During World War II, Lionel’s Irvington, New Jersey factory was kept busy fulfilling government war contracts for binnacles and other navigational aids for ships, a particularly important task in the days before radar. On the side, Lionel also produced an assemble-it-yourself train-in-a-box made of cardboard, with wood for the axles. It included everything from a locomotive and caboose to 198 inches of O-gauge track. The company also sold a wood pull train for patriotic kids who had donated their old Lionels to scrap drives.
In 1945, Lionel achieved two technological breakthroughs. The first was the creation of an automatic knuckle coupler, which was opened by a combination of trip devices in special sections of track that activated an onboard electromagnet. The next year, the company introduced a steam locomotive that actually belched smoke. The puffs were the result of an ammonium nitrate pellet placed on a specially engineered dimple in the train’s headlight to produce nitrogen oxide.
One of its first postwar trains was the No. 671, a black behemoth with a 6-8-6 wheel configuration. Radio receivers in each car of a No. 671 set were designed to trigger coupling...
To increase the play value in layouts, in 1947 Lionel introduced its Automatic Milk Car, which featured a little man that popped out of the car to push milk cans onto an awaiting platform. Other vintage Lionel accessories that are today quite collectible are the water tower, coal elevator, magnetic crane, and operating watchman.
Lionel’s No. 726 Berkshire followed in 1948, as did the 20-wheel GG-1. A replica of the Pennsylvania train of the same name, with styling by industrial designer Raymond Loewy, Lionel’s GG-1 could draw power from either the third rail in the tracks or lines strung overhead.
These were impressive trains, but all would be eclipsed by the F3 diesels Lionel introduced that same busy year. Until now, kids had only East Coast and Midwestern trains to play with, but the Santa Fe F3 changed all that. With its bright red nose, classic yellow detailing, and sleek aluminum body, the Santa Fe became the Lionel to play with and collect. Other F3s in this iconic O scale line are the Milwaukee Road, Illinois Central, Wabash, Southern, and, later, the B&O.
To power its new diesel line, in 1948 Lionel introduced the ZW transformer, which was strong enough (275 watts) to move four model trains at once. And as the decade ended and the 1950s began, Lionel trumpeted a new featured, Magne-Traction, which used magnets in its engines to increase pulling power, speed, and control.
The 1950s began as a decade for Lionel to reap what it had sowed. By 1953 it was the largest toy manufacturer in the world, and every year, it seemed, brought some new, even-more-wonderful machine. The innovations were not just limited to the new diesels, either. 1957 saw the debut of the No. 746 Norfolk & Western, a powerful looking streamline steamer with gorgeous lines and a handsome, rounded nose.
But in the 1950s, air travel was replacing train travel, and a new network of interstate freeways was replacing the nation’s railroad system. Thus, Lionel struggled to create products that would keep it relevant.
Predictably, a pink train for girls in 1957 bombed, although vintage examples of this so-called Lady Lionel are highly sought by collectors today. Even more prized are the companion baby-blue trains made for boys, which were so scorned they were not even released. To capitalize on the infamous reputations of these two disasters, Lionel reissued both as collectibles in 1991.
No better were the trains made to help fight the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some featured flat cars that carried ominous chambers labeled "Radioactive Waste." Other cars were configured to fire missiles at enemies or to explode and break apart on contact.
By the end of the 1950s, with the Cowen family selling its shares to a group of investors that included former Joseph McCarthy lawyer Roy Cohn, once-great Lionel was on thin ice. In the 1960s, it dabbled in science kits and introduced lesser versions of earlier achievements, but by 1967, Lionel would file for bankruptcy. It would do so again in 2004 and 2008.
Interviews & Articles
The first train I ever played with was during World War II in New York City. At the time we had blackouts because officials were w… [more]
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 … [more]
We’ve been operating Dan’s Train Depot, which is the parent company of BrassTrains.com, for about 11 years now. We bought out a ve… [more]
The NMRA library’s original purpose was to focus on model railroading, but over time we’ve also received donations that have helpe… [more]
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Rail fest chugs into Homewood SundaySouthtownStar, May 16th
Three model Lionel train layouts will be set up for kids to drive the trains. Children also get the opportunity to ride on Little Obie, a scale model of a Canadian National locomotive that comes with a flatcar and a caboose. Little Obie helps promote...Read more
Our View: Richard Brewer: A 21st century leaderNorwich Bulletin, May 7th
That is, of course, when he's not in the basement of his Massachusetts home with his grandchildren playing master train conductor with the model trains he's accumulated over the years, beginning with his first Lionel train set as a child — and which...Read more
How we made: The Railway ChildrenThe Guardian, May 6th
Jenny Agutter, actor. I was reluctant to accept the role of Roberta because I'd played her two years earlier in a BBC series, and had since left school. I'd filmed Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, so it felt like going backwards. But the director Lionel...Read more
Smell of smoke shuts three métro lines for 40 minutes - Montreal GazetteMontreal Gazette, May 5th
MONTREAL — Sunday made for another frustrating day for métro riders, as back-to-back disruptions halted service on sections of the green, orange and yellow lines. Société de transport de Montréal official Amélie Régis said service on a section of the...Read more
Torrington Model Railroaders celebrate National Train DayTorrington Register Citizen, May 4th
TORRINGTON>> National Train Day will not pass unheralded in Torrington. Members of the Torrington Area Model Railroaders gathered at their Lewis Street clubhouse to host an open house, with many tiny electric trains whizzing around the tracks in...Read more
Jacket Baseball Has Big Scare, Knight OKGrundy County Herald, April 30th
Kenneth has pieces of a Lionel train set which once belonged to his father. The train was taken out at Christmas, run for a trip or two, and then stored away where two little inquisitive boys couldn't bother it. Sad, I think. However, that train was...Read more
Hansen: Model trains and the middle-aged men who love themOmaha World-Herald, April 29th
He points out a Lionel train — the first popular model train, introduced in 1901 and inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame alongside the Easy Bake Oven. We meet a man and fall into a conversation about a recent “operating session.” One day in January, a...Read more
Final Word: Can I take someone else's child to work? - USA TodayUSA TODAY, April 23rd
My niece and nephews, now their 30s, still remember Christmases at their grandparents', when we'd run the old Lionel train over "Farmer Jones" and his wife, little plastic figures who just happened to end up on the tracks. They thought it the funniest...Read more