Lionel H0 Locomotives

Generally, the model railroad critics have not been favorable toward Lionel H0 locomotives, but I donít think that this is entirely fair. In looking back, the first yearís worth of locomotives, in 1957, were off-the-shelf Rivarossi designs.  There were two steam locomotives and a Fairbanks-Morse ďC-LinerĒ in a number of liveries.  The second yearís output were basically Athearn, with a number of F-units and Geeps.  There were two key items, however.  The Athearn Hustler appeared in a revised form, losing its rubber band drive and getting gears in the Lionel Husky. The other locomotive was based on the Athearn Geep frame, but was a distinctly new item, the Rectifier electric locomotive: 

By 1959, Lionel was beginning to produce its own locomotives, and it advertised to the serious model railroader, showing that their model trains had credible features:

Lionel pointed out that there was a lot of metal in their locomotives, and that the gear drive in each locomotive truck was a plus, but Lionel never really gained traction with the serious model railroader.

Certainly, the fact that much of their locomotive line were hand-me downs from Hobbyline and Athearn contributed to model railroaderís skepticism, but it was more than that.  Most of the criticism centers on the Neoprene drive belts which many of the locomotives used.  Hollander describes them as ďa fragile rubber belt [that] carried power from the motor to the wheels.Ē Likewise, Horan & Rosa describe them as troublesome and unpredictable, with some batches of the belts being acceptable and others not.  So, too, when the typical Lionel H0 locomotive is found today, fifty years later, the belts have rotted and decayed, not surprising considering the age of the item in question.

The key point is that we are looking at Lionelís production from the perspective of having gained the benefit of fifty years worth of technological improvement. So much of what is currently available in the model train market comes from China. Most of these diesel locomotives feature reliable mechanisms which are largely based upon the geared drive unit developed by Athearn. But at the time Lionel was producing H0 trains in the 1960ís, Athearn had not yet developed the gear drive which would be the foundation of so much of what we buy today.

Athearn had just developed the Hi-Fi rubber belt drive in 1957.  Here, the drive from an Athearn Hustler:

By the late 1960ís, Athearn had converted many of their locomotives over to gear drive, with the RDC and the Hustler being notable exceptions. Athearn did not add flywheels to their locomotives until 1973. Also, many of the new Athearn locomotives of the 1960ís, such as the GP-30 and GP-35, had slightly wider hoods than the prototype.  Athearn had to do that because their drive motor was too wide for a scale representation.

So, too, consider the Lindbergh EMD switcher.

This design dates back to the late 1950ís, and has several useful features incorporated into its design.  The motor has a flywheel, which then has a small pinion gear. A very large drive gear meshes with the pinion; this large drive gear occupies the entire wide of the locomotiveís cab. The drive gear is fitted to a shaft which goes to the front of the locomotive.  There, a coiled steel belt provides power to the from truck of the locomotive. 

It is an interesting design, but the large gear limits this mechanism to powering only locomotives with wide cabs or bodies. In operation, the steel spring drive produces an odd surging in the locomotive, with the locomotive speeding up and slowing down, not as realistic as today.

So, too, the brass locomotives of the 1960ís were beautiful, but many of them simply would not run at all. And if they did run, they required a good deal of effort by the locomotiveís owner to wreak out adequate performance.

So, in that context, the Lionel locomotives of the 1960ís were not as bad as they seem today.  And, in many ways, they helped the model railroad hobby to improve. While Athearnís Hustler locomotive remained belt driven until the end, the comparable Lionel Husky had a gear drive.  And a headlight, something that the Hustler never had.

To be sure, Lionel H0 got things wrong, too. An example was that Lionel helped perpetuate the misconception that the external spotting feature for the GP-9 was the dynamic brake blister:

Of course, if you are a serious model railroader, today you now can buy almost any locomotive, properly configured and lettered for your favorite railroad. Right down to the dynamics.