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.
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.
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, General Mills produced the trains in Michigan.
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 really liked Lionel trains. Under Kughn, Lionel produced the majority of its trains in Michigan until he sold Lionel to a group of investors in 1995.
Far East production
Lionel used some overseas contracting, primarily in Korea, starting in 1987. The trend increased in the 1990s. Competitors like K-Line and MTH undercut Lionel’s pricing by producing in Korea and China, and as time wore on, Lionel had more difficulty competing. In 2001, Lionel moved all of its production overseas. 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 product 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.
So while China is still usually the answer to the question of where Lionel trains are made, some are made in the United States again.