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]

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    

Lionel Prewar Black 763e And 2226wx Whistle TenderLionel Standard Gauge No. 400e Gunmetal Locomotive - Tender Sold Separately MmmScarce Postwar Lionel 6517-75 Erie Bay-window Caboose~mint Unrun~w/nice Ob Lionel Standard Gauge #421 Westphal Passenger Car - Original W/ Box C-7 - MmmLionel Standard Gauge #420 Faye Passenger Car - Original W/ Box C-7 - MmmLionel Standard Gauge Passenger Car Set: 418 Parlor, 419 Combo & 490 Obs, Nice1959 Original Unpainted Postwar Lionel 3672 Bosco Automatic Milk Car, Ex/obPostwar Lionel O Scale 773 Hudson Steam Locomotive 4-6-4Lionel Standard Gauge No. 400t Gunmetal Tender For 400e Locomotive - C-7 MmmLionel Standard Gauge #422 Tempel Observation Car - Original W/ Box C-7 - MmmLionel Standard Gauge Prewar 390e Steam Locomotive Tender 390Lionel 9e Standard Gauge 2-4-2 Bild-a-loco Electric Loco, C-8 Ln, Runs Great Lionel Postwar #682 S-2 Type 6-8-6 Steam Locomotive & #2046w-50 Tender Mh14Lionel Standard Gauge No. 400-w-gm Whistle Tender For 400e Locomotive - C-7 MmmVintage Lionel Trains Lot-box Load Of Brochures,accessories W/ Envelopes,parts1964 Vintage Boxed Lionel Trains-#6414 Automobile Transport Car-mib-c-9 PristineLionel 385e Steam Locomotive & Tender - RestoredAntique Lionel #385e Gray Standard Gauge Steam Locomotive Engine Vintage PrewarPostwar Lionel 6464-475 Boston & Maine Boxcar~scarce Purple-blue Painted~w/ob Lionel 763e Gray O Gauge Hudson Prewar Steam Engine And TenderVintage Lionel O Gauge Locomotive Engine - 224Rare 1964 Lionel Ho 0864-285 All Detergent Dealer 19364 Promotional Display, NosRare & Uncataloged, 1936 Lionel Prewar Black 289e Steam Engine, Original, NiceScarce Postwar Lionel #419 Heliport~all Original~w/nice Ob & InstructionsVintage Boxed Lionel Train Accessory-#175 Rocket Launcher, Mint In Original BoxLionel 436 Prewar Power House Station Good Station LookLionel Rare X-540na Promotional Set With Set Box And Individual BoxesLionel 2373p & 2373t Canadian Pacific F3 A-a Set Repro Boxes Runs Look Good SetPostwar Lionel 6809 Flatcar W/usmc Antiaircraft And Medical Truck~nice Original!Lot Vintage Ho Lionel Hustler Aec 0056 Industrial Switcher~diesel LocomotivePostwar Lionel 2321 Lackawanna F-m Trainmaster Diesel Locomotive~w/nice Ob+inst.Postwar Lionel 44 Us Army Mobile Missile Launcher~w/ob & InstructionsLionel 165 Operating Gantry Crane With ElectromagnetVintage Lionel O Gauge Box Car Lot - 14 Items (rare & Hard To Find)Lionel Train Set 12800 2346 6428 6464-475 6415 6436-110 6017-100 Runs Nice SetVintage Lionel Trains Accessory-#264-27 Operating Fork Lift, Mib-box Is CleanVintage Postwar Lionel O Gauge No.2065 4-6-4 Steam Engine & No.6026w TenderLionel Standard Gauge No. 208 Tool Box + Coal - Original Pre-war & C-6 - MmmLionel Prewar O Gauge 225e Gunmetal Steam Locomotive And 2225w Tender! PaLionel Tinplate Pre-war No.240e Freight Train Set W/original Boxes, O GaugeScarce Postwar Lionel 6464-250 Western & Pacific Boxcar~mint Unrun~w/ob Postwar Lionel Outfit No.1433w 221 Nyc Steam Engine & Freight Car Set With BoxesLionel 726 Berkshire 2-8-4 Die-cast Locomotive - 1946 VersionVintage Boxed Lionel Trains-#465-52 Sound Dispatching Station-mib W/ All PackingPostwar Lionel 6807 Flatcar With Usmc "duck"~all Original~w/ob American Flyer Complete Train SetA New-in-the-box American Flyer/lionel Erie Aba And Four Car Passenger Set.Williams Engine 773 Nyc Hudson W/ 2426 Tender (lionel & Mth Compatible) Ex-w/obLionel Post War 2-6-4 New York Central Gray Steam Engine And 221 TenderLionel 2020 6-8-6 Steam Turbine Locomotive With 6020w Tender2pc Lionel Postwar Civil War General 4-4-0 Locomotive 1862 With 1862t TenderLionel 3656 Operating Cattle Car & Corral Set And 260 Die-cast Bumpers (13)Lionel Boston & Maine Gp-9 Diesel No.2346 Postwar 1965/66 Era Original ExcellentLionel 437 Prewar Switch Tower Station Good Station Look Restore Or PartsPw Lionel 216 Burlington Fa Diesel A And 217c B Units In Original BoxesLionel O 6-28330 Union Pacific Sd70ace Diesel #8444 3 Rail With Legacy In O/bPostwar Lionel 2354 New York Central F3 Aa Diesels~nice Original Set!Lionel Standard Gauge Mojave 318e Locomotive And Cars C5-c6 Nr! Lionel Postwar #646 Hudson Type 4-6-4 Steam Locomotive & #2046w Tender Mh19Lionel Postwar #671 S-2 Type 6-8-6 Steam Locomotive & #2671w Tender Mh24