model train set on track

Where There is Smoke, There is Lionel

e*Train Issue: May 2004   |   Posted in: ,

By Herr Der April Scherz, PhD
Maricopa County Community College

Hostilities in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, which ultimately led to World War II, impacted the international hobby of model railroading more than any current hobbyist could even begin to imagine. The toy train artistry of the British, French, Germans, Czechs, Italians, and Russians came to a screeching halt. Since 1945, in Europe, only Germany’s Marklin and LGB have regained their pre-war status. The same may be said about the incredibly detailed Japanese “lost wax” Brass castings of Tenshodo.

In the United States, the most dominant manufacturer of toy trains in the era of which we speak was Lionel. Ives had long since been absorbed by Lionel and although American Flyer and Marx were readily available, they were of little consequence or danger to Lionel in terms of serious economic competition. Now, let’s “fast forward” to late 1945 and early 1946. The war was over and suddenly Lionel was light years beyond their competition, with such innovations as die-cast metal trucks, knuckle couplers, an amazing array of operating cars and accessories and perhaps best of all, realistic looking white puffing smoke. World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945 and not far behind that date was the appearance of a 1945 Lionel Train Catalog, albeit only four pages long. Hmmmm? One of the age-old questions was then and still is, “How was Lionel able to quickly re-tool from war time military production to toy trains in time for the Christmas season of 1945?”

Unless they were aware of what the top secret Manhattan Project was all about, they should not have had any idea about the Atomic Bomb or how it would shorten the war. The overt actions of the US government at the time indicated that a 1946 invasion of the Japanese Islands was imminent. One popular theory has it that JLC’s gang secretly never stopped working on trains, a clear violation of Federal laws of the day. A somewhat more esoteric explanation is that Lionel had been provided with top secret, superior technical information by those little gray, three fingered creatures who were to make a big “crash” in Roswell, New Mexico later on in 1947.

The actual truth of the matter is that if World War II had not happened when it did, many of Lionel’s so-called postwar innovations would have occurred much sooner. Nonetheless, the two main casualties of the war were the cessation of production in the “00” and Standard Gauge fields. It was, however, in that very same Standard Gauge line that Lionel had been doing so much of their research and development. Surely you must remember such things as the ultra powerful motors developed for the giant electric and steam locomotives of that era. Staying with this train of thought (no pun intended), there was also the lighted firebox to indicate the burning of the coal; the “chugger” mechanism, which was supposed to simulate the “choo-choo” sound of real locomotives; the mournful sound of a steam whistle; and yes, even interior rheostats on transformers to produce variable speeds.

Recently the discovery of some long forgotten research artifacts indicates clearly that the development of “realistic puffing smoke” was being worked upon when WW II began. It can be dated to the late ’30’s and to at least one line of Standard Gauge steam locomotive, the now famous 400E series. Prior to the closing of their Michigan factory, some of the company’s brain trust delved into the contents of all the filing cabinets which had long ago been transported to Michigan from Hillside, New Jersey.

Among the items discovered in a makeshift parts box (one of JLC’s cigar boxes from Havana, Cuba) was a large bottle, filled with smoke pellets approximating the size of an aspirin tablet. Clearly emblazoned, actually “cut into” would be a better description; on each white pellet was an “L.” Included with this Desert Division exclusive report are photos of both the oversized and labeled smoke tablet bottle and a close-up of the one of the pellets which was successfully extracted from the interior of this 65 year old relic. For size comparison, we are also including photos of a postwar smoke pellet and smoke pellet bottle. The difference is striking, although the labels on the bottles are quite similar.

Why has this development become of special interest for the Desert Division? To answer that, we must turn back the clock roughly 10 years. If you ever had the pleasure and opportunity to visit the late Ray Korte’s collection, you saw the answer to that question, but until now didn’t even know there was a question. Ray insisted that every train he owned had to operate just like the day it was made. For those of you who were fortunate enough to have visited Ray’s substantial collection and layout, think hard and visualize the east wall of that substantial train room. It was there that Ray displayed some of his most prized Standard Gauge pieces. Among these was a black, crackled-finished 400E. So far as is known, Ray never ran this engine. Instead, it sat on the display shelf with a funny looking “wad of cotton” flowing from its smokestack, resembling the stream of smoke from a real, moving steam locomotive. It never failed to garner a laugh or two, as everyone knew that a Standard Gauge smoking engine was something that Lionel just never made! If you were really lucky, and Ray had the time, he would take that loco down from the shelf and let you examine it. The reason for the grotesque looking cotton smoke facsimile was that, in place of the normal screw in the smokestack, there was an open hole. No one could ever figure out why this loco was not assembled like all other known 400E’s. There was simply nothing there – just an empty hole allowing for a clear view of the wire which led to the headlight assembly and under that, the leading pony truck. More than one observer casually remarked that an inventive “tinkerer” could easily figure out how to install a postwar smoke unit. In view of this recent discovery, those comments do not seem as far-fetched as one might have imagined. As a matter of fact, in all probability, this locomotive, which Ray purchased from the Train Collectors Warehouse in Parsippany, New Jersey, may well have been a prototype for the secretive product being developed in their R&D laboratories. With the start of World War II, it is now obvious that the smoke idea had been put on the back burner, proving once again that “truth IS stranger than fiction.” So far as is known, this locomotive is still alive and well in Terry Johnson’s collection in Englewood, Colorado. Might the “wad of cotton smoke” still be flowing from the stack?