If there was ever a cult following in Lionel-dom, Lionel Super O track has it. Super O was Lionel’s answer to American Flyer 2-rail track. Invented in 1951, patented in 1954 and finally introduced in 1957, it featured numerous plastic ties with a molded-in woodgrain, a 36″ diameter, and a thin copper center rail.
The people who liked it really liked it. But a new track system wasn’t enough to turn around a company past its prime. Super O was discontinued in 1966, three years before Lionel Corporation got out of the train business altogether and began a 20-year swan song as an operator of toy stores. But that’s another story.
Why didn’t Lionel Super O track come out in 1951?
If Lionel invented Super O track way back in 1951, why did Lionel wait until 1957 to introduce it? In the early 1950s, Lionel was selling trains at a brisk pace. Electric trains were the must-have toy right after World War II, and Lionel was the market leader. Sales were strong, so Lionel didn’t really need it yet. By the late 1950s, sales were starting to slow down. So it made sense to introduce it in 1957 in hopes of goosing sales a bit.
Advantages of Lionel Super O track
The advantages of Super O were that it still worked with Magnetraction just like traditional track. If anything it worked better, because the tops of the rails were flat, not curved. Plus, the copper center rail was highly conductive. With most types of track, you have to run power to various parts of the layout to compensate for voltage drop. With Super O, you can get by with fewer power runs. And it looked a lot more like real train track than the older stuff.
And proponents are fond of pointing out how well theirs has held up over the years. They have a point. After all, the stuff hasn’t been produced since 1966.
There’s also no question it looks more like real train track than the 3-rail tubular track Lionel sold up until that point. The center rail is still there, but it’s much easier to ignore.
Disadvantages of Lionel Super O track
That copper center rail is also a cause of controversy. The rail caused some of the pickup rollers to develop a groove and wear out prematurely. A change in the composition of the metal solved that problem. Proponents of Super O say that was never a major problem anyway. There are detractors who insist Lionel never solved the problem, but it’s hard to know if they’re just being disagreeable. For whatever reason, Super O track brings out strong emotions in some people, and some of them aren’t positive. That said, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence of Super O track damaging a pickup roller made after 1957.
It seems to be mostly a problem of people believing what they want to believe. If you happen to run into the problem, replacing the pickup rollers is an inexpensive repair and doesn’t require a great deal of mechanical skill to do. And pickup rollers will wear out regardless of the type of track you use, if you run your trains enough.
The other most visible disadvantage is that the ties are an odd shape, almost like an elongated letter “A”, to provide support for the thin copper center rail. Some people get over the odd shape of the ties quickly, while others don’t. Many people have tried different ways to disguise that third rail over the years, so any argument along those lines is just an argument over whose compromise is best.
Early Super O switches didn’t work all that well, though later switches are OK. One possible workaround is to use adapter pins so you can use modern switches.
Finally, Super O track only came in one diameter. Today, all other track types–even lowly O27–are available in a variety of diameters. You can custom-bend curved sections to different diameters, but that’s true of most other types of track as well.
Lionel Super O track’s future
There are persistent rumors of Super O’s imminent return, and the existence of test shots made in the previous decade proves that Lionel considered it. Occasionally someone poses the question on the various online forums. Predictably, a small number of people come out in favor of it, while a small number of people oddly come out opposed to it, and the two factions start arguing with one another.
Every few years, rumors start up that Lionel will make some in the next year or two. It never pans out, but that doesn’t seem to stop the rumors.
Is there anything to the rumors? Remember, Lionel is in business to make money. If Lionel thinks they can sell a large enough quantity of it to make some money, they’ll make some. If not, they won’t. I’m not privy to their market research, so I’m not in position to speculate on whether it’s going to happen.
Should you use Lionel Super O track?
Ultimately that decision is up to you. There are people who’ve built enviable layouts with it. But the thing about almost every enviable layout I’ve seen is that it would still look good regardless of the type of track the person used. Track is just part of a layout.
If you have a supply of Super O track, it’s hard to argue against using it. It’s entirely possible to find more of it if you need it.
If you’re starting from scratch, you may be more comfortable buying something that you can find brand new in the stores. Then again, if you want a layout that isn’t like every other layout you’ve seen, and you don’t mind hunting around for track that hasn’t been made in a half century, using Super O track could contribute significantly to your enjoyment of the project.