Pre-War Lionel Model Trains



2015-06-26 10:44:55

Pre-war Lionel trains are toy trains, tracks and accessories made by the Lionel Company, which was owned by Joshua Lionel Cowen (nee Cohen) from 1902 onwards. Pre-war Lionel model trains date until the outbreak of the second world war. Many of these trains are extremely valuable and can bring large sums at auction.


Joshua Lionel Cohen designed the very first wooden model train in 1900. The “Electric Express”, as it was christened, was not designed as a toy in its own right but as a means of displaying other toys – the train’s diminutive carriages were to be filled with dolls and trinkets, which would circle Robert Ingersol’s Manhattan toyshop window, attracting the attention of children and adults alike. As soon as the model train was placed in the window, a customer wanted to purchase it however. Seeing an opportunity to expand his product range and make some money, Ingersoll immediately order six more trains from Cohen.

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.

1901 saw a 12 pound open air Electric Trolley Car enter production aside the Electric Express. The Morton E Converse Company made these trolley cars, which proved very popular. Attention to detail differentiated these model trains from their competitors – designs mirrored in miniature those key features found on real trains.

By 1902, the name Lionel was being used. The unmotorized Electric Express, six barrelled car, and a Suspension bridge appeared in Cohen’s catalogue of that year. Switch tracks were also developed and put to market, allowing enthusiasts to create figure-of-eight track configurations in addition to ovals and circles.

Metal replaced wood in 1903 and a crane car with hand crank was added to the Lionel line.

During 1906, Lionel’s track-development trumped all other manufacturers: train tracks were created 2 1/8 inches apart instead of 2 7/8 inches apart, an electrified third rail appeared, whose transformer could modulate a train’s speed.
1906-1910 saw many new lines added, including the No.5 and No.6 steam engines and the highly collectible No.8 and No.9 trolleys. Model trains were fitted with working lamps during this period. In 1910 the company moved its manufacturing plant to New Haven from New York. This area of the US was cheaper and offered substantial tax breaks. The company would move again in 1914, to Irvington, New Jersey.

Before the outbreak of WW1, Cohen changed his name to Cowen in order to disguise his Jewish roots. Anti-Semitists were boycotting Jewish goods and businesses at this time.
In 1915, Lionel expanded their lines once again, with the addition of a smaller O scale. A military train topped with cannons was manufactured in 1917 only.

Lionel reached its pre-WW2 peak during the 1920s: the No.42 was improved, the round hooded 380 introduced and the much-loved No.381 produced and sold as both “E” (bell and automatic reverse) and “U” (as kit, complete with tools) models.

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.

Throughout the 1930s, Lionel produced construction kits designed to enable enthusiasts to create their own model trains. The Lionel Jr., range was also introduced – a cut price range reflecting the widespread economic hardship caused by the Great Depression. The Lionel Jr., range, however, was far from Cowen’s main concerns – with an unflinching commitment to concentrating on creating the best model trains available, Cohen channelled his creative energies into mostly unaffordable luxury lines such as the highly sought after Comet Trains, which were introduced in 1930. This misplaced dedication led the company into financial difficulties.

Only the Union Pacific M-1000 streamliner and the wind up Minnie and Mickey Mouse handcar rescued the company from bankruptcy. These affordable toys sold in their thousands during a period in which few had money to spare and Disney went on to add a Santa handcar and a Mickey Mouse Circus Train Outfit to its Lionel ranges.

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.

Bakelite began to be introduces in the late thirties, whilst the company was manufacturing the 700E Hudson. Automated, remote-controlled accessories such as coal elevators and log loaders followed in 1938 and sold well until 1941, when the nation entered the second world war.

Collecting information

  • The most collectible pre-war Lionel model trains are in full working order.
  • Trains in mint/near mint boxes are deeply desirable.
  • Condition is key: many pre-war Lionel model trains were bought as toys and were therefore treated without reverence and show extensive signs of wear. Mint/near mint trains are rare and command high sums at auction.
  • Particularly collectible models include the earliest trains and accessories, as well as a number of carriages and the battle train produced in 1917.
  • Some locomotives produce smoke and whistle sounds. Others feature "magnetraction," or magnetic wheels which allow an engine to pull more cars.
  • Pre-war steam engines are not compatible with post-war couplers and vice versa. For beginners, modern era (rather than post-war) diesels such as the GP-7 or GP-9 are a good collecting choice.
  • Know your seller and buy trains you have seen and handled first hand where ever possible.
  • Any train or accessory that comes in a sealed blister pack is highly valued by collectors.

Price Guide

A rare Lionel original postwar Boys Train set sold for $66,000 at Stout Auctions in September 2006.

Lionel set 2124W with outstanding set box (C9) sold for $19,500 at Stout auctions in September 2004.

A prewar Lionel 2 7/8 gauge No. 100, B&O No. 5 Electric locomotive in the rare light green sold for $13,500 at Stout Auctions in October 2012.

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