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So respected are the Greenberg publications, that this one was also reviewed, from a different perspective, by James Koontz, MD. 99-49001, in our Spring 2018 edition.

We should also note the long-time service of Dr. Lechner in moderating TCA's TTML, our respected discussion group. TCA's commitment to excellence is nowhere better demonstrated than by the work of Dr. Lechner and his colleagues in that longstanding forum.


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Greenberg's Guide to Lionel Trains: O Gauge, Volume 1: 1915-1928. A New Review

Reviewed by Dr. Joseph Lechner, TCA 01-52673            Winter 2019

Editors Note: This book is available autographed  from the author, Bruce C. Greenberg,  at his website or by phone at 703-461-6991. 

It is also available online through METCA  (Metropolitan Division, Train Collectors Association) in their online store. Just go to and at the top, click on "books." This TCA Division appreciates your support. 

Dr. Bruce Greenberg is no stranger to the train collecting community.  His published contributions over the past four decades have included reprints of Lionel catalogs; operating instructions and repair manuals; detailed study guides to IVES, LGB and Lionel trains; and pocket price guides.  These pocket price guides are now updated annually by Kalmbach Publishing.

Greenberg's Guide to Lionel Trains; O Gauge, Volume 1 is the first milestone in an ambitious undertaking to expand and update the author's previous Guides to Lionel O Gauge 1915-1942, published in 1988 and 2001.  At least three additional titles are planned.  Volume 2 (due in 2020) will cover Lionel 0 gauge trains manufactured between 1929 and 1936.  A third volume (1937-1942) and fourth volume (track, accessories and power supplies) are planned.

No. 701 locomotive from 1915.  The 1915 locomotive resembles real locomotives with its dark green paint and New York Central  rubber-stamped markings. 

No. 254 locomotive from 1930  with bright colors and  shiny brass trim not found on real world locomotives.  The locomotives were marked LIONEL the world's railroad with the most locomotives.

Why the renewed attention being focused on century-old toys?
During the fourteen years covered by this volume, Lionel cataloged just 23 electric-outline locomotives (but no steam locomotives—I did not know that!), 22 passenger cars, and 24 freight cars in O gauge.  Surely everything that can be known about those early models has already been written?  Greenberg and his collaborators beg to differ.  And collaboration is the key to what they have accomplished.  His list of acknowledgements reads like a Who's Who of train collecting.  At least seventy-five individuals contributed to this volume.  Over half of them participated in study groups hosted at the Greenberg home, where experts examined multiple examples of a given item, drawn from the private collections of many members.

Only by scrutinizing many specimens of a locomotive or car, together with its packaging and paperwork when available, can we document variations in design and manufacturing methods, then establish a chronology.  Greenberg's research groups have discovered a great deal about Lionel's early O gauge trains.  We will explore some of their findings—but first, some historical background.

Definition of Gauge:
What North American enthusiasts call O ("oh") gauge was originally 0 (zero) gauge.  In 1891 Märklin, the pre-eminent German toymaker, designated five standardized track gauges that were subsequently adopted by other manufacturers.  Gauge 1 (1.75" between the rails) was the most popular, followed by Gauge 2 (2") and Gauge 3 (2.5").  Only the wealthiest families could afford Gauge 4 or 5.  As demand increased for smaller and less-expensive toy trains, Märklin responded with Gauge 0 (1.25" between the rails).  A complete line of locomotives, cars and sectional track was available by 1896, although Märklin may have offered clockwork 0 gauge outfits as early as 1893.

Lionel, whose initial offerings ran on 2-7/8" gauge two-rail track, introduced Standard gauge (2-1/8" gauge three-rail) in 1906.  As was the case in Europe, American consumers sought less costly trains that required less space.  Lionel responded to that market trend by introducing an 0 gauge line in 1915.  It is remarkable that AC-powered models, running on 1.25" gauge three-rail track, remain the most popular type of "tinplate" train, more than a century later.

Lionel 1915 motor from No. 701, earliest O Gauge production.  Type 1 motor, 1915, large single  opening on brush side.

1932 motor from Lionel 254E.  Type 9 motor, with phenolic five-side brush plate and pendulum reverse unit.  The book describes and illustrates all 9 motors.

Definition of Tinplate:
The term tinplate originally denoted mass-produced toys that were constructed primarily of tin-plated sheet steel.  They were playthings; intended to be enjoyed by children; painted in fanciful colors.  Their proportions were not universally consistent; most did not closely resemble a specific prototype.  Tinplate also once distinguished ready-to-run toys from models that were assembled from kits or built from scratch.  The original definition of tinplate has become blurred in the past half-century, as exquisitely-detailed scale models have become available for O 3-rail operation; as trains in all scales from G to Z are sold predominantly ready-to-run; and as model railroading has increasingly become a pastime of adult hobbyists.  Nevertheless, we all know a Lionel train when we see one.  Although the Lionel Manufacturing Company and its successors have marketed toy trains in seven different gauges since 1901, a majority of them have been O 3-rail; and most people (hobbyists and the general public alike) associate the name Lionel with that size.

Toy train manufacturing in the twenty-first century is a mature technology.  Superstructures are injection-molded of ABS plastic, spray-painted by automated equipment, and lettered using computer-controlled printers.  Metal wheels, rigidly mounted on needle-point axles, turn freely in bearings made of slippery engineering plastics.  In almost all cases, locomotives are powered by efficient can motors, fed by printed circuits.  New body styles are introduced to keep pace with prototype developments, but traditional designs from the 1950s (such as the 6464-style boxcar) continue to be produced in large quantities.

The variety of color and lettering schemes has increased tremendously (and Lionel LLC now needs six-digit catalog numbers to keep track of them all!), but specimens of a given SKU are remarkably consistent.  Each #6-83063 ATSF Super Chief  boxcar looks just like the others, and they all look like the photo on page 132 of Lionel's 2018 Big Book.  Next year's catalog will offer fresh roadnames under different catalog numbers, if only because there are collectors out there who are determined to acquire one of each new item that comes along.  Nevertheless, variations within a catalog number have been few; and hardly any modern day factory errors have been reported.  Detroit-based Fundimensions famously shredded its mistakes—partly to discourage dumpster-diving; partly to avoid creating a windfall for the discoverer of an occasional oddity.

Things were not always so.

The Lionel Manufacturing Company of a century ago produced toys to be played with by children.  So what if last year's #253 electrics were painted red and this year's models were orange (a hue that Lionel frequently called yellow !); neither color matched a prototype anyway.  Joshua Lionel Cowen specified bright colors because he believed they appealed to the mothers / aunts who bought his products for their sons / nephews.  Locomotives returned for factory repairs sometimes got repainted in shades never previously used on that model.

A toy train of the 1920s was more complicated than its 21st-century counterpart.  Car bodies consisted of multiple steel parts, die-cut, individually shaped, tabbed or soldered together.  Trim pieces such as nameplates or window frames were added separately.  Much more manual labor was involved; hence, more opportunities for error or variation.  Lionel invented its technologies as it went along.  Designs were modified whenever an innovation worked better or cost less to manufacture.  Thus, early Lionel trains present us with myriad variations; thus many a mystery to unravel.

Lionel locomotive 1915 pickup assembly.  Type 1 with two L embossed rivets. See next photo for enlarged L embossed rivet.   The book illustrates and describes 13 different pickup assemblies.

Close up of  L embossed rivet on the 1915 pick up assembly.

Closeup of Lionel Type 8 pickup assembly from 1934.  Note the misspelling of Gauge.

Greenberg's collaborators have cataloged many of those variations, and documented them with hundreds of clear, generously-sized color photographs.  During the decade and a half covered by this volume, Lionel O gauge locomotives came with eleven distinct styles of motor, eight styles of headlight, and five kinds of flag holder (a detail missing from most postwar engines).  Remember that "LIONEL O GAUGE" nameplate underneath a locomotive, between the power pickup rollers?  Greenberg et al. have observed fifteen different varieties of them!  Freight cars came with four different kinds of brake wheels, six styles of latch couplers, and twelve variations of four-wheel bogies (trucks).  Even the packages the trains came in were sealed with seven different styles of tape!

Many train collections (and collector guidebooks) have been organized by body style, with separate sections devoted to steam locomotives, diesels, boxcars, and cabooses (etc.).  More recently, collectors have sought to reassemble complete outfits as they were released by the manufacturer.  This book follows the latter pattern.  Two-thirds of its pages describe a specific locomotive, followed by descriptions of all known outfits that were powered by that locomotive.  This organization makes sense, because most Lionel trains (Greenberg estimates up to 80%) were sold as complete sets that included locomotive, cars, track, and power supply.  Many of the sections are illustrated with photos of packaging materials, and even complete boxed sets when available.  The final one-fourth of this book consists of five detailed chapters that trace the year-by-year evolution of freight and passenger cars.

Most Greenberg publications feature a cover photo of a particularly desirable locomotive.  This book spotlights a 253E in terra-cotta with maroon frame and yellow window frames.  Lionel 253 / 253E was a generic four-wheel boxcab electric.  It approximated the look of New York Central engines and New Haven engines, both of which were common sights in and around New York City.  253 (with manual reverse) and 253E (with either pendulum reverse or electromechanical E-unit) was Lionel's longest-running prewar O gauge locomotive.  It came in eight different body colors with three frame colors and three window styles.  Greenberg has documented a total of 24 variations.  He says the terra-cotta 253E was produced in 1932 only.  That is outside this book's stated time frame; however, any item introduced between 1915-1928, that continued to be manufactured after 1928, has been documented to the end of its production run.

Greenberg's Guide to Lionel Trains; O Gauge, Volume 1 raises the bar for toy train scholarship, and is an extraordinary work.  It whets the appetite for companion volumes that will follow.

Second Decade.
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