Created expressly to reproduce trains and accessories from the tinplate period, approximately 1900-1942, Lionel Corporation is a joint venture of the two leading companies in O gauge model railroading, Lionel Electric Trains and M.T.H. Electric Trains. Lionel has been making toy trains for more than a century, and many of the most exciting and desirable toys of the tinplate period were Lionel products. M.T.H. Electric Trains opened for business in 1980 as the realization of a college student’s dream of reproducing the great toy trains of the 1920s and ‘30s, and has grown into the world’s largest manufacturer of tinplate trains and accessories. Together, Lionel and M.T.H. now offer collectors and operators the most accurate tinplate reproductions ever produced, as well as new paint schemes and a choice of tinplate-era or modern motors and mechanisms.
The first Lionel train was not a toy, but an “electric novelty” intended to attract attention to shopkeepers’ windows. The twentieth century had just begun, electricity was still a technological wonder, and Joshua Lionel Cowen was in his early twenties when he started selling merchants a four-wheeled, battery-powered wooden gondola with a circle of track. But customers began playing with his Electric Express, so Cowen added a trolley to the line and went into the toy business. Along with competitors like Ives and American Flyer, Lionel capitalized on America’s love affair with railroads in the early twentieth century.
Ever the promoter, Cowen proclaimed his toy trains were the “Standard of the World” and named his version of wide-gauge track Standard Gauge; by the 1920s, Lionel emerged as the leader in American toy train production. A magazine ad of the period boasted that “Lionel is closest to the heart of every boy” and the 1931 catalog cover read “Lionel Electric Trains: The Trains That Railroad Men Buy For Their Boys.” While Lionel’s brightly-colored caricatures were not the accurate models that its advertising claimed they were, its trains of the tinplate era had a beauty and artistry all their own, and were arguably some of the most wonderful toys ever made. By the end of the 1930s, however, smaller motors and new materials like injection-molded plastic made it possible to produce accurate scale models in smaller scales. Lionel ceased production of standard gauge, and its toys became relatively accurate scale models, decorated in prototypical paint schemes. The shiny, flamboyant, larger-than-life tinplate train had passed into history.
Fast forward a few decades and Mike Wolf is a lad of twelve with an after-school job manufacturing toy trains. The tinplate era has been rediscovered by a new generation of collectors and operators, and Mike’s neighbor, Jerry Williams, has a business making reproductions of some of the most desirable tinplate models. Mike and several other neighborhood kids assemble the trains in Jerry’s basement.
Several years later, while in college, Mike opens a mail order train business in a spare bedroom of his family's Maryland home. Armed with a separate phone line and a fancy new device called a FAX machine, Mike manages the inventory, processes and ships orders, works train shows on weekends, and continues to work for Williams Reproductions.
When Mike graduates college, Mike’s Train House, as the business was called then, makes the leap into manufacturing by purchasing Jerry Williams’ standard gauge tooling — financed in part by the loan of Mike’s parents’ life savings. The first M.T.H. catalog in 1983, printed in black and white, offers the No. 9, No. 381E, and No. 408 standard gauge locomotives. Sheet-metal parts are stamped in Minnesota, shipped to Maryland where they are painted by a high-school friend of Mike’s in his parents’ garage, and assembled in the Wolf family’s basement.
Soon Mike’s experience and expertise in manufacturing toy trains leads to projects with Lionel and other O-gauge model railroad firms, and eventually he begins to devote himself to manufacturing full time. In 1993, M.T.H. Electric Trains introduces its own O gauge line with a scale-detailed diesel, and follows that up with dozens of realistic diesel, electric, and steam locomotives that have never been offered to the O gauge market. But while the scale-detailed product lines continued to grow by leaps and bounds, M.T.H. never forgot its tinplate roots.
Today M.T.H. is the world’s most experienced manufacturer of tinplate toy trains, having cataloged its Tinplate Traditions line for nearly three decades. It should come as no surprise to tinplate fans that the corporate symbol of M.T.H. is a Standard Gauge 400E Blue Comet steam engine, steaming through a moonlit night. Together with Lionel, M.T.H. looks forward to a new chapter in tinplate history, offering hobbyists the most-desired playthings of a bygone era, when radio was the premier form of home entertainment and a train was the fastest and best way to travel.