If there was ever a cult following in Lionel-dom, Lionel Super O track has it. Super O was Lionel’s answer to American Flyer 2-rail track. Invented in 1951, patented in 1954 and finally introduced in 1957, it featured numerous plastic ties with a molded-in woodgrain, a 36″ diameter, and a thin copper center rail.
Lionel introduced Super O track in 1957 as a more realistic track system to replace its traditional toy-like 3-rail track. The thinner center rail and additional ties didn’t look exactly like real track, but it was closer.
The people who liked it really liked it. But a new track system wasn’t enough to turn around a company past its prime. Super O was discontinued in 1966, three years before Lionel Corporation got out of the train business altogether and began a 20-year swan song as an operator of toy stores. But that’s another story.
Super O was Lionel’s second attempt to make something better than traditional tubular track. T-Rail track from the late 1930s was more realistic also has its own cult following, but Super O cost less and was easier to set up.
Why didn’t Lionel Super O track come out in 1951?
If Lionel invented Super O track way back in 1951, why did Lionel wait until 1957 to introduce it? In the early 1950s, Lionel was selling trains at a brisk pace. Electric trains were the must-have toy right after World War II, and Lionel was the market leader. Sales were strong, so Lionel didn’t really need it yet. By the late 1950s, sales were starting to slow down. So it made sense to introduce it in 1957 in hopes of goosing sales a bit.
In retrospect, maybe Lionel would have done well to introduce it sooner. But we know now that the boom in the popularity of its trains was temporary. In 1951, Lionel might have thought it had something permanent.
Advantages of Lionel Super O track
The advantages of Super O were that it still worked with Magnetraction just like traditional track. If anything it worked better, because the tops of the rails were flat, not curved. Plus, the copper center rail was highly conductive. With most types of track, you have to run power to various parts of the layout to compensate for voltage drop. With Super O, you can get by with fewer power runs.
And proponents are fond of pointing out how well theirs has held up over the years. They have a point. After all, the stuff hasn’t been produced since 1966.
There’s also no question it looks more like real train track than the 3-rail tubular track Lionel sold up until that point. The center rail is still there, but it’s much easier to ignore.
Disadvantages of Lionel Super O track
That copper center rail is also a cause of controversy. The rail caused some of the pickup rollers to develop a groove and wear out prematurely. A change in the composition of the metal used in the rollers solved that problem. Proponents of Super O say that was never a major problem anyway. There are detractors who insist Lionel never solved the problem, but it’s hard to know if they’re just being disagreeable. Super O track brings out strong emotions in some people, and some of them aren’t positive. (I blame diffusion of innovation–more on that in a minute.) That said, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence of Super O track damaging a pickup roller made after 1957.
It seems to be mostly a problem of people believing what they want to believe. If you happen to run into the problem, replacing the pickup rollers is an inexpensive repair and doesn’t require a great deal of mechanical skill to do. And pickup rollers will wear out regardless of the type of track you use, if you run your trains enough.
The other most visible disadvantage is that the ties are an odd shape, almost like an elongated letter “A”, to provide support for the thin copper center rail. Some people get over the odd shape of the ties quickly, while others don’t. Many people have tried different ways to disguise that third rail over the years, so any argument along those lines is just an argument over whose compromise is best.
Early Super O switches didn’t work all that well, though later switches are OK. One possible workaround is to use adapter pins so you can use modern switches.
Finally, Super O track only came in one diameter. Today, all other track types–even lowly O27–are available in a variety of diameters. You can custom-bend curved sections to different diameters, but that’s true of most other types of track as well.
Why didn’t Super O track catch on?
There are five types of consumers: pioneers, early adopters, the early majority, late majority, and laggards. Pioneers are the type of people who would rip up their existing track and replace it with Super O because it’s better. That’s about 2.5 percent of the market. Dominating products have to capture about 15-18 percent of the market before the early majority kicks in. The pioneers and early adopters act like evangelists, spreading the word of this great new product to the early majority. Think of Apple products, especially post-2001 Apple products. Apple specifically designs products with this in mind, intentionally aiming for 60-84% market acceptance, but no more than 84%.
Super O track didn’t attract that critical 18 percent market share. Had Lionel introduced it right away in 1951 or 1952, it might have fared better since there would have been more early adopters available to attract.
And if you wonder why no modern track system completely dominates the market, this is why. With six incompatible track systems on the market (Gargraves, MTH Realtrax, MTH Scaletrax, Lionel Fastrack, Atlas, Industrial Rail), none of them can attract 18 percent. Instead, every track type, including Super O and traditional tubular track, has a cult following. And that’s why every time someone posts a message on a forum with the title “What track should I buy?” it turns into a religious war.
Lionel Super O track’s future
There are persistent rumors of Super O’s imminent return, and the existence of test shots made in the 1999-2000 timeframe proves that Lionel considered it. Occasionally someone poses the question on the various online forums. Predictably, a small number of people come out in favor of it, while a small number of people oddly come out opposed to it, and the two factions start arguing with one another.
Every few years, rumors start up that Lionel will make some in the next year or two. It never pans out, but that doesn’t seem to stop the rumors.
Is there anything to the rumors? Remember, Lionel is in business to make money. If Lionel thinks they can sell a large enough quantity of it to make some money, they’ll make some. If not, they won’t. I’m not privy to their market research, so I’m not in position to speculate on whether it’s going to happen.
Lionel attempted to do something Super O-like but cheaper in the 1970s, with Trutrack. That was a disaster. Fastrack was a more modern attempt to apply the lessons learned from Super O and Trutrack.
Should you use Lionel Super O track?
Ultimately that decision is up to you. There are people who’ve built enviable layouts with it. But the thing about almost every enviable layout I’ve seen is that it would still look good regardless of the type of track the person used. Track is just part of a layout.
If you have a supply of Super O track, it’s hard to argue against using it. It’s entirely possible to find more of it if you need it.
If you’re starting from scratch, you may be more comfortable buying something that you can find brand new in the stores. Then again, if you want a layout that isn’t like every other layout you’ve seen, and you don’t mind hunting around for track that hasn’t been made in a half century, using Super O track could contribute significantly to your enjoyment of the project.
So glad you are talking about 3 rail track again!
The first time I saw Super O track, I thought it was just fantastic and I wanted it. I was struggling with appearance of the middle rail for a long time. I even considered leaving 3 rail O despite the strong sentimental value for me. Back in the old CompuServe days, someone told me on their TrainNet forum that you could still find Super O sectional track. But someone also told me about GarGraves, which was good looking and flexible. Wow! I then turned my attention to GarGraves.
Now I still feel that GarGraves flexible track is perhaps the best choice for people like me who like to tinker, but as far as sectional track is concerned, Super O looks great. The hump in the middle of the tie isn’t very noticeable form most angles, but if you don’t like, you don’t like it!
We are living in a wonderful era of excellent glues, paints, and hobby products. I just wish someone would consider making 3 rail O gauge track in sectional curves that are tighter than those currently available. I would love to see FastTrak in O27 and the iconic tubular in O24, both measured from the outside of the tie, so O24 would really be 21 3/4″ in diameter when measured from the center rail.
With the economy in the dumper, I doubt we will see any new track choices for a while, but there is room for some enterprising business to come up with the best track yet for the 3 rail hobbyists. Would like to see it happen and be made on US soil, too!
Take care, Joe.