How To Timeless Classics Lionel No. 3474 Western Pacific Operating Boxcar upgrades any collection

Lionel No. 3474 Western Pacific Operating Boxcar upgrades any collection

By Roger Carp | February 19, 2024

Operating car from 1952-53 adds color and fun

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The Lionel No. 3474 Western Pacific Operating Boxcar upgrades any collection of postwar trains. It was another great model introduced in the outstanding year of 1952, which is covered in detail in Lionel Trains of the 1950s, a special interest publication from Classic Toy Trains.

Silver and yellow toy boxcar
A Lionel No. 3474 Operating Boxcar upgrades any collection of trains from the postwar period while adding fun and animation to O-27 or O gauge railroads.

Over the past few years on, I’ve been suggesting ways hobbyists focusing on collecting trains from that popular era can improve what they have by acquiring certain pieces of rolling stock that tell notable stories, offer loads of fun, or were cataloged for only a short time and so have more value.

Viewers of have responded in positive ways to what my 35 years at Classic Toy Trains have taught me about Lionel’s finest locomotives and pieces of rolling stock. They’ve shared views of favorite items and various freight cars and operating models they praise as classics that their collection or layout wouldn’t be without. The 3474 is an overlooked gem everyone should try to get.

This colorful and fun-filled operating car continues my emphasis on O gauge pieces associated with important trends in design or sales at Lionel after World War II. Postwar enthusiasts should be aware of these trends so they can fully appreciate what decision makers at Lionel achieved during its golden age.

One notable trend

For much of its history, Lionel had offered Standard and O gauge freight cars whose main and probably only benefit was that they mimicked what could be seen on actual railroads. Hoppers, tank cars, and gondolas were exactly that. The boxcars and stockcar offered one slightly entertaining feature: their doors slid open and shut. Flatcars were a bit better, because often came with a wood load.

Then in the late 1930s, thanks to the ingenuity of Frank Pettit and other individuals employed at the large factory Lionel maintained in northern New Jersey, breakthroughs occurred. Using solenoids and electromagnets, Pettit and his colleagues figured out how to add animation to Lionel freight cars. Now, a gondola could dump tiny barrels or coal, a flatcar could unload logs, and an improved boxcar could toss out miniature crates. The world had changed!

After World War II, engineers improved the appearance and performance of the various operating cars. Then came the leap forward associated with the No. 3462 Automatic Refrigerated Milk Car, which made its grand debut in 1947.

The revolutionary milk car inspired more innovation, culminating two years later with the No. 3656 Operating Cattle Car and Corral and the No. X3464 Operating Boxcar. The latter, which came painted and lettered for either the New York Central or the Santa Fe, featured a small figure that strode forward when, at the touch of a button, someone caused the stopped model to open its door and act.

The 3474 carried forward that trend of ingenious operating cars when it entered the cataloged line in 1952 at a price of $5.50 ($63.19 in today’s dollars). Of course, by then the animation seen on the short operating boxcar hardly struck any observer as novel. We can only wonder why executives at Lionel thought a third road name on the familiar model would earn praise and income from folks.

Another trend

Possibly, what decision makers there did think would attract interest from consumers was the why the latest operating boxcar had been decorated. Instead of bringing out a third model painted and lettered for one of the nationally known railroads whose network of track spanned states along the East Coast or ran only east of the Mississippi River, the men at the helm picked a regional line out west.

No documentation has surfaced to explain whether the Western Pacific reached out to Lionel or vice versa. One factor that might have been influencing Lionel was the group of streamlined passenger cars being marketed by American Model Toys. In response, Lionel intended to release new streamliners lettered for the California Zephyr, a train pulled on a part of its route by the Western Pacific.

But why did the toy train maker choose to add another road name to the two operating boxcars already being sold? The Western Pacific couldn’t compete in recognition with the Central or the Santa Fe. Nevertheless, the 3474 did come decorated for that regional line. The reason might reflect a second trend at Lionel.

Real feathers

More and more, engineers and sales leaders at Lionel paid attention to what was happening on full-size railroads in the U.S. Their commitment to realism – manufacturing realistic looking rolling stock and marketing trains reflecting current railroad technology — was growing. The 3474 proved that point because its decoration helped consumers understand key changes in the industry.

Silver boxcars with a bright feather on each side only delighted the folks watching real Western Pacific trains. Until 1950, the WP had painted its boxcars in a familiar reddish brown. It had decorated those cars with a small herald highlighted by a silver feather against a black background. The feather alluded to the railroad’s eastern route through the Feather River into the Sierra Nevadas.

For 1952, the WP decided to join the handful of railroads then painting their boxcars in hues that caused them to stand out. It ordered 20 aluminum cars from Pullman-Standard equipped with steel gates inside to separate the interior into sections and thus better protect partial loads as well as fragile freight.

Known as “Compartmentizer Cars,” those attractive boxcars were delivered wearing silver paint and a bright orange feather decorating each long side. To the right and above the feather was the slogan, “Rides like a Feather,” to remind shippers of Western Pacific’s commitment to careful cargo handling.

Railway Age and Trains & Travel magazines announced the Western Pacific’s unveiling of its 20 special boxcars in December of 1951. To Lionel’s credit, it managed to have a replica within months. Whether conversations were held about adding a regular or an operating boxcar couldn’t be ascertained. The model came painted silver and, to the dismay of laborers, finished with big decals.

Improved model

The fleet of boxcars might have been growing by 1952, but no one could contend its looks were improving. Brown and orange remained the rule. Either way, a silver car with bright yellow graphics (rather than orange) would be good.

Since the number of regular boxcars exceeded the pair of operating ones, planners opted to fit inside the Western Pacific shell everything necessary for it to provide remote-control action. Therefore, the 3474 relied on a plunger mechanism (enclosing a solenoid) attached to the underside of the boxcar’s sheet-metal frame.

The 3474 depended on the electromagnet put in a special track section for its animation. An operator stopped the car at just the right spot and then pressed a button on a remote controller. That energized the magnet, which pulled down the plunger to open a sliding door and bring a figure mounted on a metal rod forward.

The simple yet thrilling sequence devised by Development Engineer Frank Pettit (with some assistance from Chief Engineer Joseph Bonanno, who received a patent for the operating boxcar in 1959) had worked wonders for the two X3464s. Now Lionel would rely on it to make the eye-catching Western Pacific car a hit.

Trial and error

Perhaps because Lionel was still debating how to mass-produce and then use the 3474 Western Pacific Operating Boxcar, errors about it weakened the description in the Advance Catalog for 1952. It was depicted as part of three outfits: one O-27 (No. 1483WS) and two O gauge (Nos. 2179WS and 2183WS). Black-and-white images showed it as a dark model with a darker feather across each side – almost an orange or yellow boxcar with a red feather and white letters.

In addition, the WP car was mistakenly referred to as the “3464” in the listings of the three outfits and the separate-sale cars. Doing so suggested the New York Central and Santa Fe operating boxcars with that number would not be returning to the line (neither of those models was shown in the advance catalog).

The consumer catalog corrected these inaccuracies. The WP car was labeled “3474” and shown as a silver model with an orange feather and black lettering. Now, though, it was a part of only the O-27 outfit. The older 3464s had replaced the newcomer in the O gauge sets designated as having an operating car.

Place of importance

The 3474 deserves our respect as well as a spot in every collection of postwar pieces because it beautifully carried forward the notable trend of giving animation to freight cars that had begun in the final years of the prewar era and continued with operating coal dump cars, merchandise cars, and log cars after World War II. It wonderfully complemented the first two operating boxcars.

The striking silver-painted model with a large yellow feather decal showed how Lionel was attempting to broaden the ways it decorated rolling stock in hopes of mimicking what full-size railroads were doing after World War II. That was a bold move by the toy train producer and suggested what was coming soon with the series of near-scale boxcars identified with the prefix “6464.”

The 2024 edition of Greenberg’s Pocket Price Guide to Lionel Trains specifies a value of $22 for a No. 3474 Western Pacific Operating Boxcar in very good condition and $57 for one in excellent with its original box. Good luck in your search for this hard-to-find and often overlooked beauty that has much to reveal about Lionel design.

Interested in learning about other Lionel postwar items to upgrade your collection?

Lionel set no. 2190W, Santa Fe passenger outfit from 1952

Lionel No. 2855 Sunoco tank cars

Lionel No. 3656 Operating Cattle Car

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