Should I run a vintage live-steam locomotive?

Thoughts on running an old engine
Two vintage, 0 scale, Bassett-Lowke locomotives from the author’s collection. Both of these engines are externally fired with alcohol burners.
Jeff Young
We have a proud heritage in the live-steam hobby. There have been well over a 100 years of small-scale-live-steam-locomotive production, with many fine examples of engines from the early years surviving to this day. Also, there are manufacturers over the the past 30 or so years who have produced limited-run models, perhaps totaling only 50 or so examples. Many of these rare models demand substantial prices these days. Even well-used models of a more recent age, from manufacturers who have gone out of business, command good prices because of their scarcity.

With a growing number of vintage or limited-run models being actively sought for collections today, an interesting question arises. If you own vintage or rare live-steam locomotives, do you merely display them or operate them as well? This usually spurs lots of lively discussion amongst live-steam enthusiasts whenever they gather. There are some interesting points of view on both sides.

Folks who purely collect live steamers may argue that running their locomotives will increase the risk of damage and thus reduce their value. A sole example of a very rare live steamer from the early 1900s should probably not be run, as these tended to be externally alcohol fired and often had elaborate paint schemes. An accidental fire could damage a rare piece of our hobby’s history. (Scorched paint is a hallmark of vintage, externally fired pot boilers, by the way.)

Others will argue that these little locomotives should do what they were built to do: be operated under steam. They will contend that the real value comes from seeing a rare or vintage engine in action. I have watched with joy and amazement as a vintage tinplate live steamer from late 1890s was run, performing as well as it did when first built.

Personally, I do enjoy running my vintage live steamers, although my collection is modest and is comprised of models of which many thousand examples were made—nor are mine in pristine condition. My 0 scale, live-steam Bassett-Lowke locomotives are from the mid 1950s and showed significant signs of prior use when I acquired them. In fact, my Basset-Lowke “Enterprise” (the green locomotive in the photo) is famous for having plunged into a swimming pool after a rather nasty high-speed derailment on a former owner’s railway. It certainly won’t win any beauty contests, with its scratched and scorched paint. I have no reservations about running it. The model runs marvelously well, which is a fine testament to the construction quality of these vintage locomotives!

On the plus side, vintage live steamers with less-than-perfect paint finishes tend not to command top dollar from collectors, making them more affordable for those who want to acquire them to run. One thing that I should point out, though, is that if you do acquire a vintage live steamer and plan to run it, make sure the boiler is sound, the safely valve functions properly, and the fuel system does not leak. Many people really enjoy the challenge of tinkering with an old locomotive to get it to work (perhaps even making a replacement part or two).

In summary, I think the answer to the above question probably comes down to the reason a person acquires a vintage or rare live-steam locomotive. Does the enjoyment come from placing the model on a shelf to be admired (and perhaps increase in value over time) or from running it under steam? One thing I do know is that there is no right or wrong answer.


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