Lionel's Famous American Railroad Series (1979-85)
(Railroad logo images courtesy of Wikipedia.org)
(Photo of pages 2 and 3 of the 1985 Lionel Collectors' Series Catalog)
By the late 1970s Lionel was regaining its place as America's leading train maker. Under the leadership of Model Products Corporation (MPC) since 1970, Lionel had steadily rebuilt the toy train market and had become increasingly aware of the importance of collectors to its business. In 1974, with the introduction of the Bicentennial train set, Lionel began the production of 'theme' sets, top-of-the-line train sets whose pieces were sold individually. In 1979, Lionel took this a step farther and introduced an entire series of themed sets.
Known as the Famous American Railroad Series (FARR for short), these sets commemorated five of the greatest railroads in American history--The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Union Pacific, the Great Northern, the Southern Railway, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. By picking such large, well-known railroads, Lionel covered every geographical region of the country--the Pennsylvania for the East and Midwest, the Southern for the South, the Great Northern for the Upper Midwest and Northwest, and the Santa Fe and Union Pacific for the Great Plains and the West Coast.
Each set included a top of the line steam engine and six cars. Five of the cars were included in the original release, with the sixth usually following a few months or a year later. Lionel also made a specific car to commemorate the series itself. In the first four sets, the original five cars were always a boxcar, refrigerator car, hopper, tank car, and a bay window caboose. In the final set, a double-door boxcar replaced the refrigerator car, and a porthole caboose took the place of the bay window model.
Each piece in the FARR series has a special diamond logo on the each side, with the number of the set in the series in the middle.
All of the locomotives were die-cast metal, with Lionel's electronic sound of steam feature and a smoke unit. All of the the engines except the one included in the first FARR also featured an electronic whistle.
The cars were all typical for Lionel at the time, with operating couplers. The cars on the first three sets have plastic trucks, while the cars on the final two sets featured Lionel's die-cast sprung trucks. The cabooses for all of the sets were lighted.
Like nearly every other set where the items were sold separately, there are more FARR cars than there are matching engines.
Popular and well-received, an FARR set was in the Lionel catalog six out of seven years from 1979 to 1985 (No FARR set was catalogued in 1982). They were always at or near the top of the Lionel line, and made a lasting impact on Lionel's business.
Below are pictures and a description of each set, followed by some brief notes about the rarity and relative values of the sets.
Famous American Railroad Series #1--Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (1979)
Page 13 from the 1979 Catalog
8900 Santa Fe 4-6-4 Hudson
The Santa Fe was selected to be the first of the FARR sets and set the formula for the FARR sets which would last throughout their run. Lionel used the 4-6-4 Hudson to head up the set, an engine type which had been a regular part of Lionel's catalog throughout the 1970s. The engine, #8900, would be the only 6-drivered steam engine in the FARR series.
Five cars were initially catalogued: A woodsided boxcar (7712), refrigerator car (9880), tank car (9321), covered hopper (9322), and a caboose (9323). In late 1979, a sixth car, the 9348 crane car, was added. The first five cars had plastic trucks, but the crane car used a pair of die-cast sprung trucks that were being used with limited-edition rolling stock at the time.
Famous American Railroad Series #2--Union Pacific (1980)
The following year Union Pacific joined the FARR series. This set was notable because it marked the return of the 2-8-4 Berkshire to the Lionel line. This popular engine, a mainstay of the Lionel line throughout the Postwar years, had last been catalogued in 1968. Its return proved to Lionel fans that the company was truly back.
The engine, 8002, was painted a sharp two-tone gray with yellow striping and lettering. However, the paint has an unusual defect that shows over time. The gray paint used on the boiler is very sensitive to heat, and if the locomotive is stored in a hot area for a long period the paint will take on a yellowish tint. The smoke deflectors were painted the same color but will not tint if exposed to heat, so comparing the color of the deflectors to the boiler is a quick way to tell if the engine has this problem. Engines with intact paint are worth a fair amount more than those that have yellowed.
The cars followed the same pattern as the Santa Fe set, with five cars in the initial offering and a sixth added later that year. The first five cars were a boxcar (9419), refrigerator car (9811), covered hopper (9366), tank car (9367), and a bay window caboose (9368). The sixth car was the 9383 flatcar with trailers.
The UP decals on the on tank car tends to peel over time. Even mint in the box examples of this car have this problem, the result of Lionel using too weak of an adhesive. A small dab of glue fixes the problem.
Famous American Railroad Series #3--Great Northern (1981)
Page 18 of from the 1981 Catalog
3100 Great Northern 4-8-4
Set number three was decorated for the Great Northern and was in the 1981 catalog. Lionel re-used the Berkshire engine design, but installed a four-wheel front truck, creating a 4-8-4. The engine was given a sharp green and black paint scheme, along with an unusual number, 3100, which was out of sequence with nearly all other MPC-era locomotives, which were numbered in the 8000-series.
The five original cars were the 9449 boxcar, 9819 refrigerator car, 6102 covered hopper, 6304 tank car, and 6438 bay window caboose. The sixth car was a stock car, 9450. Like the 9367 Union Pacific tank car in FARR #2, the decals on the 6304 Great Northern tank car will peel over time, and often require a small bit of glue to reattach.
Famous American Railroad Series #4--Southern (1983-84)
Pages 2 and 3 from the 1983 Collectors' Series Catalog
8309 (4501) Southern 2-8-2 Mikado Steam Locomotive
The FARR series took a year off in 1982, but it returned the following year when the Southern set was introduced. Lionel once again used a hybrid Berkshire to head up the set, this time replacing the four-wheel rear truck on the engine with a two-wheel model, creating the first 2-8-2 in Lionel history. The engine's catalog number was 8309, but the engine itself was marked 4501, in honor of an actual Southern 2-8-2 used in excursion service. The real Southern 4501 still exists and can be seen at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, and the tender of the Lionel model has the initials 'TVRM' on the top flank just under the coal pile. The set also featured the only die-cast tender in the FARR series.
Like the previous three sets, FARR #4 included a boxcar (9451), refrigerator car (9887), hopper (6104), tank car (6306), and a bay window caboose (6431). The sixth car was a stock car, number 7304.
Unlike the previous sets, the production version of the Southern FARR set differed significantly from the catalog illustrations. In the catalog, the engine was painted very dark green (almost black), with sans-serif lettering. However, the engine when produced was painted the lighter green used on the Southern and and had serif lettering, like the actual 4501. Also, the caboose in the catalog was dark green with a gold lettering, matching the engine, but the caboose was produced in red with white lettering, like actual Southern cabooses. The hopper was also the first Lionel hopper to include a plastic coal load.
The Southern set is believed to have had the shortest production run of the five sets. In 1983 Lionel decided to move production to Mexico, and the manufacturing timetables were badly disrupted, resulting in delays and abbreviated schedules. Catalogued in 1983, the set was actually not released until the following year. Some Southern sets are believed to have been made in the U.S., but most were made in Mexico.
Famous American Railroad Series #5--Pennsylvania (1984-85)
Pages 2 and 3 of the 1985 Collectors Series Catalog
8404 (6200) Pennsylvania 6-8-6 Turbine
The final chapter in the FARR saga was written in 1984, when Lionel introduced the fifth and final set, in honor of the Pennsylvania Railroad. For this set, Lionel brought back the the 6-8-6 turbine, last seen in 1955. The original turbine was a one-of-a-kind engine built in 1944 as the Pennsy's answer to diesel power. While the actual engine was a flop, Lionel's model was a success, becoming a staple of the early Postwar era.
The FARR turbine, 8404, closely resembled the 682 turbine of 1954-55, which was the last of the Postwar engines. Unlike the 682, the 8404 was painted in dark green with a silver smokebox and boilerfront. Like the 8309 Southern 2-8-2, the 8404 carried a prototypical number on its cab, 6200, which was the number of the real Pennsylvania steam turbine.
Lionel made one minor change in the cars for this final set. In place of a refrigerator car, Lionel included a double door boxcar (9456) in the original five-car set. The other four cars were a regular boxcar (9476), hopper (6123), tank car (6307), and a porthole caboose (6308). Set #5 is also the only one that did not include a bay window caboose--Lionel went with the N5C porthole model, which was based on an actual Pennsylvania prototype.
The sixth car was not made until 1989, by which time Lionel's ownership had changed and a new numbering system for the cars was in place. The sixth car in the PRR FARR set, and the final car produced for the entire series, was a stock car, numbered 19510.
Like the Southern set, the Pennsylvania set was caught up in Lionel's ill-fated effort to move production to Mexico. Initially catalogued in 1984, the set was not released until 1985 and was re-catalogued that year, becoming the only FARR set to appear in two Lionel catalogs.
The 9418 FARR Boxcar (1979)
From the beginning, many Lionel collectors knew that there would only be five sets in the FARR series. How? Because in 1979 Lionel made a car that told them so.
Uncatalogued, the 9418 commemorated the introduction of the FARR sets and included the five logos of the railroads that would make up the series. This car is a standard Lionel boxcar with sliding doors and operating couplers.
Rarity and Value
Always in the regular catalog and well-marketed, none of the Famous American Railroad sets are considered rare. Their value stems from their features and quality construction, not scarcity. However, there were some fluctuations in production quantities.
So how many were made? According to the Greenberg's Guide to Lionel Trains, 1970-91, about 6,000 of the #8002 Union Pacific locomotives were produced. At Trainz, we have sold enough FARR sets--well over a hundred--to get an idea of the production numbers based on the ratio of each of the sets relative to the number of Union Pacific sets we have seen. The ratio (not the exact figure, but the ratio) of the locomotives we have sold at Trainz breaks down as follows:
Santa Fe: 5.5
Union Pacific: 9
Great Northern: 6
We use the locomotive figure as it is known that fewer engines than cars were made, and to have the complete set, you obviously would need the engine. Therefore--and this is purely conjecture--based upon the number of UP engines believed produced, and the relative numbers we have seen at Trainz, the number of complete sets produced is likely to be around these figures:
Santa Fe: 3,500
Union Pacific: 6,000
Great Northern: 4,000
Of the individual cars, the 9418 FARR boxcar and the 7304 Southern Stock car are the hardest cars to locate, followed by the other four add-on cars. The Pennsylvania cars are worth a bit more than the other regular production FARR cars due to the high popularity of the Pennsylvania Railroad with collectors, but none of the cars are considered rare, and many are quite common.
Lionel finished the Famous American Railroad Series in 1985, and the following year Lionel was sold to Detroit real estate developer and longtime Lionel collector Richard Kughn, and Lionel became Lionel Trains, Inc. In 1986, the FARR series was succeeded by the Fallen Flags series, which would eventually number seven sets and would be catalogued until 1993.
The FARR series proved to Lionel that there was a demand for a series of high-quality, expensive sets. While in recent years Lionel has reverted to selling complete sets in one package instead of individually, the format first used in these sets is still occasionally seen today in the Lionel catalog. The the era of Railsounds and Legacy Command Control has made the FARR sets more nostalgic than cutting-edge, but the importance of the FARR sets in Lionel's history remains profound, and they are still standouts in any collection.
General Manager, Trainz.com
Credits and Acknowledgements
The photos in the article were all taken at Trainz.com between 2001 and today.
Much of the information in the article was attained through observations and notes taken here at Trainz. David Doyle's Standard Catalog of Lionel Trains, 1970-2000, was very helpful in filling in some gaps and confirming some of the information included in this article.
If anyone reading this article has any corrections, further information, or photographs of these cars that could enhance this article, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.