Lionel Super-O Track
An Historical Perspective

by H. Michael Spanier

Lionel was at its postwar best in consumer interest as well as quality of product during the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. Like every other successful company, Lionel was always looking towards the future to be certain they were meeting the demands needed to sell their products. As the 50s progressed, however, there was a definite sagging of interest in their O and O27 gauge toy trains. HO trains were quickly becoming the leading model railroad gauge in America. HO track used two rails, while Lionel used three, and the ties of HO track were much more realistic-looking.

Super-O curves form a 36" diameter circle. The lighted bumpers had to be modified to fit in the tight spaces between the ties.

Lionel's Super-O switches looked good but were often problematic.
Lionel was quite concerned as sales and profits dropped. They searched for fresh ideas to rekindle interest in their toy trains they reviewed and tried many ideas. One major effort was to develop a new track system. This was the start of Super-O track. Let me tell you about Lionel Super-O track and try to spur your imagination back to 1957 when it was introduced for sale as well as in the new Lionel Showroom layout. 
During the mid-fifties the space program and many new technological changes were occurring within the United States. Interest in Lionel trains was dramatically on the wane. Lionel sales were plummeting. Electric race car sets, HO scale trains, space programs, chemistry sets, plastic models (of cars, planes, boats, etc.) and many other venues were taking away from Lionel's sales. Lionel needed to come up with something to try and reinvigorate the interest of the train buying public. 

Lionel products made between 1957 and 1966 have a unique style

Packaging for Super-O products followed the various patterns Lionel experimented with throughout the later Postwar era
One area that provided an opportunity for improvement was the unrealistic appearance of their 3- rail tinplate track system. Lionel had long been subject to criticism for the "toy like" appearance of their 3- rail track compared to their main competitor, American Flyer, who had 2- rail track. There was no way they could switch to 2- rail but they made a valiant attempt to provide a much more realistic-looking track system. Super-O was introduced in 1957 and was available for sale through 1966.

 

Super-O would continue to offer the main 3- rail advantage (ease of hook- ups for reversing loops) and be "scale like" in appearance. With its multitude of highly detailed dark brown railroad ties (16 per 9 1/2" straight track section compared to three for traditional tubular track) which included a wood grain appearance plus simulated track plates and spikes. Realistic looking outside rails were tinplate shaped into flat "T" profiles. Ordinary O gauge track was tubular. An "invisible" third rail made of copper provided a most attractive alternative to traditional tubular track. Not to mention that if it caught on it would spur a whole new group of purchases and interests for their new track and hopefully revitalize interest in their trains. The patent was issued by the US Patent Office on March 30, 1954, as: 

Patent Number 2,673,689 Toy Railroad Track 
Inventor of Record: Joseph L. Bonanno 
The patent was applied for on March 26, 1951 

The #38 Accessory Adapter Set allowed the installation of older equipment such as the 3424-100 Low Bridge Telltales, shown above, or the 154C Highway Signal contactor

The automatic switches could be powered independently from the track. The manual switches could be used to cut locomotive power and avoid derailments.
Due to the small size and unique shape of the rails, thin strips of copper were used as track pins. The plastic ties were designed to lock sections together. The middle rails used clips which were pressed on top of two joining rails. This method required operators to occasionally inspect the track bed and make sure no clips were slipping off from the rollers moving over them. 
Super-O was a creative attempt to rekindle interest in Lionel trains. Lionel advertised that Super-O would enhance Magne-Traction due to the flat surface of the rails compared to the curved surface of O27 and O gauge track. The track system was made available with a complete package of components that included conversion pins so Super-O could connect to operators of O27 and O gauge tubular track. Most available items are listed below.
1. Curves (#31) 
2. Straights (#32) 
3. 1/2 Curves (#33) 
4. 1/2 Straights (#34) 
5. Remote Control Set (#36) 
    Rails (2) only 
    Button #90 
6. Uncouplers (#37) 
    Uncoupler Only 
    Button #90 
7. Accessory Set (#38) 
8. Power Tracks (#43) 
9. Insulated Straights (#48) 
10. Insulated Curves (#49) 
11. Ground Lockon (#61) 
12. Power Lockon (#62) 
13. Electric Switches (#112) 
14. 90 Cross-over (#120) 
15. 60 Cross-over (#130) 
16. Manual Switches (#142, #142-125, #142-150) 
17. Power Bus-bar Connector (#31-7, #31-25, #31-45) 
18. Insulated Power Bus-bar Connector (#32-10, #32-20, #32-45, #32-55) 
19. Steel Coupling Pins (#31-5) 
20. Insulated Coupling Pins (#32-10, #32-55) 
21. 1122-500 Adapter Set (O27 to Super-O) 
22. T022-500 Adapter Set (O to Super-O) 

The #37 Uncoupler was an electro-magnetic coil in the center of the track to uncouple cars or activate certain operating cars
Not all Super-O items were produced throughout the 1957 to 1966 time span. As you probably know, the system never had the desired effect of stimulating the type of interest Lionel had hoped for. It seems if Lionel would have elected to produce 54" and 72" diameter track and switches it might have helped but that probably was not the answer either. Its last year of production was 1966, as Lionel cut back on all areas of train production. Super-O's time had come and gone as it slowly disappeared from the market. 

According to an Inside Track issue from Lionel's Railroader Club, the tooling from Super O had long ago been destroyed.

Today there is a plethora of track systems on the market. Never have there been more track systems for O27 and O gauge trains. One of the advantages that Super-O offers is that it still provides maximum effect for Magne-Traction locomotives due to the flat surface of the steel rail. Many modern scale-detailed track systems are not ferromagnetic, making Magne-Traction worthless. Super-O is also now available in the secondary market custom fitted to any desired diameter. Of course, the switches remain 36" diameter (measured center-rail to center-rail).

The #61 Ground Lock-on could be connected to a #48 Insulated Straight section to provide power to a trackside signal

Super-O track was engineered to be compatible with older items such as the 111 Elevated Trestle Set 

Should you have further questions about Super-O track, I would be pleased to answer your E-mailed questions. I have developed an interest in this 40 year-old track system and continually offer it for sale. I currently have an electronic mailing list, which features questions and answers about Lionel Super-O track.

Regards,
Mike Spanier

Also worthy of note is an exquisite 24- page booklet that was produced during 1962 by then Lionel dealer J. L. Rudley. Not only are there 18 pages of well- detailed Super-O layouts, but all layouts include track components used and their item numbers. It also includes six pages featuring scenery, accessories, and wiring. It is a fine Super-O reference book. Don't miss it if Super-O is your interest.