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 1950 773 Hudson & 2426w W/ob's And Extras ~pristine Condition!~Lionel 1950 Die Cast 773 Nyc Hudson & 2426w Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs Fine, No Rsv! Lionel 385e Standard Engine With Box And 384t Early Version Build-a-loco MotorLionel #6464-100 Western Pacific Blue Feather/original In 6464-250 Box,mintRare Lionel Prewar 700e Scale Nyc Hudson 4-6-4 Runs Fix/parts Deal!Lionel Early Standard Gauge 34 Locomotive! Rare!!! Circa 1912! CtLionel Train Atsf Santa Fe Blue Alco Aa Units Engine Power Dummy Set 8022Lionel Train Postwar 6416 Boat Transport Car With Original BoxScarce Lionel No. 2544w Super Chief Passenger Set 2383 2563 + (dakotapaul)Lionel 6-18819 O-gauge Louisville & Nashville Gp38-2 Diesel Locomotive (in Box)High Grade Lionel 226e Locomotive W/ 2226w Tender From Set 291w Nr (dakotapaul)Postwar Lionel 6501 Jet Motorboat Transport Car~mint Unrun~w/nice Ob+Postwar Lionel 736 Berkshire Steam Locomotive & 2046w Whistle Tender~nice Orig!Complete Lionel Trains Postwar No.9657 Sears Freight Set W/boxes, O GaugeLionel 2343 Santa Fe F-3 Aa Units 1950-52K-line, K3270-5335, Lionel, Nyc, New York Central Steam Engine, 4-6-4 HudsonPostwar Lionel 2559 Budd Rdc-9 Passenger Car (non Motorized)~nice Original!Lionel #2352 Pennsylvania Ep-5 Electric LocomotiveLionel Early Standard Gauge 35 And 26 Rib Side Passenger Cars! Desirable!!! CtLionel Hiawatha Set Mint ObLionel Postwar 2331 Virginian Fm Trainmaster Black & Gold 1955 Looks Fine/ RunsPrewar Lionel 262e Steam Loco & 262t Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs Fine, No ReserveLionel Prewar O-gauge 224e 2-6-2 Prairie Steam LocomotiveLionel Pennsylvania Pw 2360 Gg-1Lionel 1912 Special Locomotive By Master Jim Cohen - Reproduction LnLionel 262 2-4-2 Steam Locomotive & TenderNew Lionel Harry Potter Hogwarts Express O-gauge Train Set 7-11020 No Reserve Scarce Postwar Lionel 6651 Usmc Shell Launching Car~mint Unrun!Lionel Post War New York Central A-a F-3 Diesels W/ ObsLionel Postwar 6828 Harnischfeger Truck Crane Car (new-in-box)Lionel Postwar Seaboard 6250 Nw 2 Switcher Diesel Locomotive Engine C-6+ Vg+Lionel The Texas Special 2245 Model Train CoverLionel/ives Transition Prewar #257/257t Black Steam Locomotive And Tender Lionel Postwar Original Shell Only For 2226w /#2426w Diecast Tender NiceLionel Bethlehem Steel Lionchief Remote Control Switcher O Gauge Train 6-81270 ELionel Postwar O-gauge 681 6-8-6 Steam Turbine Locomotive (runs Well)Model Railroad Building (operating Coaling Station) O Scale By LionelModel Railroad Building (engine House) O Scale By LionelLionel 1948 726 Berkshire Engine W/ob ~gorgeous Condition!~Early Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge #33 Nyc Lines 0-6-0 Electric LocomotiveLionel Ho 6-58004 Up 4-6-6-4 Challenger Steam Loco, Qsi Dcc,sound, AsLionel Type Zw, 275 Watt Trainmaster Transformer In Ob, C-7 Ex & Works PerfectPostwar Lionel 646 Die Cast Hudson Steam Loco & 2046w Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs GreatLionel 736 Engine Only, 1950 Version, Runs Well, LookLionel Postwar O-gauge 671 6-8-6 Steam Turbine Locomotive (needs Work)Scarce Postwar Lionel 6820 Aerial Missile Transport Car~nice Original!Rare Old Stock New K-line 3270-5405 Nyc Lionel Tmcc Hudson Loco From Hawaii NibPostwar Lionel 623 Santa Fe Nw2 Diesel Switcher~nice Original!Desirable Postwar Lionel Consumer Catalog Collection And Binder, 1946-69, VgLionel Postwar Chesapeake & Ohio 624 Nw 2 Switcher Diesel Locomotive Engine C-6Lionel 6-38092 Pickering Lumber Co. Heisler Steam Locomotive Ln/boxLionel Prewar Standard Gauge Early 14 Boxcar Black Paint Ribs Yellow PrimerLionel Prewar Standard Gauge Early 15 Maroon Tanker Complete And OriginalVery Rare New Lionel 8702 Southern Crescent Pacific Locomotive From Hawaii Look!Lionel Prewar #250 Green Electric LocomotivePostwar Lionel 6414 Auto-loader Car~w/original Yellow/gray Bumper Autos+nice ObLionel Prewar #33 Gray New York Central Electric LocomotiveLionel Prewar No. 2957 "o" Semi-scale Nyc Caboose + Box No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel Postwar Seaboard 602 Nw 2 Switcher Diesel Locomotive Engine 1957-58 C-6Rare Postwar Lionel 3429 Usmc Helicopter Launching Car~w/original Usmc 'copter