Where Lionel trains are made

Last Updated on April 15, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

Lionel is an iconic American brand, and I often hear people refer to it as a made-in-the-USA company. But it’s been a long time since that’s been where Lionel trains are made. Or at least the majority. It turns out Lionel has a bit of a history with that.

Most Lionel trains were made in the United States through the 1970s. Moving production out of the United States was not a popular move, but since 2001, the majority of Lionel’s product line has been made in South Korea or China by contract manufacturers.

where are Lionel trains made?
This 1950s Lionel locomotive says “Made in US of America” on the build plate. But today, Lionel only makes a few of its freight cars in the USA.

In the 1930s, Lionel made its trains in New Jersey. But it imported some of the designs and tooling from Italy. The Italian flair didn’t make the trains realistic, but they did look good. Well, to people who don’t insist on “good” meaning “ultra realistic,” that is. During this era, Lionel’s product fell into the toy train category more than the model train category.

But in good times and bad, up until the end of Lionel Corporation’s train making days in 1969, Lionel made trains in or near New York City. After Lionel Corporation sold its eponymous trains to General Mills and became a toy store chain, ushering in the MPC era, General Mills produced the trains in Michigan during the 1970s.

Moving production to Mexico and back

Then, in the 1980s, General Mills experimented with making trains in Mexico. It didn’t go well. Or, at the very least, consumers didn’t like the move. General Mills soon moved production back to the States. It wasn’t long before they sold Lionel to Richard Kughn, a Detroit-area real estate tycoon who was also a big Lionel fan. Under Kughn, Lionel produced the majority of its trains in Michigan until he sold Lionel to a group of investors in 1995.

Production in China and South Korea after 2001

Lionel used some overseas contracting, primarily in South Korea, starting in 1987. The trend increased in the 1990s. Competitors like K-Line and MTH undercut Lionel’s pricing by producing in South Korea and China and made their product more model railroad-like. As time wore on, Lionel had more difficulty competing. In 2001, Lionel moved all of its production overseas, where it remained for a decade. This helped Lionel lower costs to a degree, but Lionel trains are still relatively expensive.

Limited U.S. production

In 2011, Lionel announced it would start making box cars in the United States again. The subcontractor ran into financial difficulty but did end up producing some box cars for Lionel actually made in the United States. In 2015, Lionel acquired tooling from Weaver, a defunct competitor. Weaver notably produced its trains in the United States. Lionel, now headquartered in North Carolina, renamed the old Weaver line Lionscale, and produces the Lionscale product line in Concord, North Carolina. But there is a caveat. Even the Lionscale box cars and hoppers are assembled in the United States. Some of the components that go into them come from overseas. So a purist might argue the Lionscale cars aren’t a fully made-in-the-USA product.

So while China is still usually the answer to the question of where Lionel trains are made today, some are made, or at least assembled, in the United States again.

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One thought on “Where Lionel trains are made

  • September 12, 2017 at 3:01 pm

    Lionel Trains was an American institution. Manufacture these trains here, in the USA, and be proud of your product again.
    Advertise this fact and sales will go up…we are a former Lionel dealer and service station. We know what caused many problems from the inside looking out!
    Change your unfair distribution policy to improve a more level playing field. It’s the smaller neighborhood hobby and model shops that spread your year-round footprint. Internet sales will never go away, but the product quality and pride can only be realized in person with knowledgeable “chatty” staff.
    These beauties should be seen in the flesh!

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