Comparing Bachmann vs Lionel is a contrast between two very old, established names in electric trains. Lionel, in one form or another, has been selling trains since 1900. Bachmann, the largest seller of trains in the world, was founded in 1833, though they started selling trains in 1966.
Ironically, it was Lionel that got Bachmann into the train business. In the 1940s and 1950s, when every kid wanted a Lionel or American Flyer train, Bachmann sold buildings under its Plasticville brand so kids and dads could build towns for those trains to run in. As the focus shifted to smaller scales in the 1960s, Bachmann moved with it, with greater success than the companies it once shared a symbiotic relationship with.
A G scale boxcar is about 20 inches long. An O scale boxcar is about 10 inches long. An HO scale boxcar will be a little more than half that but still close to 5 inches long. An N scale boxcar will be somewhere around 2 ½ inches long. Smaller scales let you either make smaller layouts, or cram twice as much stuff into the same space. When you’re starting out, you tend to do the former. If you find you like the hobby, you tend to do the latter.
Lionel is almost synonymous with O scale trains, although they do sell inexpensive G scale trains and recently started producing HO scale trains again. Lionel at least pays lip service to HO scale, but generally, for most of its existence, anything other than O scale has been an afterthought.
Bachmann’s product line is more extensive. Bachmann sells diminuitive N scale trains, HO scale, G scale, O scale, and On30 (narrow-gauge O scale). Bachmann started selling HO and N scale before the others, so that’s what people think of.
Lionel always positioned itself as a premium brand. A boxed train set from Lionel, including an O scale train, track, and transformer, typically starts at around $250 and goes up from there. If you want to spend $1,500 for a large, superdetailed locomotive, Lionel will happily sell you one of those too.
Bachmann took the opposite approach, positioning itself initially as a bargain brand. Is HO and N scale sets were very inexpensive. With time, Bachmann moved up market, but generally speaking, Bachmann will cost less. You can still pick up a Bachmann HO or N scale starter set for less than $100.
Vintage Lionel trains in less than perfect condition (but still very presentable) are very inexpensive these days. If I have $100 to spend, I can go to a good hobby shop or train show and pick up something nice.
Secondhand Bachmann trains are even more inexpensive. Just make sure the locomotive and the power pack work. Quality was an issue with Bachmann trains made before the year 2000. With pre-2000 trains, look for Bachmann Spectrum trains, which were better than standard-issue Bachmann.
It’s not hard to find a decades-old Lionel train that still runs perfectly. At times Lionel has trouble with quality control on its highest-end products, but generally speaking, Lionel’s quality is pretty high. Ironically, its lower end sets tend to be the highest quality because they’re simple and there isn’t as much to break, the early problems with their CW-80 transformer being the notable exception.
Bachmann’s inexpensive sets don’t have the best reputation for quality, though much of that is due to its sets from before the year 2000. Their quality is OK now, though as you pay more, you tend to get better quality. When it comes to vintage Bachmann, you have to be very careful. The old Bachmann Spectrum line was very good. But pre-2000 Bachmann outside of its Spectrum line wasn’t built for durability.
I think Lionel is overrated as a collectible, especially modern production Lionel, but Lionel’s vintage products definitely have collector interest. If you buy a vintage Lionel train for nostalgic reasons, you can reasonably expect it to hold some value. Demand for 1945-1969 Lionel is dropping. Pre-1942 Lionel is in a bit less of a free fall.
When it comes to collectibility, vintage Bachmann Plasticville buildings have a following, but there’s not a lot of collector interest in Bachmann trains.
I prefer Lionel but that’s because it’s what I grew up with. My dad’s parents bought him Lionel trains in the early 1950s, and those trains became my first trains in the 1980s. I stuck with it because it was what I had. The monetary commitment it requires is decreasing with time too, which is nice in a way. It means the stuff I bought in 2004 isn’t worth as much anymore, but it also means I get more for my money now.
The upside with Bachmann is it doesn’t require a lot of commitment in terms of money or space, especially when you go with HO or N scale. You can go to a hobby shop, get a starter set and some scenery material, build a layout a few square feet in size, and not spend more than about $300 and decide whether it’s a hobby for you or not. It’s not a trivial amount of money but a typical middle-class family can do it.
As much as I love Lionel, I understand Bachmann’s appeal.