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
Source: Google News
Thomas the Tank Engine chugs into LambertvilleHunterdon County Democrat, March 8th
The Lambertville event featured working Lionel train layouts of Donald Lotz, resident of Yardley, Pa. He has been a model RR enthusiast since he received his first Lionel train for Christmas in 1949. Lotz, who has been promoting model railroading for...Read more
Local museums provide interesting all-weather destinationsGuelph Mercury, March 8th
This month it has a Lionel train layout as well. Free admission. Waterloo Region Museum, 10 Huron Rd. 519-748-1914. Admission: adults $10; seniors and students $8; children 5-12 $5. Open Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. ...Read more
Q&A with Chuck Knox, who will not seek re-election in Douglas CountyChampaign/Urbana News-Gazette, March 7th
When I was 7, I got up on Christmas morning and came down stairs and found my Dad putting together a Lionel train under the Christmas tree….WOW! As an adult my happiest memories of my marriage and the birth of our two children. Q: Do you have a guilty ...Read more
Photos of the WeekSeacoastonline.com, March 5th
Andy Gagne of Springfield, Mass., talks about his Lionel train collection at the first train show sponsored by the Northern Chapter of the New England Train Collectors Association held at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Portsmouth on Saturday. Photo...Read more
Train show attracts 'kids' of all agesFoster's Daily Democrat, February 24th
“Everybody wanted a Lionel train for Christmas,” Hanson said. “Of course, the realism [now] is much more so than what we grew up with.” Cliff McKenney, the owner of Cliff's Custom Trains in Waterford, Conn., is an expert in creating this realism. The...Read more
NHP man follows the track to dream jobThe Island Now, February 20th
Russo, 56, said he still remembers the first train set his father gave him when he was seven years old. And he remembers the many Lionel train sets that followed, and his recurrent recasting of the rail lines he created. “I'd take it down every year...Read more
Model train display heading to Indian Trails LibraryBuffalo Grove Countryside, February 14th
I went to a hobby shop, and got a Lionel train. The other thing about it is that it's fun. In the club, it's the fun of being together. Q: The setup at the Indian Trails library is big. How long does it take to arrange all that? A: We'll do it on...Read more
All Aboard! Next Stop on the Lionel Train Express: Toy Fair Booth #5347The International News Magazine, February 12th
NEW YORK, Feb. 12, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- Lionel, the iconic model train company, will be showcasing its newest train sets and license partnerships at Toy Fair 2014, to be held from February 16-19 at the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center in New York City...Read more