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Lionel’s The Thunderbird remains a collectible toy train set

By Roger Carp | January 14, 2021

Colorful cars give Lionel's The Thunderbird enduring charm

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Color illustration of Lionel no. 2219W model railroad set in 1954 catalog
Color illustration of Lionel no. 2219W model railroad set in 1954 catalog
onel’s O gauge set no. 2219W, named “The Thunderbird” in the consumer catalog for 1954, featured the nos. 6456-25 gray Lehigh Valley hopper and 6462-25 green New York Central gondola among its five pieces of rolling stock, all pulled by the brand-new no. 2321 Fairbanks-Morse Train Master decorated as the Lackawanna

Lionel’s The Thunderbird toy train set features a Lackawanna locomotive and a Pennslyvania caboose. It’s obviously a toy train — with colorful cars that help it contribute to the pinacle of Lionel’s post-World War II production.

Lionel’s 1954 catalog that rosters The Thunderbird also features steam and diesel locomotives, freight and passenger cars, and operating accessories was unsurpassed in terms of design, creativity, appearance, and operation.

Above all, the listing of outfits surpassed expectations then and now, so it seems foolish to focus on just one, especially one near the lower end of the O gauge group. Yet the no. 2219W five-car freight headed by a brand-new no. 2321 Lackawanna Train Master diesel grabs our attention.

One of the many reasons enthusiasts continue to chase examples of “The Thunderbird” set is because two of the models featured different paint schemes than in previous years.

 Lionel no. 6456-25 Lehigh Valley hopper car.
Lionel no. 6456-25 Lehigh Valley hopper car.

First was the no. 6456-25 Lehigh Valley hopper. The 9¼”-long car made its debut in 1948 as the no. 2456 in black. The same year, Lionel had updated the rugged little model by equipping it with newly developed magnetic trucks and couplers. That noteworthy change had justified its renumbering as 6456.

During its first few years in the catalog, the 6456 hopper had been available in either black or maroon with white heat-stamped graphics. Despite being prototypical, the schemes were decidedly drab. Lionel upped its game in 1954.

The 6456-25 came painted gray with maroon markings. The scheme had an elegance about it, especially because it matched the colors that decorated the Lackawanna Train Master in the set.

Lionel offered the new variation of its common hopper as a separate-sale item priced at $4.75 (approximately $45.55 today) and the component of two O-27 outfits (nos. 1515WS and 1523) as well as two O gauge sets. Besides the Thunderbird, the eye-catching 6456-25 Lehigh Valley came in the no. 2221WS.

Lionel no. 6462-25 New York Central gondola
Lionel no. 6462-25 New York Central gondola

Next was the no. 6462-25 New York Central gondola. Lionel also offered it for separate sale at $4.75 as well as a part of two O-27 outfits, nos. 1503WS and 1517W.

The 6462-25 measured 10 3/8” long and came packed with six stained wood barrels. Except for its color, it was familiar to Lionel modelers. The company had been cataloging near-scale gondolas since introducing an all-black version with metal steps and brake wheels in 1949. Red versions, some lacking those notable details, appeared a year later.

The 6462-25 was highlighted in the consumer catalog as “a masterpiece of precision-scaling.” It looked just right, even when paired with the big Train Master.

Two variations of the green gondola have been reported. The first had the “N” of New York Central printed in the second panel from the left side. Two lines of car data were included in the decoration. The second had the “N” in the third panel as well as three lines of data.

Lionel cataloged the gray hopper for one more year and the green gondola for three more years.

The two cars were designed to give the line more color. They did their job well and deserve to be remembered.

The 2021 edition of Greenberg’s Pocket Price Guide to Lionel Trains, 1901-2021 (available from www.KalmbachHobbyStore.com) values the no. 6456-25 Lehigh Valley hopper at $20 in good condition and $43 in excellent. It values the first variation of the no. 6462-25 New York Central gondola at $11 and $35, respectively. It puts values on the second variation at $15 and $45, respectively.

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