Lionel’s smoke pellets are certainly iconic, and a memorable part of the post war Lionel experience. Pre-war trains didn’t have smoke, and the big three train makers raced in the early 1950s to introduce smoke units to give their trains something new. The sight and smell of those smoke pellets is unforgettable for a generation or three. Why did Lionel stop using smoke pellets, and why can’t you buy them anymore?
Lionel smoke pellets made postwar steam locomotives emit vapors from their miniature stack to create toy train pseudo-smoke. This new twist to Lionel trains became an unforgettable part of the toy train scene and an enduring old postwar favorite.
What were Lionel smoke pellets made of?
The original formula for Lionel smoke pellets from 1946-47, which had Lionel catalog #196, was problematic. The active ingredient was ammonium nitrate. Among its many problems are its toxicity, corrosiveness, and explosiveness. Lionel didn’t initially realize how problematic the substance was, but they learned quickly when a ship full of it exploded outside Galveston Bay off the coast of Texas in 1947, the deadliest industrial disaster in United States history.
If ammonium nitrate sounds familiar, it was also the active ingredient in Timothy McVeigh’s bomb that destroyed the Alfred T. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
This original formula was only used with the very early postwar Lionel steam locomotives, such as the original Lionel 671.
Lionel quickly switched to another substance, announcing a new formula by midyear, with introduction in 1948. The problem was, they didn’t know the formula. Lionel did not do the best job of crediting its inventors, and this caused the company to lose some talent over the years. In the case of the smoke pellets, the employee who came up with a new formula, Mario Mazzone, started another company to provide the pellets to Lionel, and he never told them what it was. For that matter, he didn’t tell his own employees what the stuff was.
Even though there was an extra middleman involved, Mazzone’s company was able to produce the tablets much cheaper than Lionel could. Lionel originally sold the pellets for $1.00 for a bottle of 50. Lionel sold the Mazzone-provided tablets for half that.
Are smoke pellets toxic?
The original Lionel 196 smoke pellets were toxic. That was one of several reasons they didn’t stay on the market very long. Suffice it to say, Lionel had plenty of great moments and brilliant ideas, but the 196 smoke pellets weren’t one of them. It’s not that Lionel was malicious. Sometimes the problems with an idea don’t come up until later, and that was the case here.
As for the new formulation Lionel SP smoke pellets, the label on the glass bottle or jar they came in had a prominent statement on them assuring the public they were completely non-toxic. That was a bold statement for a company to be making when they didn’t know exactly what was in them. But the 1947 disaster was still fresh on people’s minds and Lionel certainly didn’t want people to think they were still using that substance.
After Lionel Corporation sold the train business to General Mills in 1969, Mario Mazzone sold his business to MPC and retired. General Mills sold them until 1973 as catalog number 6-2911. But the active ingredient remained a mystery until around 1975.
It turned out it was meta-terphenyl, a waxy industrial substance manufactured by Monsanto, used as an insulator and a coolant inside high voltage transformers.
As for Lionel’s claim of it being completely harmless, meta-terphenyl is a mild irritant. It’s not something you want to put on your pancakes, and chronic exposure to industrial chemical substances is never a great idea. But it is far more benign than ammonium nitrate, and a postwar Lionel train running as a hobby hardly counts as chronic exposure.
It was probably lack of demand that caused General Mills to cease production of smoke pellets after 1973. Smoke fluid was much more cost effective and that’s what they were using in their own version of Lionel’s trains. The market for postwar trains wasn’t exactly booming in 1973. Postwar trains were plentiful at garage sales and in secondhand shops in the early 1970s because not many people wanted them then.
Reproduction Lionel smoke pellets
Various companies manufactured substitute smoke pellets over the years. K-Line sold them in the 1990s. Another company called Toy Trains Unlimited offered them for around a decade, starting around 2004, selling a bottle of 50 for around $15.
During those times when no one is selling reproduction Lionel smoke pellets, there have always been weird rumors about the reason why. I’ve heard stories about how a kid ate a bottle of them and got sick. And some people just blame whoever they don’t like. Another train manufacturer. The government. Ford. General Motors.
There is no need for rumors. There’s no conspiracy, no overreach. It comes down to money. The chemical that Lionel used, meta-terphenyl, is no longer mass produced. That means it is much more expensive now than it was during the post-war era, even when you factor for inflation. It costs 16 cents to buy enough meta-terphenyl to make a single smoke pellet at the time I write this, in 2021. But of course you have to buy it in large quantities.
That means to turn a reasonable profit, the pellets would have to sell for about 48 cents a piece. As much as people complain about the cost of smoke fluid, there is no way they will pay $0.50 for a week of postwar train running.
For comparison, in 1953, a bottle containing a quantity of 50 pellets sold for 50 cents. That’s $5.18 in 2021 dollars, and that was with an extra middleman involved. Vintage original bottles of smoke pellets typically sell for $20. So it’s cheaper to buy the collectible original pellets and use those, rather than new production.
If and when the price of the raw material comes back down, I imagine someone will start selling smoke pellets again. That’s the way capitalism works.
Reproduction original formula Lionel 196 smoke pellets
As for the original formula, with it being a hazardous substance, don’t mess with it. If the danger to yourself isn’t enough, remember, it will corrode your trains and eventually destroy them from the inside out. Not to mention stocking up on a substance that is useful for making bombs is a good way to call attention to yourself that you probably don’t want.
It’s possible some of the rumors around the unavailability of reproduction Lionel SP smoke pellets are due to people misremembering the problems with the original Lionel 196 smoke pellets and conflating the two.
Collectibility of Lionel smoke pellets
Today, original smoke pellets, the bottles they came in, and the store display are collectible. They aren’t worth what they once were. But if you have several bottles with the store display box, you still have something that could be worth $100 or more. And an individual bottle with pellets still in it is worth around $20. The empty clear glass bottle is worth around $5. Even an empty Lionel bottle is a slightly collectible train item.
Lionel smoke fluid versus pellets
Lionel’s rivals, Marx and American Flyer, used liquid smoke units and fluid rather than pellets. Smoke fluid is oil. The way fluid smoke units work is by heating the oil to the point where it vaporizes, but not to the point where it will burn.
The exact formulation of smoke fluid is generally a trade secret, but the main ingredient is usually mineral oil.
If you want to save money, you can buy a big bottle of mineral oil at a pharmacy for a few dollars. The problem with other substitutes for smoke fluid is it is very difficult to know what exactly you are getting. Since mineral oil is intended for human consumption, it’s regulated. So you know you aren’t putting kerosene in your train. Pro tip: don’t put kerosene in your train. Don’t put WD-40 in it either, its active ingredient is kerosene.
Don’t use vape fluid either–it’s corrosive.
You’ll probably find the mineral oil doesn’t smoke as nicely as commercial smoke fluid. That’s because the manufacturer came up with a formulation that vaporizes better while not running the risk of combusting.
Regardless of the formulation, smoke fluid has generally been less expensive than pellets, and certainly the price differential is rather large now. By 1957, even Lionel was selling smoke fluid along with pellets.
Many hobbyists convert pellet based smoke units to fluid today. It’s not an expensive conversion, and makes the train more usable. If you don’t want to do that, you can put a couple of drops of fluid in a pill unit, and it will work. You just have to be careful not to overfill it and if it derails, you run the risk of making a mess if the train tips over. So using fluid in a pill unit comes with caveats, but you can do it. And a fair number of people do.