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Lionel's Torpedo streamlined locomotives

They’re all common – except for one early no. 1688E
In the spring of 1936, industrial design guru Raymond Loewy came up with a streamlined winner for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s glamorous Broadway Limited passenger train. Sleek, bullet-nosed, and skirted, Loewy’s upgrading of conventional K4 Pacific 4-6-2 no. 3768 captured the public’s imagination. People lined up to see the locomotive, which was dubbed the “Torpedo.”

Lionel rushed to develop a replica of the Torpedo. Models appeared in time for Christmas: nos. 238/238E, a 4-4-2 locomotive in O gauge, and nos. 1688/1688E, a 2-4-2 locomotive in O-27.

The O and O-27 versions featured one-piece boiler shells that employed Lionel’s new high-pressure die-casting equipment. The same casting used for the O-27 electrically powered locomotive served as the basis of a windup version, no. 1588.

Although the prototype Torpedo was a Pacific with six driving wheels, the first Lionel models had only four. Why, the no. 1588 had an 0-4-0 wheel configuration!

For 1937, Lionel developed a more appropriate six-wheel mechanism for the O-27 locomotive. To the roster of Torpedos came the nos. 1668/1668E, with a 2-6-2 configuration. This new version appeared in cataloged outfits. The nos. 1688/1688E were relegated to promotional sets, which were not listed in Lionel’s consumer catalogs.

Lionel cataloged the nos. 238/238E through 1938 with either whistling tenders (no. 265W or 2225W) or non-whistling tenders (no. 265 or 2225T). Leftover inventory of this steam locomotive and tender combination was used in special sets sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. for the next two years.

Lionel cataloged the nos. 1668/1668E through 1941. It came with either a no. 1689W whistling tender or a no. 1689T non-whistling tender. The color of this locomotive (and the 238/238E) was changed from gunmetal gray to satin black sometime in 1939. The Torpedo was probably the most popular Lionel locomotive type in the late prewar era. Many thousands were sold each year, which makes them commonly available even today.

Except, that is, for the no. 1688E shown here, which is the most difficult variation to find. It represents the very first production from 1936, and nobody knows how many (or few) were made this way, before the dies were changed.

The distinguishing features of this variation are the forward-facing open cab windows and the winged-keystone detail visible under the smoke-lifting platform ahead of the stack. While the winged logo remained throughout the initial runs – perhaps most of 1936 – the forward-facing windows were soon filled in, probably because they created a problem in the die-casting process.

Now that you know about it, start looking for one at the train shows you attend. I’ve run across only three in 30 years of looking, but you may be luckier and find one next week.

This article by John A. Grams  originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Classic Toy Trains magazine


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