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Lionel, LLC

Lionel, LLC is an American toy manufacturer, specializing in model railroads. Although not the first to manufacture toy trains—its products originally were marketed as toys—Lionel is the most enduring brand name in the United States. Many of the decades-old trains in attics and basements in the United States were made by Lionel, and the products are popular with collectors.

Company History

The original Lionel Corporation was founded in 1900 by Joshua Lionel Cowen and Harry C. Grant in New York City. The company's devotees disagree over the date of incorporation, as the official paperwork gives a date of September 5, but the paperwork was not filed until September 22, more than two weeks later.

Lionel's first train was not intended for sale to consumers, but rather, as a storefront display. Delivered in 1901, it ran on a brass track and was powered by a battery and a motor originally intended for use in an electric fan. Cowen hoped to use the public's fascination with railroads and electricity to capture the public's attention and direct it to the goods for sale. Members of the public started approaching store owners about buying the trains instead, prompting Lionel to begin making toy trains for the general public. The earliest trains were larger than the sizes commonly available today, running on two-rail track with the rails 2 7/8 inches apart. In 1906, Lionel began offering a three-rail track that was less prone to electrical shorts, and this track became known as Standard Gauge when other manufacturers began using this standard as well. (Lionel trademarked the name, so it was often called wide gauge when employed by other companies.) A later standard, now known as O gauge, was also adopted by numerous manufacturers, including Lionel.

By the end of World War I, Lionel was one of three major manufacturers of toy trains, and Cohen began getting department stores to incorporate his toy trains as part of their Christmas tree displays, linking toy trains to Christmas and making them into popular Christmas gifts. By the 1920s, Lionel was the market leader, selling metal trains with colorful paint schemes.

The Great Depression hurt Lionel badly, and the company flirted with bankruptcy because the trains were considered a luxury item, and at the height of the Depression one of Lionel's more extravagant locomotives cost as much as a used Ford Model T. Lionel went into receivership in May 1934.

The product that saved the company was a wind-up handcar featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse that ran on O gauge track and sold for $1. The company was unable to keep up with demand, and the sales helped it avoid bankruptcy and emerge from receivership the next year. By 1939, Lionel had discontinued its standard gauge line, concentrating instead on the more-affordable O gauge.

Lionel ceased toy production in 1942, producing nautical items for the United States Navy during World War II. The company advertised heavily, however, promising new and exciting products and urging American teenagers to begin planning their post-War layouts.

Lionel resumed production of toy trains in late 1945, replacing their product line with less-colorful but more realistic-looking trains. Many of Lionel's models contained a new feature: smoke, produced by dropping a small tablet into the locomotive's smokestack.

Buouyed by post-war sales, by the early 1950s Lionel was the largest toy company in the world. But Lionel started to decline in the late 1950s when hobbyists started switching to the smaller but more realistic HO scale trains and kids' interest shifted from trains to toy cars. In 1959, Cowen and his son sold out their interest in the company and retired.

Lionel's popularity waned in the 1960s, and Lionel's efforts to diversify failed to save the company. In 1967, Lionel Corp. filed for bankruptcy and in 1969 sold the Lionel brand name and product dies to cereal conglomerate General Mills. The original company founded by Joshua Cowen in 1900 became a holding company, specializing in toy stores. At its peak, Lionel Corp. operated about 70 stores, mostly in the eastern United States, and was for a time the second-largest toy store chain in the country. It went bankrupt in 1991 and went out of business in 1993.

Under General Mills, the Lionel brand continued and the subsidiary returned to profitability, but sometimes at the expense of quality. In 1982, General Mills moved production of the trains from the United States to Mexico, an unpopular move that was reversed by 1984. The brand was sold to Kenner-Parker in 1985 and sold again in 1986, this time to a railroad enthusiast real estate developer from Detroit, Michigan named Richard Kughn. Kughn founded a company called Lionel Trains to continue the brand. In 1989 Lionel Trains introduced a locomotive featuring realistic electronically-produced sounds.

Lionel changed hands again in 1995, when Kughn sold the company to an investment group that included rock and roller Neil Young. The new company became known as Lionel LLC.

In 2001, Lionel closed its last manufacturing plant in the United States, outsourcing production to China.

Lionel LLC continues to manufacture and market trains and accessories in O and HO scales.

Identifying Lionel Equipment

With very few exceptions, all Lionel products can be identified by a four-number identifier, printed either right on the side of the car or locomotive, or stamped on the bottom.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Lionel trains are worth large sums of money. A Lionel 1110 Scout locomotive, for instance, typically sells for around US$40 in good condition—very close to what it would have sold for in 1949-1952. A rarer and/or more versatile locomotive from the same time period can sell for several hundred dollars, or, occasionally, more than $1,000.

Lionel's O-gauge tracks actually came in two different scales: O and O27. O scale is supposed to approximate 1/48-1/55 scale, while O27 is supposed to be 1/64 scale. In practice, O27 cars are shorter, making them better able to handle sharper turns in the track. O track tends to ride slightly higher than O27 track and come in longer sections. The two types are easily identifiable with a ruler: a straight section of O27 track is about a half inch high and about 8 3/4 inches long, while a straight section of O track is 3/4 inch high and 10 inches long.

O27 trains will run without trouble on O track, but longer O locomotives and cars can struggle on the tighter curves of O27 track, coming to a stop or derailing.

The easiest way to identify the vintage of Lionel equipment is to examine the train couplers. Lionel trains made before World War II use toy-like couplers that resemble a hook. The cars tend to be made of metal and have colorful paint schemes, somewhat similar to those of a holiday tin. Lionel trains made after World War II use two types of couplers. The less common (and less desirable) couplers, used in Lionel's entry-level Scout series, are longer and resemble a capital 'G'. Scout couplers do not open. The more common couplers open when you pull a peg on the bottom of the coupler. These couplers are compatible with modern O-scale cars from Lionel and other manufacturers.

Toy trains manufactured by Louis Marx and Company between 1938 and 1978 often resemble Lionel trains and are largely compatible with them, but most Marx locomotives and cars are slightly smaller and have less detail than their Lionel counterparts. Many Marx locomotives had three-number identifiers, which helps distinguish them from Lionel, and many Marx cars had no identifiers at all. Marx couplers also differ from Lionel and are usually more toy-like.

Troubleshooting and Maintaining Lionel Equipment

Lionel locomotives tended to be durable. Frequently a Lionel locomotive that has been sitting for long periods of time will start running again if put on clean, corrosion-free track and gently guided by hand over the track with power applied. Wheels can be lubricated with a light machine oil, and gears can be lubricated with a light grease. Avoid use of WD-40 or similar oils on Lionel locomotives.

The axles and wheels on Lionel train cars should also be lubricated. A small amount of a light oil should be applied with a small, fine tool, such as a toothpick. Household oils such as WD-40 are fine for this purpose. Lubrication permits longer trains and quieter operation.

The easiest way to remove corrosion from the tracks is to use a fine sandpaper, such as 600 grit. Track can be cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. Excessively corroded or dirty track should not be used, as debris from the track will work its way into the locomotive and hinder its operation. Suitable replacement track is still readily available from many larger hobby shops.

The safest way to remove dust from the locomotive and cars is to use a very soft, dry paint brush. If necessary, a very soft-bristled toothbrush and a mixture of warm water with a very small quantity of detergent may be used to remove stubborn dirt. If using a toothbrush, extra care should be taken on printed surfaces, as scrubbing will frequently remove the paint. Avoid using general-purpose household cleaners, as they can damage the paint or the plastic. In addition, some experts recommend against ever cleaning surfaces that are painted bright red, as Lionel's red paint is easily damaged.

If the wiring on a transformer is frayed, it should be replaced before use, as it is a shock and fire hazard.

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