Lionel's first train, the Electric Express, was not intended for sale to consumers, but rather, as a storefront display. Delivered in 1901, it ran on a brass track and was powered by a battery and a motor Cowen originally intended to use in an electric fan. Cowen hoped to use the public's fascination with railroads and electricity to capture the public's attention and direct it to the goods for sale. Members of the public started approaching store owners about buying the trains instead, prompting Lionel to begin making toy trains for the general public. Lionel ended up selling 12 examples of the Electric Express.
Lionel's earliest trains were larger than the sizes commonly available today, running on two-rail track with the rails 2⅞ inches apart. In 1906, Lionel began offering a three-rail track that simplified wiring of reverse loops and accessories. Its outer rails were 2⅛ inches apart, which did not match any of the existing standards that other manufacturers had been using since 1891. Whether this was an accidental misreading of Märklin's Gauge 2 specifications or an intentional incompatibility is unclear, but Lionel named this non-standard track Standard Gauge, and then trademarked the name. When other U.S. companies began using Lionel's standard, they usually called it Wide gauge. Starting in 1915, Lionel followed most of its U.S. competitors and adopted the smaller O gauge standard for its budget-level trains.
By the end of World War I, Lionel was one of three major U.S. manufacturers of toy trains, and it grew rapidly due to shrewd marketing. Cowen began getting department stores to incorporate his toy trains as part of their Christmas tree displays, linking toy trains to Christmas and making them into popular Christmas presents. Lionel made its trains larger than anyone else, making them appear to be better values. When competitors criticized the realism of Lionel's trains—Cowen had been unwilling to invest in the equipment necessary for lithography, so its early offerings were simply painted with solid colors of enamel paint with brass detail parts—Lionel targeted advertising at children, telling children its products were the most realistic toy trains. Additionally, Lionel criticized the durability of competitors' products in ads targeted at parents.
William Walthers, a large seller of model railroads, asked Cowen in 1929 why Lionel painted its trains bright and unrealistic colors. Cowen said the majority of trains were purchased by mothers for their children, and the bright colors attracted women buyers.
By the 1920s, Lionel had overcome Ives to become the market leader, selling metal trains with colorful paint schemes. Lionel's fierce ad campaigns took their toll on Ives, which filed bankruptcy in 1928. Lionel and American Flyer bought Ives and operated it jointly until 1930, when Lionel bought Flyer's share. Lionel operated Ives as a subsidiary until 1932.
The Great Depression badly hurt Lionel. In 1930, Lionel's operating profit dropped to $82,000—its operating profit in 1927 had been more than $500,000—and in 1931, it lost $207,000. The trains were considered a luxury item, and at the height of the Depression one of Lionel's more extravagant locomotives cost as much as a used Ford Model T. In an effort to compete with companies that were willing to undercut Lionel's prices without diluting its premium Lionel and Ives brands, Lionel introduced a line of inexpensive electric toy trains under the Winner Toys or Winner Toy Corp. brand name, which it sold from 1930 to 1932. The starting price for a set was $3.25, including a transformer. These and other efforts to improve its financial standing were unable to keep Lionel from going into receivership in May 1934.
The product widely credited with saving the company was a wind-up handcar featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse that ran on O gauge track and sold for $1. Lionel manufactured 250,000 units but was still unable to keep up with demand. At a wholesale price of 55 cents, the handcar's sales would not have provided enough profit to pay off Lionel's debts of $300,000, but it nevertheless provided much-needed cash. Lionel avoided bankruptcy and emerged from receivership the next year. By 1939, Lionel had discontinued its standard gauge products, concentrating instead on the more-affordable O gauge and 00 gauge, which it had introduced in 1938.
Lionel ceased toy production in 1942 to produce nautical items for the United States Navy during World War II. The company advertised heavily, however, promising new and exciting products and urging American teenagers to begin planning their post-War layouts. It also introduced the so-called paper train, a detailed set of cut-and-fold models of Lionel trains printed on cardstock that was notoriously difficult to put together.
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