Is That Car Really A Variation?
By Jon Bonds
Any collector of toy trains, if he or she collects long enough,
will encounter a piece that doesn’t fit the norm. Something
is different. Perhaps the piece is represented as a variation,
or perhaps no particular claim is made about the piece, but
the collector notices something that is different from similar
How do you know if it is a bona fide variation? Well, sometimes
you can never be sure. But education is your best weapon. Learn
all you can about the piece. Read collectors’ guides,
especially those works about variations, fakes, frauds, and
forgeries. Read or view everything you can get your hands on
that comes from the TCA Standards Committee, videos, books,
pamphlets. Talk to experienced and knowledgeable fellow collectors.
If you have a chance to attend any seminars or workshops on
variations, fakes, frauds, and forgeries, be there.
I am certainly no expert on these matters. I am still a student
of the subject. But I have learned a thing or two during my
years of collecting that I will share with you here. It certainly
won’t be all you need to know, but especially for the
novice, perhaps it will help.
When it comes to variations, there are so many ways that an
individual piece can be made to appear different or unique.
So I am usually a doubter going in. I want something to support
Just because a piece has certain parts as you hold it in your
hand doesn’t necessarily mean that it came that way from
the factory. Trucks can be changed. Boxcar doors can be changed.
In fact, the list of parts that can be changed or altered is
Sometimes the parts were not changed with the intent to defraud,
or to create something bogus. The initial reason may have been
an honorable one, such as giving function to couplers. Over
time, and after the piece has changed hands multiple times,
the modification and its purpose can get lost, and perhaps
someone begins to believe, and ultimately to claim, that they
have a unique variation.
One should be especially wary of toy train rolling stock with
incorrect trucks. It is well-known that throughout the various
Lionel® train eras, it has not been uncommon for a car
to have its trucks changed, for a variety of reasons.
Cars which were issued with non-operating couplers are especially
likely to be altered in this manner. An owner who ran his/her
trains might have wanted the car to have operating couplers
to increase the play value. So he/she might have taken the
car to his/her friendly Lionel® Service Station to have
different trucks with operating couplers mounted under the
If the change was done by a skilled technician using the proper
equipment, it is unlikely that you would be able to tell that
the trucks had been changed. An owner with the proper equipment
and good skills could even do this himself/herself. Years later,
someone mistakenly assumes that the trucks are factory original,
and that the car is a variation.
As an extreme example of just how common truck changes are,
I have in my possession an American Flyer® #24569 Crane
Car. The trucks underneath this car are Lionel® AAR trucks
with operating couplers!
So if you run across a car that has trucks on it that are
different from the trucks that the car was known to have been
released with, be cautious. It is always possible that the
car is a rare variation, but it is much more likely that the
trucks have been changed.
Color is another area where we need to exercise caution. What
appears to be a variation may be nothing more than a color
change, be it natural or man-made. If you know that a piece
should be a certain color and you find a copy of that item
in a different color or with different color lettering, your
first objective should be to rule out a color change.
An item (particularly a plastic one) can change color through
exposure to certain kinds of light, or by exposing it to chemicals,
or even just by natural aging.
Several techniques have been used to produce fraudulent color
change. Acids and dyes have both certainly been used to change
color. Even a highlighting pen can and has been used to alter
the color of lettering on a car.
TCA’s Postwar Lionel Reproduction Handbook Guide by
Joe Algozzini details many instances of fraudulent color change.
Yes, I know that “Handbook Guide” sounds redundant,
but the title is correct as it appears here. This guide, along
with the Greenberg Guide series, is highly recommended reading
for any collector, novice or experienced. In fact, the TCA
guide should probably be characterized as required reading.
So do your homework, learn all that you can about the pieces
that you like to collect, and be cautious and a bit skeptical.
Many knowledgeable and experienced collectors have been fooled
by a bogus piece, so don’t get down on yourself if it
happens to you. Keep good notes on your purchases, especially
from whom you bought the piece, where, and when. And most importantly,
enjoy your trains.