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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What's Coming: Dec. 12, 2013Lewisboro Ledger, December 12th
Holiday Lionel Train Show, Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 14, 15, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29, from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Lasdon Park, 2610 Route 35, Somers. Show will include Polar Express and holiday characters. On Sunday, Dec. 15 from 1 to 3:30 Santa and Mrs...Read more
Lionel Racing gets the trains under the tree on timeInternetRetailer.com, December 10th
By October through the early part of November, Lionel Racing shifts its warehouse operations to focus mostly on the surge in Lionel train orders from wholesalers and large retailers, then shifts again by late November to concentrate more on train...Read more
Destination Santa: Holiday trains deliver photo ops, intricate displaysThe Star-Ledger - NJ.com, December 10th
"When I was a little kid, I got a hand-me-down Lionel train for Christmas," said Beek, 69, wearing a dark train agent's jacket. "One of these cheap tin ones." Nowadays, he doesn't so much collect model trains as help to repair the real ones, retired...Read more
Polar Express Train Show Brings Back Holiday TraditionWCJB, December 8th
McGee said, "[The] tradition of the Lionel Train around the Christmas tree and that's when most children used to get their train set at Christmas time. So this gives us an opportunity to display the various types of trains that we have, get them to see...Read more
The fascination with Maryland train gardens explainedABC2 News, December 6th
But no two train gardens are the same, aside from the Lionel train circumnavigating a Christmas tree. So what makes a superb train garden? “Sights, sounds, little people, lights, great buildings, some people recreate a scene that is real, a small...Read more
Findlay train display benefits food pantryPittsburgh Post Gazette, December 5th
Lionel Train Display Can Help.” Mr. Linko's sign suggested the fundraisers could benefit churches, food banks and fire companies. He and his wife collect a fee to supplement his income at a local branch of a national chain store, with much of the money ...Read more
How a 113-Year-Old Company Boosted Holiday Sales on FacebookMashable, December 3rd
Year after year, many families set up their model train sets as the centerpiece of their holiday decorations, which oftentimes means you'll find Lionel train sets choo-chooing around the Christmas tree." Lionel Train Set Image: Flickr, 27398485@N08...Read more
Lionel Trains Releases 2013 Holiday LineupMarketwired (press release), November 13th
"For years, Lionel train sets have been a mainstay in celebrating the holiday season," said Jerry Calabrese, CEO of Lionel Trains. "With the addition of our new ornament line, we're excited to provide a range of products that each member of the family...Read more