Like the aquarium car and the mint car, the searchlight car has become a model classic with very loose ties to the real world. Still, they are one of those fun cars that just looks right at home on a model railroad.
If you look long and hard through the far corners of the internet, you may just come across a few photos of actual searchlight cars. Those that most closely resemble the models we’ve come to know were used on several different continents during wartime to search the night sky for enemy aircraft. Mounted on small railcars for easy movement, they had little other connection to the trains themselves.
Lighting has been applied to many other types of equipment for night operations however. Many wreck cranes were equipped with smaller lights which would help operators attach cables and guide the boom. Today, portable generators and large lights are also commonly trucked into a wreck site and positioned around the operation for safety. You might not associate searchlights with passenger trains, but the B&O mounted small lights on the roof of its dome cars on the Capitol Limited so that passengers could enjoy the mountain scenery of the Cumberland Narrows as the train passed through after dark.
What we commonly think of when it comes to searchlight cars, a large spotlight mounted on a flatcar, originated in the 1930s with Marx and Lionel. Lionel’s No. 2620 featured a single light and the 2820 featured a pair of searchlights on a longer flatcar. Lionel’s first postwar No. 6520 Searchlight car debuted in 1949 and included a molded generator on the center section of a depressed-center car, with the operating searchlight mounted on one end. There have been many variations on the theme since then, including the 3650 extension searchlight which had a removable light attached to a cable mounted in the center of the car. The cars have been sold as part of many sets and individually.
The searchlight car was not limited to Lionel or to O Gauge. The popular cars have been produced in HO by Tyco, AHM, Life-Like, Model Power and others. In S by American Flyer and Lionel, and in G by LGB and more. O Gauge models have also been produced by K-Line and MTH. Despite a very limited connection to the prototype, these cars are fun and reliable accessories that add a lot of action to a toy train. Whether you use it to spot the enemy, light up the trackworkers, or celebrate the new release at the local cinema, for collectors, no classic display would be complete without at least one of these cars..