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    

Vintage Lionel Train Set 2100 With Box Lionel Scarce Black Ggi Pass Set High Grade All Orig Ob..............tkPostwar Lionel #356-35 Set Of 2 Original Trucks W/luggage W/orig. BoxLionel 1562w 2328 Burlington Gp-7 Red Stripe Passenger Set, Spectacular Mtob!Lionel #65 Postwar Handcar CarOriginal Lionel 6803 Marine Corps Tank & Sound Truck Car In Ob - No ReserveComplete Original Lionel Postwar 175 Rocket Launcher W/ Ob, Manual - No ReserveVintage Lionel 2046 Locomotive And 2046w Tender From Estate Sale OguageLionel Trains-lionel Diesel Hiawatha 250-e, Milwaukee Road 782, 783, 784, B Unit1950's Lionel 0-027 Gauge 2037 2-6-4 Steam Locomotive & 6026w Whistle Tender VgLionel 1563w - Wabash 2240 - Boxed W/ Set BoxLionel Rare Postwar #2549w " Mighty Military Diesel Outfit - Setbox -box OnlyNice Set Of (3) Lionel Passenger Cars # 2421 2422 2423 + Boxes (dakotapaul)Lionel 2331 Virginian Fm Trainmaster Powered Diesel LocomotiveLionel Postwar Signals: 252, 140, 153, 151 & 253 (8)Vintage Lionel Early Postwar Passenger Set 2442 2443 Postwar 2333 2344 New York Central Diesel F-3 Powered Engine LocomotiveLionel No. 249e Prewar Gm Gray Locomotive & 265w Tender No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel Postwar Signals & Street Lamps (13)Lionel Very Clean 4 Car Set Hex Head Rivets W Crisp Ob And Inserts..............Lionel Postwar 2368 Powered Unit Baltimore & Ohio Engine Locomotive O Gauge CarLionel Train Set No. 2167ws, 681, 2671w, 3464 6264 6457 +set Box (dakotapaul)Lionel Postwar Set # 1503ws, 2055, 6026w, 6456, 6462, 6465 +set Box (dakotapaul)Lionel Postwar 2426 Die Cast Tender Lionel Early Postwar 2343 Santa Fe F3 Powered A Unit With Screens & Horn Lionel 611 Jersey Central Nw-2 Powered Diesel Locomotive ExLionel 1033 90 Watt Transformer With Whistle (4)Lionel Early Heat Stamped Vari 2025/2466wx Tender.........tkNew Old Stock Lionel Locomotive W/smoke Chamber 685 & Tender 6026 W Orig. BoxesLionel 2020 6-8-6 Die-cast Steam Turbine LocomotiveLionel #2350 New Haven Ep-5 Electric Locomotive (tmcc And Railsounds Upgrade)Lionel Model Trains 8952 8059 8953 Prr F3 Diesel Locomotives Aba Units O GaugeLionel Postwar Green Pullman & Observation Cars: 6440, 6440 & 6441(3) Lionel 97c Controller For 97 Coal Elevator & 164 Log Loader. Original Knob. #2.Scarce 1962 Postwar Lionel Dealer Service Station 5f Test Set, ExLionel Texas Special Freight Set 210t 210p 6801-50 6112-1 6014 6424-60 6465 6017 Lionel Early Postwar 2343 Santa Fe F3 Non Powered B Unit With Roof Screens Lionel 397 Rubber Belt Coal Loader & 97 Operating Coal Elevator/loaderVintage Lionel Train Set-(6) Pennsylvania Passenger Trains-6-9570-9575 (5) BoxedLionel 275 Watt Zw Transformer~w/nice Orange Ob & InstructionsLionel #375 Motorized Turntable~complete~w/nice Ob & InstructionsLionel Postwar Passenger Cars: 2421, 2422, 2423 (3) Ex/boxOriginal Lionel 2553 Blair Manor Canadian Pacific Pullman Car - No ReserveLionel Scarce Variation 600 Mkt Switcher Ex................tkLionel 3662 Operating Milk Car~complete~w/ob & InstructionsLionel Rare Postwar 59 Us Air Force Minuteman Nice Serviced SwitcherOriginal Lionel 6820 Flat Car With Missile Transport Helicopter - No Reserve4-6-4 Lionel Lines Steam Locomotive 2055Vintage Lionel Trains-4 Diff. Pennsylvania Passenger Trains-high Grade-9507-9510Lionel 238e 4-4-2 Pennsylvania Gunmetal Streamline Locomotive - Tested Run WellLionel O 350 Transfer Table Accessory Clean 503082Original Lionel 145-100 Automatic Gateman In Ob - No ReserveLionel Prewar No. 2957 "o" Semi-scale Nyc Caboose No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel Trains 6-8477 New York Central Gp-9 Diesel Engine Locomotive O Gauge CarPostwar #2333 2344 New York Central Diesel F-3 Dummy Engine LocomotiveLionel 6414 Light Red Auto Loader W Cheepy Autos All Orig.............tkLionel Postwar 6807 & 6809 Usmc Flat Cars W/ Boat And Gun Truck From 1958-59 C-7Lionel 2046w-50 Pennsylvania Tender W/whistleLionel 3444 Erie Animated Gondola Cop/hobo With Box!Lionel 2046w-50 Pennsylvania Whistle Tender~nice Original~w/ob

Recent News: Postwar Lionel Model Trains

Source: Google News

PUBLIC SALES: 'Martyr's Mirror' printed in 1685 sells for $3525
LancasterOnline, March 29th

There were 468 registered bidders in attendance. Several items and prices included: a cast iron boat, $1,025; a Bakelite radio, $550; a taffy cutter, $290; a Lionel train set, $260; a pair of Leica binoculars, $475; a 7 Up cooler, $200; a German arm...Read more

Antique trains bring Shrewsbury family together for holiday tradition
Community Advocate, March 25th

A few years ago, he handed down his original Lionel train set from when he was a boy. Now, on his yearly visits, Pop-pop and the boys spend the week creating an elaborate village in the basement of his daughter Gail and son-in-law Kevin's home...Read more

Going Off the Pills
Wall Street Journal, March 25th

But she tends to see the brain as something akin to a Lionel Train set, simply constructed, with specific areas devoted to discrete psychological activities. Here's how the past affects the present: “The memory centers of the hippocampus will grade how ...Read more

Angelo Ferrara, 97, March 17th

He enjoyed model trains and was an avid Lionel train "engineer," with an elaborate train setup in his basement, including desert scenes modeled after those used in Indio, Calif., for troop training in Europe during World War II. He also was a skilled ...Read more

All aboard for April train show
Algona Upper Des Moines, March 12th

ALGONA — Arlen Benschoter's massive 'O' scale Lionel train display at the Kossuth County Agriculture and Motorsports Museum will be the feature of a model train show on Saturday, April 18, sponsored by the Prairie Lakes Division of the National Model ...Read more

Rails in the Garden: 16-stop tour is free
Arizona Daily Star, February 28th

Barry, a Lionel train fan as a child, was heavy into HO-scale model trains when he discovered the Tucson Garden Railway Society. “It's a lot more family oriented,” he says, compared to other clubs. The Blackwells had a clean slate when they started...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