Lionel Trains was the first – and still one of the most iconic – big brand in model railroading in the United States and worldwide.
In today’s blog post, we’re going to take a look at the history of Lionel Trains, what the brand is best known for, and have a look at some of the very best products you can get your hands on to add to your collection and model railroad scene.
The history of Lionel Trains
The Lionel brand was born in 1900, the brainchild of Joshua Lionel Cowen, whose family arrived in the United States shortly after the end of the US Civil War. Lionel’s first model trains weren’t toys, but displays produced for toy stores to captivate their customers. Unsurprisingly, it worked, and by 1906 you could go and buy three-rail track, transformers, steam locomotives, and a range of rolling stock.
After surviving and then thriving through the Great Depression and two World Wars, Lionel peaked in the early 1950s, even having its own TV show! The biggest challenge Lionel faced throughout the rest of the decade was the rapidly growing affordability and accessibility of car and air travel, as people started looking for these types of toys instead of toy trains.
By 1967, Lionel would file for bankruptcy. Still, the company would quickly restructure and start growing again in the 1970s, with The Mickey Mouse Express an iconic product from this decade.
Later, the 1990s were marked with various innovations, including new model train control and sound systems, while the 1996 issuing of the brand’s first fully illustrated catalog since the 1960s highlighted the renaissance both Lionel and the model railroading hobby were enjoying.
Today, Lionel is headquartered in Concord, North Carolina. Although the company has production operations in Vietnam today, a significant portion of its range is still produced right here in the United States.
What is Lionel best known for?
Throughout its history, Lionel has been a pioneer of various model railroad scales. Of course, being among the very first model train brands to bring a product to market, Lionel was synonymous with both pre-standard gauge and standard gauge trains.
However, it’s in O-scale model trains and accessories where the brand has most made its name. Apart from a brief period from 1941 to 1946, Lionel has been associated with O-scale models from 1915 until the present day. During the mid-20th century, there were years and even decades where nearly every O-scale train sold would be a Lionel model. The company still dominates the O-scale market today.
In addition to O-scale trains, Lionel offers various other scales, including:
- S-scale, which it started producing in 1979
- G-scale, which it began producing again in 2005
- HO-scale, which it reintroduced in 2016 having last discontinued such models in 1990.
Check out our favorite Lionel products
We couldn’t talk about Lionel Trains without sharing some of the most popular and iconic products from the Lionel range! Check out six of the best below.
Lionel O 2123060 Hallow’s Eve Limited LionChief Set
If you’re looking to kickstart your love affair with Lionel via a themed set, look no further than this Halloween product.
Giving you a locomotive, three cars, and ten pieces of track to get started, this is an excellent starter set whether you love feeling spooky or just want to give your layout a quirky and fun appearance.
Lionel O 2123070 LionChief Polar Express Freight Set
Owing a Lionel Polar Express Set is your opportunity to enjoy two iconic brands at once.
A favorite under Christmas trees around the world, this Polar Express Freight Set is fantastic as a gift or as a treat for yourself to kickstart a collection or new layout in style!
Lionel S 2119242 The Polar Express Pullman Sleeping Car “North Pole”
And if you want to add another iconic brand to your Polar Express Set, this Pullman passenger car will help you get all your passengers to the North Pole in first-class style. These models are accurate depictions of the post-1944 Pullman models and come with incredible detail, including window silhouettes and interior LED lighting.
Lionel O 2123040 GP38 LionChief Set, John Deere
Sticking with the theme of iconic brands, there aren’t many that are more so than John Deere.
Whether you love Lionel, John Deere, or want something new for your model railroad, this John Deere set is an excellent buy for both experienced railroaders and those just getting started with their collection.
With a locomotive, three cars, ten pieces of track, and everything else you need to get started, this feature-packed set is well worth a look!
Lionel O 6-12927 #65 Three Yard Light Set
Lionel isn’t just about the locomotives and cars – the brand has you covered when it comes to adding those small, thoughtful touches to your layout. You can deploy this light set wherever you like in your layout, but it’ll look best if your landscape includes a train yard or another location where people are hard at work.
Lionel O 6-12744 Rock Piers
Are you looking to add some landscaping features to your layout but don’t want to build it yourself? These rock piers are what you need! Why not buy two or three packs to create a stunning looking cliffside or rockface in your layout?
Showcase the Lionel products in your collection!
How many Lionel model trains and accessories do you have in your model railroading collection?
If it’s time to add more, ensure you check out our entire range of Lionel products.
Whether you’re a lifelong fan of Lionel or have just discovered this iconic brand via this blog, we want to see what you’ve got! Take a picture of your favorite Lionel products in your model railroad scene and share them with us on Instagram!