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.

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Recent News: Postwar Lionel Model Trains

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Shopping Local Makes Sense
Mysullivannews, December 22nd

One of their most popular items is a 4-piece Lionel Train Set with a 20 percent discount that will be fun for all young children. An ideal stocking-stuffer is a special they are running this month selling three full-service carwashes for $20, which...Read more

These Westchester Stores Cater To Last-Minute Shoppers
The Daily Voice, December 22nd

Joe Mazzullo, storeowner at Awesome Items in Harrison, describes some of his Lionel train collections. Photo Credit: Jon Craig. A train display inside the storefront at 229 Harrison Ave. Photo Credit: Jon Craig. Awesome Items also sells guitars, drum...Read more

Holland club's tiny trains return to Zeeland
Grand Haven Tribune, December 21st

"I drive one of the two food trucks for Zeeland Schools," said Kole, 67, who got his first Lionel train at age 5, "The kids are always asking me in November, 'When do we get to play with the trains?'" Annual dues are $30 for adults, $14 for students...Read more

Clyde Beal: Magic of Christmas strong for youngsters
Huntington Herald Dispatch, December 20th

One vote for the age-old Lionel train came from Keegan Smith. He wants the Lionel Polar Express Train Set. Dig deep Santa, this young boy has good taste. If anyone reads this that knows Linda Zban, volunteer kindergarten aid, she would still like to...Read more

Christmas train at depot pulls out of station today, December 19th

A drawing for a Lionel train set will be at 4 p.m. The winner need not be present to win. — Staff reports. Get a train engineer's view of this year's Christmas at the Depot displays by the James Valley Model Railroad Association in videos at...Read more

'Kadian Journal': A father tries to survive the loss of his son, 14
Washington Post, December 19th

I fantasise about living on the Caribbean island St Lucia. 3. I have an earring in my left ear, I hugged a teddy bear when I got it pierced. 4. I spend a lot of time on my Lionel train layout. 5. My sister and I are Irish twins, I was born in 1998, she...Read more

Rail fans make tracks to C.P. model train show, November 29th

Dave Casey, of Hebron, bought a Polar Express Lionel train as a Christmas gift for his 4-month-old grandson. Casey, 59, said he has been a train collector his whole life. He annually puts a train under his Christmas tree and even has an outdoor train...Read more

All Aboard! Lionel Train Adventure Debuts at Lincoln Park Zoo Thursday
DNAinfo, 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