When Joshua Lionel Cohen designed his first electric train in 1900, he wasn’t trying to make a toy for children. Rather, he thought his wooden, open-bed gondola with the words "Electric Express" on the side would make a good vehicle to show off the wares of Manhattan toy-store merchant Robert Ingersol. Ingersol thought so, too, but when a customer purchased the display right out of his store’s display window, tracks and all, Ingersoll contacted Cohen and ordered six more. Cohen and an associate named Harry Grant scrambled to fill the orders and Lionel was essentially born.

The Electric Express ran on metal tracks spaced 2 7/8-inches apart and was driven by a small electric motor between its wheels. A battery, which could run the gondola for 10-15 hours, powered the motor. The train had one speed, plus reverse.

In 1901, when Cohen’s company published its first catalog, an open-air Electric Trolley Car joined the line. The Morton E. Converse Company manufactured the trolley’s 12-pound body, whose wheelbase was the same as the Electric Express. Grant customized the car by adding a brass controller at the front to mimic the look of a trolley engineer’s tiller—such attention to detail would remain a hallmark of Lionel.

Cohen’s second catalog in 1902 was the first to use the name Lionel. In it, he added an unmotorized Electric Express car with six little barrels that a child could load and unload. Also for sale, for the sum of $1.50, was a Suspension Bridge, Lionel’s first accessory. 1902 was also the year Lionel introduced its first switch, which allowed users to create figure-eight configurations in addition to ovals and circles.

By 1903, the Electric Express was being made of metal rather than wood, and cars were pulled by the company’s first locomotive, a "faithful reproduction," as it is described in the catalogue, of a 40-ton Baltimore & Ohio locomotive. A crane car, complete with hand crank, was also available.

In 1906, Lionel shifted from tracks that were 2 7/8-inches apart to ones that were 2 1/8-inches apart, which was the standard toy-train gauge of the time. It also began making tracks with an electrified third rail, which was powered by electricity tapped from an empty light socket. A transformer converted the 110-volt current to 20 watts and a controller allowed users to regulate the train’s speed.

Between 1906 and 1910, products in the Lionel line included 13 different cars, including the No. 5 and No. 6 steam engines and the highly collectible No. 8 and No. 9 trolleys. So...

The company moved again in 1914, this time to Irvington, New Jersey, and Lionel added a smaller O scale line in 1915. As America entered World War I, Lionel introduced a Military Train which features a car topped by twin cannons—the train was very popular but was only produced in 1917.

The 1920s were glory years for Lionel. In 1921, one of its most venerable locomotives, the No. 42, was given a second motor to dramatically increase its power. Another dual-motor locomotive, the 402, was introduced in 1923, as was the round-hooded 380. That model would be eclipsed by what is today one of the most prized antique Lionel trains from the 1920s, the No. 381, which was sold in an "E" version (automatic reverse and a bell) and a "U" version (as a kit, complete with tools).

In 1928, Lionel and American Flyer partnered to buy out a competitor named Ives. Lionel eventually purchased AF’s share of Ives in 1931, but dumped the line entirely in 1932. In between, Lionel produced a few Ives trains, in particular the highly sought 1764E, which was branded with both the Ives and Lionel names. Lionel even made an Ives line of less-expensive wind-up trains, but Cowen disliked the line and it was quickly discontinued.

The 1930s saw the introduction of Lionel’s Bild-A-Locomotive kits in response to competition from a company called Dorfan. It also saw the launch in 1933 of Lionel Jr., a line of cheaper trains that was a response to the economic circumstances of the day. But Cowen was a purist who continued to put precious resources into expensive locomotives and cars, such as the highly collectible Blue Comet trains introduced in 1930. His rigid standards were causing Lionel to go broke.

Into the breach stepped two new products. The first was the fast-selling Union Pacific M-1000 streamliner, the so-called yellow caterpillar, which got its nickname from its brown top and yellow sides. The other savior was a wind-up Mickey and Minnie Mouse handcar, which sold for a buck. Lionel moved more than a quarter million of the toys, which, along with strong sales of the M-1000, literally pulled the company out of receivership.

Disney went on to add a Santa handcar and a Mickey Mouse Circus Train Outfit to its Lionel offerings. For its part, Lionel added whistles to its new streamline trains, including the orange-and-silver Hiawatha and the ominous-looking, jet-black Commodore Vanderbilt, both introduced in 1935. In 1936, the cast-metal Flying Yankee appeared, as did the gray Torpedo, whose real-life prototype had been designed by Art Deco and Mid-century Modern pioneer Raymond Loewy.

By 1937, Lionel was firmly on its feet again, able to afford such costly introductions as the die-cast 700E Hudson, which required as much as $75,000 to manufacture and boasted a hefty retail price tag of $75. Some of the cars pulled by the 700E were cast out of a magnesium alloy, others were made of a new plastic called Bakelite. Automated, remote-controlled accessories such as coal elevators and log loaders followed in 1938 and sold well until 1941, when the nation was drawn into a second world war.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

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]

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]

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

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Lionel Prewar 700e 5344 New York Central Full Scale Hudson Ln/mintHigh Grade Lionel Prewar # 763e Steam Hudson Loco W/263w Tender Boxes DakotapaulNice Lionel No. 115 Automatic Train Station Prewar O Gauge No Reser (dakotapaul)Ives "o" Gauge 3257r "gray Ghost" Passenger Set, Circa 1926, Very Nice-rare! American Flyer Prewar 0 Gauge 1661,1661,1662 &1623 Green Passenger Car SetLionel 1100 Mickey Mouse Wind-up Handcar Red Base No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel Pre-war 2814 "rubber Stamped" Box Car-high Couplers-beautiful Original!Lionel Pre-war 813 "rubber Stamped" Stock Car-high Couplers-beautiful Original!Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.200 TurntableLionel Pre-war 2814r Rubber Stamped Reefer Car-high Couplers-beautiful Original!Lionel Prewar # 184 Tin Litho Bungalow O Gauge - Nice! No Reserve (dakotapaul)Early Lionel No. 257 Locomotive And 257t Tender - Nice! No Reserve (dakotapaul)Bing Original Prewar StationLionel No. 122 Lionel City Station Prewar O Gauge Accessory Corner (dakotapaul)Prewar Lionel No. 127 Lioneltown Station W/box No Reserve (dakotapaul)2 Excellent Condition Original Lionel Trains 156 Station Platform & 442 DinerPrewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.380 Electric Engine1930's Lionel Union Pacific Streamliner Set 752e 753 754 Loco O Scale TrainIves Original Prewar #610 Pullman And #612 Observation Cars BoxedPre War Lionel # 259e Steam Locomotive With TenderHigh Grade Lionel Prewar No. 077 Automatic Crossing Gate W/ Box Nr (dakotapaul)Lionel Pre-war "o" Scale No. 701 Full Scale "8976" 0-6-0 Switcher-original-nice!Pre War Lionel # 226e Steam LocomotivePrewar Lionel No. 126 Tin Litho Red Crackle Station No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel Gunmetal 265e Commodore Vanderbilt-original CabLionel Prewar O-ga 252 0-4-0 Electric Loco - Not Running - Parts Only!!!!***lionel 1938 Oo Set Nice Condition***Lionel No. 221 Nyc Locomotive Train W/ 221w Tender Black Version Nr (dakotapaul)Ives Large 20 Cast Iron Clockwork Steam Loco. 1912! Runs Great!Lionel No. 260e Engine & TenderPre War Lionel # 257 Steam Locomotive With 257t TenderLionel Original Prewar #238 Loco And #2225w TenderPrewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.512 Gondola With Original BoxOriginal Lionel #616 Flying Yankee Zephyr Passenger Train SetPrewar Lionel No.134 Lionel City Station With Train StopLionel Pre-war #1535 Mechanical (wind-up) Streamline Train Set-heartbreak Hotel!Prewar Lionel O Gauge No.2810 Derrick CranePair Of Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.222 Electric Track Switches With BoxPrewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.220 Floodlight CarLionel 787w Set Box For 763e & Semiscale Freight Cars, Rare, OriginalMth Tinplate Traditions #192 Villa Set Nib 10-4072Lionel 731 Pair Of T-rail Switches, Sealed Ob, OriginalLionel O Gauge Prewar 260 Loco W/ 263w Tender ProjectLionel Original Prewar Power Station $436 Rare ColorsGreenberg's Guide To Lionel Trains: Prewar Sets - No ReserveLionel No. 700e, 763 Boiler Front Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.280 Green Girder BridgeLionel 259e Train Engine & 258t Tender Prewar O Scale Lionel # 820 "o" Gauge Prewar Floodlight Car Nickel W/ Box Couplers (dakotapaul)Original Lionel 98 Coal Tipple In Ob - No ReserveLionel Pre-war 816 "rubber Stamped" Hopper Car-high Couplers-nice Original!High Grade Lionel Prewar No. 118 Tunnel With Box No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel No. 224e Loco And No. 2224w TenderLionel Prewar O Gauge 252 0-4-0 Electric Locomotive 1929 -30Lionel 2955 Shell Semiscale Tankcar W/ Ob & Wrap, Scarce, OriginalLionel Pre War Engine,for Parts Or Repair,o Scale(used)no ReserveLionel 2954 Pennsylvania Semi Scale Boxcar W/ Ob, OriginalSet Of Three Original Pre-war Lionel 0/027 Gauge Tinplate Passenger CarsLionel Original Prewar 810 Crane With Original BoxHigh Grade Lionel No. 813 "o" Gauge Prewar Cattle Car + Box No Res (dakotapaul)