Lionel and Railroads in America
When Lionel founder Joshua Lionel Cowen's immigrant family arrived in New York after the Civil War, the railroads were literally America's engines of progress. The "Golden Spike" meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines in 1869 unified the continent and signaled the birth of a world power. Cowen was born in 1877, just before Edison's first electric light. He grew up with real trains, amid dizzying change. Around the time he founded Lionel in 1900, passenger lines like the peerless Twentieth Century Limited symbolized American technology and sophistication.
Cowen was already a successful inventor when he created his first toy train. But The Electric Express and its offspring soon became a sacred mission, and Cowen would spend a lifetime stoking America's imagination with the romance of the rails. He told boys that Lionels would prepare them for adulthood. Soon Dads too were encouraged to join Youngsters in model train enthusiasm, to future father-son bonding. With growing prosperity, Lionels layouts cropped up in more living rooms, especially at Christmas. Before mid-century, railroads were our economic lifeblood, as well as cultural icons -- but it was not to last.
And when Americans started driving to suburbia and flying cross-country, they stopped buying Lionel trains. By the 1960s, freight lines were being scrapped, and fathers and sons were on opposite sides of the "generation gap." That decade saw the tragic demise of New York's Pennsylvania Station, the retirement of The Twentieth Century Limited, and the passing of Joshua Lionel Cowen.
But now the Lionel dream is back and better than ever. America is renewing its relationship with the railroads -- building new high-speed passenger lines and even recreating historical landmarks like Penn Station. Joshua Lionel Cowen's legacy of family, friends, and shared enjoyment has endured and grown. At today's Lionel, we're rekindling old traditions and inventing new technologies.
So take a ride into our past and relive the Lionel story, from the 1900s to the 1990s -- from the turn of the last century to the dawn of a new millennium!
Beginnings Youthful inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen wasn't the first to manufacture toy trains. But his talents as an engineer and salesman soon put Lionel ahead of its competitors. Cowen designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy, but as an eye-catching display for toy stores.
During Lionel's early days, Americans were captivated by the railroads and awed by electricity, still a rarity in many homes. Lionel's first trains were powered by wet-cell (acid-filled!) batteries, soon replaced by the 110-volt electric transformer. By 1906, with the introduction of preassembled track and a selection of engines and cars, the Lionel we know today was already taking shape.
Joshua Lionel Cowen founds Lionel Manufacturing Company near City Hall in New York City
The No. 5 electric locomotive appears, and is decorated for the Baltimore & Ohio.
Three-rail "Standard Gauge" track – designed to eliminate short-circuits debuts. So do the first transformer, steam locomotives, and assorted cars.
Proclaims Lionel electric trains to be the "Standard of the World"!
Gathering Steam The decade between 1910 and 1919 saw Lionel's sales increase fifteen-fold. This resulted from a bustling economy, the growth of electric power, World War I defense production, and the end of German toy imports.
Changing times were reflected by "Racing Automobiles" and a passenger train with internal lighting, the retirement of the quaint "Pay-As-You-Go" trolley, and the introduction of a war train with cannons. Smaller, less expensive O-gauge track debuted (and is used by Lionel to this day).
Though the company became a corporation, the family tradition continued, with Cowen's son Lawrence ("The Happy Lionel Boy") gracing catalogs, packaging, and sales materials.
Lionel's new "racing automobiles" presage the slot-car craze of the 1960s. Lionel introduces the Multi-Volt transformer and rheostat to control engine speed.
O-gauge trains and track debut, ultimately replacing Standard Gauge by the 1930s.
"Pay-As-You-Enter" trolley retires in the last year of pre-war innocence.
Lionel marks an O-gauge armored train complete with a cannon-equipped locomotive.
An era of expansion is marked by a new company name – The Lionel Corporation.
Roaring Ahead Following a brief recession, Lionel entered an era of unprecedented growth. People wanted to forget the war and indulge in life's pleasures — and more of them could afford luxuries like toy trains, thanks to easy credit. Cowen was among the finest practitioners of modern advertising. Lionel ads appeared nationally in newspapers, boys' magazines, and "Grown-up" publications like The Saturday Evening Post.
Cowen got endorsements from celebrities, and even started a Lionel radio show. Slogans such as "Lionel: The Father and Son Railroad," and "Real enough for a man to enjoy — simple enough for a boy to operate," were the first of many to pitch family themes. Meanwhile, Lionel's fabulously illustrated catalogs became children's cherished "wish books." The products they portrayed — like the No. 402 electric engine, the Hellgate Bridge, and the No. 840 Power Station — grew ever more elaborate. Working accessories — including crossing gates, highway flashers, and traffic warning bells — became more and more lifelike. This was a golden age for Lionel, but like the Roaring Twenties, it wouldn't last.
Lionel establishes La Precisa in Italy, where some if its finest prewar products were tooled.
The Standard Gauge No. 402 passenger set is featured on the cover of the 1924 Lionel consumer catalog.
With the purchase of competitor Ives Manufacturing, Lionel gains the reversing unit, an innovation allowing trains to change direction.
The magnificent Hellgate Bridge debuts, just one of a dizzying array of detailed accessories.
The luxurious State Set passenger train appears, just before "Black Monday" ends the decade with a crash.
After the Crash During the Great Depression, Lionel's sales and profits slumped, and 1931 was its first year in the red. Ironically, as times grew tougher, the company introduced its greatest standard-gauge steam locomotive, the No. 400E, whose $42.50 price was beyond the means of most families. In 1934, financial troubles led Lionel into court-ordered receivership to stave off bankruptcy.
That year the company's fortunes were boosted by the debut of the wildly popular Mickey and Minnie handcar, a $1 windup toy. Meanwhile, streamlining was all the rage on America's railroads, and Lionel followed suit with its own designs, like the Union Pacific, the Hiawatha, and the Flying Yankee. Lionel showed profits again in 1935, and the receivership was discharged. The No. 700E New York Central Hudson, with its blueprint-accurate details, appealed to adult hobbyists. It also marked the ascendancy of affordable O gauge over the more expensive standard gauge, which was discontinued in 1939.
In an attempt to capture the "female market," Lionel introduces a porcelain-steel, working electric range for girls, soon discontinued.
The magnificent No. 400E is released. The largest of all Lionel's standard-gauge steam locomotives, it heads up the stunning Blue Comet passenger set.
The Mickey & Minnie wind-up handcar – priced at only $1 for Depression-era families – boosts Lionel's fortunes. The streamlined Union Pacific diesel M10000 is released with great fanfare.
The steam whistle comes to Lionel Lines®. The No. 45N automatic gateman debuts. Lionel manufactures this all-time classic accessory to this day.
The No. 700E New York Central Hudson steamer signals Lionel's emergence as a world-class scale-model builder. Lawrence Cowen joins Lionel's board of directors.
The No. 97 coal elevator sets the tome for future accessories – rugged, stylish, and wildly popular.
Lionel participates in New York's World Fair.
War, Peace, and Prosperity Lionel benefited financially from defense production during World War II, but toy train production was put on hold. So boys (and their dads) were encouraged to "plan your postwar railroad" in Lionel's Model Builder magazine and Railroad Planning Book. Lionel engineers were busy too, and in 1946 the company unveiled a stunning array of milestone products. These included locomotives with real puffing smoke (like the all-new Pennsylvania S-2 steam turbine), a remote-controlled coupling system, and a realistic water tower with a moving spout.
Lionel's offerings, many styled to match actual railroads, reflected America's renewed love affair with trains. And the postwar baby boom was just getting started....
Several animated accessories appear, including the No. 313 bascule bridge, which raises and lowers automatically, and the No. 164 log loader, with its working conveyor belt.
Lionel ceases production of electric trains and build compasses and compass cases for the war. The hard-to-assemble Lionel "paper train" is produced during the holiday season.
Lionel perfects the magnetic knuckle-coupler concept and readies it for postwar production.
"Smoke" for Lionel steam locomotives debuts, as do the Pennsylvania S-2 steam turbine locomotive and a realistic water tower. Remote uncoupling is introduced with Lionel Electric Set.
Lionel's version of the massive, twenty-wheeled Pennsylvania GG-1 electric engine features working pantographs that draw power from overhead catenary lines.
The F3 diesel locomotive, its all-time biggest seller, and the mighty ZW transformer, whose 275 watts could power four trains at once.
Lionel expands its offerings with the NW2 diesel locomotive switcher, No. 6462 New York Central gondola car, No. 6520 searchlight car, and No. 3656 cattle car and platform.
Halcyon Days Lionel was at its peak in the early 1950s, with record profits and some of its best products ever. Its catalogs of the period were absolute stunners. Unfortunately, Lionel was selling far more engines and rolling stock than existed on real railroads, which were rapidly overwhelmed by competition from highways and airlines.
Lionel actually had its own television show, but the new medium soon mesmerized America, and interest in toy trains waned. Lionel products of this period included a stereo camera, the pastel-colored Lady Lionel train set, and trains with space age and Cold War themes. The "father and son railroad" of Joshua Lionel Cowen and Lawrence Cowen ended in 1959, when they sold their interest in Lionel to distant relative Roy Cohn.
Joe DiMaggio, star player for the New York Yankees, hosts the "The Lionel Club House" on NBC television. Lionel equips its engines with Magne-Traction®, which uses magnets to increase traction, pulling power, and grip at high speeds.
The No. 445 animated switch tower premiers and becomes an instant classic. A set of sleek aluminium passenger cars is released to run behind the powerful No. 2343 Santa Fe.
The highly detailed No. 6417 porthole-window caboose debuts. Lionel announces record profits. It is the world's largest toy manufacturer, and a household name to millions.
Two popular accessories appear – the No. 342 culvert unloader, which grabs metal pipe, and the No. 464 animated sawmill, with "whirring blades".
The No. 746 Norfolk & Western debuts as Lionel's greatest steam locomotive. Lionel releases the ill-fated Super O track with plastic ties. The Lionel No. 6800 flatcar with 6800 Beechcraft Bonanza airplane appears.
Lionel introduces the No. 175 rocket launcher car, "Atomic Energy Commission" rolling stock, and HO gauge.
New items include the No. 470IRBM missile-launching base (complete with radar array and Quonset hut), and the No. 6470 exploding boxcar. Joshua Lionel Cowen and Lawrence Cowen sell their shares to an investment group headed by Roy Cohen, ending the Lionel Cowen era.
End of an Era Lionel in the 1960s was a company that had lost its founder and its bearings. America was undergoing social upheaval, and the idealized image of Lionel railroading no longer fit in. In a doomed effort to diversify, the company introduced slot cars, science kits, and even phonographs. Despite several creative covers, Lionel catalogs soon featured uninspiring product shots, devoid of all romance.
Joshua Lionel Cowen passed away in 1965 at the age of 88. Another American legend, the venerable Twentieth Century Limited, made its last run in 1967. That same year Lionel filed for bankruptcy. The company licensed its electric train manufacturing to breakfast-cereal conglomerate General Mills in 1969.
Former U.S. Army general John Medaris becomes president of Lionel.
New train cars that launch satellites and Minuteman nuclear missiles debut.
The Talking Teddy, containing a hidden speaker, is wired to a Lionel-Spear phonograph. The No. 3357 "Cop and Hobo" train car is introduced.
This unintentionally symbolic cover from the 1963 catalog shows a racecar outrunning a locomotive.
Lionel president Francis R. O'Leary claims the "Lionel has never tried to cash in on passing fads," but the Beatlesque catalog cover contradicts him.
This illustrated cover recalls the good old days, but photographs are used inside.
Lionel files for bankruptcy.
This year marks the Centennial of the Golden Spike as well as Lionel's demise as an independent corporation.
New Beginnings By the 1970s, what remained of the original Lionel Corporation was a holding company specializing in toy stores. It had leased the Lionel name to Minneapolis-based General Mills, which bought other toy companies like Parker Brothers, Kenner, and MPC. By 1973 Lionel was folded into General Mills subsidiary Fundimensions, which carried on the Lionel tradition with many trains that equaled or bettered the originals.
One highlight of the decade was The Mickey Mouse Express -- an instant hit and prized collectible, which revived an association with Disney dating from 1934. With the Fundimensions slogan, "Not Just a Toy, A Tradition," Lionel appeared to be getting back on track.
The new Lionel plant in Mount Clemens, Michigan opens for business.
Fundimensions versions of Lionel classics are equal to or better than the originals.
This cover is created in response to a letter from seven-year-old Caroline Ranald, who wrote, "Girls like trains too!"
The Anniversary Special train proves that the Lionel spirit lives on. These freight cars are decorated with pictures of old catalogs, logos, and images of beloved classics.
The Mickey Mouse Express, pulling a dozen hi-cube boxcars, recalls the success of Mickey and Minnie in 1934.
Moving Along In 1980, Fundimensions celebrated Joshua Lionel Cowen's self-claimed hundredth birthday (he was actually born in 1877) with seven commemorative boxcars. Then in 1982, General Mills shocked Lionel employees when it decided to relocate production to Mexico. The move was disastrous, and production returned to Michigan in 1984. That year Lionel recreated its greatest steam locomotive, the No. 773 Hudson, as the No. 783.
In 1985, General Mills sold off its toy divisions, with Lionel absorbed by Kenner-Parker. In 1986, Detroit-based real estate developer -- and railroad enthusiast -- Richard Kughn bought the brand and established Lionel Trains. In 1989, Lionel rolled out RailSounds™, heralding an era of high-tech audio realism, and trumpeting better things yet to come.
Joshua Lionel Cowen's life story is highlighted on the sides of these "hundredth birthday" commemorative boxcars.
General Mills decided to relocate the Lionel factory to Mexico, which proves disastrous.
Lionel resumes production in Mt. Clements, Michigan.
The stunning No. B6 switcher of the late 1930s reappears, this time sporting the all-new Railsounds™ audio reproduction system.
Building the Future A reinvigorated Lionel started off the 1990s with the reissue of the legendary No. 700E locomotive. In 1992 Richard Kughn and rock musician Neil Young, an avid model railroader, created Liontech, chartered to develop exclusive new model train control and sound systems. Liontech's RailSounds II™ debuted in 1994 on the Santa Fe Mikado. This all-new digital system captured a real-life Mikado's actual sounds, and propelled Lionel to the forefront of model train technology.
Also debuting in 1994 was the TrainMaster® control system, which can command any locomotive via a wireless remote. Richard Kughn sold Lionel in 1995. In 1996, Lionel issued its first fully illustrated catalog in more than 30 years. The Lionel Century Club, announced in 1997, was the first event in the ongoing celebration of the company's upcoming centenary.
The No. 700E locomotive returns – and is so popular that production stretches for an astounding four months.
Railsounds II™ debuts on the Santa Fe Mikado, digitally reproducing all the detailed sounds of the actually locomotive. The all-new, wireless TrainMaster™ control system finally fulfils the promise of the 1940s-era Lionel Electronic Set.
Richard Kughn sells Lionel.
Lionel issues its first fully illustrates catalog in over three decades.
The Century Club inaugurates activities celebrating Lionel's first hundred years.
A retooled Lionel.com debuts on the World Wide Web, bringing a century of model railroading into the next millennium!