For much of the 20th century, Lionel trains were the kings of toys, the presents you couldn't wait unit Christmas morning to unwrap. Lionel's pre-World War II trains are particularly prized, but many model-railroad enthusiasts appreciate Lionel trains made throughout the century, from the wind-up Mickey Mouse handcars made during the Great Depression to the trains controlled by the TrainMaster Command system, which was funded in part by musician and Lionel train buff Neil Young.
While the prewar Lionel trains are a story unto themselves, the trains made in the second half of the 20th century have their own legions of fans. 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.
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...
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.
Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)
Postwar Lionel Trains Library
Airfix Model Railways
Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT
Clubs & Associations
- Lionel Collectors Club of America
- Lionel Operating Train Society
- Train Collectors Association
- National Model Railroad Association
- Toy Train Operating Society
- National Association of S Gaugers, Inc.
- Train Collectors Society
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: Lionel Model Trains
Source: Google News
End of the Line for Model Trains? Aging Hobbyists Trundle OnWall Street Journal, February 10th
For Christmas in 1960, Ron Mei got a Lionel train set. More than 55 years later, he still hasn't found a better toy. By creating model railroads, “you learn carpentry,” said Mr. Mei, 62 years old, who runs a motorcycle-parts business in Phoenix and...Read more
Train enthusiasts crowd St. Robert Bellarmine's annual showHometownlife.com, February 3rd
The show featured train collectors from four states. Door prizes were awarded, and a new Lionel train set was raffled off. Read or Share this story: http://www.hometownlife.com/story/news/local/redford/2016/02/04/hundreds-crowd-redford-train-show...Read more
Inner Mission condo with built-in toy train track for 799KSFGate (blog), January 26th
But maybe the sounds of a Lionel train puffing around the bend will help to drown out that pesky street noise. Emily Landes is a writer and editor who is obsessed with all things real estate. Categories: Architectural Oddities, Design, Home staging...Read more
Model train enthusiasts roll out for annual Utica Toy Train ShowUtica Observer Dispatch, January 17th
In one corner of the show floor stood a collector showing his three-piece metal Lionel Train set dating to 1918. It is an early electric model and “runs phenomenal,” said David Butchko of Syracuse, a collector for about 40 years. In 1918, the set would...Read more
Area native marks 25 years of Lionel train paintings withnew coffee table bookRepublican & Herald, January 17th
The Old Forge native's first book, “Painting an American Icon: The Lionel Train Art of Angela Trotta Thomas,” was recently published by Bluffton, South Carolina-based Branning Publishing. Featuring more than 100 of Thomas' Lionel paintings, the $65...Read more
#Winners: Marion man's boxcar design wins national Lionel train contestMcDowell News, December 29th
Instead of our usual top-stories countdown this year, we decided to take a look at who had an outstanding 2015, whether through accomplishments or good fortune. For these groups and individuals, 2015 was a winning year. We hope you enjoy this five-part ...Read more
National Lionel Train Day on Long IslandNewsday, December 3rd
Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015 marks the first-ever National Lionel Train Day at hobby shops nationwide, including Trainland in Lynbrook and Nassau Hobby Shop in Freeport. (Credit: Lionel). All aboard! The first-ever National Lionel Train Day takes place...Read more
All aboard for National Lionel Train DayCharlotte Observer, November 24th
5 marks the first-ever National Lionel Train Day, with more than 140 hobby shops and toy stores across the country, including the one at Lionel train headquarters in Concord, celebrating with elaborate train layouts, hands-on activities, giveaways and...Read more