Every 15-20 years or so, Lionel ventures into HO scale again. Lionel is generally associated with bigger trains. But the HO scale market is so large, Lionel wants part of it. HO scale trains are, in terms of both scale and gauge, the smallest trains Lionel makes.
Why Lionel makes HO scale trains
Lionel charges into the HO scale market every 15-20 years because, simply, the HO scale market is about double the size of the O gauge market Lionel traditionally has dominated. The trouble is, Lionel isn’t traditionally associated with that market, so its name is a bit of a liability there. HO scale doesn’t need Lionel when it already has Athearn.
But maybe this most recent venture will be different. Or maybe the next one will. If the present one fails, chances are Lionel will give it another whirl in a few more years. It seems like it always does.
Lionel OO scale: The forerunner
In the 1930s, Lionel knew the future was something smaller than O gauge. But they bet incorrectly on OO scale, which they introduced in 1938. OO scale, which is about 14% larger than HO scale, became dominant in the UK but didn’t do all that well in the States. Lionel stuck with its OO scale trains until 1942, when the war effort curtailed production of all its trains.
For the most part, large-scale toy production ceased in the United States during World War II. The government needed the metals and factory capacity for producing munitions and other items for the war effort. Lionel produced nautical equipment, gauges, and other various items for the war effort in its factories. Winning the war meant kids making due with toys made of paper or wood, used or refurbished toys produced before the war, or going without.
Enough Lionel OO exists today to suggest it wasn’t a total failure, but it wasn’t the huge success Lionel hoped for.
Lionel HO scale take 1: 1957-1966
Lionel re-entered the toy market in 1946, and for several years it couldn’t keep up with demand for its O gauge sets. But by the mid 1950s, the demand started to subside a bit. Meanwhile, a separate branch of the hobby really started to emerge. Sure, people built scenes and placed Lionel trains around them and called it model railroading for years. But HO scale model railroading was a bit different, placing emphasis on scale realism that Lionel had done only rarely. Lionel and its rivals, A.C. Gilbert and Marx, could see HO scale was going to challenge more traditional toy trains in popularity, if not exceed it. By 1957, all three companies were in the game.
Lionel’s initial HO scale trains were made by Rivarossi in Italy, but that arrangement only lasted a year. In 1958, Lionel switched to selling trains made by Athearn. Then, around 1960, Lionel was able to purchase tooling from John English, and use English’s HObbyline tooling to produce trains on its own.
But while HO scale did indeed overtake O gauge trains in popularity during the 1960s, Lionel’s HO scale trains didn’t sell especially well. In 1966, the struggling Lionel discontinued the experiment. Three years later, the company was bankrupt.
Trying again: 1975
In 1974, with the product line now under the ownership of General Mills, a cereal company who expanded into plastic toys like many of its competitors, Lionel re-released its HO scale line. Lionel didn’t thrive under General Mills, but arguably did better than it had in the 60s under the majority ownership of Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer. Cohn didn’t have any skills that particularly lended themselves to running a toy company.
Lionel experienced a resurgence in the 70s even though the general public’s fascination with trains had waned. Children of the 50s were old enough by then to have children of their own. They bought toys for their kids that they had enjoyed. With the big names of the 50s all dwindling, Tyco had stepped into the void with affordable, action-packed HO scale sets that filled several pages of Christmas catalogs. Lionel decided to try to get a piece of that action, dusting off its HO scale tooling and giving it another try. This was consistent with Lionel’s 1970s behavior; most of its O27 sets were also made from existing legacy tooling.
Lionel didn’t replicate Tyco’s success. By 1977, Lionel was augmenting its line with products made by Kader, but that didn’t help much either. Lionel’s second venture into HO scale didn’t last as long as its first, ending after just four years.
Going high-tech for 1989
In the late 1980s, Lionel decided to give it another try. Technology had advanced to the point where it was possible to put a camera in the locomotive and project its view onto a small television over the rails. Lionel called it Rail Scope, and equipped an HO scale model of an Alco FA-1 with it.
Although innovative, this didn’t get very far either. It was expensive, and all you got for your money was a black and white view. It also quickly gained a reputation for not being very reliable. Today, putting cameras in trains is common, but that didn’t help Lionel in 1989, and they quickly pulled the plug again.
High-end Lionel HO scale for 2003
In 2003, Lionel commissioned Korea Brass to produce two high-end locomotives in HO scale, a GE GTEL gas turbine and a 4-6-6-4 Challenger, equipping both of them with DCC and QSI sound. Lionel had success selling O gauge versions of high-end trains like these, tooled and manufactured in the Far East, and hoped to replicate or exceed that success in the larger HO scale market.
The inventory lasted several years but Lionel didn’t catalog any new HO scale for 2004. Lionel’s name didn’t give it a ticket to the high end of the HO scale market; if anything, it might have hurt it.
The late 2010s
In 2016, Lionel re-entered the HO market with an HO scale Polar Express, a train based on the 2004 movie that was in turn based on the popular children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. The O gauge version of the Polar Express was the company’s biggest success in years, but the smaller version didn’t turn the clock back to 2004 for Lionel again.
In 2019, Lionel introduced a new plastic roadbed track system, similar to its O gauge Fastrack system but connected with strong magnets. It also introduced a line of inexpensive rolling stock, based on Model Power tooling, which in turn was based on 1950s Marx tooling. Roadbed track is nothing new in HO scale, but connecting it with magnets is. If Lionel can get starter sets into the same outlets at a similar price point as Model Power did, maybe this time will be different. If they put a premium price on it because of their name, we’re probably looking at something that will end after three years, if not less.
And then they’ll be back again in about 15 more years with something a little different. It happens every time.