Lionel trains: an American family tradition

Lionel trains

A No. 101 Lionel trolley in standard gauge realized $10,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Bertoia Auctions. Photo courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – In the model train industry, there is perhaps no more iconic name than Lionel. The company was not the first to make toy trains but Lionel has certainly have dominated the market.

Founding the company in New York City in 1900, Joshua Lionel Cowen was equal parts engineer, inventor and marketing-savvy salesman. Because Americans were still fascinated by the railroad and electricity,  Cowen’s first train to come to market, the Electric Express, became an instant hit even though it was not meant to be a toy. He made it as a marketing display for use in toy stores but orders for more quickly came in.

Lionel’s earliest trains ran on battery power but electric trains soon were the way to go. In 1903, the No. 5 electric locomotive debuted, named for the Baltimore & Ohio rail lines. The addition of preassembled track and a wide variety of train engines and cars within a few years propelled Lionel into a leading player in the toy railway market. Collectors of antique, vintage and contemporary toy trains still covet Lionel trains.


Lionel trains

This Lionel brass 1912 special locomotive in standard gauge is 15 inches long. It sold for $4,500 + the buyer’s premium at Bertoia Auctions in November 2019. Image courtesy of Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

By the 1920s business was booming and Lionel was already transitioning from its larger standard gauge track to O-gauge trains and track system. Just like with real trains, the gauge speaks to the distance between the outside track rails. Lionel produced trains and cars in several gauges, including the pricey standard gauge, O-gauge and later HO gauge.

Lionel trains

The Lionel O gauge Blue Comet passenger set no. 194W remains a prized prewar train. Having original boxes adds to the value. Image courtesy of Stout Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

During the Great Depression, Lionel pinned its fortunes onto streamlining and came up with several designs such as the Union Pacific and the Flying Yankee that were very popular. Lionel trains appealed to both children and adult hobbyists, who appreciated the blueprint-accurate detailing, such as on the No. 700E New York Central Hudson that told the world that Lionel was a high-end scale-model builder. Also among its desirable trains is the largest of its standard-gauge steam locomotives, the No. 400E that leads the Blue Comet passenger set. A wide variety of rugged and stylish accessory pieces such as a coal elevator set, switch tower, an animated sawmill and truss bridges were also widely popular with collectors.

Lionel trains

Note the detail on this Lionel prewar O gauge 700E scale 4-6-4 New York Central Hudson steam locomotive with a 700W tender. Image courtesy of Stout Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Holding great crossover appeal, the Lionel Mickey Mouse lines were wildly popular and the Mickey Mouse Circus train, for example, was a particular standout. In March 2020, Dan Morphy Auction sold a rare Lionel Mickey Mouse Circus train set in its original box for $24,000 + the buyer’s premium. The all-original set, notable for having unpunched cardboard segments and tickets, included a Mickey Mouse “barker” figure, a key-wound Lionel Lines engine, tender and cars. Another rare set is the Halloween set made in 1960 with an orange and black locomotive and blue passenger car.

Lionel trains

This Lionel Mickey Mouse Circus train with great color and graphics, one of the only known unpunched sets found, sold for $24,000 + the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Each Lionel train and accessory heralds back to a simpler time – a time you can think of whenever you look at or show off your antique Lionel trains,” according to the website,

New Lionel hobbyists would be wise to start with a starter set and then decide what type of trains they are most interested in – vintage steam or modern diesel, for example. How much use the train set will get is also a key factor. If one will leave it out year-round and play with it often, a freight set will probably give the most bang for the buck, but if you will likely only set it up once a year, say for Christmas, then a Polar Express or a specialty set is probably the way to go.

Lionel trains

Train collectors also like the cardboard and store displays to fill out their collections. A 1928 Lionel store display in lithographed pressboard, 60in x 22in, earned $16,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Lloyd Ralston Gallery. Photo courtesy of Lloyd Ralston Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

According to the Lionel Collector Club of America website, many trains that have been made for years have retained a high collector value while others have not. “The value of a particular set or piece is dependent on several factors such as condition, rarity and the presence of the original box in good condition,” the website advises. Among the price guides worth checking out for values are ones published by Kalmbach and TM Books and Videos. Not only do sophisticated collectors prefer trains in good condition with original boxes, they are also interested in related cardboard and Lionel store displays that often fetch big prices.

Lionel trains

A rare and early Lionel Prewar #177 scenic railway store display brought $10,000 + the buyer’s premium in April 2018 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

For many model railway enthusiasts, a lifelong love of toy trains begins with a simple track and a few cars as a birthday or holiday gift and it grows from there. Whether you just want a fun family-bonding activity or are a serious collector looking for exact pieces having the utmost attention to detail, there are Lionel trains to fill all tastes and budgets.