Apologies for Postwar Lionel
By Bill Laughlin
My first exposure to Lionel Trains would have been in the 1956-1958 timeframe, at my grandfather's house. My own first set didn't arrive under the tree, courtesy of Santa, until 1961. “Too late,” the Postwar Lionel purists would say. “You missed out on the Golden Era, 1946-1954, when the ‘best stuff' was being made. You were born too late.”
Maybe so, but “Late Postwar” was what I was first exposed to---it planted that all-important “bug,” which really never left. True enough, the Lionel Corporation started economizing in all sorts of ways from about 1955 to the closing of the Hillside doors in 1969. But there were plenty of exciting trains still being made in 1959, when I latched on to my first Lionel catalog. The 175 Rocket Launcher and some of the space & military trains seemed thrilling to a youngster of the “Atomic Age”.
You go to York , and see masses of average-to-excellent Postwar Lionel items for sale: the full range, from rusty O27 curves, all the way up to $2000-plus 773 Hudsons and $3000 brown cardboard shipping boxes. For people who “missed out” on the Postwar Era firsthand (which technically covers 1945-1969), what is the attraction? Why do “oldsters” obsess over this stuff?
This article is dedicated to “bridging the gap” of understanding between those of us who grew up with those classic trains, and those of you who wonder what the madness was--or still is--all about. After all, don't we have superior O (and S) gauge trains being made today? Aren't today's trains better-detailed, smoother-running, and capable of “doing it all” electronically? Do you really miss the day when your 220 Santa Fe diesel derailed every time backing through a high-dollar 1122 Lionel O27 switch?
Further, would you really rather be listening to the ballgame in your car on a 1956 tube-type vibrator-powered car radio? Prefer to hear your favorite tune from a 45-RPM vinyl disc instead of a piece of digital memory on an I-Pod? Rather watch the Discovery Channel on a black & white Philco TV, instead of your “color” HDTV Sony?
Well, collectively, no. So why then the persistent background siren-song “call” of the Postwar “wild”? I'm convinced that it is the memories those trains evoke. Wait a minute, you younger readers; don't tune me out just yet. (Someday you'll be in this same place, recalling those “golden days of yesteryear” when your MTH “ Yellowstone ” or Lionel “Acela” was the cool thing)
Try to imagine a time when THE toy to have in your living room or basement was “an electric train.” It didn't matter if it was a Sears “Allstate” (Marx) set or a Lionel Santa Fe F3 “Super Chief.” It was a train set!!! Other than the fiercely-competitive, market-glutted scene we have today, in which all manner of trains are available, the greatest era of toy train production was arguably the postwar period. (Standard-gauge collectors may disagree) Lionel (and Gilbert) really had their acts together.
In 1948 alone, two of Lionel's most enduring icons were introduced: the F3 diesel and the ZW transformer.
You look back at that catalog, and it was almost like “no big deal.” Neither was excessively prominent; the Lionel Catalog was full of exciting trains! Mr. Cowen's reluctance to produce and promote diesel models aside, no one at the Lionel Corp. could have imagined what a long-term impact those F3's would have; nor that state-of-the-art transformers 60 years later would still look the same!
The original 773 Hudson was a little different story. Introduced in 1950, it was expensive and only cataloged that one year. Why would a near-scale model of the New York Central's classic steamer become so iconic, and lead to so many imitations? It was a high-end model, something to dream about owning, and it was larger, closer-to-scale than the smaller Hudsons, Berkshires and other steam engines that most of our parents could afford. With a limited supply, it naturally became a goal for “grown-up boys” to pursue, and so the legend persists.
Beyond the “intangibles” already alluded to, Postwar Lionel engines and equipment have a certain “soul.” They represent the pinnacle of American industrial mass-design and manufacturing effort when the U.S. was at its zenith in those capabilities. The clunky, hefty “feel”, the ozone produced when running, the characteristic motor noise, the simple elegance…say it best.
Was Lionel guilty of excess when it claimed that owning one of their trains created a new lifestyle, or bonded families, or promoted all sorts of better habits? Probably. Is it possible to ignore, or take entirely for granted, those postwar “roots” that “Modern-Era” trains originate from? Not if you want to be honest about the overall picture.
A person may not wish to collect postwar trains, but it would not be unwise to respect their heritage, and learn about them…