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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PUBLIC SALES: 'Martyr's Mirror' printed in 1685 sells for $3525LancasterOnline, March 29th
There were 468 registered bidders in attendance. Several items and prices included: a cast iron boat, $1,025; a Bakelite radio, $550; a taffy cutter, $290; a Lionel train set, $260; a pair of Leica binoculars, $475; a 7 Up cooler, $200; a German arm...Read more
Antique trains bring Shrewsbury family together for holiday traditionCommunity Advocate, March 25th
A few years ago, he handed down his original Lionel train set from when he was a boy. Now, on his yearly visits, Pop-pop and the boys spend the week creating an elaborate village in the basement of his daughter Gail and son-in-law Kevin's home...Read more
Going Off the PillsWall Street Journal, March 25th
But she tends to see the brain as something akin to a Lionel Train set, simply constructed, with specific areas devoted to discrete psychological activities. Here's how the past affects the present: “The memory centers of the hippocampus will grade how ...Read more
Angelo Ferrara, 97SILive.com, March 17th
He enjoyed model trains and was an avid Lionel train "engineer," with an elaborate train setup in his basement, including desert scenes modeled after those used in Indio, Calif., for troop training in Europe during World War II. He also was a skilled ...Read more
All aboard for April train showAlgona Upper Des Moines, March 12th
ALGONA — Arlen Benschoter's massive 'O' scale Lionel train display at the Kossuth County Agriculture and Motorsports Museum will be the feature of a model train show on Saturday, April 18, sponsored by the Prairie Lakes Division of the National Model ...Read more
Rails in the Garden: 16-stop tour is freeArizona Daily Star, February 28th
Barry, a Lionel train fan as a child, was heavy into HO-scale model trains when he discovered the Tucson Garden Railway Society. “It's a lot more family oriented,” he says, compared to other clubs. The Blackwells had a clean slate when they started...Read more
Lionel trains opens its first NC retail storeCharlotte Observer, October 17th
His older brother, Les, still has the first Lionel train set he got when he was 6. A member of several national train clubs, Phillips considers Lionel the granddaddy of them all. “This is a world headquarters now,” Phillips said. “They ship products...Read more
All Aboard! Lionel Train Adventure Debuts at Lincoln Park Zoo ThursdayDNAinfo, October 2nd
The Lionel Train Adventure "is a great way to engage the youth of today with a hobby that has been loved by so many for 114 years," said Howard Hitchcock, president of Lionel LLC. Lionel Corporation has sold its model trains since 1900, and they're...Read more