model train set on track

A Tinplate Reproduction But Who Made It?

e*Train Issue: Jul 2008   |   Posted in:

by Bradley Kaplan

There is an old saying that you never know what you are going to find at York. The piece pictured above was one of my acquisitions during the October 2000 meet. At first glance, this piece looks like a normal prewar Lionel #439 control panel, but there is more going on here than meets the eye; this one is brand new.

MTH, which has produced plenty of reproduction Lionel tinplate under both the MTH and Lionel names, has never made a reproduction #439. The only thing that is clear is that this is not an original Lionel #439 panel.

For those who do not know, MTH produced the “Lionel Classics” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After their agreement with Lionel ended, MTH continued making tinplate Lionel reproductions, but obviously removed the Lionel name replacing it with MTH Tinplate Traditions.

One of the “Lionel Classics” reproductions MTH made for Lionel was the #440C controller. The #440C uses the same base and many of the same parts as the #439. The #440C is missing the two center knife switches found on the #439. In their place are switches to control a #440 Signal bridge. Both panels use the same metal base (usually, but not always, painted red). The knife switches are the same. The false amp and volt meters are the same as is the light.

The dealer offering this piece claimed that it is a Lionel Classics. He had several of them and said that he acquired them from a man that passed away who was stockpiling the unit. I found this to be a very strange story. However, I wanted a #439 panel and the $45 price tag, regardless of the manufacturer, was, in my opinion, a fair price.

Certainly, this piece was manufactured by MTH, but who put it together? Was it assembled in the MTH factory, in the MTH parts department, or by the dealer I purchased it from?

The way I was able to determine this to be an MTH piece is from the knife switches. The original Lionel prewar knife switches are labeled “L” and the Lionel Classics that MTH produced for Lionel said “LTI” (standing for Lionel Trains, Inc.). Knife switches produced by MTH in later years are used on some of their tinplate buildings. However, they have never cataloged either #439, or #440 control panels under the MTH name.

An interesting feature of this piece is the “Lionel Lines” tag on the upper left corner. The original panels, to my knowledge, just said “Lionel.” The truly fascinating label is found on the base which states “Made By the Lionel Corporation, New York” which is identical to the vintage original. The #439 tag in the upper right corner matches the prewar Lionel #439 tag.

An oddity is the box this piece came in. All the #439 panels this dealer had were in the same type of MTH Z750 transformer box. The panel does not fit in the box so one of the flaps had to be cut off.

The Lionel prewar panel had dummy “amp” and “volt” meters. This modern reproduction has two false “amp” meters which could mean it was made from leftover parts and there were not any surplus “volt” meters available.

The light in this piece is not wired, but the socket is set up so it can easily be powered. It did come with a light bulb, but I will have to wire it myself. I am left to the conclusion that the production of this panel was definitely not well thought out.

The box and the levers make it very obvious this piece is of MTH origin. Also, I don’t know of any other company that made the red base. The two mystery parts are the #439 tag and the base mount for the knife switches. I do not know if the Lionel Classics pieces were tagged “Made By The Lionel Corporation New York,” but I doubt that they were. MTH sells tinplate parts for those requiring replacements for their prewar Lionel trains. It is feasible that someone in this department, who had some spare time, produced these pieces. It would seem too costly for any manufacturer other than MTH to make the tags and the knife switch panel.

If anyone has any more information on this interesting piece, or if you know whether MTH used these tags on Lionel Classics production, I would appreciate hearing from you. Please send e-mail replies to: [email protected].