For the entire decade of the 1920s, Lionel's catalog covers depicted Boys (capital "B," no girls allowed) playing with Lionel trains - except 1927. That year, just one item filled the entire cover: the new De-Luxe Twin-Super-Motor Electrically Controlled No. 408E, modestly advertised as "the world's finest model."
Just a few pages after introducing the locomotive, the catalog featured a three-page foldout with the new engine charging through an ink-black night, leading a four-car Pullman limited. This was Outfit No. 409E, "the World's Finest Electrically-Controlled Model Train. For beauty of design, for mechanical detail and precision, for electrical perfection and efficiency, for handsome and lasting enamel finish, there is not a model electric train in the world that compares with this - Lionel's supreme achievement." At the height of the Roaring Twenties, perfection could be purchased for $82.50. In reality, the 408E was a gussied-up version of the No. 402 electric that had debuted in 1923. Both engines, along with several lesser models in Lionel's lineup, were based on New York Central's S-Motors, the world's first mass-produced main line electric locomotives. By the 1920s, the S-Motors had been demoted to New York City commuter service and were a familiar sight at Grand Central Terminal.
Like the prototype, Lionel's 402 had a tiny, not-very-impressive rooftop pantograph, as the S-Motors were powered mainly through third-rail, not overhead, electrical pickup. To make the new 408E look more De-Luxe, and more like a mainline locomotive, Lionel's designers equipped it with two larger, collapsible brass pantographs, along with additional brass handrails and new red and green lights on each end, to complement the headlights.
But while the 408E reigned supreme in 1927, the next year it was upstaged by the 381E, Lionel's largest-ever Standard Gauge electric, based on the Milwaukee Road's magnificent EP-2 Bi-Polar mainline engines. The 381, however, had a fatal flaw. With only one motor and four driven wheels, it lacked the power to pull Lionel's top-of-the-line trainsets.
The 408E soon regained its place at the top of the Standard Gauge pecking order and, up through its last year of manufacture in 1934, Lionel's catalog writers reserved their highest superlatives for this model: "If the test of leadership is in performance, then this is the leader. The only model locomotive with twin motors - two motors giving double the power of any rival. And what a beauty, too." But by the following catalog, the handwriting was on the wall for Lionel's Standard Gauge line, and the 408E was gone.