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Lionel Laser train set

The Lionel Laser (or L.A.S.E.R.) train set from 1981 and 1982 was a product of its time. Very much so. In some ways it was the perfect thing for Boomer parents to buy for their Gen X kids. At least that was the intent. And while the Lionel Laser is not the pinnacle of Lionel trains, there are reasons to be nostalgic for it, at least if you’re of a certain age.

What the Lionel Laser train was

Lionel Laser train set

The Lionel Laser train set wasn’t a high end set. But it screams 1980s.  I saw this one at an estate sale years ago and almost bought it.

The Lionel Laser train was a revised take on an idea from about 20 years earlier. In the 1960s, Lionel experimented with a space and military theme for its trains. It was one of the few bright spots the company had in the few years that preceded its 1969 bankruptcy.

So it was natural for Lionel, under MPC management, to give it another try. By 1981, kids who had received Lionel space and military trains as gifts were old enough to have kids of their own. And if I learned anything when my generation started having kids, I learned that we buy stuff for our kids that we liked when we were about their age.

A cost reduced all in one bundle starter set

So Lionel took the approach of building an all-in-one bundle. The set consisted of a plastic play mat but provided simple two-dimensional scenery for the train layout. This was a smart move, because it meant you could set it up permanently and have something more interesting to look at than bare plywood in a matter of minutes. Or you could set up on the floor, play with it for the afternoon, then break it down and put it all back in a box. It wasn’t the pinnacle of scenery by any stretch, but it added play value while adding very little cost.

It also came with 12 pieces of O27 sectional track. That was enough for a small oval about 27×44 inches. There was an outline of the track on the mat to show you where it should go.

Power came from a small DC power pack. Like many inexpensive MPC era sets, Lionel used DC power to hit the price point it was targeting. If you have one of these trains and the power pack went missing, you can replace it with any DC power pack intended for HO trains.

The train

The locomotive was a small diesel switcher powered by a DC motor. It was small, resembled something kids might actually see in the early 1980s, and it was simple and reliable inside. Honestly there isn’t much to this engine that can break. Its light weight limits how much it can pull. But it has enough power to pull all of the cars it came with.

As for the rest of the train, it came with four flat cars, hauling various space and military loads. One car had a helicopter. Another car had a rocket. One car was loaded with radar. And the final car was armed with a laser, appropriate for the name. The engine and all of the cars were lettered L.A.S.E.R.

Why not a real railroad?

The scheme of the Lionel Laser train is entirely fantasy. It looked like we imagined a military train would look like, but there wasn’t much of anything in the real world that needed to look like the Laser train. It screams early 1980s. Lasers were definitely high in our consciousness, if only because of popular science fiction franchises like Star wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica. We knew that was fiction, but we also knew that lasers really were a thing that existed, and we thought they were cool. Besides that, lasers were a theme in the video games we played.

A common complaint about us Gen Xers was that we were more interested in video games and science fiction than we were in trains. That might be, but we didn’t dislike trains. And this one was definitely designed to try to capture our imaginations. It looks terribly dated now, but that’s part of the appeal. At least my friend who found his Lionel Laser train earlier this year was fine with it. He thought it was cool enough to send me a picture. I agree with him. We hadn’t met yet in 1981, but if we’d been friends then, I would have thought it was cool in 1981 too.

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