The online magazine on the history and operation of vintage scale model trains in American OO gauge

Sunday, November 6, 2011

1939, the Peak Year: Part IV, Lionel

When you look at the 1938 Lionel catalog, in relation to OO you get the sense that they were scrambling a bit to get the line out. They used modified Scale-Craft cars in the photos instead of their own, and basically all of the 1938 offerings were different than what they offered in 1939.

1939 was the year that defined the Lionel OO line. Backing up a step, I always find it fascinating to look at their 1939 catalog. What is so striking to me is you have O-27 and Standard gauge trains that really look like toys and then you have the OO models which are real scale model trains in 1/76 scale. This photo in particular illustrates this well.

What was new?

The headline of the first page on Lionel OO gauge in the catalog pretty clearly spells out what was new: “Midget models that operate on 2-rail or 3-rail track.” The 1938 models were all three rail with a center third rail, which was out of step with the offerings of any other maker of the time. A center three rail model could be of course modified for outside third rail, but if you were operating in two rail you were out of luck. So the essential innovation for 1939 was offering the same models as before but decorated somewhat differently and in versions that were either “super-detailed” or “modified” (with some details left off) sold set up for two or for three rail.

This required modifications of the locomotive and a new line of two rail track. When I was working on my Hudson recently one tricky thing was setting up the power contacts to the trucks and also the truck mounting, both of which are a bit different than what I expected. When they designed this model it clearly was not with two rail operation in mind, but they worked out a way to make it work.

The track was a separate story, and has been covered in depth in an earlier article in American OO Today. But I would offer this photo from the 1939 catalog, which has this text: “This display is used by stores to exhibit Lionel ‘OO’ gauge trains. Track area is 50 by 86 inches. Outside oval is 2 rail track. Inside loop is 3-rail, extended with straight sections.”

Another item highlighted in the catalog, although not new, are the “Knee-action” trucks. These are of course a distinct feature seen on both Lionel and Scale-Craft trucks. This illustration is from the March, 1939 issue of The Model Craftsman, the same ad running also on the back cover of April issue of The Model Builder.

So what about the train sets?

These have also been covered previously in American OO Today. To quote from my earlier article,
Lionel expanded the line with two rail and super-detailed and modified cars and locomotives in 1939. There were eight different sets offered.

The most expensive of the new sets was the 0090W at a price of $42.25, the super-detailed two-rail outfit. For your money you got the 003 locomotive with 003W tender, 0044 box car, 0045 oil car, 0046 coal car, and 0047 caboose, eleven pieces of 0031 curved track and one piece of 0034 connection track (no straight track), and a whistling controller. The same outfit without the whistling tender sold for $37.50.

The original 0080 set was still available for $35 but the components changed. This was now listed as super-detailed and included cars that were “similar to” those in the 0090W set (car numbers not specified), eleven pieces of 0051 curved track, four 0052 straight track, and one 0054 connection track. The 0080W set was still $39.75, with the whistle in the tender. One major note, not mentioned in the catalog, is that the connector between the 001 locomotive and tender was modified compared to 1938 production and the cars are decorated differently.

The other four sets for 1939 included versions of the modified engine and only three cars. The cars listed with the 0092W set were the 0074 box car, 0075 oil tank car, and the 0077 caboose. The differences are pretty minor between the modified and scale versions, lacking only a few small details (no brake cylinder, modified valve gear, etc). The 0092W outfit included the 004 locomotive and 004W tender, the three cars, and track as in the 0090 set; the 0092 set was the same but lacked the whistling tender and controller. The 0082W set included the 002 locomotive and 002W tender, three “similar” cars, and track as in the 0080 set; the 0082 set was the same but lacked the whistling tender and controller. It was the cheapest version, selling for $27.50.
I would only add that the catalog notes that “Any Trainmaster Transformer can be used to operate ‘OO’ gauge trains. Type B will operate one train and an number of accessories. Type V will operate two trains simultaneously and numerous accessories.” This use of toy train transformers is another unique feature of the line and part of what contributes to their honorary toy train status today (along with the three-rail track and the Lionel brand).

Car kits??

Another new item were the car kits. Looking at it now, the price break between a kit and an assembled model intrigues me a great deal. Car kits for the box car, oil tank car, hopper car, and caboose listed for $2.75 while an assembled model listed at $3.00. It is only a 25 cent difference but also note: the comparable Scale-Craft kits listed at either $2.85 or $3.25 so either way they were priced to make OO gaugers of the time notice.

The kits themselves were pretty deluxe for the day and included paint and a paint brush in a neat display box. I don’t own an example of one of these kits and they are valuable collectables today to be sure. I can't imagine anyone building one of these up today either, they are too valuable and also make a great display item just as they are for the Lionel collector.

Magazine coverage

To close, Lionel did advertise the OO line some but it was spotty. The fist ad of the year related to the OO line in The Model Craftsman was in the March issue and is chock full of the breathless advertising copy of that day, highlighting the scale detail, draw-bar pull, and the Bettendorf trucks on the freight cars. [UPDATE: see this article for an example of their 1939 advertising.] The April issue of MC had this nice photo of testing OO models at the factory, and in July Louis Hertz reported on the new two-rail OO line. There were other mentions through the year in Model Craftsman, and in the December issue of The Model Railroader may be found another nice advertisement.

How sales went for the new line initially I don’t know, but certainly buyers who had started out with Scale-Craft two-rail models (introduced in 1937) were pleased to see the Lionel two-rail models out and on the market.

When we return there were a lot of other smaller companies entering the market, and these we will have to work through in this look at 1939.

UPDATE: See this bonus article for additional coverage of Lionel OO layouts in The Model Builder in 1939.

Continue to Part V of 1939 Series

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