Prototype Lionel 517 Caboose With Box Couplers
In 1935 Lionel introduced the box coupler in the O gauge line. For years collectors have speculated that Lionel had considered putting these couplers on their standard gauge trains. Some cars were even rumored to have been made. Until a few days ago, I had never seen one or heard from any reputable source of the actual existence of one of these cars. The photo below shows one of these cars. This may be the only surviving car or could be the only car made with the couplers.
This Standard Gauge 517 caboose proves Lionel had considered using the new couplers on standard gauge trains. The caboose has all the characteristics of a 1935 car. Red paint, nickel plates, and nickel observation railings are 1935-36 production. The bottom of this car is different from any other known car. Below you can see pictures of the differences along with comparison photos of a normal 517 caboose.
In the photo above the unusual caboose is sitting under a normal 517 caboose from 1932. This car has a heavily modified frame to accept the box coupler and it's self centering device. The trucks are mounted closer to the ends of the car. A large rectangle was cut out of the frame where the original truck mounting hole was and then replaced with a new piece with holes closer to the ends. The triangle shaped truck block has been flattened with a press. Note the tongues coming out of the trucks.
The photo above shows the underside of a truck and the tongue. This is the same method used to attach box couplers on O gauge cars. See this page for pictures of 800 series O gauge frames. Note there is no evidence a coupler pocket was ever on this car. There are no scratches around the slots or the coupler pin hole. You can see the rectangle of new metal in this picture. It has bluing on it. Bluing is used when working with sheet metal so scribed lines show up better.
Here's a shot showing the inside of the car with the normal car on top. The truck attachment clips are correct for 1935.
This is a closeup of the inside of the car. The slot the coupler pivots on is punched into the frame. You can see the added rectangle really well in this picture.
Here's a comparison of the prototype truck with a regular truck. Note the difference in the embossing to create the springs and the shape of the truck. The prototype truck has a more realistic appearance.
This photo shows the end of the car from above. There are no scratches around the slots for the latch coupler pocket. There should be a cast hood on the coupler. It was missing when the car was purchased from the original owner's grandson.
The car end is compared with a regular production car in the above photograph. Note the slot the coupler comes out is wider to accommodate the box coupler. Compare where it lines up with the railings above.
This unusual car creates as many questions as it answers. Lionel was obviously considering putting box couplers onto the standard gauge line.
However Lionel had not introduced a new item in Standard gauge since 1933. In order to convert the line all the frames would have to be changed. The whistle mounting holes might need to be moved, the tank car would need body modification because the trucks would be mounting under the tank supports. Other obstacles might come up necessitating changes to cars, I don't even know if this car would clear a switch. Whatever the problems for the engineering department, Lionel was emphasizing O gauge and introducing realistic trains like the 752E City of Portland and the new for 1935 Hiawatha. The 700E scale Hudson was already in the tooling stages. Lionel decided to abandon the standard gauge line and never added box couplers.
While examining this car and talking with other collectors, I have come to the conclusion that other cars MUST have been made. If Lionel went to the trouble of making one of these cars, they would have made a few to see how well they ran together. Also why wasn't this new, better looking side frame used? They went to the expense of creating it, it should have been easy to put into production.
Additional Note Since I posted these pictures, I have talked to a few collectors with interesting feedback. One gentleman in New Jersey has a box of trucks similar to the ones on this 517 caboose. He also has a base for a 520 searchlight car with the same rectangular modifications. He purchased them from the Lionel Factory in the mid 1960s. A few other collectors mention a matching 515 tank car. I have not been able to track down the owner of the tanker. Perhaps there was a whole set of these cars?