Mike Pigott looks at a high quality but little-known range of diecast locomotives from the 1990s, made by the long-established American company Lionel.Although best known for large-scale electric trains, the venerable American company Lionel also ventured into diecast metal train models during the 1990s. This range of six famous locomotives was produced in the once-popular 1/120 scale, or TT gauge.
TT gauge originated in the USA in the late 1940s. The ‘TT’ stood for ‘table-top’, as this scale was smaller than the dominant 0 and H0 scales, making it possible to fit a reasonable layout on a table. The gauge grew in popularity over the next two decades, and became quite popular in certain markets. In the UK, the leading model railway company Tri-ang entered the TT market in 1957. However, as was often the case, the British TT scale was incompatible with the rest of the world; it was 1/102 scale instead of the established 1/120.
TT gauge enjoyed a large following throughout the 1950s and ‘60’s, but the smaller N gauge, which was introduced in 1962, eventually proved to be more popular. Tri-ang stopped producing TT models in 1967, leaving only a small collector base following the scale in both the UK and the USA.
However, in other countries TT endured; it was particularly popular in East Germany, and remains the leading gauge in Eastern European countries like Russia and Hungary. In recent years, the scale has made a comeback and is now enormously popular, especially in Germany. On the other hand, in Britain and America, the production of TT models is largely a cottage industry, with collectors dependent on resin and photo-etched brass kits.
LIONELThe Lionel company dates back to 1900, when it was set up to produce electrical goods. In 1906, it entered the new world of electric trains, and over the next few decades became the leading manufacturer in the United States. Lionel’s models were in the large 0 gauge. Like Tri-ang in Britain, the models were slightly toy-like, being aimed more at kids than serious modellers. Despite bankruptcies and several changes of ownership, the marque remains in production today, with early models being greatly prized by collectors.
At various times Lionel attempted to diversify into other toy lines, such as construction kits and slot cars. During the 1980s, they introduced a line of Hot Wheels-like gimmick cars called ‘Flippers’, and more recently produced a range of diecast NASCAR racers. However, let’s look at the Lionel Classic Series of diecast locomotives.LIONEL CLASSIC SERIES
In 1998, Lionel introduced the Classic Series, a line of six famous American locomotives made to the constant scale of 1/120. The models were all based on iconic locos that had been previously modelled in 0 gauge by Lionel over the years, although this was the first time that the company had manufactured anything in TT scale.
The common scale meant that there was quite a difference in size between the six models, with locomotives from different eras; although they were all sold in the same packaging and at the same price. They were extremely well packed; the models were presented in a rectangular tin with a clear vac-formed cover and sponge surround, then inserted in an orange window box with header card.
For some reason, they were billed on the packaging as ‘Big, Rugged Trains’, when they clearly weren’t. If anything, they were rather small, delicate, finely-detailed trains. In fact, the level of detail was incredible. Unlike the more recent Corgi Rail Legends, which are completely static models with the wheels cast as part of the chassis, the Classic Series had rotating wheels and pivoting bogies, the steam locos had working connecting rods, and all had realistic working couplings (although there were no wagons to connect to them, it was possible to link the diesels together). The range consisted of three steam engines of different sizes, an electric loco and two iconic diesels.
WESTERN & ATLANTIC GENERALThe General was built in 1855, and is typical of American locomotives of the era, with its 4-4-0 wheel arrangement, cone-shaped funnel, cow-catcher and large light box. It is also possibly the most famous engine in American history, as it was used during the Civil War in the ‘Great Locomotive Chase’. In 1862, a group of Union spies in Georgia hi-jacked an entire train, which they drove north, intending to destroy the rails and infrastructure as they went. However, their plan did not pan out and the stolen locomotive, the General, was pursued by other locos commandeered by Confederate soldiers. When the General ran out of steam, the Union spies were captured and shot. When the General was retired in 1891, it was preserved and put on display in Chattanooga station for over 50 years. It still exists today and can be seen at the Civil War Museum in Georgia.
The Lionel model is the smallest in the range, measuring only 13cm including the tender, but it is beautifully made and detailed. It is painted in the correct colours of black with a red cab and trim. The boiler is lined in gold, while the two condensers are finished in brass with red bands. The large lightbox has a clear plastic lens, while the handrails along the boiler are reproduced with fine pieces of wire. The wheels rotate, and when the model is pushed along, the connecting rods and piston rods move convincingly. The four-axle tender is painted light green with gold lettering. It has two turning bogies and is piled high with a load of logs.
NEW YORK CENTRAL HUDSONIn 1927, the New York Central Railroad introduced the J-class locomotive, which was the first 4-6-4 ‘Hudson’ to be used in the USA. These locomotives were designed to pull very long trains at high speed over straight, flat rails. The wheel arrangement was designed with a two-axle trailing bogie, which was needed to support the enormous boiler. New York Central ordered 274 Hudsons, and many more were bought by other railway companies. The last sub-series was the J-3a version, called the ‘Super Hudson’, manufactured in 1937. Ten of these were fitted with streamlining, and were used to pull crack express trains such as the Empire State Express and the 20th Century Limited. Unfortunately, all of the Hudsons were scrapped and none exist today.
The Lionel model is based on an un-streamlined J-3a locomotive, which was one of Lionel’s most popular electric trains. This large, extremely heavy model was finished entirely in black, typical of American locomotives. It features leading and trailing bogies that turn, while the large driving wheels can rotate and have working connecting rods. However, the complicated valve gear does not work. The side handrails, which turn downwards towards the front, are made from fine wire. Other features include a clear headlight on the front of the boiler, which is attached to a tiny ‘New York Central’ sign.
The tender, which is also quite a heavy piece, has two rotating three-axle bogies, plus wire railing on each corner and a rear ladder.
NORFOLK AND WESTERN JThe J-class locomotives were huge, powerful streamliners built in-house by the Norfolk and Western Railroad between 1941 and 1950. These massive locos had a 4-8-4 wheel arrangement and were totally streamlined, with the smokestack and condensers completely covered by shrouding. The 14 J-class locomotives were the flagships of the N&W, and were used to haul famous trains such as the Pocahontas, the Cavalier and the Powhattan Arrow. The locos were retired in 1960, although one of the class, 611, was saved from the scrapyard and placed in a museum. During the 1980s, it was restored to running order and put into service pulling tourist trains.
The Lionel model must be the most impressive small-scale diecast locomotive ever made. With its tender attached, it measures 28cm; the tender alone is longer than the General locomotive and about the same length as the F3 Diesel. Finished in satin black, it has wide maroon stripes along the sides, with lettering and lining in gold. The handrails along the boiler sides and across the rounded nose are made of thin wire. The bogies on the loco and tender rotate, as do the wheels. The connecting rods work, although the piston rods and valve gear are fixed in place. The six-axle tender has a wire ladder at rear and an imitation coal load.
PENNSYLVANIA GG1The GG1 was a huge, double-ended electric locomotive built by General Electric for the Pennsylvania Railroad between 1934 and 1943. It was an unusual design, with a 4-6-6-4 wheel arrangement and a central cab. There was an electric pantograph mounted on each nose. The semi-streamlined body (which is either extremely handsome or incredibly ugly, depending on your personal taste) was designed by Raymond Loewy. Initially the GG1s hauled crack express trains on electrified routes, such as the Federal and the Congressional that ran to Washington, and the Broadway Limited which went to New York. In later years, they were used mainly on suburban or freight services. After the Pennsylvania Railroad went into liquidation, the GG1s were operated by the successor railways Penn Central and Amtrak, where they were used well into the 1980s. Several have been preserved in museums.
At 20cm in length, Lionel’s diecast GG1 is a lot more accurate than its famous 0 gauge version, which was deliberately made shorter and stubbier than the real thing to allow it to travel on circular tracks. GG1s were originally painted Brunswick green with five gold pinstripes; in the 1950s this was changed to Tuscan red with a thick gold stripe along the sides below a PRR ‘keystone’ logo. The diecast model has the later type of design, although the nondescript colour looks to be more dark green than dark red. Despite this, it is an excellent model with a glazed cab, several clear and red lights, six tiny lanterns under the buffers, and ladders below the cab doors. All four bogies can turn, but only just. The only real fault is the pantographs, which are fixed in the down position and look rather clumsy in silver plastic; wire ones would have looked more realistic.
SANTA FE F3 DIESELThe F-Series line of diesel-electric locomotives was built by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division subsidiary between 1939 and 1960. These handsome, round-nosed locos were sometimes called ‘streamliners’ or ‘carbody’ locomotives. They were introduced at a time when many American railways were replacing steam traction with more reliable, economical diesel engines, and proved enormously successful, with more than 4,000 being produced over 20 years. They were regarded as very prestigious locos in the USA and Canada, with most of the famous express trains being hauled by them right through to the 1970s. In the USA they were used by dozens of different railroads, and they were widely used in Canada. F-Series locomotives were also built under license in Australia, where they were used in New South Wales, Victoria and by the interstate Commonwealth Railways. The Victorian Railways used an unusual version of an EMD F-Series; the double-ended B Class locomotive which had a streamlined cab at each end. Unlike the American versions which had a Bo-Bo wheels arrangement, the Aussie diesels were six-axle Co-Cos to enable a lighter axle load on rural branch lines.
The Lionel model was a 1946 F3 version in the livery of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, usually known as simply Santa Fe or AT&SF. While Santa Fe was certainly not the only company to operate F3s, Lionel’s 0 gauge model in this livery was its best selling item for decades. Santa Fe passenger locomotives were painted red and silver with yellow and black trim, which was known as the ‘warbonnet’ livery, as it represented a stylised version of an Indian chief’s headdress. Santa Fe was best known for running long-distance sleeper trains from Chicago to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Famous services included the Chief, El Capitan and the Super Chief, which consisted of rakes of silver double-deck coaches.Lionel’s diecast model accurately captures the shape of the streamlined F3, and is authentically finished in the famous Santa Fe colours. The model features two turning bogies, and has glazed windows in the cab and the side portholes. Other details include horns on top of the cab, route indicators and front grab handles.
CHESSIE SYSTEM GP9 Also manufactured by EMD was the GP9, which was a ‘hood unit’ type. Unlike the clean-looking streamliners, hood units were utilitarian engines with walkways along each side. They were much easier to service than streamliners, and had better visibility. This type of loco was originally designed for switching (shunting) duties, but they became used for hauling on branch lines, and eventually more powerful models were built for mainline services. The GP9 was designed to be driven with the ‘long nose’ forward, but crews preferred driving them with the ‘short nose’ facing, so later versions could be operated either way. The hood-type locomotive became the dominant type in North America, and the GP9’s reliability and ease of operation and repair meant it was widely exported around the world; particularly in developing countries, such as India, and various nations in South America and Africa.
The Lionel model was in the vivid yellow, orange and navy blue livery of Chessie Systems. This company was formed by the merger of Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and several smaller competitors, and ran freight services throughout the East Coast and Mid-West states. Again, Lionel has made an excellent replica of the real thing, although perhaps with a higher percentage of plastic than the other locomotives in the range. The handrails along the sides and ends of the model are well represented, and it also has turning bogies and glazed windows.
GP9 AND F3 SERIESTwo further sets of Lionel Classic Series were released in 1999, although there were no further castings produced. Instead, the GP9 and the F3 Diesels were both re-released in six additional colour schemes. Unlike the steam locomotives, which were largely exclusive to one railway, the EMD Diesels were ‘off-the-shelf’ models that were bought by a large number of operators, not just Santa Fe and Chessie System. This gave collectors an opportunity to collect a whole fleet of locomotives in several different authentic liveries.
The F3 was produced in the colours of New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, Southern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Denver and Rio Grande, and Pennsylvania Railroad. The GP9 was also issued in the liveries of New York Central, Pennsylvania RR and Southern Pacific, plus Boston & Maine, Santa Fe and Union Pacific.
Unfortunately, there were no further castings in the series, so possibly they were not big sellers. One reason for this may be because they were aimed at the wrong market. They seem to have been targeted towards children as toys, rather than high-quality scale models. They are recommended for ‘ages 8 and up’, and the box features the slogan ‘Engineer Some Fun!’; but despite being described as ‘big, rugged, trains’, they are actually small, finely-detailed trains that are unlikely to withstand much rough treatment. However, two additional castings were produced exclusively for Lionel’s in-house collectors’ club, the Lionel Century Club. These were the Pennsylvania Turbine and the Berkshire locomotives. There were also versions of the GG-1, F3 and Hudson locomotives produced in exclusive liveries.
Interestingly, many of the diesel models were bought up by TT-gauge modellers, who used power bogies to retro-engineer them into working electric locomotives. The quality and finish was to a much higher standard than most of the TT equipment available in the USA at the time, and there were seven liveries of each model to choose from. Corgi and Siku also produced diecast locomotives in 1/120 scale.
This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.
Text and photos (C) Mike Pigott 2020.