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 1951 Original Postwar Lionel D-40 Semaphore Dealer Display 4 X 6 Layout, ExWonderful Lionel # 773 Hudson Steam Loco 1950 W/ 2426w No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel O Gauge #726 Locomotive With #2426w Whistle TenderLionel No. 2234w Santa Fe F-3 Passenger Set Obs 2353 2530 2532 2533 (dakotapaul)High Grade Lionel 1950 Madison Passenger Car Set # 2625 2627 2628 Ob DakotapaulJunior Bridge Co. Bronx, Ny-3ea. "o" Gauge Metal Bridges-27"-metal-1955-gorgeousVery Nice Pre War Lionel Hellgate BridgeLionel Post War "o" Gauge 6464-825 Alaska R.r. Box Car-never Run-original Box!Lionel 2331 Fairbanks Morse Virginian Locomotive With Box And Inner Sleave NiceNice Lionel #3672 Operating Bosco Car W/platform +box No Reserve (dakotapaul)1956 Lionel F3 A-b-a Southern Railway Diesel Locomotive Set 2356p 2356t 2356cOriginal Lionel Zw 275 Watt Transformer - Factory Sealed - No ReserveLionel 2239w Illinois Central Set - Boxed W/ Set BoxLionel Hobby Store Wooden Counter Display Case + Separate Sale Items Ex+Lionel No 2270w Set W/ No 2341 Jersey Central Fm Flat Channel No 2532,2533,2531 Lionel 681 Engine & 2671w Tender W/ Obs, Nice, OriginalLionel Early 1426w Passenger Set Ln Ob.................tkLionel 1946 No. 726 Berkshire 2-8-4 W/ 2426w Tender No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel 1954-56 Southern F-3 Powered A Unit ~gorgeous Condition!~Scarce Original Lionel Corporation 25 Year Factory Employee Service Pin, LnLionel Boxed Never Run 2530 Baggage Car SetLionel Collection/layout Package Of Super O TrackLionel 'o' Post-war 156 Station Platform Lot (2 Included!)Lionel 2367 Wabash F3 A-b Set With Original Box Good Set Of Engines Look RunsLionel Boxed Matched Set Of Santa Fe 2383 F Aa'sLionel Prewar No. 224e Prewar 2-6-2 Steam Locomotive No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel 6427-60 Virginian Porthole Caboose/boxLionel 2028 Pennsylvania Gp-7 W/ Ob, Nice, Original3 Lionel O Scale Green Metal 2-pullman Passenger Cars 2440 & 1- Observation 2441Original Lionel 2353p Santa Fe F3 Power A Unit In Ob - No ReserveLionel St-350 Press..................tkLionel Type Zw, 275 Watt Trainmaster Transformer, Excl & It Works Perfect, No RsLionel Post War Chesapeake & Ohio 624 Nw-2 Switcher / Locomotive. No Reserve!Lionel Postwar #345 Culvert Pipe Unloader Works ??? For Parts Or RestoreLionel 2351 Ep-5 Milwaukee Road, In Spectacular Mint-unrun-ob, No Rivet Cracks!Lionel Rare 6464-100 Western Pacific Box CarLionel Early Postwar 224 Engine & 2466w Blackened Rails From Set 463w DakotapaulLionel Trains Steam Engine Locomotive Tender Set Made 1952 Only Postwar +box Us Lionel 2240 Wabash Ab F-3's In Spectacular Mt-unrun-ob's, Mc... Circa 1956Scarce Lionel Post War 6816 Bull Dozer Flat .. BlackOriginal Lionel 2625 Irvington Pullman Car In Ob - No ReserveNice! Lionel # 254e Pea Green Orange Hatches Engine No Reserve (dakotapaul)Rare Lionel 165-83 Steel Blanks In Original Bag With Red TagLionel Train Collection O-gauge 1956 1957 Seaboard Switcher Engine Original BoxLionel 'o' Post-war No. 26 (x2) & No. 260 (x7) Bumper LotRare Lionel Early 2332 Gg1 W Rubber Stamped Keystone & Solid Stripes, Ex, No Rs Lionel Trains Hudson New York Central Engine Locomotive Tender Set Postwar -typeLionel Post-war 1002 Yellow, Quite Decent, OriginalLionel Postwar #182 Crane With Controller, Hook, Magnet & Box Parts?Original Lionel 2353 Santa Fe F3 Aa Unit Master Carton - No ReserveScarce Original Lionel Corporation 15 Year Factory Employee Service Pin, LnTt Lionel Postwar 2350 New Haven Ep-5 With Rare Orange "n" Original??Lionel 2625 Irvington, 2627 Madison, 2628 Manhattan Passenger Cars, No ReserveLionel 671 Prr S2 Steam Turbine & 2671w Tender With Back Up Lights, Ex & No Rsv!Lionel No 2530 Baggage Car, " Large Door " Version W/ ObLionel Ex 622 Atsf Nw-2 Diesel Bell Ringing LocomotiveLionel Postwar 204 Santa Fe Alco Aa Diesel Locomotive O-gauge Blue/yellowScarce Lionel 2242 New Haven F3 Ab Diesels~nice Original!Lionel No 6844 Flat Car With Missiles Scarce "red" Versions W/ Complete ObScarce Original Lionel Corporation 5 Year Factory Employee Service Pin, Ln

Recent News: Postwar Lionel Model Trains

Source: Google News

Entertainment offered Saturday at Wilder Park
Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, May 18th

ALLISON -- The entertainment season at Wilder Park will kick off at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the south shelter with the “Candy Express.” A Lionel train from the toy train collection of Jim Kluiter and Max Folkerts will be on display and in full...Read more

Meet the electrical engineer who powers his passion in South Elgin
Chicago Daily Herald, May 18th

Later, in elementary school, Pechous would use obsolete electrical devices brought home by his electrician father to add handmade signals to his wooden train set and power his Lionel train switches and signals. Now 31, Pechous has an electrical ...Read more

Daniel “Pete” Danish
Monroe Evening News, May 16th

Among his other hobbies were his 201-gallon salt water aquarium, and his extensive Lionel train collection which includes all the accessories and miles of tracks, houses, etc. Pete's daughters remember their Dad as their “Superman” and say that he was...Read more

PUBLIC SALES: Picture of mill fetches $5700
LancasterOnline, May 15th

Winthrop desk, $200; a jelly cupboard, $300; an extension table, $400; a Hoosier cabinet, $275; a Marlin Model 336 30/30 rifle, $410; a child's Mo-Go bike, $210; a Lionel train set, $425; a Baldwin (Hamilton), piano $700; a Farmall F-Cub tractor, $1...Read more

Train Day at the Amtrak station
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 9th

Jonathan Krenke, 6, of Burlington, shows his excitement watching a model Lionel train on the tracks during National Train Day on Saturday at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station. The Lionel Railroad Club displayed trains for children and adults. National...Read more

Readers Write (May 8): Oil train explosion, light-rail expansion, 'farmer ...
Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 7th

When I was 6 and set up my first Lionel train set alongside the Christmas tree, it wasn't long before I intuitively understood that number of cars, speed, continuity of speed, weight of cars and subtlety of grade were all factors in avoiding derailment...Read more

2 accused of stealing $64000 worth of Lionel trains, April 17th

Some of these pieces are one-in-a-lifetime pieces," Charles Leary said about his Lionel train collection that included one piece he bought for $6,000 that was stolen. "I hope they didn't sell them." He believes many of the pieces he bought from O...Read more

Reward offered in Lionel train theft from Nebo antique mall
WHNS Greenville, March 6th

The McDowell County Sheriff's Office is asking the public for help identifying a man who they said stole electric train equipment from the Lake James Antique Mall in Nebo. Deputies said the man took two electric Lionel locomotives and an electric...Read more