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What is the history of Lionel trains?

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Quick Answer

Established in 1900, the Lionel Corporation grew to become a highly profitable model train manufacturer during the 1920s and the 1950s, but suffered from sharply declining sales in the 1930s and the 1960s. The Lionel Corporation declared bankruptcy in 1967 and sold its train business to General Mills in 1969. The General Mills subsidiary Fundimensions revived the brand. Real estate developer Richard Kughn bought the brand and formed a new independent company in the 1980s.

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The Lionel Corporation built its first train in 1900 for a storefront display, then produced its first commercially available toy train, the "Electric Express," in 1901. The company introduced a new Standard Gauge track in 1906, spurring a period of growth. Lionel's colorful metal trains were popular with children, and the company became the nation's biggest model train manufacturer by the 1920s.

The company prospered during good economic times but suffered during the Great Depression, when few consumers could afford its products. After World War II, an improved economy and a new line of Lionel trains that produced real steam led to another period of prosperity. But by the 1960s, consumers became more interested in space- and military-themed toys, leading to Lionel Corporation's bankruptcy.

Fundimensions revived the brand by introducing increasingly realistic Lionel trains during the 1970s and 1980s. Since becoming an independent company in the 1980s, Lionel has continued to emphasize realism in its trains. Reviewer Jonathan Knoder ranks Lionel sets first, second, third and fifth in his rankings of 2015's best train sets.

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