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Lionel's Prewar Switchers, Poster Child for the Semi-Scale Movement?

By Tom Panettiere

Lionel's line of prewar switchers were based on the Pennsylvania Railroad's B6 class of steam switchers with their classic slope-back tenders. The field includes the scale 701 locomotive with its 8976 front number plate, scale coupler and shorter flanges to operate on T-shaped O gauge scale track.

Most would agree that the 701 has no problem being categorized, carrying the clear distinction of the "Scale" banner among the many offerings of Lionel's prewar switchers. Besides the 701, there was the 227, 228, 230, 231, 232 and 233 which all shared the same 0-6-0 wheel configuration and larger boilers. There was also the smaller-boilered 201 and 203 with 0-6-0 configuration and finally the 0-4-0 variations of the 1662 and 1663.

Confused yet?

Well, if the 701 is considered the scale version, what do we call the other releases?

Louis H. Hertz included either the 701 or possibly the whole family of Lionel's prewar steam switchers in with some lofty company when he said the following from his classic 1944 book, Riding the Tinplate Rails:

The finest model railroad equipment of all is that which combines tinplate quality with faithfully reproduced and properly proportioned (or scaled ) external detail and finish. Such models, the Lionel O and OO gauge Hudsons, the Lionel deluxe O gauge switcher, the Hornby Princess Elizabeth, and the Maerklin O gauge Hudson and Commodore Vanderbilt, for example are known as scale tinplate, and combine mass production with realism.

So, maybe Mr. Hertz was including all of them or maybe just the 701 when he described the Lionel deluxe O gauge switcher in his label of scale-tinplate. Based on the few differences between the 701 and the others in the family, I would argue he is referring to all of them, but that is just my interpretation based on what Mr. Hertz wrote back in 1944. Coming forward from 1944 to nowadays, the term "Scale" has evolved and is readily accepted today for the 701. If scale now defines the 701 what about all the other prewar steam switchers? What should we call them? For many years, the term semi-scale was used by operators/collectors to describe at least those with the 0-6-0 wheel arrangement and the longer boilers, which includes #227, 228, 230, 231, 232 and 233. While it’s possible the term may have been used earlier, usage of “semi-scale” was at least used as early as June 1936 when an article appeared in that month’s & year’s edition of Model Craftsman magazine including this in the title, “From Tinplate to Semi-Scale.” This is somewhat interesting in that it pre-dates Lionel’s prewar scale Hudson being released in 1937 and the scale 701 B6 switcher along with the #227, 228, 230 and 231 all of which first came out 2 years later, in 1939. I personally have no problem with the term and for purposes of this article, we'll accept it and use it here. If the 701 is considered scale, what else would you call the rest of the siblings? Semi-scale seems to be perfectly acceptable. However, some folks did not accept the label over the years with responses like, "Semi-scale is like being semi-pregnant!" To me, that seemed not only offensive to the locomotives, but to all women!

Lionel itself does not appear to have used this terminology of semi-scale until fairly recently and now many new models are labeled with that description. An examination of Lionel ads and catalogs from the 1939-42 period does not show semi-scale being used even in the slightest bit. Instead, scale model switching engine was used at least in one catalog for the #701, as well as for the #227 and #228. This catalog was effective August 1, 1940. In the same catalog, even one of Lionel s 0-4-0 versions, the #1663, had the same terminology used. Most of us would not put either of the 0-4-0 offerings (#1662 and #1663) in the same category, as the boiler shells and tenders are quite noticeably shorter than the 0-6-0 models with longer boilers.

Operating any of the prewar steam switchers can be quite entertaining. For many of us, they have enough detail to satisfy our rivet counting side of the brain. Yes, there are much more detailed locomotives out there nowadays that literally put the prewar switchers to shame, but how long will these modern circuit-board equipped wonders continue to operate? It always amazes me to watch various toy train blogs and then see my #XXXX locomotive just blew up and the circuit board is fried, my engine eats up its traction tires, my locomotive won't start up and so on. Having said that, the prewar switchers have their shortcomings, mainly frayed wiring after approaching approximately 80 years or more of service. However, these prewar switchers, properly maintained can easily last another 80 years.

The collecting aspect of these prewar steam switchers can be expensive. Do you need every one? If you do, be prepared to ante up some money. On the average, most can be found for around $700 if one looks hard enough. Ones in better condition, rarer and with boxes will bring higher prices, ones in worse shape can be more like bargains. I have them all with a few duplicates.

One of the author's abused #227 basket cases found through eBay, later restored. The before (above), and after (below) are shown. It had a few problems: the e-unit coil needed to be rewound; it needed new idler wheels and brush tube caps; all broken stanchions had to be drilled out and replaced; the mis-shaped cap roof had to be rounded; and finally it needed a new smoke box/headlight and handrails, just to name a few of the repairs.

One collector and operator of these locomotives describes the horizontal e-unit as the best in his opinion of anything that Lionel ever made, in terms of simplicity and for the ease of repair. I would agree with that as I never had any issues except for the e-unit coil of my most recent locomotive, but this was an abused locomotive from top to bottom. Someone else once described these locomotives as being similar to a fine German watch. I really believe that to be true after working on two of my most recently purchased prewar switchers which originally could have been described as basket cases. To see all the individual, carefully machined parts and to get them running again is like bringing a small piece of history back. They remind us of a time when intricate items like this were made in the USA and when such craftsmanship was at its peak.

The author's #228 operating on his former 11x4 switching layout in 2011 in Peekskill, NY. Tom once told a friend who worked for Metro-North that his railroad had a third rail on his layout in Peekskill after Metro-North was unsuccessful years earlier in extending its electrified third rail to Peekskill. The Metro-North employee then pointed out: "Yes, but I see you are still running steam!"

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