model train set on track

Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1900-1942, by David Doyle. 2005: KP Books

e*Train Issue: Feb 2005   |   Posted in:

By Joseph Lechner

This is a companion volume to David Doyle’s Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1945-1969, which was released in 2004. Like it, the new prewar volume is directed to two audiences: (a) persons unfamiliar with the hobby, who have discovered or inherited a toy train and who would like to identify it and determine its monetary value; and (b) serious toy train hobbyists, who will use it as a reference guide during their collecting and trading. This book’s organization is accessible enough to make it useful to the former; its wealth of information and superb illustrations make it a must-read for the latter.

The “train” chapters of this book are organized into four sections according to track gauge:

A. 2-7/8″ gauge (two-rail), Lionel’s earliest toy train production; manufactured from 1900-1905.

B. Standard gauge (2-1/8″ between running rails, three-rail); manufactured from 1906-1942. The phrase Standard Gauge was a registered trademark of Lionel Corporation. IVES and American Flyer built toy trains that ran on the same track, but were compelled to call them wide gauge to avoid trademark infringement.

C. 0 gauge (1-1/4″ between running rails, three-rail), which Lionel introduced in 1915 and is still making today.

D. 00 gauge (3/4″ between running rails, both two-rail and three-rail); made by Lionel from 1938-1942.

Within each section, individual chapters on cars and locomotives are organized by body type. Boxcars, stock cars, automobile cars and refrigerator cars are all included in a single chapter titled “boxcars” on the theory that non-hobbyists might not distinguish between them.

Doyle has grouped all train accessories in a single chapter regardless of gauge. A toy train aficionado might know that a certain signal was sold with Standard gauge trains; but the person who just discovered a semaphore in the attic would not be aware of this, and probably would not guess it, since Lionel rarely built accessories to a scale that matched the trains. Even during the more realism-conscious postwar era, Lionel sold numerous crossing signals that were far too tall for O scale. I have long suspected that the #154 highway crossing signal was originally designed for Standard gauge. At any rate, many of Lionel’s prewar accessories were used interchangeably with O gauge and Standard gauge trains.

There is also a chapter on non-train toys made by Lionel, including boats, airplanes, race cars (Lionel introduced an electrically-powered road race set in 1912, anticipating the slot-car craze by five decades!), and the famous stove for girls. This chapter also discusses some items that I would have classified as trains, including the Disney-character hand cars of the 1930s and the infamous “paper train” marketed by Lionel during World War II. The paper train, and most of the handcars, ran on O gauge track, although some handcars had flangeless wheels for floor operation.

Finally, a chapter on catalogs lists each issue published by Lionel between 1900-1942 and pictures the catalog cover.

As he also did in his postwar Lionel book, Doyle lists an estimated value and rarity for almost every item. He bases the values on his more than 25 years of experience as a hobby dealer and a frequent participant at train shows. Doyle uses a subjective rarity scale (1 to 8) of his own devising. He defines rarity using the question “If I do not purchase this item today, how likely am I to have another opportunity in the future?” David has been active in the hobby long enough to have a good understanding of which items are hard to find. However, the absence of an item at train meets does not necessarily make it rare. At a recent Eastern Division York meet, I saw several postwar Lionel Canadian Pacific passenger trains for sale, but not one section of Atlas O 10″ straight track. Is straight track really scarcer than the #2296W set? Obviously not; the explanation for my dilemma is that many collectors do not bother bringing pieces of track to train meets.

The following examples of Standard gauge passenger cars from the 1920s and 1930s illustrate Doyle’s rarity scale.

1 (most common) #309 Pullman, pea green with orange trim (1927-1930)

2 #337 Pullman, olive green with maroon trim (1930)

3 #309 Pullman, Mojave (1926)

4 #418 Pullman (1923-1924)

5 #319 Pullman, maroon, lettered LIONEL LINES (1925-1927)

6 #309 Pullman, “State car” brown (1930)

7 #309 Pullman, “Stephen Girard” green (1934-1935)

8 (most rare) #332 baggage, “State car” brown (1930)

I suspect that Doyle’s use of his own scale has resulted in some rarity-inflation. His own definition cites the UTC lockon as an example of #1 (most common), and the 2-7/8″ gauge Electric Express gondola, initialed by J L Cowen, as an example of #8 (hardest to find). Ironically, David did not assign a numerical rarity rating to any of the 2-7/8″ gauge items in that section of the book; instead he characterizes them as “too infrequently traded to establish rarity”. Thus, his #8 standard of rarity just got even rarer.

One of the best features of this book is its outstanding photography. Virtually every prewar Lionel piece that Doyle discusses is illustrated with a color photograph. Many of the known color / trim variations for specific items are pictured. For Lionel’s earliest 2-7/8″ trains from 1900-1905, Doyle has photographed both original pieces and also modern-era reproductions by Joe Mania, which are themselves destined to become collectible classics. His photographs are clear and well lit. Often, the significant details that distinguish one collectible variation from another are to be found in the construction and materials used on undercarriages. In too many train guides, trucks and couplers are obscured by shadows underneath the train. Doyle’s photos are well illuminated, and these details are clearly visible. He is also to be commended for the generous size of photographs. In some price guides, pictures are the size of postage stamps. In contrast, Doyle’s pictures are large enough to study and enjoy. Most of the pages in this book include a full-page-width photograph. Bravo!

Hopefully, some of the people who might buy this book merely to establish a selling price for Grandpa’s Blue Comet set will instead become interested in toy trains, and will decide to keep them as working family heirlooms. For these readers, Doyle has included chapters on how to recondition old trains and how to set up and operate them. I have high hopes that new people will discover the fascinating hobby of electric trains through reading this book.