model train set on track

Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1970-2000

e*Train Issue: May 2009   |   Posted in:

edited by Justin Moen (2008: Krause Publications, Iola, Wisconsin; $32.99).

Reviewed by Dr. Joseph Lechner

Many fine books have been written about electric trains manufactured by The Lionel Corporation.  Many of those writings, and the toys they describe, can be conveniently and unambiguously divided into “prewar” and “postwar” genres.

Virtually everyone in the collecting community understands that “prewar” denotes toy trains made between 1900, when Lionel was founded, and 1942, when toy manufacture ceased for the duration of World War II.  Trains of that era were characterized, with a few exceptions, by sheet-metal construction and a toylike appearance.  New materials (die-cast metal and plastic) were introduced in the late 1930s, and a few highly-realistic trains were made from 1934-1942, but most prewar trains “fit the mold” so to speak.

Collectors are also well-agreed that “postwar” means 1945 through 1969, when The Lionel Corporation exited the toy train business and licensed its tooling and trademark rights to General Mills.  “Postwar” Lionel trains are characterized by working knuckle couplers; by a more realistic appearance with much rolling stock decorated to represent specific prototype railroads; and by injection-molded plastic body shells on metal chassis.  Die-cast steam loco and GG1 bodies and sheet-metal passenger cars are obvious exceptions to the latter; but, we all know “postwar” when we see it.

Publications devoted to prewar and postwar Lionel have evolved to a high state of perfection.  Each new edition seems to feature better photographs, more detailed explication of subtle manufacturing variations, and of course updated market values.  Occasionally, an obscure item is reported that has never been described before; however, greater than 99% of Lionel’s output from 1900 to 1969 has been well-documented in all the competing collector’s guides.  David Doyle’s Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains series (1900-1942 and 1945-1969) are among the best of their genre.

Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1970-2000 is the long-awaited sequel to Doyle’s highly-acclaimed prewar and postwar Lionel guides.  Although the name of Krause editor Justin Moen appears on its cover, David Doyle is largely responsible for its content.

The task of writing a book on “modern” Lionel is daunting.  The modern era (loosely defined as 1970 through the present) is already far longer than Lionel’s postwar era, and is almost as long as the prewar era.  Toy train output since 1970 has been vast.  By counting the number of listings on several pages and averaging and multiplying, I estimate that this book describes over 4,000 engines and cars.  Lionel LLC continues to produce a dizzying array of trains and accessories; so writing its story is like aiming at a moving target.

A simple example will illustrate the complexity and diversity of modern-era trains.  Between 1945 and 1969, The Lionel Corporation produced six styles of 0 gauge tank car.  #2555, (also sold as 2755, 2855 and 6555) had a rolled sheet-metal tank with a separately-applied dome.  #1005 (later sold as 6015, 6025, 6035 and 6045) had a short one-piece molded plastic body with a single dome.  #2465 (later 6465 and 6463) was a two-dome plastic car.  #6415 / 6425 was the larger, more detailed three-dome car introduced in 1953; and #6315 was a single-dome “chemical” tank.  Rounding out this list was the #6475 pickle vat car of 1960, which Doyle classifies as a tank car.

All Lionel tank cars were lettered “Sunoco” until 1955, and all were lettered “Gulf” from 1956-1958, presumably because those firms paid Lionel for the advertisement.  Thus, postwar tankers came in very few road names.  However, students of tinplate trains have identified numerous variations, most of which had to do with style and placement of logos.  Doyle’s Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1945-1969 (second edition) devotes twelve pages to tank cars, and lists 65 distinct variations of the sixteen cataloged items.

Since 1970, Lionel has re-used the tooling for all styles of postwar tank cars except the sheet-metal one, and has created new tooling for at least five more types.  New car styles include the unibody (1990), a reprise of the prewar semi-scale tanker (1991), a die-cast chemical tank (1998), the “butter-dish” Borden milk tank, and a superb 1/48 model of an 8000-gallon single-dome tank (1999).  Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains 1970-2000 devotes twenty pages to tank cars and lists 235 different items.

Doyle points out a significant difference between postwar and modern-era production that is worth repeating.  The postwar Lionel Corporation manufactured toys for young people to play with.  During a production run, changes were intentionally made to improve quality, to reduce cost, or sometimes just to deplete inventory.  Other changes, such as subtle variations in paint or plastic color, were unintentional.  Management probably gave no thought to the collectible variations it was creating.  In contrast, Lionel’s custodians since 1970 have been very conscious that much of their output is bought by adult collectors.  They have striven for uniformity to avoid creating instant collectibles.  That is fortunate; for otherwise the task of compiling a list of Lionel’s modern production would be even more daunting than it already is.

Even so, “modern era” is so vast a topic that it is helpful to subdivide the subject matter into three epochs, each defined by a corporate entity that has owned rights to the Lionel name:

  • Fundimensions / MPC (1970-1985) started out with simple, reliable trains made from postwar tooling.  As the market expanded, MPC’s product line grew more elaborate with smoke, sounds, dual-motor engines, and better decorating methods.  The product line also got more diverse with new tooling that was not based on postwar designs.

  • Lionel Trains, Inc. (1986-1995) brought even more variety and more complexity.  This epoch is often dubbed the “Kughn era” since Richard P. Kughn owned a controlling interest in the company and played an active role in its operation.

  • Lionel LLC (1995-present) has considerable overlap with LTI.  Many LLC items look similar to LTI products, but can certainly be distinguished by their catalog numbers as well as by corporate information, copyrights, and dates on the packaging. New developments during the LLC era include TMCC, Fastrack, and Chinese manufacture.

Each of Lionel’s three “modern” reincarnations issued a greater variety of rolling stock and accessories than did The Lionel Corporation between 1945 and 1969.  MPC, LTI and LLC each deserve a Standard Catalog of their own.  David Doyle agrees; however, Krause Publications stipulated a single 400-page “modern” volume.  Since books are printed in “signatures”, their length is typically some multiple of sixteen pages.  The size of this book matches many other Krause titles, including Doyle’s Standard Catalogs of prewar Lionel, postwar Lionel and American Flyer; and his 2006 revision of O’Brien’s Collecting Toy Trains.

This volume lists 0 gauge locomotives, motorized units and cars manufactured by MPC, Lionel Trains Inc. and Lionel LLC from 1970 to 2000.  It does not cover track, accessories or transformers.  Neither does it address Lionel’s forays into HO and G gauge.  It does, however, list advance catalogs, consumer catalogs and brochures published by Lionel during the three decades covered.

Given the space limitations imposed by his publisher, Doyle needed to make several compromises.  Not every car and locomotive could be pictured.  Many listings include little textual material except the road name and year of manufacture.  Doyle has included as much data as would fit in this book’s 400 pages.  Every entry includes a scarcity rating (on a scale of 1-8) and estimated monetary values for EX and LN condition.  Unfortunately, pertinent information had to be omitted that would have been very helpful to a toy train buyer.  For example, Lionel has offered some reincarnation of the postwar F3 every year since 1973.  Some were single-motor; some had two motors.  Early issues lacked sound; later ones had electronic horn or even Rail Sounds.  Some had traction tires and some had Magne-Traction.  After 1995, many high-end diesels came with TMCC.  When buying a train in the secondary market, it helps to know what features to expect.

In order to picture as many paint schemes as possible, I think some space could have been saved.  Dummy diesels that look like powered units except for their cab number need not be shown.  For freight cars that come in multi-packs decorated identically except for road number, a photo of one car would have been sufficient.  Finally, this book has more photos of boxes than I think were necessary, although I readily concede that boxes are important for two reasons:

  • First, a train in its intact original packaging is usually worth more than an identical item without the box.  Lionel has issued many different package styles since 1970; it is worthwhile to know what each train’s correct box is supposed to look like.

  • Second, some premium trains came in elaborately-decorated boxes that most of us will never see in person.  I enjoyed seeing the distinctive packages for the #8210 Joshua L. Cowen Hudson (1982), #18064 NYC Mohawk (1998), #28029 Big Boy (1999), and #28069 Century Club Niagara (2000), to name just a few.

Nevertheless, this volume pictures many expanses of plain orange boxes that are not particularly interesting; that space could have been used for larger images of the trains themselves.  A number of such photographs were contributed by Stout Auctions.  Photos in an auction catalog serve a different purpose than those in a collector’s guide.  Since packaging does enhance the resale value of a toy train, an auction photo might well show (for example) four passenger cars, and the boxes they came in, and the master carton that those boxes came in.  Unfortunately, when a mountain of boxes dwarfs the train, its image is too small to be of much value.  I wish most of those photos had been cropped to show only the car or engine.

Like most toy train guides, this one is organized into chapters by engine / car types (diesel, steam, tank car, caboose, etc.), but I wish those chapters could be further subdivided by body mold style.  This would be helpful, not only to readers who are attempting to identify a train that they own or are considering buying, but also for collectors whose goal is to acquire all examples of a particular genre.  Doyle lumps all box, stock and refrigerated cars together as “house cars”.  He says this was for the benefit of readers who are less familiar with railroading; however, I think even a non-train-hobbyist can tell a boxcar from a stockcar; further, I suspect the average person would not have known what “house car” meant until Doyle defined that term for them.

I also wish collector’s guides would list the body length for each style of loco and car.  To illustrate the need for such measurements, consider that between 1973 and the present, Lionel has manufactured three different series of heavyweight passenger cars with six-wheel trucks.  These look very similar to anyone who is not thoroughly familiar with Lionel tooling.  What’s more, all three are commonly referred to as “Madisons” to distinguish them from modern streamlined cars.  One type, often dubbed “baby Madisons” by collectors, comes from tooling originally created by MPC in 1973.  The second type is a re-creation of the Bakelite “Madisons” first produced by Lionel Corporation in 1942 and re-introduced after World War II with new trucks and knuckle couplers.  The third and most recent type was designed to accompany Lionel LLC’s newer full 0 scale steam and electric locomotives, although these cars are still selectively shortened relative to their 80’ prototypes.  All three models represent the same real car, and they look very similar.  Simply stating that these car bodies are 12”, 15” and 18” long, respectively, would remove all doubt as to their identification.

An index that lists all products in numerical order is indispensible.  For the modern era, this feature is more important than ever.  As toy trains have gotten more realistic, more of them are being decorated with prototypical roster numbers instead of their Lionel catalog numbers.  A modern-era guidebook needs to list both kinds of numbers.

This is David Doyle’s first book on modern-era Lionel, and it is a good one; but it is probably not his last.  His prewar and postwar volumes are both already in their second editions.  Time marches on, as does Lionel, and the modern era could exceed four decades before this book gets updated.  I hope the enthusiastic reception of this volume will demonstrate to its publishers that a market exists for a full-blown Standard Catalog from each of Lionel’s three modern epochs.