Lionel's MPC-Era Large Steam Engines (1970-86)
From the high point of Lionel’s ‘Golden Era’ of the 1950s, the 1960s marked a sharp decline in offerings from the most famous of all train makers. By the late 1960s, Lionel had diversified into other businesses and was looking to leave the toy train market. As a result, in 1969 Lionel reached an agreement with General Mills to begin making Lionel trains under license beginning in 1970. General Mills assigned the Lionel division to its subsidiary Model Products Corporation [MPC], and a new era of Lionel trains was born.
While overshadowed by the classic Postwar-Era pieces and the newer, state of the art offerings of Lionel, MTH and other current O Gauge train makers, the MPC era is a fascinating time in Lionel’s history. Due to tight budgets handed down from their superiors at General Mills, Lionel’s managers had to mostly make do with designs and tools made in the 1940s and 50s, and adapt them slightly with more modern production techniques. During the 1970s and early 80s many basic designs were used and used again, but with many imaginative and innovative minor changes to give the Lionel line variety and interest. This is readily evident in the production of Lionel’s bigger steam locomotives of this era.
What is a ‘big steam locomotive’? In this article we define it as a steam engine with a wheel arrangement of 4-6-4 or larger. A few smaller 6-drivered locomotives, like the DC-powered 2-6-4s of 1980, are left off the list as they were more closely related to starter set engines than the big top-of-the-line steamers listed in this article.
Lionel catalogued 23 big steam engines from 1970 to 1986, and all but one—the first—made it to production. They are an interesting case study of the era, as they are an example of MPC/Lionel gaining manufacturing experience as the years went by. The engines gradually became more intricate and complex over the years.
In this article we will take a brief look at each of these engines, their distinguishing characteristics, and the relative rarity and/or demand for each one.
The First—No, Wait, Nevermind: #8062 Great Northern 4-6-4 (1970)
Photo courtesy of the Lionel, 1970
1970 was the first catalog of the MPC era. In it, Lionel catalogued a set headed by a 4-6-4 steam engine in Great Northern colors, numbered 8062. Apparently a reissue of the Postwar-Era 665, the 8062 was in the regular catalog but never made it to production.
Why? Two reasons are most likely. First, Lionel may not have received many orders for the set and decided it was not worth the effort to produce. The toy train business was still in the doldrums in 1970, and demand for a set of this size may not have been very large.
A second reason may have been that the 8062 was lost in the shuffle, in the midst of moving production from Lionel’s old plant in New Jersey to the new location in Michigan. The 8062 was by far the most complex item catalogued in 1970, and whereas other steam engines from 1970 were of a common design and shared many parts, the 8062 would have required an entirely separate production run for its dozens of unique parts and more complex assembly. Given all that was going on in 1970, it’s likely this interesting engine was simply squeezed out of the production timetable.
Ten years later, the number 8062 was used for a Burlington F-3 B Unit diesel.
The ‘Second’ First One: #8206 New York Central 4-6-4 (1972-75)
In 1972, Lionel tried again. This time the 4-6-4, numbered 8206 and lettered for the New York Central, made it to production. It too was a reissue of the Postwar-Era 665 and used its boiler mold and drive train.
The 8206 included a new feature not found on Postwar-Era steam engines, the Electronic Sound of Steam. The Sound of Steam is actuated by the drive wheels on the engine closing a circuit which is connected to a primitive circuit board in the tender, creating a white noise sound resembling the chugging of an engine. The 8206 also had an electronic whistle, but it was unreliable and many 8206s have defective whistles today.
The 8206 was one of the most significant engines of the MPC era. During its first two years MPC/Lionel focused almost entirely on starter sets, with only limited offerings of extra cars and accessories, and no other locomotives other than those included in the sets. The 8206 showed a willingness by the company to bring back some of the bigger, higher-quality pieces from Lionel’s glory days.
Catalogued for four years, the 8206 is relatively common. It is interesting that this engine’s number used the exact same four digits—0, 2, 6, and 8—as the planned 8062 of 1970.
The 8206 was primarily offered as a separate-sale item, but it was also used in one hastily-assembled set in 1972. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s Lionel produced “Service Station Special’ sets, available only through Lionel repair stations. In 1972, the 8206 headed a set with 6 boxcars and a caboose. Since all of the pieces were available separately, the set components are relatively common, but the set box itself is a true rarity.
#8600 New York Central 4-6-4 (1976)
The 1976 Lionel catalog featured a top of the line set called the Empire State express, headed by another New York Central 4-6-4, numbered 8600. However, this engine was not a repeat of the 8206. This 4-6-4 used the boiler casting from the Postwar-era 2046/646 engines, which were bigger and chunkier looking than the 665 design used on the 8206.
Like the 8206, the 8600 has a smoke unit, magnetraction, and the electronic sound of steam. However, the troublesome whistle feature was dropped.
Available only as part of the set, the 8600 is a relatively hard engine to find, but low demand keeps its price reasonable.
#8603 Chesapeake and Ohio 4-6-4 (1976-77)
Introduced in the 1976 catalog, the 8603 is essentially a redecorated 8206, but without the fussy electronic whistle feature. It has a silver boilerfront, making it a little more distinctive than its predecessor.
There are two variations of the 8603. Early models had the rims of the drivers polished, but these quickly succumbed to corrosion. Later models have the driver rims painted white.
Never part of a set and available for only two years, the 8603 is a bit less common than the 8206.
#8702 Southern Crescent 4-6-4 (1977-80)
Until 1977, MPC-era steam engines shared the same color characteristic of their Postwar ancestors—black. That changed in 1977, when Lionel announced the Southern Crescent passenger set, headed by a green, silver and gold 4-6-4.
Using the same design as the 8600 from the previous year, the 8702 also features smoke, magnetraction, and the electronic sound of steam.
Despite being catalogued for four years, the 8702 shows up less often than some of the later decorative 4-6-4s. Also, there are many more of the matching cars on the market than the locomotive.
#8801 Blue Comet 4-6-4 (1978-80)
The following year Lionel brought back one of the most venerable names in its history—The Blue Comet. The original Lionel Blue Comet was a standard gauge set headed by the legendary 400E. This newer, O Gauge version used the standard 2046/646 shell and was mechanically identical to the 8702 from the previous year.
The only differences were in the boilerfront—the 8801 used the feedwater-heater front last used on the 8206--and in the paint. Painted a sharp high gloss two-tone blue, the Blue Comet certainly stands out in any steam locomotive lineup. The paint was very heavily applied, and some 8801s have small drips or runs in the paint.
The 8801 is less common than the 8702 and is more highly valued. It is also one of the few MPC-era engines that has held close to its peak value from the early 1990s. Also like the Southern Crescent, more Blue Comet cars were made than engines. The car/engine ratio also seems more pronounced with the Blue Comet set than the Southern Crescent, which also contributes to the 8801’s price.
#8900 Santa Fe 4-6-4 (1979)
In 1979, Lionel announced a new series called the Famous American Railroad Series, which would commemorate five of the greatest railroads in American history. The first set was the Santa Fe set from 1979. Heading up the set was a 4-6-4 numbered 8900.
The 8900 was essentially a repeat of the 8603 but with a different lettering and paint scheme. Also, like all FARR engines, the tender had the special diamond logo distinguishing the series. It is the smallest of the engines in the FARR series.
Of the five FARR engines, the Santa Fe 4-6-4 is actually the one of the two we see least often at Trainz. Like many early MPC-era steamers, the price for the engine is not exorbitant, but the engine is surprisingly uncommon.
#8002 Union Pacific 2-8-4 (1980)
Through the 1970s, all of Lionel’s big steam engines were 4-6-4s and used one of two different boiler castings. By 1980, Lionel’s production team felt ready to take the next step and bring back the 2-8-4 Berkshire steam engine.
A staple of the Postwar Era, the 726/736 Berkshires headed up numerous top-of-the-line Lionel sets. Unlike the 4-6-4s, the 2-8-4s use worm gears that are much different from the spur gearing used in the 4-6-4s and require an entirely different assembly process.
Two 2-8-4s were produced in 1980. The first was the 8002 Union Pacific 2-8-4, which headed up the second of the Famous American Railroad sets. Painted two-tone gray and with smoke deflectors on the boiler [the first ever Lionel engine so equipped], the 8002 was a popular engine and is quite common today.
However, the 8002 has a unique defect that requires close examination before buying. The gray paint used on the boiler is very sensitive to heat, and if 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 8002 has magnetraction, smoke, and the electronic sound of steam, but in addition Lionel brought back the electronic whistle last seen in 1975. This new and improved whistle was much more reliable and more realistic.
#8003 Chessie Steam Special 2-8-4 (1980)
Lionel produced a second Berkshire in 1980 to head up a sharp passenger set in Chessie colors. The 8003 features a gray boilerfront and yellow and vermillion stripes, with blue lettering. Like the 8002, this engine features magnetraction, smoke, sound of steam, and a whistle.
Like the Southern Crescent and Blue Comet sets, the cars for the Chessie Steam Special are more common than the engine. This set is also unique in that it is the first time Lionel ever modeled an excursion train.
Bright and distinctive, the 8003 was a hot seller, and today it commands a slight premium over the more common MPC-era steamers.
#8006 Atlantic Coast Line 4-6-4 (1980)
In 1980, Lionel produced a special 4-6-4 available only through JC Penney. This attractive engine, painted in gray and silver and decorated for the Atlantic Coast Line, featured smoke, magnetraction. Sound of steam, and a whistle. It also included a walnut display board with a plexiglass cover.
This engine is often known as ‘The Silver Shadow’, and it remains one of the more difficult MPC-era steam engines to locate.
#3100 Great Northern 4-8-4 (1981)
The 1981 catalog featured the third set in the Famous American Railroad Series, a Great Northern set headed by a 4-8-4 numbered 3100. The 3100 was essentially a repeat of the 8002 Union Pacific 2-8-4, but with a 4-wheel front truck and a neat black and green paint scheme. It has all of the standard features of the big engines of the era—smoke, magnetraction, sound of steam, and a whistle.
A popular set, the 3100 and its matching cars are relatively common today, but this set is seen less often than the UP set from the previous year.
This engine was also one of the few MPC-era locomotives numbered outside of the 8000 numbering series. Why this was done remains a mystery.
#8100 [#611] Norfolk and Western 4-8-4 (1981)
By 1981 Lionel had reintroduced nearly every locomotive design from the Postwar era. Only two notable steam locomotives remained, and the first, the Norfolk and Western 4-8-4, was included in the 1981 line. The original Lionel 4-8-4, numbered 746, was catalogued from 1957 to 1960 and headed several top of the line freight sets.
In 1981, matching aluminum passenger cars [another reissue first brought back in 1979] were made creating what many consider the finest set of the MPC era. Unlike the 746, the new model, 8100, carried a prototypical number  and the striping on the engine more closely matched the actual colors used on the real locomotive.
Complete with smoke, magnetraction, sound of steam and a whistle, the 8100 was a sensation when it hit the shelves in 1981 and for years was one of the most highly valued Lionel locomotives ever made. Like most MPC engines, more recent models have brought its value down a fair bit, but the 8100 remains one of the most in-demand of all engines from the era.
#8101 [#659] Chicago and Alton 4-6-4 (1981)
1981 was MPC/Lionel’s best year. Some of the most popular sets and locomotives of the period were included in the ’81 catalog. One such set was the Chicago and Alton ‘Red Train’, headed up by a 4-6-4 in Alton’s fantastic dark red, silver and gold decoration.
The 8101 locomotive was a repeat of the 8702 Southern Crescent locomotive, but with an electronic whistle added. The tender, however, was something entirely different. Until this point, all of MPC/Lionel’s big steamers had used the same 2046W-type streamlined tender. But the 8101 sported a 2224W tender, last seen in 1940. Riding on 6-wheel trucks, the tender gave the engine a heftier look compared to previous 4-6-4s. The tender also carried a prototypical number, 659.
Well-received and very popular, the 8101 is more common than the 8801 Blue Comet and is seen about as often as the 8702 Southern Crescent.
#8210 Joshua Lionel Cowen 4-6-4 (1982)
In 1980, Lionel released a series of six boxcars commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of the company. Two years later, a matching engine and caboose were made to complete the set.
Numbered 8210, this 4-6-4 was mechanically a repeat of the 8101 Alton Hudson, down to the 6-wheel 2224W tender. Painted a dark brown with gold accents, it has a bit of a muted but stately appearance.
This engine was also available through JC Penney with a matching display case. Due to this dual availability, the display case is much harder to find than the engine, since only the JC Penney engines included it.
#8215 [#779] Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 (1982)
After the rush of big engines that hit the market in 1980 and 1981, Lionel backed off in ’82, offering only two large steam engines. But the second of the two, the 8215 Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4, was only offererd in the Fall Collector Center catalog, and the entire production run sold out before the regular 1983 catalog was printed.
Given a prototypical number and sporting the same features as previous 2-8-4s, the 8215 had the added bonus of the big 2224W die-cast tender. Perhaps most importantly, this 2-8-4 carried the name of one of most famous of all railroads to run the 2-8-4, the Nickel Plate Road. The NKP ran its Berkshires until 1958, and the 8215 carries the number 779, which was the last 2-8-4 ever built.
The 8215 has a realistic, all-business look that had been missing from some of Lionel’s steam engines in previous years, which may have contributed to its popularity. It is seen less often than the earlier MPC 2-8-4s, but is worth about the same.
#8307 [#4449] Southern Pacific 4-8-4 (1983)
Following the success of the Norfolk and Western 4-8-4 in 1981, Lionel reissued the streamlined 4-8-4 two years later, giving it a new boilerfront and painting it in Southern Pacific’s fantastic Daylight colors. Made to match the SP aluminum cars made a year earlier and given a prototypical number, 4449, the 8307 became the most valuable of all MPC steamers by 1990. However, it has seen its value diminish as newer scale-sized SP 4-8-4s were made in the 1990s and 2000s. But the 8307 is an uncommon engine and remains the centerpiece of any 1970s-80s collection.
It is mechanically identical to the 8100 and including the same features. Unlike many Lionel passenger sets, the cars are actually as hard to find as the engine, likely because this is the only MPC-era passenger set to have two engines, the other being the 8260/61/62 F-3 ABA diesels from 1982.
#8309 [#4501] Southern 2-8-2 (1983)
1983 also witnessed the release of the fourth Famous American Railroad set, this one honoring the great Southern Railway. Lionel went back to the standard Berkshire formula, but this time changed the 4-wheel rear truck to a 2-wheel version, resulting in the first 2-8-2 in Lionel history.
Possessing the same features as the Berkshires, the 8309, actually numbered 4501 in honor of a Southern locomotive used for excursion service on the Tennessee Valley Railway Museu, (which explains the T.V.R.M. initials on the top of the tender flanks). Like the actual 4501, the model was painted in Southern’s famous green and gold passenger scheme. The engine as produced was painted a much different green than that shown in the 1983 catalog, which showed a much darker green and different lettering style.
Made at a time when Lionel was having production difficulties, the 8309 apparently had a shorter production run and is the most highly valued of the five FARR steam engines.
#8404 [#6200] Pennsylvania 6-8-6 Turbine (1984-85)
The fifth and final Famous American Railroad set commemorated none other than the Standard Railroad of the World, the Pennsylvania. To head up the set, Lionel brought back the 6-8-6 turbine, last seen in 1955. A greatly scaled-down model of the Pennsylvania’s ill-fated answer to diesels, Lionel used the turbine in numerous Postwar-era sets.
This new turbine, 8404, most 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 all other top of the line steamers from the time, this engine has magnetraction, smoke, electronic sound of steam, and a whistle.
The 8404 was made in Mexico. In 1983 Lionel decided to move production out of Michigan as a cost saving measure, but poor planning led to disaster. The 8404 was delayed almost a year, and these engines, while good runners, seem to have had more production problems than most Lionel locomotives.
The 8404 is in the middle of the FARR engine rarity scale, being more common than the 8900 Santa Fe 4-6-4 and 8309 Southern 2-8-2, but a bit harder to find than the 8002 Union Pacific Berkshire or 3100 Great Northern 4-8-4.
#8406 [#783] New York Central 4-6-4 (1984-85)
By 1984, only one great Postwar-era locomotive remained for Lionel to tackle—the Scale Hudson. Unlike other 4-6-4s, the Scale Hudson is a ¼” the foot accurate model of the real J-1e Hudsons used by the New York Central. First introduced in 1937, the original Scale Hudson [700E] was also the most highly detailed and ran on special, solid-rail track. Discontinued in 1942, the Scale Hudson was brought back in 1950 and modified slightly to run on regular Lionel track. This engine, #773, was a legend in its time, appearing only in 1950 and being brought back for a brief encore in 1964.
The MPC Scale Hudson was based on the 1964 model, but included the now-standard 2224W die cast tender and all of the usual features associated with Lionel’s high-priced steam engines. Keeping an eye on history, the Lionel design team gave the engine a number  reflective of its Postwar heritage.
Highly anticipated, the 8406 sold quickly, but production problems in Mexico delayed its release until 1985. While valued less than subsequent Hudson releases, the 8406 is actually less common than the Scale Hudsons produced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
#5484 TCA 4-6-4 (1985)
Beginning in 1980, Lionel produced a series of green and gold passenger cars for the Train Collectors Association [TCA]’s annual conventions. To wind up this series in 1985, Lionel produced a special 4-6-4 in matching colors.
The 5484 Hudson has the same features as the 8210 and 8101 Hudsons, and it also includes the 2224W die cast tender.
This is probably the most difficult of all MPC steam locomotives to find. It was never catalogued, is not well known, and its number is out of sequence, so many collectors fail to notice it in price guides. To give a comparison, at Trainz the 5484 has been outnumbered by the more desirable 8100 Norfolk and Western 4-8-4 by a ratio of five to one.
#8606 [#784] Boston and Albany 4-6-4 (1986)
Lionel used 1985 to catch up production and straighten out the problems associated with production move to Mexico, eventually giving up and returning to Michigan. Thus, no new top of the line steam engines were catalogued in ’85, marking the first time in ten years this had happened.
1986 was also a year of turmoil for the company, as the transition of ownership from General Mills to Detroit real estate developer Richard Kughn began. But in the meantime, Lionel found time to close out the era by adding three interesting steam locomotives to the roster.
The first was another Scale Hudson, 8606. Essentially a repeat of the 8406, the 8606 possesses a white boilerfront and Boston and Albany lettering. It also has a cab number  keeping in line with the Scale Hudson numbering scheme.
More distinctive about the 8606 is how it was sold. Lionel offered it directly to customers, bypassing its dealer network. This created a lot of animosity and was not repeated.
The 8606 was considered very rare when first released, but over time it became apparent that it was produced in greater quantities than initially believed. At Trainz we have seen just as many 8606s as 8406s.
#8610 [#672] Wabash 4-6-2 (1986-87)
With the end of the Famous American Railroad Series, Lionel embarked on a new path, introducing the ‘Fallen Flags’ line. Commemorating railroads that had been bought or merged into other lines, the Fallen Flags would eventually number seven sets, the last being produced in 1993.
The first set honored the Wabash Railroad, and was led by a Hudson-type engine using the smaller boiler casting last seen on the 8900 Santa Fe Hudson in 1979. However, this engine was not a 4-6-4 but rather a 4-6-2, as Lionel repeated the rear truck swap trick used on the 8309 Southern 2-8-2. The engine also kept with recent tradition and carried a prototypical number . Unlike the FARR engines, this locomotive carried no markings identifying it as part of a special series.
Initially the 8610 and its matching passenger cars were slow sellers. The catalog illustration was not correct; the engine looked pale and washed out in the pictures. When released, the engine’s dark blue and gold lettering was a hit, and for a time it was highly popular.
Interestingly, the Wabash set was the only Fallen Flags passenger train set. All others were freight trains.
#8615 [#1970] Louisville and Nashville 2-8-4 (1986)
The final MPC-era big steam engine was a special made for JC Penney. Known as ‘Big Emma’, this engine was decorated for the Louisville and Nashville, one of the most prolific operators of 2-8-4s. A repeat of the 8215 from 1982, this engine also included a display board with a plexiglass cover. It carries a prototypical number, 1970.
This last engine is also one of the rarest. We have seen far fewer 8615s than any of the other 8-drivered locomotives, including the streamlined 4-8-4s. It is arguably one of the scarcest MPC-era steam engines, second only to the 5484 TCA Hudson of 1985.
The following year, Lionel became Lionel Trains, Inc. and the Modern Era was born. The first steam engines made by LTI closely resembled the later MPC engines, but over time new designs took hold, and eventually these Postwar-style Hudsons and Berkshires became a memory.
Today’s steam engines include features that were only a dream when Southern Crescent and Famous American Railroad sets ruled Lionel’s rails. While the great steam locomotives of the 1970s and 80s are no longer state of the art, they were the finest engines of their day. They are a vital part of Lionel history and laid the foundation for the toy train renaissance of the 1990s. While their value in dollars may have diminished a bit, their value to Lionel’s ultimate success has not.