model train set on track

Standard Catalog of Lionel Train Sets 1945-1969

e*Train Issue: Aug 2007   |   Posted in:

by David Doyle, 2007: Krause Publications; paperback, 8-1/2” x 11”, 272 pages; $29.99

Reviewed by Dr. Joseph Lechner

Toy train collecting seems to have changed its focus within the past thirty years.  At one time, many of the most-admired collections were organized by genre.  No postwar Lionel collection was considered complete without a full set of 6464 boxcars.  Elsewhere, a well-appointed train room might display all twelve F3 road names, or all five 2500-series aluminum passenger trains, or all the GG-1 color schemes.

A newer emphasis in collecting is to reassemble train consists as they were originally marketed.  Most people’s first experience with electric trains began when they received a packaged set, or “outfit” as Lionel usually called it.  An 027 outfit contained an engine, cars, track, transformer and hookup wire — everything you needed to get started running a train — and usually at a bargain package price.  Naturally, Lionel hoped you would return to the dealer later for more track, switches, extra cars, and accessories; but most customers bought an outfit first.  Complete outfits represented more than 50% of Lionel’s total sales.

Today, many train collectors are seeking to reconstruct the experience of opening an electric train set for the first time.  They want not only the locomotive and its correct cars, but also the track sections, the transformer, the hookup wire and lockon, the instruction sheets, the set of advertisements that fit inside #310 billboard frames, the boxes each component came packed in — and, above all, the cardboard carton that held it all together.

This third volume in David Doyle’s acclaimed Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains series discusses the cataloged 1.25” gauge train outfits that were manufactured by The Lionel Corporation during the postwar era.  A banner on its back cover boasts that “over 450 sets” are listed.

Okay; exactly how many cataloged postwar Lionel sets were there?  Depends.

If we simply add the number of different sets that were cataloged each year from 1945 through 1969, their total is 469.  Of those, 239 sets (51%) were 027; 146 sets (31%) were O gauge; and 84 sets (18%) were Super “O”.  One of the latter was the famous #2555W over/under outfit from 1960, which featured both a Super “O” freight led by Santa Fe F3 units and a look-alike HO gauge train running underneath it.  Other than #2555W, this volume does not consider any of the HO gauge equipment sold by Lionel between 1957 and the mid 1960s.

But Lionel did not produce 469 unique outfits; some trains appeared virtually unchanged in two or more catalogs.  37 postwar outfits were listed by the same number for two consecutive years; six outfits were listed for three consecutive years (most of them in 1964-1966); and two outfits appeared in four consecutive catalogs.  If all the duplicate-year listings are deducted, our total is reduced to 414 unique sets.

However, identically-numbered outfits did not necessarily contain the same components every time they were cataloged.  Set #1463 featured a Magne-Traction equipped #2036 steam locomotive in 1950, but reverted to a non-Magne-Traction #2026 in 1951, due to materials shortages during the Korean War.  Freight set #1469 included a black #6456 hopper in 1950 but changed to a maroon #6456 in 1951.  Even more remarkable substitutions occurred in outfits #1464W and #1467W, which were cataloged from 1950 through 1953.  #1464W featured twin ALCO diesels and three 12” streamlined passenger cars.  Its 1950 edition, known to collectors as the “Golden Anniversary” set, came in authentic Union Pacific livery of Armour yellow and Harbor Mist grey with red striping and lettering.  The 1951 version was silver with grey roofs and black striping and lettering.  In 1952 and 1953, this train was all-silver with black lettering and no stripes.  Diesels in the companion #1467W freight outfit underwent an even more dramatic metamorphosis, from yellow / grey UP (1950) to silver / grey UP (1951) to #2032 black-and-yellow ERIE in 1952-1953!

To further complicate things, during the catalog years 1955-1957, Lionel assigned two different numbers to each outfit.  A four-digit number was listed in the catalog, but some cartons for each outfit were printed with a different number.  027 gauge sets manufactured in 1955 got three-digit numbers between 500 and 514; O gauge sets were numbered A-20 to A-31.  027 sets made in 1956-1957 had alternative numbers in the 700 series; O gauge sets (and Super “O” in 1957) got 800-series numbers.  These dual numbers coincided with years when Lionel was coping with the rise of discount department stores.  Evidently, three-digit numbers allowed discount stores to sell “different” sets than the cataloged outfits stocked by traditional Lionel dealerships—even though their contents were identical.  If we add alternative outfit numbers to the total, there were 497 unique set numbers for cataloged outfits during the postwar era.

Doyle’s book is organized chronologically by year.  A toy train “year” began around September and peaked during the Christmas / Chanukah season.  Thus, each Lionel catalog was issued in autumn of the cover year, and remained in effect through summer of the following year.  Every chapter opens with a high-quality reproduction of the Lionel consumer catalog cover for that year (oops—the 1954 chapter reprises the 1953 catalog cover).  Each outfit’s description includes a list of contents; the original retail price; estimated 2007 collector-market values in excellent and like new conditions; and Doyle’s scarcity rating on a scale of 1 to 8.

Color photographs are included for many sets.  Most photographs show both the trains and the boxes they came in.  Values for like new sets assume that all of the original packaging materials are present.  What a huge difference a cardboard box can make!  #2555W, the “father / son” Santa Fe set from 1960, is worth $8500 in excellent condition (sans boxes), or $40,000 in like new condition with boxes.  Most of this set’s components are common; the outer cartons are very scarce.  (Two unique cartons are required; the HO train came in its own special box, and that box was packed inside the gigantic #2555W box that held the Super “O” train.)  The financial incentive for forgery is great.  Anyone seeking to invest in a collector-grade postwar train set had better become an expert on Lionel outfit cartons; Doyle’s excellent photos and detailed descriptions will be very helpful.

Test yourself!  Here is a trivia quiz for fans of postwar Lionel trains.  The answers can be found in the pages of Standard Catalog of Lionel Train Sets 1945-1969, or you can click on the answer key on this page.

  1. In what year(s) did Lionel catalog the fewest sets?
  2. In what year did Lionel catalog the most sets?
  3. What postwar cataloged set is the rarest?
  4. Which postwar set cost the most?
  5. Which postwar set is the most valuable today?