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 Pre-war "o" Gauge U.p. M10000 Streamliner Set-1936 Orig. Boxes-very Nice!Lionel Pre War Standard Restored 392e Lionel Lines Steam Loco 525590Lionel Prewar 260e Large Steam Loco! Collector Grade, Brick Box! Nice! 1932!Vintage Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge Mojave Passenger Car Set 418 & 419 & 490Lionel # 261e Prewar 2-4-2 1935 Steam Locomotive With Nickel TrimLionel Prewar Standard Scale 392e & 392w Locomotive & Tender. Beautiful! Look!Lionel Pre-war Standard Gauge #32 Baggage/mail Car-1920's Orig. Box-gorgeous!Lot Of 14 Vintage Prewar Lionel Trains & Misc Signs, Elevators, Building LightsLionel Prewar 262e Steam Loco And Tender! Nice Loco!Lionel Pre-war Standard No 436 Power Station Original Paint Beautiful ConditionPrewar Lionel Ives Standard Gauge No.1764e Chrome 4-4-4 Electric EngineLionel Trains Prewar Standard Gauge Number # 8 Electric Locomotive MaroonLionel Prewar Oo 001e 5342 Nyc Steam Engine 525586Vintage Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.380 Mojave Electric EngineVintage Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.441 Railroad Track ScaleLionel Prewar Original Parts Complete B-6 Switcher Running Chassis Lionel Pre-war Standard Gauge #332 Lighted Baggage Car-1927 Orig. Box-very Nice!Lionel Prewar Oo 003w Nyc Steam Tender With Whistle 525587Lionel No. 10, Standard Gauge Electric Outline Locomotive In Mojave,0-4-0,1920'sLionel Pre-war Standard Gauge 10 Series Freight Cars & Parts-fix 'em Up!Lionel (trains) Prewar No. 8 Standard Gauge Maroon Electric Locomotive (r)Lionel Prewar 262 Steam Loco And Tender! Scarce Large Trailing Truck! Nice!!!Pre-war Lionel Train Tunnel #120 Original Box Lid (1927 To 1933) "o" Gauge TrackLionel Prewar 440c Control Panel Board Original Paint Brass Trim & NameplatesVintage Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.33 Peacock Nyc Electric EngineLionel Prewar Standard Gauge Passenger Train Set Of 318e 309 312Lionel 097 Accessory Set In Scarce Original Box, Prewar, OriginalLionel Pre War Standard Restored 392w Lionel Lines Tender 525589Lionel Prewar Large Die-cast 2224w Semi Scale Whistle Tender!Big Lot Of 5 Prewar Made Lionel Trains Standard Gauge Motors & Frame Bild-a-locoLionel Prewar Original Parts Complete #semi Scale 8976 Switcher Shell Die-cast Lionel 0/027 Gauge 2-6-2 #224e Pre-war Steam Locomotive RunsLionel Pre-war Standard Gauge #337 Lighted Pullman Car-1927 Orig. Box-very Nice!Lot Of 2 Lionel Prewar 248 Red Electric Engines W/ob & 629 Runs Restore Or PartsLionel Prewar Scarce Early 158 Electric Loco!Lionel 437 Signal Tower Building Pre WarLionel Pre-war Standard Gauge #18 Lighted Parlor Car-1924 Original-very Nice!Lionel Prewar O Straight Scenic Cardboard Tunnel For Layout W/ Label 525721Lionel Prewar Die-cast Slope Back 2203t Semi Scale Switcher Tender!Original Prewar Lionel Trains 226e Locomotive W/2226w Whistle Tender No ReserveVintage Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.219 Yellow Derrick Crane W/ Nickel TrimLionel Pre War 225e Loco & 2235w Tender (for Parts Or Repair)Pre War Lionel Standard Gauge Mojave 402e Loco For RestorationLionel Pre-war Standard Gauge #31 Combination Car-1920's Original-nice!Lionel O Scale Prewar #261e Steam Locomotive And #263w TenderLionel Prewar O Gauge 262e Steam LocomotiveLionel Pre-war "o" Gauge 3ea. #270 Bridges-1930's Originals-layout Quality!Lionel Post Pre War Carry Over No 93 Water Tower Orig Box/wax Paper/insp SlipLionel Pre-war "o" Gauge #253 Electric Loco-1929 Only!-original-clean 'er Up!Prewar Lionel 2954 Pennsylvania Railroad Semi-scale Box CarOriginal Prewar Lionel 390-76 Flags 260e 262e 384e 385e 390e 392e 400e, NosLionel Original Prewar 385e & 385w Tender With O/bUnusual Lionel Trains 1930's O Scale 700e Hudson 2-rail Looks Fantastic Must SeeLionel Prewar Uncataloged 1689e Passenger SetPre-war Lionel Standard Scale 1835e Locomotive Motor With Front & Rear Truck, NrLionel Trains O Scale Prewar Postwar Mixed Accessories (11 Lot) 1930's Lionel Trains 700e Hudson Shell W/frame And Wheels , Nice Shell No CracksLionel Pre-war Standard Gauge No. 35 & 36 Pass Cars-1920's Originals-very Nice!Prewar Lionel 224e Die Cast Steam Locomotive & Tender, C-7 Ex, Runs Great, No RsPre War Lionel Coal Elevator With Coal And Bin No. 160 O Scale