Vintage Postwar Lionel Model Trains

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 and uncoupling of cars. It was supposed to be a truly electronic train set, but it didn’t work very well.

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Bernie Schulz’s Lionel Trains Library focuses exclusively on postwar Lionel trains and accessories. The site cont… [read review or visit site]

Airfix Model Railways

Airfix Model Railways

Dave McCarthy's Airfix Model Railway treasure trove is an in-depth archive of the company's plastic railway kits fr… [read review or visit site]

Gateway NMRA

Gateway NMRA

This great reference site for model railroaders, from the Gateway (St. Louis) division of the NMRA (National Model … [read review or visit site]

This site is a treasure trove of HO scale model railroad manufacturer catalogs and other reference information, inv… [read review or visit site]

Eric's Trains

Eric's Trains

Eric Siegel's site displays his collection of O-gauge/O-scale trains, tracks, turntables, and other accessories. A … [read review or visit site]

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

MIT's model railroad club, as one might expect, has one of the best websites for learning about how people play wit… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Post War 1950s Lionel Train 2356 Southern Railway Set W/ Original Box+more!Original Lionel 9673 Sears Space & Military Promotional Outfit - No ReserveExcellent Lionel 226e Locomotive W/ 2226w Tender No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel 2379 Rio Grande F3 Ab Diesel Locomotive Set, Excl, Runs Great, No ReserveOriginal Lionel 665lts - 665 Hudson & 736w Tender In Master Carton - No Reserve#682 Lionel Steam Turbine 1954 Only No Box, Tender, Or Paperwork C-6Lionel Postwar New York Central F-3 A-b-a Set #2344, 2344 & 2344c, 1 PoweredLionel Trains Post War O Gauge # 2331 Vgn Fm Trainmaster DieselOriginal Rare Lionel 5 C Test Set Post War No ReserveLionel Postwar Western Pacific F-3 A-unit Dummy #2355t W. BoxOriginal Lionel 0/027 Gauge New Haven #2350 Ep-5 Train Set W Cars+orig Box+moreLionel Postwar O Gauge 2333 -20 New York Central Nyc F3 Aa Set Power & Dummy NrLionel 345 Culvert Unloading Station & 6342 Nyc Gondola ! O & S Gauge Lionel Post-war No. 282 Portal Gantry Crane-original Box-very Nice Condition!Lionel 681 6-8-6 S2 Steam Locomotive W/2046w-50 Tender#2296w 1957 Canadian Pacific Passenger Set. All Boxes, Paper, Small Parts, Etc.Lionel 726 Berkshire & 2426w Tender W/ Obs, 1946 Version, Clean, Runs, OriginalOriginal Empty Box For Lionel 773 Hudson Locomotive (1950 Version)~nice!Lionel 2023 Union Pacific Gray & Yellow Alco Aa Diesel Locomotive SetLionel Postwar 2671w Tender Pennsylvania O Scale TrainsLionel 1954-55 2356 Southern F-3 Aba Set W/ob's ~gorgeous Condition!~Lionel Train Set No. 1484ws W/ 2056 2046 2421 2422 2423 2429 Set Box DakotapaulLionel Postwar New York Central F-3 A-b-a Set #2354, 2354 & 2344c, 1 PoweredLionel Early Version 726 Complete Frame With Motor & Smoke Bulb, Very NiceLionel Postwar Texas Special F-3 A-b Set #2245, Powered & DummyLionel 736 Berkshire Steam Engine With 2046w Tender C-5 GoodPostwar Lionel 675 2-6-2 K-4 Pacific Die-cast Steam Locomotive W/ Smoke + Ob Nr1958 Lionel 2501w Super-o SetLionel 2331 Black & Yellow Virginian, Fairbanks Morse, Train Master, Ex, No Rsv Vintage Lionel Zw 275 Watt TransformerLionel 726 Berkshire Steam Locomotive & 2671wx 12 Wheel Whistle Tender, No Rsv!Lionel 2379 Rio Grande F3 Ab Diesel Locomotive SetLionel 685 4-6-4 Hudson Die-cast Steam Locomotive ExLionel 1964/66 O-gauge 773 HudsonLionel #2530, 2531, 2532 And 2333 Aluminum Streamline Passenger Cars W/boxes#2002 Lionel1963 Track Make-up Kit Complete Extraordinaraly Rare!!Lionel 2333 New York Central F3 Aa Diesel Locomotive SetLionel No. 681 Prr S-2 Steam Turbine 6-8-6 Locomotive W/2671w Tender!Lionel 2025 2-6-2 Diecast Steam Engine, Good Runner, All Original, Smoke/whistleLionel Postwar Special Set No. X-569na: Rocket Launcher 175 W/engine & CarsLionel 342 Culvert Loading Station & 6342 Nyc Gondola ! O & S Gauge Lionel 221 Nyc Dreyfuss Black 2-6-4 Steam Locomotive & TenderLionel 'o' Post-war 3512 Firefighter & Ladder Car Lot (2 Included!)Lionel Test Run Boxed W/mc Santa Fe 2383 F3 Aa Locomotive SetLionel Postwar 362 Operating Barrel Loader Set 1950's W/ Original Box TrainLionel 1615 0-4-0 Die-cast Steam Switcher Locomotive W/tenderLionel Postwar New York Central F-3 A-a Set #2344, Powered & DummyLionel 2426w Lionel Lines TenderLionel 2046 Steam Engine & 2046w Tender. Tested & Works.Lionel 2046 4-6-4 Steam Locomotive W/ 2046w TenderLionel 1950 Nyc 773 HudsonLionel 1531w Burlington Freight Set From 1955 Beautiful !!!Lionel 2332 Pennsylvania Railroad Gg-1electric Diesel LocomotivePostwar Lionel O Gauge Santa Fe Blue Stripe Passenger Car Set 2412 & 2414 & 2416Lionel 2341 Jersey Central Lines Custom Painted Trainmaster Diesel Shell Ex/boxLionel 282 Bucyrus Erie Remote Control Gantry CraneLionel 'o' Post-war 313 Bascule BridgeLionel 205 Missouri Pacific Alco Aa Diesel Locomotive SetLionel Excellent Santa Fe 2353 F3 Aa Diesel Loco SetLionel F3 2379 2363 2373 2378 Power A Unit, Complete Original Frame Assembly

Recent News: Postwar Lionel Model Trains

Source: Google News

Watch Super Cute Snow Monkeys Check Out Hot Tub at Lincoln Park Zoo
DNAinfo, January 21st

LINCOLN PARK ZOO — At roughly 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, a young female Japanese snow monkey was the first of Lincoln Park Zoo's new residents to take a dip in the zoo's new hot tub. It was a cautious approach: the animal first reached over the ledge to ...Read more

Lambertville Free Public Library announces its upcoming events, January 19th

Thomas and friends will return to Lambertville when Donald Lotz brings his working Lionel train layouts featuring Thomas, Percy and James to the Justice Center on Saturday, Feb. 28. Sponsored by the Free Public Library of Lambertville, this special...Read more

3D Printed Tunnel for a California Family's Snowy Holiday Train Set, January 9th

When his father proposed adding a tunnel to the Mehta family's holiday Lionel train set, the young maker offered his 3D designing and fabricating services. T tunnel piece he elaborate train set, which features details like moving cable cars stretched...Read more

Last stop nears for North Buffalo model train shop but owner's passion carries on
Buffalo News, January 5th

A locomotive tie clip held a tie with Lionel train images of yesteryear against his flannel shirt. Schuh's infatuation with rail began during his childhood years on the East Side, where he watched, mesmerized, the 20th Century Limited whiz by on its...Read more

Railroad lovers travel to model train show in Grayslake
Chicago Daily Herald, December 27th

One vendor's table was loaded with classic electric Lionel train cars, still in their original boxes. Another seller offered toys of the much more modern Thomas the Tank Engine and his brightly colored, plastic friends. Books about trains, T-shirts...Read more

The fascination with Maryland train gardens explained
ABC2 News, December 26th

But no two train gardens are the same, aside from the Lionel train circumnavigating a Christmas tree. So what makes a superb train garden? “Sights, sounds, little people, lights, great buildings, some people recreate a scene that is real, a small...Read more

Lionel trains opens its first NC retail store
Charlotte Observer, October 17th

His older brother, Les, still has the first Lionel train set he got when he was 6. A member of several national train clubs, Phillips considers Lionel the granddaddy of them all. “This is a world headquarters now,” Phillips said. “They ship products...Read more

All Aboard! Lionel Train Adventure Debuts at Lincoln Park Zoo Thursday
DNAinfo, October 2nd

The Lionel Train Adventure "is a great way to engage the youth of today with a hobby that has been loved by so many for 114 years," said Howard Hitchcock, president of Lionel LLC. Lionel Corporation has sold its model trains since 1900, and they're...Read more