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I’ve Got a Golden Ticket
By Dr. Joseph Lechner
I never thought my life could be
Anything but catastrophe,
But suddenly I begin to see
A bit of good luck for me.
'Cause I've got a golden ticket,
I've got a golden twinkle in my eye;
I never had a chance to shine,
Never a happy song to sing,
But suddenly half the world is mine.
Trucks delivered hundreds of cases of candy to the mansion. Frenzied
servants opened chocolate bars by the thousands, discarding the
candy and intent only on finding the elusive golden ticket. After
days of searching, bratty heiress Veruca Salt got her wish.
Willy Wonka's elaborate publicity stunt was a success. He hid
five golden tickets in unmarked chocolate bars. Candy sales were
brisk; and all the tickets were found. Five lucky children got
a tour of the Wonka empire, and Charlie Bucket won the factory.
Mike Wolf, founder and CEO of MTH Electric Trains, is betting
that the same hidden-ticket ploy
will boost sagging sales of his O gauge 3-rail toy trains. He
recently announced the first in a series of four boxcars commemorating
Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. Baby boomers fondly remember this
rock-hard candy bar that shattered into bite-size pieces when
it was smacked against a table. The popular all-day sweet came
in vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and banana flavors.
Wolf plans to offer a vanilla taffy car in May 2003, to be followed
by chocolate and strawberry. Clever marketing strategy! Sell your
customers one item in a series, and they will return time after
time to complete the set. But Wolf is only making fifteen of the
banana taffy cars, and they’re not for sale. Instead, he
plans to conceal tickets inside inconspicuously-unmarked packages
of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry; just five tickets in each
flavor. If you’re lucky enough to buy a boxcar with a ticket
inside, you’ll win a rare, collectible banana car.
That’s Wolf’s theory anyway. He is betting that train
collectors will buy taffy cars by the case and rip them open in
search of the elusive banana ticket.
Unfortunately, Mike is overlooking a crucial point. Those middle-aged
men who buy his stuff are collectors. They prize toy trains so
much that they would never play with one for fear of diminishing
its value. They all agree that the most desirable train is one
that has never been used; a condition that the Train Collectors
Association ironically calls mint. But a recent opinion poll conducted
by the TCA-sponsored Toy Trains Mailing List affirmed overwhelmingly
that a train is only mint if it’s never been removed from
its box. Don’t even break the shrink wrap to peek inside;
you’ll depreciate its value.
Mike Wolf doesn’t seem to realize that 90% of his purple-and-yellow
cartons never even get opened. Some guys will buy a new train
and set it on their shelf, still in the box. Their train room
looks like the toy floor of a well-stocked urban department store
from 1950. Don’t get me wrong; these guys really do enjoy
their collections. Just being around all those boxes brings back
the joyful anticipation that they felt when they visited the train
department at Macy’s when they were five years old.
Other hobbyists will buy trains and then use them as a medium
of exchange. Some of them have added a back room to the house
and set up rows of shelves to warehouse their merchandise. One
collector in Seattle even tunneled underneath his driveway to
create a safe hideaway for his cache of trains. These folks will
join the TCA just so they can rent a table at its semiannual train
shows in York, PA. They’ll buy a sixteen-foot trailer, and
an SUV to tow it, so that they can haul all their cargo to and
from swap meets. What happens to a train after it’s sold
at a TCA meet? Does the happy purchaser take it home and play
with it? Naah, he’ll bring it back to York next year and
sell it for a dollar more.
Which brings me back to my original point: Mr. Wolf, save your
money. Don’t bother with special tooling just to make fifteen
banana taffy cars. No one will ever claim them anyway, because
no one is going to risk opening a brand-new train package to go
looking for your coupon.
I know what I’m talking about. Bigger toy companies than
yours have tried and failed. Last year, Lionel LLC tried to stimulate
sales by offering $75 rebates on some of its most expensive new
engines. But to get the rebate, you had to cut out a proof-of-purchase
that was printed on the box. Collectors didn’t send for
their rebates! They figured a mint New York Central F-3 would
lose more than $75 in equity if the box was cut.
But this wasn’t the first Lionel coupon fiasco. In 1955,
the Lionel Toy Corporation was worried about declining sales of
its O gauge trains. And with good reason: little boys were becoming
more interested in airplanes. Those who still liked model railroads
were choosing the smaller HO scale. Lawrence Cowen thought a coupon
caper would stimulate sales.
So Lionel employees gathered up some unsold items from the factory
and set them aside as prizes. In 1955, they had just introduced
models of General Motors’ GP-7 road switcher. The deluxe
version, number 2338, was painted orange and black and lettered
for the Milwaukee Road. Some of these engines had an orange stripe
under the cab window; most had an all-black cab. The real Milwaukee
Road engine had orange on the cab; but Lionel customers complained
that the interior lighting shone through the plastic shell and
made the engine glow in the dark, so dealers returned most of
the orange-cab engines to the factory, and their cabs were repainted
black. That is, all but the handful that Cowen ordered impounded
for his promotion.
Another unsold item that Lionel had too many of in 1955 was number
6468, a model of a double-door automobile boxcar used by
the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Most 6468s had been painted an
attractive sapphire blue, but in 1955 a couple day’s production
were painted dull red by mistake. Cowen was sure these red cars
would never sell. He packed most of them in a special-order set
for a department store, pulled by a Santa Fe F3 diesel, just to
get rid of them. But there were still several hundred red 6468s
To encourage sales, Cowen printed special certificates and placed
them inside ten randomly-selected red B&O boxcars. The certificate
was rolled up and placed inside the car, then all four doors were
closed, the car was placed in its orange and blue carton, and
the flaps were sealed with tape. The ten certificates were personally
signed by Cowen, and they could be redeemed by mailing to Lionel’s
service department in Hillside, New Jersey. Each certificate was
good for one brand new orange-cab Milwaukee Road GP7. The coupon
had no expiration date.
Naturally, Cowen intended to advertise these coupons and their
highly-desirable premiums. Unfortunately, due to a marketing-department
mixup, this never happened. No coupons were mentioned in Lionel’s
1955 consumer catalog. Nothing appeared in
the firm’s ads in Boy’s Life or comic books. Not a
word was said in Lionel’s annual letter to its network of
dealers. The certificates left the factory in a big shipment destined
for Chicago, and no one ever saw them again.
Service manager Lenny Dean placed those ten 2338s in a vault at
the Lionel factory in December 1955. Fourteen years later, he
was there to help close the factory, and all the diesels were
Lenny Dean is an honorable businessman. He is highly respected
by toy train collectors, and when he appears at a Toy Fair or
a York, hundreds of fans will line up to shake his hand or to
get his autograph. Lenny Dean views a coupon as a binding contract.
Somewhere out there, somebody has those certificates and is entitled
to claim their premiums. So, when Lionel’s assets were sold
to General Mills in 1970, Dean saw to it that the orange 2338s
got moved to Mount Clemens, Michigan. They were still there in
1986 when Richard Kughn took over the company. They are still
there today. Lionel LLC’s Bill Bracy has pledged himself
to honor the offer that his predecessor Lawrence Cowen made almost
fifty years ago. The Milwaukee Geeps were still safely locked
away when Lionel’s tooling was moved to China and most of
the leftover inventory was auctioned off in 2002.
They are still waiting for somebody to bring in the coupons and
The terms of this offer are very simple. You simply find the certificate
rolled up inside a red 6468 B&O boxcar, take it to Lionel
headquarters, and ask for your orange Geep.
Why haven’t any of these coupons been discovered? A 6468
has double doors that slide wide open. This car was specifically
designed to hold those miniature Ford Fairlanes that came with
Lionel’s 6414 Auto-Loader and 6424 flat car. The certificates
are 9” long, so even when they’re rolled up, they
completely fill the interior of the boxcar. Slide open the doors,
and if there’s a coupon inside, you’ll find it right
away. You can’t miss it. But since 1955, not one of these
certificates has ever turned up inside any of the thousands of
6468s that have been opened and played with. This can only mean
one thing: there are ten factory sealed, mint-in-box tuscan 6468s
still out there somewhere, each with Lawrence Cowen’s autograph
inside them. Do you have one? What are you waiting for? Break
the seal, open the carton, and look inside that boxcar. You may
already be a winner!
P.S. The coupons are printed on parchment with imitation gold
ink, similar to stock certificates issued by Lionel Toy Corporation
throughout the 1950s. Since the ink is non-metallic, you cannot
detect the coupon by X raying a sealed carton. You’ve got
to open the box! To win, you’ve got to enter!