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Lionel 801 cabooses numbered 4390

e*Train Issue: Jan 2004   |   Posted in: ,

By Doug Gordon

Have you bought a train car, taken it home, looked it up in the guide book to learn more, and then found that the mystery deepens? My mystery began with a small brown caboose, having number 4390 on the sides. I’ll start with some background about 801 cabooses, and then continue the story.

Lionel produced its earliest series of 4-wheel O-gauge cabooses for many years, starting in 1915. Nearly all of the cabooses are lettered for the Wabash Railroad, and most are numbered 4890. The early cabooses in the series are brown and later ones are maroon. 4-wheel cabooses are described in the Greenberg prewar O-gauge guide and the TM guide. Richard Vagner and Lou Redman give a wealth of information about these cabooses in a 1989 article in Classic Toy Trains . Using various characteristics, they identify the production date of most caboose variations within a year or two. They outline and date variations of the other 4-wheel freights in the following issue of CTT. These sources led me into the mystery and helped me find an answer.

Several years ago I bought my first 801 caboose at a WB&A train meet. Arriving home, I looked it up in the Greenberg and TM guides to learn more about it. Had I known then that nearly every early car is a variation of some sort, and that finding variations would itself become a hobby, I might have left those books closed. Now I can’t easily replace cars with nicer ones, and my train collection is growing beyond the capacity of my train room. Whenever I see an early car, it differs in some way from the ones I already have. This leads to another purchase. Selling one of the earlier acquisitions means selling a variation.

The 801 from the WB&A meet is the brown version. It has Lionel Lines lettering on the end and no stamping on the bottom, indicating that it is the Manufacturing version.

After consulting Vagner and Redman’s article I think this caboose has type 1 manufacturing lettering, but am not sure. The surprise with this caboose, and what started me on this journey, was the number on its sides, 4390.

The 2001 Greenberg O-gauge book, although including descriptions of a large number of variations, doesn’t include a listing for a caboose numbered 4390. The 2000 TM guide does include the 4390 variation as one of three it lists. At first I thought that the new Greenberg book had a typo on page 99 when describing 801 caboose type B. The 1979 Greenberg book includes the 4390 caboose as an early variation. Later, I encountered the 1988 Greenberg Prewar O-gauge guide. That guide omits the 4390 caboose, but it gives a reason. On page 40 it states “If a group of Wabash cabooses are examined it appears that the number on some of them is “4390”, but it seems probable that this is nothing more than improper stamping.”

But my caboose did not look like a misprint. The 3’s on both sides of the caboose were too sharply drawn. I would expect a 3 on one side and an 8 on the other for a misprint. The numbering on the side shown in photos 1 and 3 clearly is a 3. On the other side of the caboose the lettering is scratched, but is also a 3. This anomaly led to a search for another 4390 caboose for confirmation/contradiction. Unfortunately, there aren’t many early 801’s available at train meets, and I was unsuccessful for two years. (With the advent of eBay, search times are dramatically shortened!) Then I found another one.

The condition wasn’t as nice and it cost me much more than the first caboose, but it also displayed 4390 on both sides. This caboose was also brown and also had Manufacturing lettering. The second caboose gave confirmation that 4390 was a variation and not a misprint.

My third 4390 caboose was special. I bought it at the Lou Redman auction in 2003. This caboose is a very early version, with wide wheel treads and clipped roof corners. It is also numbered 4390 on both sides.

I am relatively sure that 4390 is a legitimate early variation and not a misprint, as I have seen it on all 3 early brown 801 cabooses that I’ve been able to purchase. But, one solved puzzle leads to others. When did the number change from 4390 to 4890?

I’ve bought several later cabooses. These are all maroon and all numbered 4890. All of my maroon cabooses have Lionel Corporation stamped on the bottom of the car and no Lionel Lines lettering on the end. Unfortunately, I have not been able to acquire an 801 caboose with both Lionel Lines lettering and the Corporation stamp. I have this variation on several other cars, but don’t have it for the 801. In their 1988 article, Vagner and Redman show a brown caboose (p 59, upper right corner) numbered 4890. From the evidence of that car, it seems that the number changed to 4890 relatively early in the series, when the cars were still brown and during the Manufacturing era. It seems that maroon cabooses would all be numbered 4890.

I’ll end with two questions for the experts. Are there maroon cars stamped 4390, or was the change made completely within the brown era?

Secondly, I’m not sure if all dual Corporation/Manufacturing stamped cars are brown or if some are maroon. From Vagner and Redman’s chart, it appears that the switch to maroon occurred in 1917, so all would be maroon. The transition caboose in their chart is maroon. There are many of you who have these early cabooses. Perhaps you can help answer these questions.


Vagner, Richard and Lou Redman, “Lionel’s early First Series small 800 freight cars: Part 1,” Classic Toy Trains , Winter 1989, 2:1, 56-60.

Greenberg, Bruce C. Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Trains 1901-42 . Greenberg Publishing Company, 1979. p 85.

Greenberg, Bruce C. Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Trains 1901-42 Volume II: O and OO Gauges , Kalmbach Books, 2001. p 99.

McComas, Tom and Charles Krone, Lionel Illustrated Price Guide and History Vol. 1: 1900-1969 , 100 th Anniversary Edition. P 53.

Rohlfing, Christian F. ed. Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Trains 1901-42 Volume II: O and OO Gauges , Greenberg Publishing Company, 1988. note on p 40. and listing on p 41.

Vagner, Richard and Lou Redman, “Lionel’s early First Series small 800 freight cars: Part 1,” Classic Toy Trains , Winter 1989, 2:1, pp 56-60.