Get on board with Lionel trains

Remember the old adage, “Necessity is the mother of invention”? Those words certainly ring true when you’re speaking of Joshua Lionel Cowen (a.k.a. Joshua Lionel Cohen). In 1901, he developed the first Lionel train, a battery-powered “Electric Express” – not to catch the attention of young children but to attract window-shopping New Yorkers using the power of animated display.

I remember Lionel Trains from my early childhood. They were HO scale and belonged to my father. His birthday was a few days past Christmas so one year he bought himself a locomotive, a few cars, a caboose along with a power pack and enough track to create a miniature village on a train platform.  The following year he added the Santa Fe locomotive and except for a few more additions of townspeople and some houses and automobiles, this was essentially his collection. And oh yes! – My three brothers were allowed to operate the trains; to my sisters and I, they were verboten.

It wasn’t until I was married and one Saturday morning I convinced my husband it was time we organized our attic. Down came holiday decorations to be sorted, old magazines to be recycled, and to discover what was inside a myriad of unmarked boxes. An exclamation of sheer joy traveled down the ladder soon followed by Phil clutching a dusty cardboard container as if he stumbled upon the Holy Grail. Well, almost … he re-discovered his model train collection that he started when he was just a young boy with the money received for an allowance. Just mention the words “Lionel trains” and his eyes start to glaze – I have the same condition but just say “vintage Halloween” and you’ve got my full attention.

Ask a collector about their assemblage and you will discover that most tend to focus on a particular portion in lieu of a broad-spectrum collection. For instance, my girlfriend Kathy collects Depression glass but she prefers to collect only the Cherry Blossom pattern. Barbara, on the other hand, prefers books but they must be first editions and signed by the author. Ever the pragmatic one, Tommy who buys and sells antiques and collectibles year-round, reports that he collects “money.”

Phil has honed his collecting skills to where his passion is pre-WWII O-scale Lionel. Since he has quite an impressive collection, and so many examples to choose from, I asked him if our house were in danger of being flooded (sorry, we’ve been experiencing a LOT of rain lately), what trains would he grab and save? I have to report that it took some time before he made his final decision but it was well worth the wait.

Here are Phil’s picks:

His first selection is the 1927 Lionel #248 Engine, the #629 Passenger Coach as well as the #630 Observation Car. These cars are stamped metal and as the photo attests, painted red and although not shown, he also has the original box. What makes this set extra special (and nostalgic) is that these trains belonged to his dad. Condition is excellent, which places a value of over $300 for the set but as far as my husband is concerned, they’re priceless.

We move on to a 1924 Lionel #253 Engine with two Pullmans (#607) and #608 Observation Car painted a beautiful yet eye-catching peacock blue. Once again, these pieces are made of stamped metal and plan to pay somewhere in the area of up to $400 at a train show venue.

The Flying Yankee first introduced in 1935 features the #616 Engine with two (#617) Coaches along with the Observation Car, which is Model #618. This set features gray die-cast engine compartment and Observation Car with chrome stamped metal for the accompanying car bodies. This train was modeled after the Boston & Maine Railroad streamlined effort of the 1930s. Value would be in the high $500 area.

Our 4th example showcases a 1935 #265E Lionel Commodore Vanderbilt Engine and Tender in light blue on stamped metal. This was the New York Central Railroad response to the streamlining fever of the ’30s. The Commodore Vanderbilt Engine is also known as “The Blue Streak.” Collectors will tell you that condition is everything and this one is in excellent condition with a price tag that hovers in the $800 range.

Phil couldn’t help himself when he allowed a few examples of postwar workmanship into his collection. The first example shown here is the Lionel #2240 Wabash Railroad F-3 A&B units, produced in 1956 only. The colors of gray, blue and white are quite the dashing color combination. If you were thinking of adding this set to your village platform, plan on paying over $700 for those in excellent+ condition.

Following close behind is the #2321 Lackawanna Trainmaster dating to the mid-1950s. This particular model has a gray roof and somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 will make it possible for you to take this home.

Phil’s 1947 Pennsylvania Railroad Engine is Model #2332 and made of plastic which is painted Brunswick green with gold striping. Value hovers around the low $500 range but it certainly is worth every penny.

Of course, my favorite engineer left his very best ’til last: the 1950-52 Santa Fe #2343 F-3 AA units. They feature plastic bodies with the famous Santa Fe Railroad “War Bonnet” finish. Joshua Lionel Cowen thought he would only sell about 10,000 of these examples – the true number came in over 100,000. As you can imagine, these trains are quite popular amongst collectors and I’ve heard that in certain settings they are selling in the low $700s.

No doubt about it – model trains are a fun and rewarding hobby. There are many varieties in size and style to satisfy the wanderlust of the rails for the weekend engineer. Due to the vast selection available, there’s a wide scale of pricing to meet everyone’s wallet. The best part for me is that after all these years, I’ve finally gotten the chance to take control of the throttle and get to experience the thrill of the rails. Thanks Phil.


About the Author

Claire M. Lavin is a recognized authority, author, lecturer, dealer and appraiser in the field of vintage Halloween collectibles. Having collected for more than 40 years (which started way back in grade school), she has amassed a premier privately held collection. Her endeavors have been showcased on television and radio, at shows and as a respected guest speaker. She is the author of two reference books on vintage Halloween collectibles.

Write to: Claire M. Lavin, P.O. Box 354, Cheltenham, PA 19012. Phone 215-663-9523 or e-mail:

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