cars.  We have covered motorcycles, trains, and even a very faithful  Christmas tree.  There is quite the large tent here.

This vintage Lionel train has been gracing Casa de Shafer since 2006, delighting us and annoying the cat.  After a circuitous route, filled with fondness and abandonment, it has found a very caring new home.

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My father-in-law, Tim, is the eighth of ten children.  As one of the last born children (he is now 75), he has had the distinct displeasure of being the executor of the wills of several siblings.  His oldest sister, Marion, and her husband, Herb, bought this Lionel train sometime in the late 1950′s.  According to the 1958 Lionel catalog that came with the train, there was quite the grouping of official Lionel dealers in the St. Louis area where they lived.

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Upon Herb’s death, Tim exercised his executor privilege and snagged this train for us in lieu of selling it.  He found it stuffed into the back of a closet.

Christmas 2006 marked the first Christmas at our house in Hannibal – the house I sold earlier this year after a seeming eternity.  On Christmas Day, my in-laws arrived bearing many presents.  Spawn is the only grandchild on my side of the family and the oldest on my wife’s, so she is quite the recipient.

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One of the boxes Tim brought into the house was unwrapped and closed with duct tape.  Later that day, Tim handed it over, warning us to be very careful with it.  Inside the box was another box with the Lionel logo on it; each car seen here still has its original box.

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This train had escaped rough play as my wife’s Aunt Marion and Uncle Herb never had children.  Herb was a train fanatic and had been meticulous with this train set.  It was used carefully and sparingly.  Before Tim could do anything with the train after acquiring it, he set it off to the side and forgot about it as he was also dealing with the will of another sibling at that time.

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In searching for Christmas presents in 2006, he rediscovered the train and realized the amount of time that had elapsed.  Not knowing how long it had been dormant prior to his finding it, Tim put the track together and gave it a whirl.  The old train took off with very little complaint.

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The engine cover appears to indicate it was manufactured in August 1957.  It has been getting a little contrary with age, but is at least consistent with its behavior.  Starting it is a process; it will either buzz or take off in reverse.  It is best to shut it off and try again.  The second or fourth try – never the third – will result in forward motion.  The first few minutes will usually result in a mild, sweet electrical and faintly oily smell.  The power inverter starts to get warm to the touch after about ten minutes, so I will shut it off and run it again later.

I have lubricated all the maintenance parts on the engine.  It is probably time to do that again.

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There is such an intrinsic yet non-quantifiable appeal in these old model trains.  While never a fan of model trains previously, I have fully grasped the desire seen in others to just sit and watch them.  There is a certain tranquility in doing so.

Rightly or wrongly, the train only comes out at Christmas time and it has done nothing but orbit our Christmas tree.  It just seems fitting and, for us, is as much a part of Christmas as is the tree.

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In addition to the appeal of these trains, it does make me uncharacteristically nostalgic for times past and highly curious about what life was like prior to my arrival.  Our 1958 Lionel catalog certainly feeds that curiosity.  I freely admit a certain degree of bias, but the last time I walked into a train and hobby store, I didn’t feel confidence about some contemporary trains having the durability of this old Lionel train.  This train exudes quality unlike anything I have seen in other train sets in a very long time.

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It’s also hard to imagine a train set with such a distinct inspectors car.  If one is even made currently, it would likely be an F-150 or other pickup based rig, not what appears to be a ’57 DeSoto wagon.

In the seven Christmases we have had it, this old train has brought a high degree of joy to our house.  There is simply something about it that smoothes off the rough edges of the closing year while creating optimism for the upcoming year.

My daughter is still of a relatively young age and is the third generation to cherish this train set.  I anticipate it will be around for a few more generations.

Happy Holidays.

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