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 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.

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    

Postwar Lionel 2339 Wabash Gp-7 Diesel Locomotive~w/ob & InstructionsLionel 685 4-6-4 Die-cast Steam Locomotive W/6026w Tender Ex/boxPostwar Lionel 2350 New Haven Ep-5 Electric Locomotive~w/nice Ob & InstructionsImpressive Lionel #381e Olympian State Set Train Loco 12 Wheels 1920s Original!Lionel 2341 Jersey Central Fm Trainmaster-original Fm!Lionel No. 5a Service Station Test Set, Test Bench *1938 No ReserveLionel 2289ws 736 Steam Engine Set Ex/boxLionel Postwar 736 2-8-4 Berkshire Steam Locomotive And 2671wx 12 Wheel TenderLionel 3366 Operating Circus Horse Car & Corral Ex/boxLionel 2360 Pennsylvania Gg-1 Powered Electric Locomotive -type Iv (rare) ExLionel 2368 Baltimore & Ohio F3 Ab Diesel LocomotivesLionel Prewar Standard Gauge 29 New York Central Nyc Day CoachLot Of 3 Postwar Lionel #3462-70 Magnetic Milk Can Sets~w/nice Ob's2ct Lot Lionel Postwar D.l.&w Work Searchlight Caboose 2420 6420 Gray (1946-50)Lionel 2352 Pennsylvania Ep-5 Electric Locomotive/boxLionel 726 Berkshire 2-8-4 Die-cast Locomotive4 Post War 1950's Lionel Train Illuminated 2531 2532 2533 2534 W/ Boxes RailroadLionel 2344 New York Central F-3 Aa Diesel Locomotive SetLionel 2331 Virginian Fm Trainmaster Powered Diesel LocomotiveLionel 57 Aec Diesel Switcher - Rare ExLocomotive Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge #33 New York Central Lines Green/red Lionel 182 Gantry Crane/boxLionel 249e 2-4-2 Tinplate Steam Locomotive W/ 265w TenderLionel Prewar Standard Gauge State Set 412, 413, 414, And 416. All Original!Lionel Pw 11 Pc Set 12820 W Virginian Fairbanks-morse Trainmaster No. 2322 Lionel No.384e Standard Gauge 2-4-0 Steam Locomotive & 384t Tender, C-7 Excl.Lionel 6-31755 Texas Special Diesel Train Set Ln/boxMarklin Tin Train Station Bing Germany 1900s Bahnhof. Lionel ?Empty Master Carton Ob Only For Postwar Lionel 2343 Santa Fe F3 Diesels (1950)Lionel Standard Gauge 385e Locomotive W/ Box!!Lot Of 3 Postwar Lionel #195-75 Floodlight Tower Heads (w/bulbs)~nice Condition!Lionel 6518 4-truck Flatcar With Transformer Ex/box4ct Lot Lionel Postwar Gondola Car No. 1002 6012 6032 6112 (1948-58)Lionel 440 Position Light Signal Bridge Ex/boxLionel 6418 4 Truck Die-cast Machinery Car With Orange Girders Ln/boxPrewar Lionel Standard Gauge Blue/aluminum Passenger Car Set 309 310 312 W/boxesLionel Beechcraft Bonanza Transport Car #6500 Plus Original Box O Gauge Lionel 6520 Lionel Lines Green Generator Operating Searchlight Car - Rare Ln/boxLionel Sp Vintage Smoke Pellets W/dealer Display Box Ln/boxLionel 6520 Lionel Lines Green Generator Operating Searchlight Car - Rare ExLionel 313 Operating Bascule Bridge4pc Lionel Tca Bicentennial Special No 2 Spirit Of 76' Diesel Train Set (1976)Lionel & Ives Prewar Miscellaneous Train Set (engines May Not Run) Gauge OLionel Harry Potter Hogwarts Express Electric Model Train Set O Scale 7-11020Lionel 1954 Vintage Postwar # 6464-225 Southern Pacific Excellent Box Car ExcLionel No. 6464-325 Baltimore & Ohio Sentinel Boxcar Ln/ob (dakotapaul)Lot Of 9 Postwar Lionel #90 Controllers~early Style With Clip~nice Condition!Pre-war Lionel Standard Gauge Tinplate 384-t Tender 1930s Prewar Lionel O Gauge 616 Flying Yankee Streamliner Set For Parts Or To RestoreAn Assortment Of Lionel Post War Extra PartsPw Lionel 3562-25 Rare Gray Bodied With Red Letters Operating Barrel Car W BoxLionel 455 Operating Oil Derrick And Pumper & 497 Operating Coaling StationLionel Train Up Union Pacific Railroad Extended Vision Caboose W/smoke 6-17630Lionel 6-31776 #2219w Fm Thunderbird Freight Set Cc Ln/boxLionel Pre-war Standard Gauge Locomotive Engine #33Lionel 2532 Lionel Lines Silver Range Aluminum Vista Dome Car/boxLionel 6-9561 Rock Island And Peoria Passenger Car #9561 With Box (1981-1982)Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge Macy's Special #2 Green No 8e, 332, 339 And 341Lionel Standard Gauge Maroon Passenger Set With #380 LocomotiveLionel Postwar Aluminum Streamlined 2531, 2532 (2), 2530-silver Series