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.
Choose Your Vintage Lionel Train, Track, & Accessories
To put together a vintage Lionel train set, purchase items that appeal to you. Some collectors take interest in trains from a specific era, others look for collectable Mickey Mouse sets, and still others build collections around trains with certain road names, such as Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, or Great Northern. Of course if you don’t want to buy all your pieces separately, you can buy a Lionel starter set and be up and running in no time.
Look for Lionel locomotives
Some locomotives produce smoke and whistle sounds. Others feature “magnetraction,” or magnetic wheels which allow an engine to pull more cars. When looking at pre-war steam engines to use with pre-war cars remember that pre-war couplers aren’t compatible with post-war couplers. For beginners, modern era (rather than post-war) diesels such as the GP-7 or GP-9 are a good choice. Look for a locomotive with three positions: forward, reverse, and neutral.
Choose Lionel train cars
Once you have an engine, you can decide which kinds of cars you want to start your collection. The different types of rolling stock available include:
Boxcars: Search for old 6454 boxcars for a realistic look.
Refrigerator cars: Refrigerator cars include beer cars, candy cars, and more.
Gondolas: The post-war 6462 gondola model is inexpensive and available in various colours.
Flatcars: Flatcars carried military equipment, logs, and Christmas trees.
Cabooses: Cabooses are the little red car at the end of your train. If you are interested in lighted cabooses, look into the 6357 or 6457 models.
Pick your Lionel train power source and controls
You may be interested in a single-throttle or double-throttle transformer. The 1033 transformer from the 1950s is a good choice for a single-throttle transformer. A powerful transformer (around 190 watts of power) allows for plenty of future expansion. If you want a modern control system, consider TrainMaster, a sophisticated R/C (radio-controlled) system that allows you to control multiple trains on a single track.
Select Lionel train accessories
Lionel is well-known for its accessories. Beginners may be interested in track-side signals, such as 151 semaphores and 252 or 152 crossing gates. You might want to add a 45 gateman shack to your set. Obtain a structure such as the 125 whistle shack or 445 signal tower. Lighting, in the form of a searchlight or flood towers, is a nice addition to any set.
Set up your Lionel train track
Lionel train track is recognizable because it has three rails. Gauge refers to the distance between the rails. The common gauge for modern Lionel trains is O gauge, which measures 1¼ inches between the outer rails. Lionel O gauge tracks come in two kinds: O and O27.
It takes eight pieces of track to make a circle. An O gauge circle has a 31-inch diameter, and an O27 gauge circle is 27 inches in diameter. Although O27 trains will run easily on an O track, running O trains on O27 track is more problematic. Because O gauge train cars are longer, they can derail or get stuck in the turns of the tighter O27 track.
Determine the Value of Vintage Lionel Trains
Knowing the value of trains is of interest for beginning enthusiasts as well as seasoned collectors. Demand often determines the value of a train with some vintage Lionel trains selling for close to their original price and others going for much more.
The collectors’ market is highest for trains made before 1969. Particular road names (such as Lionel Santa Fe or Lionel Union Pacific) may be in favour, increasing their value. Rare trains are generally more valuable as well.
As quality increases, so does value. Broken or missing parts, large scratches, rust, or chipped paint all have a negative impact on value. However, trains in poor condition are often sources for parts.
Remember that the grade of a train refers to the condition of the finish–electrical parts are considered inoperable unless a seller says otherwise. If parts have been replaced or restored, this should be clearly noted.
Here are the guidelines for condition as established by the TCA (Train Collectors Association):
Mint: Mint-condition Lionel trains look completely new, are unused, and have all original parts.
Like new: Lionel trains in like-new condition have no scratches or blemishes and are in original condition.
Excellent: Lionel trains in excellent condition are clean, not rusted, and have only very small nicks or scratches.
Very good: Very good condition Lionel trains have some scratches but no dents or rust.
Good: Good condition Lionel trains have some scratches and dents.
Fair: Well-worn Lionel trains in fair condition may have dents, rust, or warping.
Poor: Lionel trains in poor condition are highly damaged, but good for parts.
A Lionel train’s value also increases if it comes in the original packaging. Any train or accessory that comes in a sealed blister pack is highly valued by collectors. Among collectors, the value of a Lionel box can be greater than its contents; boxes have been known to sell for over $1,000, depending on scarcity and condition. Ratings for boxes are New, Like New, Excellent, Very Good, Good, and Fair.
Find Vintage Lionel Trains on eBay
Once you know what type of Lionel Train you want, go to the Toys & Hobbies portal, click Model RR trains, and start searching for items on eBay.
Categories: The Categories list on the left side of each page will help you narrow down your listings by item type. Click on the scale of train you desire, then the Lionel category, where applicable.
Keyword search: Search eBay listing titles for specific words. For example, if you want to find Lionel Santa Fe trains, type "Lionel Santa Fe" (without quotation marks) into the Search box. Click "Search title and description" to expand your results. Visit eBay's Search Tips page for more tips on searching with keywords.
If you can't find exactly what you want, try shopping eBay Stores, tell the eBay Community what you want by creating a post on Want It Now, or save a search on My eBay and eBay will email you when a match becomes available.
Buy Vintage Lionel Trains With Confidence
Before making your purchase, make sure you know exactly what you're buying, research your seller, and understand how eBay and PayPal protect you.
Know your purchase
Carefully read the details in item listings.
Figure delivery costs into your final price. If you spend a lot of money, make sure the seller will insure the item when it ships.
If you want more information, ask by clicking the "Ask seller a question" link under the seller's profile.
Always make sure to complete your transaction on eBay (with a bid, Buy It Now, or Best Offer). Transactions conducted outside of eBay are not covered by eBay protection programs.
Never pay for your eBay item using instant cash wire transfer services through Western Union or MoneyGram. These payment methods are unsafe when paying someone you do not know.
Know your seller
Research your seller so you feel positive and secure about every transaction.
What is the seller's Feedback rating? How many transactions have they completed? What percentage of positive responses do they have?
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