Collecting Lionel Trains
Collecting Lionel Toy Trains is a Lifelong Hobby
Lionel Toy Trains. Just hearing the name brings a smile to the faces of collectors, hobbyists and model train enthusiasts of all ages and from around the globe. For many of us, our first exposure to toy trains and model railroading was through the eyes of our childhood, staring in awe at the Lionel toy train display in the front window of the local department store. The big, shiny black O-gauge steam engines puffing smoke, the clicking sound of metal wheels as the colorful boxcars streaked along the steel three-rail track sections, and the flashes and movement from a myriad of trackside accessories fueled our dreams and filled our Christmas wish lists.
Sadly, the big Lionel toy train displays are mostly gone, save for a few local Lionel retailers who still have the passion (and the space) to showcase these wonderful trains and to introduce the next generation of kids into the hobby of model railroading and collecting Lionel trains. But Lionel is still here, producing trains and accessories today that rival the production runs of the past.
Collecting Lionel Trains is a hobby, a passion and an investment. Some collectors focus on certain manufacturing eras, looking for engines, cabooses, freight cars passenger cars and accessories produced during certain periods of Lionel's rich and financially tumultuous history. Others amass large quantities of toy trains to fill their collection, searching for the many different versions of engines, cabooses, freight cars, passenger cars and accessories that Lionel produced. Some specialist collectors seek out the rare variations in the Lionel manufacturing process, the oddities and mistakes that bring the highest market prices.
The Eras of Lionel Toy Trains
Pre-War Era (1902 to 1942)
Post-War Era (1945 to 1969)
Modern Era (1970 to the present)
Collecting Lionel Trains: Focus On What You Like
Getting started in the hobby is easy. There are several quality guides on Lionel with detailed descriptions of the many different types of engines and cars that Lionel designed and produced over the years. Renowned for their ingenious designs and quality craftsmanship, Lionel created numerous methods for adding motion, action and lighting to their trains and accessories. Moving milkman and flashing crossing gates are synonymous with Lionel. Coal loaders filled hoppers that dumped their loads at the press of a button. Improbable boxcars outfitted as aquariums, rocket launchers and even a ducking giraffe add fun and interest as the train hurries down the track.
A good Lionel toy train guide will help you to decide the era and types of Lionel toy trains that appeal to you the most. Do you like big, modern diesels or old-time steam engines? Maybe a small switcher or an early diesel? What type of freight or passenger cars catch your attention?
Many Lionel enthusiasts collect toy trains exclusively from the Post-War era. Others prefer the clean lines and smooth performance of today's Lionel trains. Some just collect and run whatever appeals to them, mixing and matching the old classics with the best of the modern era.
Along with detailed descriptions and photos, a good Lionel guide will offer a price range and provide insight to rarity for each of the items. Condition is always important, with nicely preserved engines and cars commanding significantly higher prices than dirty, broken and neglected samples. The rarity of the item is also a strong factor in establishing the value of Lionel trains. The less of a variation produced, the higher the value.Use the guide to make a list of the engines and other cars that you would like to find.For the casual and beginning collector, an engine, a couple of different boxcars, an interesting specialty car such a searchlight on a flatbed, a coal hopper and a caboose is good start.
Searching for Classic Toy Trains
If you are interested in the older Lionel toy trains, the search is a little more challenging. Online auctions such as Ebay connect dealers and individual sellers with buyers from around the world. Online hobby store and toy train specialty retailers compete for toy train collectors, and often offer merchandise warranties or return policies that might not be available through an online auction.
Garage Sales, Tag Sales and Estate Sales are also good sources for finding collectible Lionel trains and accessories. While you may need to cover a lot of ground and sort through a lot of old boxes, a lucky sharp-eyed shopper might just find a treasure of long forgotten Lionel trains and other collectible toys among the boxes of house wares and stuffed animals.
Do You Collect Model Trains?
Set a Goal --> and a Budget
With so many different Lionel train engines, boxcars, passenger cars and accessories available, it is easy to get overwhelmed - and to overspend. Collecting Lionel trains is a journey to enjoy and savor as you search for the engines and cars that appeal to you. Take your time, do your research, decide how much you can spend each month or each year, and use your wish list to set reasonable and affordable goals. Then, enjoy the thrill of the chase as you track down the Lionel toy trains on your list.
For many beginning hobbyists, a new Lionel Starter Train set is a good choice. Visit a local hobby shop or retailer that specializes in Lionel and O-gauge trains, and talk with a knowledgeable staff person. Most starter train sets include a locomotive, a few cars, a transformer and enough track sections to set up a simple oval. You can have trains up and running within a few minutes.Add more track sections and switches to create sidings, crossings, loops and other features to increase the operating interest, and you are on your way to a functional toy train layout.
In Collecting Toy Trains, Condition Counts
As with any collectible, the condition of the item is a primary factoring determining its value, and Lionel toy trains are no exception. Made for play, running Lionel trains often led to rubs and cracks. Pieces were broken and lost over time. The toy trains were packed away for years, wrapped in newspaper and left to rust in damp basements or in overheated attics that warped the plastic shells. Forgotten batteries corroded and leaked, damaging the electrical connections. In some ways, it is a miracle that so many of the classic Lionel trains and accessories actually lasted into the present.
To help collectors determine the condition of their trains, the Train Collector's Association developed a list of grading standards, and these are include below. The TCA grading standards help collectors with common descriptions when buying and selling trains. Trains in the best condition generally command the highest prices, and are sought highly by collectors and dealers. Always buy trains in the best condition that you can find.
My Lionel O Scale Train Layout - A Toy Train Layout is Never Finished. The Fun is in the Journey.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Buy Lionel Toy Trains in the Best Condition that You Can Find!
TCA Grading Standards
- C-10 Mint: all original; unused and unblemished.
- C-9 Factory New: all original; unused; may evidence factory rubs and the slightest evidence of handling, shipping and having been test run at the factory.
- C-8 Like New: Complete all original: no rust, no missing parts; may show effects of being on display and/or age;may have been run.
- C-7 Excellent: all original: minute scratches and paint nicks; no rust and no missing parts; no distortion of component parts.
- C-6 Very Good: Minor scratches and paint nicks, minor spots of surface rust, free of dents. May have minor parts replaced.
- C-5 Good: Sign of play wear: scratches and minor paintloss. Small dents, minor surface rust. Evidence of heavy use.
- C-4 Fair: Scratched, moderate paint loss, dented missing parts, surface rust. Evidence of heavy use.
- C-3 Poor: Requires major body repair: Heavily scratched, major rust and missing parts. Restoration candidate.
- C-2 Restoration required
- C-1 Junk: Parts value only.
Collector's Guide to Postwar Lionel Trains (1945-1969)
This compact and comprehensive guide provides you with 2,000+ accurate and easily accessible listings, with secondary market values for the legendary Lionel trains cherished by a majority of today's toy train collectors, including Baby Boomer-age collectors reliving the joys of their youth.
All Aboard! Original Lionel Trains Commercial
Just for Fun! - Gomez Addams crashes his Lionel Trains
TCA Grading Standards
C-9 Factory New
C-8 Like New
C-6 Very Good
C-2 Restoration required
C-1 Junk—parts value only