Toy Trains Through the Years

Many books have been written about toy trains, but I will confine my article to the most popular 0 Gauge which measure 1 1/4″ between the inside of the rails. Other gauges include the smaller HO and S (American Flyer), and the larger Number 1 and 2, Standard and G (Garden or Grubbe).

Toy trains were developed in the U.S. back before the Civil War by George Brown. They were windup clockwork as electricity was many decades ahead. In Germany, Marklin became the first company to make toy trains with actual tracks. Their early 20th century trains and accessories are some of the best quality ever made and often sell well into the five figures.

Lionel Trains, the most popular of all makers, started in 1901 by Joshua Lionel Cowen.


In 1915, he introduced the 0 Gauge and set the standard for electric train sets as more and more homes had electricity. The decade from 1910 – 1919 was a booming growth time for Lionel. In 1926, he bought Ives Trains, an excellent toy train manufacturer that came with the reversing unit that allowed trains to change direction. The company suffered during the depression in the 1930s but came back strong after WWII. The pre WWII locomotives are still highly desirable and hard to find in very good condition.

Lionel 225E with 2235T pre War 2-6-2 steam locomotive and tender

In 1946, Lionel introduced smoke for the steam engines. By the early 1950s, Lionel was at its peak, but Television started to grab everyone’s interests.

The 1960s were a period of social changes in America and interest in toy trains was dying. Cowen died in 1965 and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1967. By 1973, the company became part of the General Mills Fun Group.


´╗┐Lionel Gulf Tank Car and Louisville & Nashville Searchlight Car

The 1960s were a period of social changes in America and interest in toy trains was dying. Cowen died in 1965 and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1967. By 1973, the company became part of the General Mills Fun Group.

In 1985, General Mills sold Lionel off to Kenner Toys and a year later, Richard Kughn of Detroit bought Lionel Trains. In 1992, Neil Young bought into the company and helped rejuvenate the line with the Trainmaster Control system. Kughn sold out in 1995. In 2006, Lionel bought K-Line and started manufacturing their trains. The company moved its headquarters to Concord, NC.

Some Terminology:
Box Car – an enclosed railroad car that carried commodities
Couplers – hardware that joins the cars of a train
Flat Car – a freight car that is not enclosed
Gauge – the distance between the rails
Rolling Stock – freight, passenger, or maintenance cars
Reefer – a refrigerator car

Identifying Lionel trains, e.g. 2-6-4 means that the locomotive has one axle and 2 wheels up front, 6 wheels on 3 axles that drive the engine, and 4 wheels on 2 axles that support the firebox.

Of course, there are other fine trains that can be bought in today’s auctions and online, including Marx, American Flyer, MTH, and K-Line. Personally, I really enjoy the post WWII models as they as rugged and well built, and if taken care of, will last a long time. Some of the modern locomotives by Lionel and MTH can be found for over $1000 and they are very well made and realistic.   

Model trains have maintained their prices well over the past 10 – 15 years in comparison to some of the pressed steel and windup toys that have gone down in value. When I go to auctions, I always check the condition of the trains, especially the locomotives. Look for any wear and tear on the sides, broken parts such as wheels and lights, and make sure that all the parts are there. I always check out the engines on my own track and transformers when I get home. In the past 5 years, I only bought 2 or 3 engines that did not run well. Some of the rolling stock can be quite expensive and Lionel made some outstanding accessories such as the coal loader, automatic gateman, icing station, and light up stations.

Lionel Commemorative Rolling Stock #9431

The thing I like best about buying and selling toy trains is that does remind me of the many hours that I spent back in the 1950s and 1960s playing with my Lionel and American Flyer trains. The joy of making new layouts for my trains or going with my mother (usually) to the local department store and buying a new accessory is Lionel 225E with 2235T pre War 2-6-2 steam locomotive and tender long winters so much of my time was spent indoors. Of course we did not have computers and TV started in the late afternoon. You really had to use your imagination back then.

For more information, check out the Train Collectors Association. Steve Soltan, our guest blogger and his trains that he has for sale can be found at www.icollect247.com/sandsantiques

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