What to know About Lionel Trains

What are Lionel Trains?

Lionel Model Trains are a staple in the model train community.

In fact, they were one of the first companies to ever make model toy trains, and have been in business since the early 1900s.

They’re one of the oldest brands of toy trains in the world, and are so prolific they were the first electric toy to be added to the National Toy Hall of Fame with their electric model trains. 

the history of Lionel Model Trains?

Lionel model trains began in the early 1900s by Joshua Lionel Cowen. They began producing their first toy train in 1901, and by the 1950s they were the biggest toy manufacturer in the world. 

Their original train was actually intended as a store display for other products but was so popular the shop owner kept asking for more to sell. By the end of WWI, Lionel was one of three major toy train manufacturers, including Walthers and Ives. 

Despite having a tumultuous time during the Great Depression and seeing the company go into receivership, it managed to have turned things around by the end of WWII. Now, their models were die-cast, included electric elements and smoke! 

By 1953 they were producing almost $32 million a year in toy trains and model hobby equipment. This made them the largest toy manufacturer in the world at that time. 

Fast forward to the early 1070s and things were not looking good for Lionel. Declining interest in model trains and a bad economy forced them to declare bankruptcy and were subsequently sold off to several different people and companies throughout the year. 

Again during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, they filed reorganization papers as part of a bankruptcy plan that showed they sold roughly US$70 million a year in O gauge trains, and that accounted for 95% of their business. That makes them the largest manufacturer of O scale trains on earth. 

What are the different sizes of Lionel Trains?

Lionel has been producing a variety of sizes since its inception in the early 1900s. Here’s a look at all the sizes, scales and gauges they’ve been associated with over the years. 

  • Pre-standard gauge: 1900–1906
  • Standard gauge: 1906–1939, 1986–1990, 1999–2002
  • O scale: 1915–1941, 1946–present
  • OO gauge: 1939–1945
  • HO scale: 1957–1967, 1974–1990, 2016–present
  • G scale: 1987–1995 and 2005–present
  • S scale: 1979–present

Are Lionel Model Trains worth anything? 

Got an old Lionel train in the attic and wondering what the value of Lionel trains are? Well, there’s actually a pretty big gap in between how much Lionel model trains are worth. Lionel trains can range anywhere from $60 up to $2,000 for a current-day model. So there’s a huge variety of different trains, scales, AND price points that you can pick to get into the hobby. 

What is the most expensive Lionel Train? 

But what’s the most expensive Lionel train that money can buy? Well, that depends on what you want to do with the train. For an off-the-shelf model that you can order through their website, you could pay up to $2000. 

If you’re looking for a collector item though, the earlier the better, with trains that are from the pre-war era fetching far more. The most expensive train that we can find was auctioned off in April 2016 at Stout Auctions Toy and Train specialists. It was a Rare Black Lionel 2360 Vagell GG1, Post-War model train. It sold for exactly $15,000. 

expensive lionel trains
Rare Black Lionel 2360 Vagell GG1, Post-War

Lionel Postwar Train Sets

Still, on the topic of expensive model trains, some of the postwar train sets can fetch a pretty penny as well!

Model train owners usually define trains as being ‘post-war’ from the years 1945 to 1969.

So if you’re looking for something for a specific layout, and you’re after anything from that era, you can’t go past a Lionel model train. The only problem is that these days, you’re going to have to purchase second-hand. So the best place to do that is to keep an eye on eBay for Post-War Lionel Model Train Sets.

What is the best Lionel Train set to buy?

What’s the best Lionel model train to buy today? Well, once again that depends on your price point. For the beginner hobbyist, we suggest something like the Lionel Santa Fe model train set, which is a great starting model train that will still look great in a collection 5 years down the road. If you want to find out some other great models, look at our best electric model trains guide.

What Scale Are Lionel Model Trains?

Lionel primarily focuses on O scale or O gauge model trains. They are the largest manufacturer of this scale in the world and it makes up the majority of their business. They also produce both HO and G scale trains but in a smaller quantity. 

Who owns Lionel Model Trains?

Guggenheim Partners are the owners with the majority share of Lionel LLC, while the popular musician Neil Young now owns a 20% stake in the company and currently sits on the board of directors. 

Does Lionel Still Make Trains?

Lionel absolutely still makes model trains. These days they make a variety of different real-world model trains, including the likes of the American Flyer model and their LionChief model.

They also spend a lot of time manufacturing thematic model trains from popular culture like Mickey Mouse, the Polar Express and for brands including Coca-Cola.

Where are Lionel Trains made?

Lionel, now headquartered in North Carolina, renamed the old Weaver model to the Lionscale, and produces the Lionscale model train in Concord, North Carolina. This is to make sure that they can still proudly say it’s 100% American Made.

Other Lionel train models are still manufactured in China.

Want to find out more about some other great model train brands, take a look at our model train brands and manufacturers guide!

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