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.
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 (U.K.)
Other Great Reference Sites
Most watched eBay auctions
Recent News: Postwar Lionel Model Trains
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All aboard! Depot open house brings crowdParadise Post, April 15th
Buddy said Trudy once gave him a Lionel train set as a gift. Even youngsters find something to enjoy at the museum. "He's always been interested in trains," said Scott Geer, who was watching his son Alex's delight as the mini replica made its rounds...Read more
This exhibit will thrill train lovers, model makers of all agesThe Laker/Lutz News, April 10th
“Everybody loves trains at some point in their life. Some people, like us, never get over it,” said Hopes, who built his first model train when he was 10 or 11. “My father got me my first Lionel (train) when I was 5,” MacKeown said. That was nearly 70...Read more
Upcoming club and organization listingsNaples Daily News, April 5th
Harley-Davidson of Naples, Paradise Chapter H.O.G.: 10 a.m. third Sunday, Naples Harley-Davidson, 3645 Gateway Lane, Naples. 239-594-5504 and follow prompts to HOG hotline. Lionel Train Enthusiasts: 10 a.m. Tuesdays, Naples Depot, 1051 Fifth Ave...Read more
Ligonier Valley model train home tour on track for May 3Tribune-Review, April 2nd
Flock said he received his first Lionel train at age 3, a gift from his father. But switched to HO trains for most of his life. “I went HO in 1957 and have been HO ever since,” said Flock. His collection is comprised of too many cars to count. He...Read more
Donald J. WillettGloversville Leader-Herald, March 29th
He was a Lionel train collector, a lover of astronomy and science, a master of electronics, and most of all, he loved his collection of Big Band, Doo Wop and Jazz music. He loved to dance, attend parties and to spend time telling stories of his days...Read more
East Peorian inducted into Auctioneer Hall of FameEast Peoria Times-Courier, March 25th
Jim Roth is following in his father's footsteps in more ways than one. He was inducted into the Illinois Auctioneer Hall of Fame at the Annual Conference and Show of the Illinois State Auctioneers Association in Bloomington in February. Roth's father...Read more
A new Cyclone Racer for Long Beach? It's a long shotLos Angeles Times, March 25th
An elaborate Lionel train set takes up much of a bedroom-turned-office, and an old, poster-sized aerial photograph of Disneyland hangs above it on the wall. A midnight blue '79 Pontiac Trans Am, the first brand-new car Osterhoudt bought at 22, sits...Read more
The repair yard where Lionel model trains get rolling againCNET, March 23rd
When someone brings a Lionel train back to their dealer, they get their money back, and the train comes to Canfield, where it meets a technician hungry for its component parts. Walking into one room, I encountered a table covered in a mountain of...Read more