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Modern Tinplate: Lionel's Commodore Vanderbilt

by Jim Kelly

Imagine yourself as an 11 year old on Christmas morning, 1931. After breakfast you are finally allowed to begin opening Santa's bounty. You run from the kitchen and reaching the parlor you catch your first glimpse of a huge colorful box along side the tall tree, a box so large that it dwarfs the other, smaller packages tucked under the branches. There will be time to open the smaller treasures later, but first you head for the big box. It's so heavy that Dad has to help move it to the center of the room so that you can begin to unwrap it. Pretty soon a large picture of several smiling boys appears. They are playing with toy trains with track laid on the floor and you know that your wish has been granted - you now have a brand new set of trains!

We can only imagine what it must have been like to unwrap a brand new set of standard gauge trains back in those times. But we can come a little closer to knowing what it was like since manufacturers are now producing new standard gauge tinplate sets. It was my great fortune to open a huge box containing Lionel's new standard gauge Commodore Vanderbilt on Christmas day. I was delighted at what I found inside!

Some people are interested only in collecting and operating vintage standard gauge trains, but there is another kind of enjoyment to be had in running a brand new standard gauge set for the very first time, especially one that features beautiful and solid construction and modern features such as remote control and realistic railroad sounds. This in no way takes away from or is meant to replace the special fun of running vintage equipment, rather, it's in addition to what we have, a new and different sort of fun. If a lot of fun with vintage gear is good, then even more fun with vintage trains with the addition of wonderful new trains is even better! Part of the magic of vintage trains is that they're not just for the shelf, they're for running. In a sense these trains are still "living" things, not museum pieces, and so I don't find it in any way inconsistent to combine and enjoy the old with the new.

The Lionel Commodore Vanderbilt set has been reviewed elsewhere, so I'd like to point out what appeals to me personally about this set. The set is modern tinplate to be sure. Believe me, when you unpack this beautiful and spectacular set, you have no doubt that it is a legitimate standard gauge tinplate toy train.

It has so many features that are firmly in the tradition of tinplate such as tinplate construction of the cars and tender, and the unbelievable hulking engine casting.

The 4-6-4 shrouded Hudson loco has large drive rods, valve gear, and huge drive rod screws similar to those used on vintage Lionel steamers. It has steel tires on its cast metal wheels.

The body of the tender is tinplate but the ends are castings complete with interesting details such as steps and the doors to the coal hopper. The engine is linked to the tender with a massive drawbar. The tender (and all the cars) has latch couplers that are sprung!

The three passenger cars that come with the set are reminiscent of vintage state cars with their nicely detailed interiors. The washrooms are there complete with basins and hinged toilet seats.

It's somewhat comical every time I show off one of these cars to a fascinated guest by lifting the toilet seat. The doors are sprung. The acetate in the windows is of a heavy grade. These cars are well built with a combination of tab and slot, and screws used to hold them together.

Each car has two pickup rollers which insures that there is virtually no flickering in the cars as the train moves along the layout. The Pullman and the combine each have two lights for illumination, and the observation car has four lights: two interior coach lights, the platform lamp, plus a small mini-bulb to illuminate the drumhead.

All of the bulbs are bayonet mount except for the special drumhead lamp. Handrails are finished in nickel and secured to the car bodies by the usual small nickel handrail mounts that we are familiar with on tinplate trains. However, to insure that these mounts are secure a dollop of what appears to be clear epoxy has been placed over the tabs on the mounts on the inside surfaces of the cars. This is an example of the great attention to quality construction that is evident on this set.

The black-painted roofs are easily removable and utilize latch mechanisms similar to those we're used to seeing on high end vintage tinplate passenger cars. The cars have coupler support bars. The car bodies are nicely finished in a gray-green color with black underbodies. Car numbers and lettering are in gold. This is a handsome set with an understated sort of beauty. Car interiors are bright thanks to the illumination and the bright green car floors and tan chairs. The four-wheel trucks have stamped steel bolsters with nice detailing including springs and journal boxes.

The wheels are cast and the steel axles mount to the truck bolsters in special bearing castings which are slotted to allow for lubrication. This is another example of the fine design and workmanship that went into this set. I like these cars so much that it pains me to say anything less than positive about them.

However, I do miss the nice brass plates that we're used to seeing affixed to the underbodies of classic period Lionel high end passenger cars, as well as the brass plates on the car sides.

The coach chairs are plastic as are the chairs and tables in the combine unlike the metal pieces in vintage sets. But the cars are so heavy already that I cannot fault Lionel for using a lighter construction material on the inside of the cars.

Operating this set is a lot of fun. I run mine in command mode, which means that I apply 18 volts to the track and then use the CAB-1 remote control to wake up the engine. The sound effects are simply great. Hissing steam, crew talk, tower communications, a wonderful sounding bell, fantastic variable steam whistle sounds: these are just some of the available sound effects. Start the loco off slowly and the steam chug sound is labored until the train picks up speed. Reduce the throttle and the chug sound is relaxed as the engine slows. Add smoke fluid, activate the smoke unit and the steamer looks even more realistic. This is a beautiful, well-constructed set that is a ton of fun to operate. I hope that it's only among the first in a long line of modern day Lionel standard gauge production sets.

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