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Estate Sale Tips: Lionel Trains

Estate Sale Tips

Lionel Toy Train Tips

Lionel toy trains have been a staple of American history for over 100 years.  In this Estate Sale Tips article we’re going to give you a few pointers about vintage Lionel trains.  We hope this information will serve you well while you’re out on your estate sale hunts.

The five eras of Lionel trains:


Lionel train manufacturing can be divided into five eras: the Pre-war era, the Post-war era, the MPC/General Mills era, the Richard Kughn era, and The Wellspring era.  Pre-war era Lionel trains were manufactured before WWII.  Like many other manufacturing operations during the 1940s, Lionel’s production was temporarily halted to assist with the war effort, but after WWII, production resumed.  For more information about the history of Lionel, check out the Lionel history section of their website here.  Many Pre-war and Post-war Era Lionel trains have become collectible and sought after. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to keep our article more focused on pre-war and post-war Lionel, but many tips provided will apply to all eras of Lionel trains.

Quality:  The craftsmanship and attention to detail put into most Lionel trains is amazing. It’s not uncommon to find a pre-war era train from 1937 that’s still in perfect working condition.  The same applies to postwar era Lionel trains. Some exceptions to Lionel’s immaculate quality can be found in many of the trains manufactured during the MPC/General Mills era.  Trains manufactured by Lionel during this era were not manufactured at the same quality standards as were those that pre- and post-date the MPC/General Mills trains.  After the MPC/General Mills Era, Lionel’s quality started to return.

Things to look for when making a purchase:

  • Rust:  Rusty wheels and contacts are generally a sure sign to look elsewhere.  The only time this does not apply is when the train holds some type of special significance which makes it highly collectible.  With enough effort and money, a toy train could be reconditioned, but most of the time, the cost of the restoration can exceed the train’s value, if rust is involved.
  • Broken Pieces:  Sometimes you’ll come across a train that has a broken piece on the metal casting.  In many cases, this is merely a cosmetic flaw and won’t affect the functionality of the working parts of the train.  While a cosmetic imperfection may not affect the mechanical condition of a train, keep in mind that it will affect the value of the train for resale purposes. If there are broken pieces on the drivetrain, it would be best to take the train to a trained technician for an evaluation.  Some parts may be able to be replaced, but again, the cost may be higher than the value of the train.
  • Missing Pieces:  If you come across a train that’s missing pieces such as wheels or other key components, you’ll want to do a further evaluation of the value of the train in relation to the cost of getting the missing pieces replaced.  In many cases, the train would be worth very little unless it possesses a high level of collectibility.  If the train is missing pieces, I’d suggest contacting a local Lionel technician or a hobby shop before making a purchase.  They may have replacement parts available that will get the train back up and running again. 
  • Rusty Track:  It isn’t uncommon to come across rusty train track. Never run your train on rusty track! New track is still being made and is relatively cheap.  Throw away the old rusty track and buy new track from your local hobby shop.  If the track is dirty, but not rusty, use a chemical cleaner like Goo Gone to bring the track back to operational status.

How do I determine the model, date of manufacturing, and value of my train?:  
First, let’s start with the Lionel numbering system.  On the side of nearly every train and train car you’ll find a set of numbers. This numbering system was used throughout the history of Lionel to identify engines and train car models.  You’ll need the model number of your train to conduct further research into the manufacturing date and the value of your train.

The easiest way to determine the model, the date of manufacturing, and a baseline value of your train is to purchase a Lionel price guide or to conduct an internet search for an online price guide. One important thing to keep in mind during this process is that determining the actual value of your train can be very hard.  Your train’s value is based on its condition, its collectibility, and on the market. The values listed in price guides are highly subjective and the true value depends on what people who are engaging in real transactions are willing to pay for any given model.  We suggest using a price guide as a way of getting a baseline of what the train is worth.

Pre-war train cars are generally made of tin.  A tin car is usually a good indication that your train was made prior to 1943.  Most post-war train cars are plastic with metal trucks.  These cars have a coupler that looks very similar to a real train car, called a knuckle coupler.  Most pre-war cars have a coupler with a small metal hook, called a latch coupler.  Take a look at the examples below of the different coupler designs. Sometimes you’ll find a pre-war train with post-war couplers.  This usually has to do with post- and pre-war trains being used together at some point in the history of the set.

Condition: A price guide will usually list different values for conditions, but condition is extremely subjective.  This will be one of the hardest things to determine when evaluating a train. I would recommend checking out Lionel’s guide on determining condition here.

Fun Fact:
It’s also not uncommon to find sets with a mixture of several different eras of Lionel trains. Often, additional cars are purchased over the years as the train changes hands through history.  For example, a grandfather receives a toy train in the 1920s; he passes it to his son in the 1950s and a few more cars are purchased; after which, the son gives it to a family member who purchases a few cars in the late 60s and 70s.  Before we know it, the train set has evolved into a conglomerate set of Lionel eras.

I hope this article helps you on your search for vintage Lionel trains while out estate sale shopping. We would like to thank Schaefer's Hobby Shop for providing us with the pictures used throughout this article.

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