Robert Schleicher talks about Lionel model trains, including the history of the company and the various models and designs they produced. Robert has written multiple books on Lionel trains and slot cars. His newest, The Lionel Legend: An American Icon, was recently published by Motorbooks.
My dad got me a big Lionel train set when I was about 8. Prior to that, when I was a really little kid, he would take me to watch the train switching cars in the Burlington yard in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I played with Lionel until I was about 12 or 13, and then I switched to HO trains, which are half the size. They were more realistic and involved – you had to build them. You actually had to put the cars and the locomotives together from kits. The locomotives were made of metal, and the freight cars were primarily wooden cardboard with some plastic parts and metal wheels.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still collect trains?
Schleicher: Yes and no. I have been a full-time freelance writer, photographer, and publisher in the leisure time industry since about 1965. I’ve edited and published three different model railroad magazines, primarily about HO trains. The Lionel Legend is about the fifth one I did; the first one was back in 1984.
Back in the early 1960s, I started playing with slot cars. It was a brand new hobby at the time. It had just been invented in the late ‘50s. I collected a bunch of information and started writing articles, and in 1967 I wrote my very first book, which was a slot car book. It was about primarily 1/32nd scale slot cars. They’re about the size of a checkbook.
The hobby grew and flourished. There were maybe 6,000 shops by 1972. Then it died because nobody wanted to go to a shop and it got to be really expensive. It was resurrected again in about 1995, only this time, people were racing at home. Lionel actually produced slot car sets.
What’s happened with slot cars about five years ago – and it happened with trains, too, about 20 years ago – is that they applied digital technology, so you can run six cars on one lane and each one’s independently controlled. The track only needs to be two-lanes – one lane for racing and one lane for passing.
Lionel did the same thing 15 years ago. They used to call it Trainmaster, and upgraded the system a few years ago to Legacy. It has digital controls, so you can run a hundred trains at once. It made a huge difference, because before you used to have to worry about turning the power on and off on different parts of the track to run two trains so they wouldn’t run into one another or create a short-circuit. Then there are other digital systems with all the different other kinds of trains, like HO and N scale.
With the digital system, you actually concentrate on your locomotive, and you’ve got to look far enough down the track or actually have operating signals so you don’t run into the other person’s train. You’re actually running the train instead of running the whole railroad. It made a big difference to how people perceive it.
But having said that, I would doubt that many people actually use Legacy. Most of them have a layout with three or four or 20 separate routes, so they just get them all running at once and off they go.
I do that at Christmas. Every Christmas, we put up four Lionel trains. We fill half of the living room and get all four of them running. Actually, it’s done after Christmas, because there isn’t room for presents and trains. I got my daughter involved, who’s now 28, when she was 8. Every Christmas, she added something to her Lionel train set – another car or accessory and eventually another train.
Collectors Weekly: What interests you about Lionel versus other manufacturers?
Schleicher: Lionel has paid more attention to quality. A couple of generations ago, virtually every boy wanted a Lionel train, but they would settle for something cheaper, because Lionel trains were never cheap. To have a fully-operating metal Lionel train set has always been a fairly expensive commitment, so people today will settle for a plastic Lionel train as opposed to one that’s got a metal track.
Lionel has managed to continue a tradition through some pretty serious ups and downs that go back a hundred years. A lot of Lionel’s customers today are older and buying 1970 Plymouth Baracudas or Ford Mustangs that they couldn’t afford when they were younger. Now they can afford to fill their house with Lionel trains, so they do so. It brings back a lot of nostalgia. It fulfills a dream that they’ve had, that they carried all their lives.
The Lionel line is wide enough that it runs all the way from Thomas the Tank to really drop-dead realistic diesels and steam locomotives. From locomotives that were running in the 1940s to locomotives that are running today. No matter what kind or era of railroading might be attractive to you, Lionel has all that stuff.
Above all, compared to all the other trains, Lionel really rumbles and roars. You run a little HO train and it might as well be on the television because it didn’t have any sound to speak of, but if you put a Lionel train on a wooden a floor, you’ll hear the floor rumble. It’s hefty stuff. You’d pick it up and you’d know you’ve got something in your hands. It’s much closer to picking up a real train than any of the other stuff.
Lionel made some bigger trains called G scale. Some G scale trains can be run outdoors, but Lionels cannot. But even the bigger scale models don’t cost any more than the Lionels, because for purposes of cost, they use less metal and more plastic. They’re just bigger, not heftier. Lionel is about the heaviest, heftiest train you can buy. Lionel has some competitors, no doubt, but O scale, Lionel-sized trains are the heftiest mass-produced trains you can buy.
They’re made out of diecast metal mostly; alloys of zinc and tin – the same kind of an alloy that the door handle on your car might be made out of. The wheels and the motors are machined steel or machined nickel silver. They’re virtually all metal. Sometimes the exterior of the locomotive might be plastic, because it’s easier to get crisp detail on plastic, but it’s just a plastic sleeve over a hefty metal chassis.
During World War II, they made diecut cardboard trains for kids to play with because they couldn’t get steel and plastic hadn’t really come into common use. Plastic pretty much came along with the war. They had a primitive plastic before and during the war called Bakelite. A 1940 Ford might have what looks like a plastic steering wheel, and it was probably made out of Bakelite.
Plastic was not really a choice of material. They couldn’t get enough of it, and they couldn’t get steel, so to keep the kids’ interest during the Second World War, Lionel offered them cardboard trains. They weren’t the only ones. You could get cardboard trains on the back of Kix Cereal. Every box of Kix Cereal would have a different cutout train in approximately HO scale on the back.
Cardboard is strictly collectible at this point in time, and I don’t know where you would ever find a Kix train. That was definitely a disposable thing. They reproduced Lionel’s cardboard train, and you can probably buy that now. In that day, there were several companies making cardboard trains. There was a company that made a whole series of cardboard kits during the war. They made trains. They made filling stations with cars and trucks. They made castles. Dollhouses. Farms. Airports. And it was all cardboard.
It was all cut out, and you just had to punch it out with your fingers. There were tabs and slots and the fold lines were die-pressed. A lot of kids played with those things because it was all there was. You could get some wood trains because wood was still available in the 1940s. Lionel hopped right back in after the end of World War II – they were advertising and selling plastic trains in 1946.
Collectors Weekly: Could you tell us a bit about the history of Lionel trains?
Schleicher: They’ve stuck with the same size train, more or less. Before World War II, back in the 1930s, the premium train was called standard gauge. They were almost twice as big as the current Lionel O gauge trains. Lionel was still making O gauge even then, and that was their cheaper train. After the Second World War, they stopped making the big trains, or the standard-gauge trains as they called them.
As an aside, they resurrected that. They reproduced the same dies and started making reproductions in the 1990s of the stuff they were making in the ‘30s. But it’s very much a collector thing.
Lionel’s mainstream for most of their existence has been three-rail O gauge trains. For the first 40 years of their existence from 1900 to 1940, they were mostly stamped out of steel with some diecast parts where it was necessary, like the front of the frames or the wheels. Today they call it tin plate because it was plain, old steel, except it was plated with tin. Lionel made their stuff out of the same kind of materials.
For the first 40 years, it was painted by dipping it in a vat of paint. They didn’t have spray guns. They printed them with a printing pad, like you would in the rubber stamp hobby. Lionel’s trains were lettered with rubber stamps.
Sometime in the 1950s, they finally started spray painting them, so the paint was much more even. There were no drabs or puddles. In the 1980s, mass manufacturers in China perfected the use of a printing process to decorate the equipment. The first patents were held by a German company and the process is called Tampo printing.
The car is made in a steel die, sometimes an aluminum die where they cut a cavity and they inject plastic inside of it. So you have what amounts to a female version of the tank car.
They make that same thing as a second die and etch the lettering into the die so it serves as a printing pad. They fill those cavities in the second die with paint and press it against the side of the car, so they’re literally printing all of the decorations. The process is just unbelievable, and it’s quick. A complicated locomotive might take 50 hits to get all of the different colors because each color is a separate hit. It’s absolutely amazing what they can do.
I actually have a 1/43 scale diecast model of a McLaren exotic supercar that was made back in the early 1990s. It raced at LeMans, which is a 24-hour race in Europe, and this particular car was sponsored by a company that did some of the early Heavy Metal comics, where all of the illustrations are in various shades of gray and are shadowed. This entire car, all the way around – all the sides, the top, and the ends – is decorated with Heavy Metal cartoons. It’s endless and seamless. It’s just amazing. There are no gaps. There are no mistakes. They effectively draped the Heavy Metal comic over it.
So Lionel and everybody else uses the Tampo process to print, and the quality of paint and lettering is outstanding. You can read tiny little letters, literally the size of the point of a pen, because it’s printed and it’s very easily controlled.
But back to the manufacturing, Lionel has always used metal wheels, except on their really cheap battery-powered stuff, and usually metal frames. Staring in the late ‘40s, they started making the detailed parts and the bodies of the frieght and passenger cars of the locomotive out of plastic, because it’s very hard to get really fine, crisp detail in metal. So virtually all of the freight and passenger cars that are mass produced had a plastic body with a metal chassis.
Lionel has a long history. Their trains are not exactly perfectly proportioned. They’re shorter, sometimes narrower, and sometimes a little lower than the real locomotive, because you couldn’t get an accurate replica of a real big locomotive around the tiny, little curves that Lionel tracks have.
Having said that, before the war, Lionel introduced an exact-scale locomotive and three exact-scale freight cars. They produced a few of them after the war, and then they stopped for about 15 or 20 years when they went through their bad part and people stopped buying Lionel trains. But then in the 1980s and early ‘90s, they started again. Lionel now has essentially three separate lines. They have what’s called a toy line, and a nostalgia line, which is either reproductions of or models made similar to what they made in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and they have a super scale line, which is exact scale.
If you’re going to run exact scale, you have to use much bigger tracks. The curves have to be a minimum of 6 feet around, whereas the table stuff that Lionel does is only 3 feet around, so you need a curve twice as big to operate the stuff with scale. Even then, they have to do much to compromise this. In real life, these locomotives would be operating on curves no smaller than about 50 feet. All model railroads have curves that are way too short, but there just isn’t room for curves that are accurate.
The toy stuff sells because it’s inexpensive, so it sells in volume, but the most popular Lionel stuff is the nostalgia collection, the reproductions. A good portion of the Lionel line is exact reproductions of what they made in the 1940s and ‘50s, but they’ve also cut a bunch of new tooling for cars and locomotives that are similarly proportioned to what they made back then. So you can get those same caricatures, probably, but a wider variety of stuff. You have a much broader choice of caricatures of locomotives for Lionel that you can run on a 3-foot curve.
Collectors Weekly: Which eras are considered the most collectible for Lionel?
Schleicher: It would certainly either be the 1940s steam locomotives or the ‘50s and ‘60s motor diesels. There’s very little stuff people are interested in prior to about 1930. Lionel made old Wild West stuff, but people aren’t that interested in it. People’s interest level drops right off a cliff prior to about 1940.
Lionel has diesels from the modern era, and they have complementary lines of freight cars and passenger cars, so if you really want a model of a specific era, Lionel has the cars and locomotives that ran during that era. If you want a model from the 1950s, Lionel has both the diesels and the steam locomotives that operated during that era. Steam disappeared from the railroads in the late ‘50s and it was virtually gone by 1959. Everything was diesel by that time. This all happened just within about 10 years. There was tremendous changeover from steam locomotives to diesel locomotives.
Collectors Weekly: In your book, you talk about specific trains, like the O scale Hudson and the Zephyr. Are there any of those models that are more sought-after than others?
Schleicher: The collector side is a whole separate hobby. It’s like collecting Faberge eggs. There are some anomalies in any production, and the anomalies of any production run are highly collectible. They’re hardly ever taken out of the box.
This is not true of Lionel. Everything that Lionel makes is collectible. Whether they made 20 of them or 20,000, there is a finite number, and if Lionel goes back and reproduces something, they’re very careful to change something so that although it may look the same, it’s easily distinguishable from the original. They don’t devalue whatever value is in the older stuff.
All of their expensive stuff is very limited production. They probably made a dozen different Hudsons, and the older and rarer they are (not necessarily exclusive or rarer) the more they’re worth.
My personal guess is that with HO trains, probably no more than three-fourths of them ever get run. The majority of Lionel trains, however, get run. I’d say 98 percent get run, and they get run a lot. A model railroader will create an extremely realistic model railroad. He’ll run the trains very slowly at the scale speeds of the real one and not very often just like the real ones. Lionel people put four trains running, and they run for three hours, four hours, 10 hours. They just run. That’s part of the mystique of Lionel – because everything is so rugged, they just run.
I don’t have statistics but I would say the majority of Lionel trains are portable. They’re on the floor in the den. They’re on the floor at Christmas. They may be up for a month at Christmas and six months if they’re in the den. More and more people are building dedicated tables and putting their Lionel trains on them.
Scenery is not all that common on hobby Lionel layouts. People tend to move the buildings and the track. Part of what makes Lionel interesting is that it’s so easy to move things around. You get bored with this kind of track configuration, so you change it.
Making scenery is just a pain in the butt. It’s messy. You can’t change it. It’s more of a time commitment than most people want to put in, and most people question their ability to do it. Part of it’s confidence. There isn’t really a paint-by-number system to make scenery. You’ve got to go one step further, and not too many people are willing to take that risk, but they can do it if they try.
Collectors Weekly: What do you think is the most interesting thing about Lionel trains?
Schleicher: Because of their bulk and their own built-in nostalgia, they really are about as close as you can get to the look and feel of having a real train in your basement or your living room. And they’re practical – they run. There’s probably less disappointment among consumers when they run their Lionel trains. It’s the feeling of reliability. It’s the simplest, most effective way to fulfill your dream of having a model railroad in your living room.
Lionel is one of the few companies that really focuses on having what they call Service Stations that are scattered all over the country. You can actually take your Lionel train there and they’ll fix it. Lionel produces replacement parts – motors, gears, wheels, anything that’s worth running. For some of the old, cheap stuff, no, you’re not going to be able to get the parts. If you bought a Lionel toy train for $7 in 1960, it’s probably not going to run anymore and you probably won’t be able to fix it. But anything that anybody invested in is still very much repairable. They were built to be repaired.
Lionel just instigated a big program to retrain their dealers because there’s so much electronics involved now. It used to be you’d take a body off a Lionel locomotive, and there’d be a motor and a light bulb. Now you take the body off a Lionel train and it looks like the back of your television set, just circuits of all kinds.
The reversing mechanism that Lionel uses is electronic and it’s inside the locomotives. The lights are constant, and current Lionel locomotives have sound as an option. It’s not cheap, but it’s real sound. They go out and record a real diesel or a real steam locomotive. They record the actual whistle or the bell, so the model of the current General Electric diesel locomotive sounds different than a current General Motors diesel motor. You can even hear the crew talking. They have a diner where you can hear them cooking and serving food. Given a really big budget, you can get some really incredible things.
The steam locomotives have had smoke since right after the Second World War. It’s essentially odorless and they really do puff. They have a fluid that is completely harmless and, on some, a little pump that’s geared to the motor that puffs the steam every time. It has a little pump and a piston that puffs out the smoke.
Virtually every brand of train has sound, and Lionel’s competitors sometimes have puffing smoke. It’s rare in the smaller scale. Lionel isn’t totally unique in anything they offer. They have competitors for just about everything. They literally have people that make exactly what they make, reproductions of the stuff in the 1950s. Some of their competitors even use their old advertisements because they’re not copyrighted. The collector version is worth $2,000, but you can buy those reproductions for $400.
Just the last year, Lionel has started really pushing that concept themselves. Ignoring their own heritage was a marketing mistake on Lionel’s part, and their competitors picked it up. But they’ve figured it out now.
Lionel’s maintained its tradition through four or five different owners, through periods where nobody cared less about trains, and they’re still there and they’re still the biggest and the best.
Collectors Weekly: Could you tell us a bit about your book, The Lionel Legend?
Schleicher: The purpose of the book was to show the high points in Lionel’s history and put them in perspective; to compare what they made in 1930 with what they make now and to show that there’s a continuous thread. Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Lionel would make what they saw sitting outside their window. Today, those are historic things. Lionel’s still making what’s sitting outside their window, whether it’s a General Electric diesel or an Amtrak train or Acela train. It’s a tradition that hasn’t changed, and people aren’t quite as aware.
Lionel has this incredible model of the Acela Commuter train that runs up and down the northeast quarter. The real train was designed to do 150 miles an hour and has an automatic banking mechanism inside of the cars so that when it goes around the corner very fast, it doesn’t throw the dinner plates across the table. Lionel’s replica of the Acela also banks through the turns.
Originally Lionel stamped cars out of steel and put people as cutouts in the windows. Today, thanks to production capabilities in China, the cars have full interiors. The diner car has tables with people sitting on them. There are actually rest rooms with toilets, but they don’t flush.
Lionel has always been state of the art. They were state of the art in 1930 when they were stamping things out of tin. That’s the best there was. Today, because they’re producing it in China, they can have real locomotive whistles and toilets in the restrooms. You can run a hundred trains at a time, and they have a walk-around controller they’ve had for 20 years now. It looks pretty much like a TV remote, but it’s about twice as big.
With the controller, you can control everything, not just the locomotive and how fast it goes or forward or backward, but the whistle – and not just the whistle but how the whistle sounds or if the notes go up or down. You can control the switches and pick the path where the train goes. If you back up to one of Lionel’s accessories, the coal loader, you can dump your load of coal.
All of these handheld things were pushed by Neil Young. Neil Young has always been involved with Lionel. He has a handicapped child, and he wanted him to be able to run his trains from the chair without having to go up and crawl around them. He’s still very much involved in the Lionel electronics system.
I think that model railroading, and Lionel, will be able to maintain their popularity. For some reason, with every generation, there’s something new that appeals to the little kids with trains. First there was Thomas the Tank, and then along comes Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Express, and then we have the Polar Express, and they’re huge hits. Nobody cared about the Hindenburg and you don’t see aeroplane movies. There’s just something about trains and the sheer fascination of one vehicle following another.
Anyway, back to the book. I’ve had a book in Lionel’s catalogue for 30 years. I wrote one in 1984, and for some reason they almost went broke four times in the 1980s and ‘90s, so they just kept the same book. I could never get them to update it. Ten years ago they finally updated it.
Then about six years ago, they brought out a new track system called FasTrack. It’s even easier to use than their older all-steel track, but you need the book to explain how it all goes together and to show what you can do with this plastic truck. That book’s been on Lionel’s catalogue for the last three or four years. It was easy enough to get help from Lionel and to go to their biggest dealers and find out who was collecting this stuff.
The book is not a collector guide or a price guide. It’s not meant to tell every nuance in the Lionel story. It’s meant to put Lionel in context with itself and with the universe it exists and existed in. My personal problem, as a writer and as a publisher, is that if I publicize the fact that they only made 30 of these and they’re worth $10,000 now, the only person that that’s going to really matter to is a guy that owns one of them, and I suddenly made his $10,000 train worth $15,000. So who did it serve? Nobody except him.
Collectors Weekly: Is the interest in Lionel trains worldwide or primarily in the U.S.?
Schleicher: Primarily the U.S. The Europeans had their own brands. Lionel’s made a few foreign trains, but by and large they only made American trains. There’s a certain appeal in Europe for American trains, but it’s a very small portion of their market. In England they have Hornby. In Germany they have Marklin. In Spain they have Lilliput. Probably 70 percent of the adult male population in England could tell you what a Hornby train is, and it’s the same with Germany and Marklin trains.
They import some of this stuff, so you can buy British trains or German trains. Marklin’s been very active in America, but my guess is they probably sell more Marklin German trains in America than they do Lionel trains in Germany, probably because of people from here going to Europe, especially during the Second World War, and seeing a bunch of German or British trains coming home. They did the same thing with cars.
By the way, Lionel has its own Lionel club, and they have a magazine. There are a couple of other magazines out there, but they’re not exclusively Lionel by any means – “Classic Toy Trains” and “O Gauge Railroading.” They cover Lionel and Lionel’s competitors.
But again, the best resources are the Lionel books, which can be found at book stores or through Lionel dealers.
(All images in this article courtesy Robert Schleicher and his book, “The Lionel Legend: An American Icon”).