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.

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]

HOseeker.net

HOseeker.net

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    

Lionel # 746 Norfolk & Western Steam Loco 746w Tender Long Stripe (dakotapaul)Postwar Lionel 2031 Rock Island Alco Aa Diesels~w/nice Master Carton ObPrewar Lionel Standard Guage 408e Have A Look ~~~~ Pre War Lionel 384e Steam Engine & Tender Standard Gauge - Tested & Works GreatPostwar Lionel 736 Berkshire Steam Loco & 2046w Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs Great, No RRare Postwar Lionel 3562-1 Black A.t. & S. F. Operating Gondola Set In Ob, Exc Lionel Pre-war Prewar Standard Gauge No. 385e 2-4-2 Steam LocomotiveLionel 2350 Ep-5 New Haven Electric Engine W/ob Runs Look Good EngineNice! Lionel No 227 Prewar 0-6-0 Switcher W/ 2227b Tender No Reserve (dakotapaulPrewar Lionel Standard Guage LocoScarce Postwar Lionel 1882 "halloween" General Steam Locomotive & 1882t TenderRare Vintage Lionel 6464-100 Western Pacific Orange Car W Blue Feather &orig Bx!Rare Lionel #6464-825 Alaska Box Car **** Mint/obLionel Classics 6-13100 Standard Gauge 390-e Locomotive Lnib 1988 Blue 24 MadeLionel 726 & 2426 W Tender Smoke Bulb Version"lionel Pre-war O Gauge N.y.c. 19400 Caboose Car No. 717 "Vintage Lionel Train Set Ex Condition Engine #2056 W/original Boxes/inst BooksPostwar Lionel 6464-275 State Of Maine Boxcar~scarce Early Red Door~w/nice ObO Scale - Lionel - Vintage Huge Lot Of Assorted Parts & Accessories!Lionel 8315 B&o 4-4-0 General Steam Locomotive Engine & Tender 1983-84 C-7 ExHo Lionel "4-8-4 American Freedom 4449" Steam Locomitive & Tender.Lionel 2343 Santa Fe F3 Aa Diesel Locomotive SetLionel Trains Rare Turbine Steam Engine Smoke Sounds Tmcc Tender Set Postwar Tp"lionel Pre-war O Gauge Freight Car Pennsylvania 100800 No. 714 "Lionel 0/027 Gauge 624 Chesapeake & Ohio Nw-2 Diesel Locomotive Runs-no ReserveLionel 2332 Green Pennsylvania Gg1 Electric Locomotive Runs Good Engine LookLionel Postwar 2368 Baltimore And Ohio A & B Diesel Units Original ConditionVintage Postwar Lionel O Gauge No.2365 C&o Gp-7 Diesel Engine With Original BoxLionel 0/027 Gauge #2032 Rock Island Alco Diesel Locomotive Runs-no ReserveRare Lionel Postwar726 Big Berkshire Atomic Red Steam Engine 2-8-4 Tender 2426w Lionel Post War 2855 Black Sunoco Single Dome Tank Car C-8 Cond 1946Lionel 50 Prewar Electric Outline Locomotive, Dark Green, 1924 Only, OriginalLionel Postwar Original #6557 Illuminated Smoke Caboose O Gauge Train Boxed NicePostwar Lionel 3650 Searchlight Extension Car~scarce Olive-gray~w/nice Ob & InstVintage Lionel Engine 665Lionel Prewar O Gauge 254 Electric Locomotive! Rare Variation!!! PaLionel 2432 Clifton Vista Dome (2), 2435 Elizabeth Pullman & 2436 Mooseheart ObsVintage Post War Lionel No. 736 Berkshire Engine Steam Locomotive W/original BoxExceptional, Minty Box Lionel Train Set, #337, #338, #10 Locomotive + AccesoriesSuper Nice Vintage Lionel Train #175 Rocket Launcher W/ Box Fantastic ConditionScarce Postwar Lionel 6468x Tuscan Baltimore & Ohio Automobile Boxcar~nice Orig!1958 Lionel 613 Diesel Switcher Engine With Original BoxPostwar Lionel 2243 Santa Fe, Ab, F3 Diesel Locomotive Set, Runs Great, No Rsv!Lionel 602 Diesel Switcher O Scale Postwar Lionel 6456-75 Glossy Red Lehigh Valley Hopper (yellow Letter)~w/nice ObPostwar Lionel 6464-300 Rutland Boxcar~heat-stamped Version From 1956~w/nice ObLionel Original Box & Liner For The 1950 #773 Hudson 4-6-4 Steam Engine + More Lionel 224/224e Prewar Steam Locomotive In Black, 1938-1941, 2-6-2Unreal Lionel #264 Fork Lift ****** Mint/ob/sealed/never Opened!!!!Lionel 6-18058 Nyc 773 4-6-4 Cc Hudson Steam Locomotive & Tender Ln/boxPostwar Lionel Prr Congressional Passenger Cars, Cars 2541, 2542, 2543 & 2544 ExPostwar Lionel 2046 Die Cast Hudson Steam Loco & 2046w Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs FineLionel 622 Santa Fe Nw-2 Diesel Switcher Engine W/bell Look Nice Engine RunsLionel Three Prewar #2600 Series "red " Passenger Cars SetRare Lionel #345 Culvert Unloader***** Mint/ob.sealed. Never Opened!!!!Postwar Lionel 6502 Girder Transport Car~w/scarce Unlettered Red Flatcar! Lionel Basket Case Rare Prewar #257 Black 2-4-0 Engine Lionel 6-18314 Pennsylvania Gg-1 Electric Locomotive W/name Plate & Case Ln/boxLionel 1668e And Tender Lionel 6-38000 Nyc 4-6-4 Empire State Steam Locomotive & Tender Ln/box