Lionel is by far the best-known toy train brand in North America, having done business under that name for over a century.
Joshua Lionel Cowen (1877 to 1965) gained first-hand experience with electrical devices by working for two New York City firms that manufactured dry-cell batteries and light bulbs. In 1899, he invented a battery-powered device that ignited photographer’s flash powder. He soon received a large order from the United States Navy, which wanted to use his device for detonating mines.
Cowen used the proceeds from his defense contract to found the Lionel Manufacturing Company in 1900. He gave the firm his own middle name–reportedly saying “I had to call it SOMETHING”. Lionel didn’t start out to become America’s greatest toymaker; Cowen sought to market household products that could be powered by a small electric motor he had designed. One of his first efforts was a miniature fan.
In 1901, Cowen built a battery-powered cart called Electric Express that ran on a circle of track. He sold it to a shopkeeper, who set it up in his store window to draw customers’ attention to the merchandise displayed there. Electric Express attracted customers all right – all of whom wanted to buy the train, not the merchandise riding on it. In short order, Lionel found itself in the toy train business. Except for a three-year hiatus during World War II, Lionel has been making electric trains ever since.
Prior to World War II, Lionel made trains in four different sizes.
(1) The earliest Lionel trains (1901 to 1905), including Electric Express, ran on two-rail track that measured 2-7/8″ between the rails. This track consisted of steel straps that fit into slots on wooden ties.
(2) In 1906, Lionel introduced three-rail track that measured 2-1/8″ between its outer rails. This was known as Standard Gauge (a registered trademark). Lionel manufactured trains in this size until 1940. Two competitors, IVES and American Flyer, also built this size train, but had to call theirs “wide gauge” to avoid infringing Lionel’s trademark. Standard gauge trains were solidly built of brightly painted sheet metal. The tracks also were made of sheet steel that was coated with tin to protect it from rusting. Because of this, trains like Lionel’s are still referred to as tinplate today. Throughout the 1920′s and 1930′s, Standard gauge trains got larger and more elaborate, culminating in the Transcontinental Limited (1929 to 1935), a deluxe passenger train that consisted of four illuminated 21-1/2″ cars hauled by a twin-motored 17-1/2″ locomotive. Its cars had hinged roofs that could be opened to reveal interior details such as seats and even a sink and toilet in the lavatory.
(3) In 1910 Lionel’s principal competitor, IVES, began selling smaller trains that ran on 1-1/4″ gauge tracks, which have come to be known as “O” (oh) gauge, although that size was originally called “0″ (zero) gauge. Lionel began making “0″ gauge trains in 1915 and is still making them today, ninety years later. For the first two decades, Lionel’s “O” gauge trains were built much like the firm’s Standard gauge trains, fabricated from sheet metal and painted in fanciful colors, with no attempt to depict a specific real train. That began to change in 1934, when Lionel introduced a model of Union Pacific’s “M 10000″ diesel-powered streamliner. Lionel’s M 10000 was groundbreaking for several reasons. First, it was the toymaker’s first accurate “O” scale model of a real train (“O” scale is usually defined as 1/48 full size, but Lionel’s M 10000 was closer to 1/45 real size). While most of Lionel’s previous trains were stubby and toy-like, the M 10000 was long and sleek – so long that Lionel had to develop a new track for it with broad 72″ diameter curves. Second, parts of it were made of die-cast metal, which permitted finer detail than was possible with sheet metal. Third, engine and cars were lettered for a real railroad instead of LIONEL LINES.
The trend toward more-realistic trains continued in 1935 with Lionel’s model of the Milwaukee Road’s streamlined Hiawatha passenger train, and culminated in 1937 with the introduction of a superb 1/48 scale model of New York Central’s J 1e “Hudson” steam locomotive.
(4) In 1938, Lionel introduced trains in a new, smaller size that it called “OO” (oh-oh) gauge (known as “00″, with zeroes, in Europe). OO was slightly larger than the HO trains that are popular today. Lionel made only one style of OO train, a New York Central “Hudson” pulling a boxcar, tank car, hopper and caboose. The tracks had metal rails (3/4″ gauge) mounted on Bakelite plastic roadbeds. Train and tracks were made both in three-rail and in a more realistic two-rail version.
Lionel built no electric trains from 1942 to 1944 because its factory was converted entirely to manufacturing military items during World War II. Thus, fans of Lionel trains refer to “prewar” (1901 to 1941) and “postwar” (1945 to 1969) production. World War II officially ended with the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. Lionel had time to prepare just one train set before the 1945 holidays.
There is a fascinating scene in The Godfather (1972: Paramount Pictures) where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) are supposed to be Christmas shopping in New York City in December 1945. They pause in front of a department store window, in which a Lionel train set is running. The only historically-correct train to appear in this scene would have been Lionel’s sole 1945 offering, which consisted of a #224E steam locomotive and tender, a silver Sunoco tank car, a Tuscan Red boxcar, black gondola and red caboose (all lettered for the Pennsylvania Railroad). Unfortunately, Paramount’s prop department used a much more modern Lionel train that was manufactured in the late 1960′s.
That first 1945 train set introduced several innovations that would come to define postwar Lionel. First, the cars rolled on new-style trucks made of sintered iron (powdered metal, pressed and heated in a mold). These were much more realistic than the stamped sheet-metal trucks used before World War II. Second, engine and cars had working knuckle couplers, a tremendous improvement in both appearance and operation compared to the unwieldy hooks and latches used before the war. Third, the one brand-new car in the train (a #2452 gondola) was injection-molded of a new plastic called polystyrene that soon became the standard material for toy train manufacture. Fourth, the cars were painted in realistic colors, and they were lettered for real railroads.
One thing that did not change in 1945 was the track. Despite its trend towards more realistic trains, Lionel continued to use the same three-rail 0 gauge track that it had been producing since 1915. This was an intentional marketing decision, based on the fact that hundreds of thousands of customers already had Lionel trains that were made before World War II. Since the new trains ran on the same track and used the same power supplies, former customers could add new items to their layouts. In contrast, Lionel’s chief rival, American Flyer, switched from O gauge to S gauge, making its postwar trains incompatible with its prewar models.
Lionel trains continued to grow in variety and in popularity. Outstanding postwar innovations included smoking steam locomotives (1946), a model of Pennsylvania Railroad’s GG-1 electric locomotive (1947), a model of Santa Fe’s F3 twin diesel locomotive with working horn (1948), and Magne-Traction (introduced in 1949 but not publicized until 1950). 1953 was Lionel’s most successful year, with sales peaking at $33 million. After that, the company continued to develop ever more new models, even though sales were declining. This helps to explain why some of the most sought-after Lionel trains were those produced in the late 1950′s, including the Canadian Pacific diesel passenger set and the Norfolk and Western “J” class steam locomotive, both introduced in 1957.
Joshua Lionel Cowen resigned as chairman of the board in 1958, and Lionel lost money for the first time since the Great Depression. The following year, Cowen sold his stock to his nephew Roy Cohn, and moved to Florida. Under Cohn’s management, Lionel trains declined both in quality and in popularity. In the 1960′s, electric trains were no longer cool; most young kids preferred road-racing sets and model rockets. Meanwhile, most serious model railroaders were turning to HO scale (1/87 of full size), which was cheaper than O gauge and took up less space. Lionel began offering HO trains in 1957 in an attempt to salvage some of its market share. Its 1957 line was made in Italy by Rivarossi; its 1958 trains were made in the USA by Athearn; by 1959 Lionel was making HO trains of its own. Unfortunately, Lionel HO did not sell well, and by the late 1960′s the company was a mere shadow of its former self.
Fundimensions, a division of General Mills, leased the Lionel name in 1970, bought the tooling, and moved all manufacturing to Mount Clemens, Michigan. Fundimensions produced a variety of O gauge 3-rail trains that were compatible with postwar Lionel trains. Some of its models were reissues of classic Lionel items, while others were completely new designs.
Detroit real-estate developer Richard Kughn bought Lionel in 1986, and operated it as Lionel Trains, Inc. The most outstanding new development under Kughn was TMCC, a system that allows trains and accessories to be controlled from a hand-held radio transmitter.
In 1996, Kughn sold the business to Wellspring Associates, a group of investors that includes pop musician Neil Young. The famous toy train company is now known as Lionel LLC.
Both LTI and Lionel LLC have capitalized on the popularity and collectibility of “old Lionel” by producing items that re-create favorite postwar (and even prewar) trains. Most of the current products come in the familiar orange, blue and cream boxes that have been a Lionel trademark since the 1930′s.
More than one novice collector has made the mistake of buying (or even selling) a modern reissued train that they believed to be a postwar original. Some are confused by the fact that Lionel LLC calls such items its “Postwar Celebration Series” (PWC); however, the very name Postwar should be a tip-off, since the old Lionel Toy Corporation never used that term. Postwar Celebration Series look a lot like the original Lionel items, and they often carry the same number as the original item, but the modern reissues are always manufactured in such a way that they can be distinguished from originals. The most obvious clue is the initials “PWC” that are stamped on both sides of each locomotive or car. More subtle, but readily appreciated by most collectors, is that Postwar Celebration items are usually better than the originals. They are molded from new tooling; the modern painting and decorating look better than postwar; modern cars are mechanically superior (their wheels are much more free-rolling); and PWC engines have luxury features such as TMCC and Rail Sounds that did not exist during the postwar era. Finally, original Lionel items were built in the USA, while present-day Lionel LLC products are manufactured in China.
Three-rail O gauge continues to be Lionel’s major emphasis in the twenty-first century; however, several other sizes of trains are currently marketed under the Lionel name. First, Lionel LLC has reissued some of Lionel’s classic Standard gauge trains (three rails, 2 1/8″ between rails) from the 1930′s. Second, Lionel acquired the American Flyer line of S gauge trains (two rails, 1/64 of full size) from the A. C. Gilbert Company after its bankruptcy in 1967. Lionel has reissued classic Gilbert items as well as newly designed S gauge models since the late 1970′s. Third, Lionel manufactures some G gauge trains (two rail, 1-3/4″ between rails). During the 1980′s and 1990′s, Lionel’s G line represented diesel-powered and modern steam-powered trains of Class I railroads; however, the most recent G items have been old-time steam trains, usually decorated in holiday schemes for Christmas tree use.
Reference note by p4A.com Contributing Editor Joseph H. Lechner, Ph.D.