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Lionel HO American Freedom Train

It was a highlight of U.S. railroading and the nation’s Bicentennial — the American Freedom Train traveled the country for nearly two years (beginning in the spring of 1975) and visited 76 cities. Lionel made a replica of this famous train for its 1970s HO catalog. There were two sets offered, which first appeared in the company’s 1975 catalog.

Lionel HO American Freedom Train

HOC 2023-03by Tony Cook/photos by the author

Among the many model trains produced in the 1970s celebrating the 200th anniversary of the United States, Lionel’s HO-scale American Freedom Train offerings must rank high on any collector’s list. The famous toy train manufacturer had previously participated in the 1:87 market from the late 1950s through the mid-1960s. The 1970s series of HO was offered from 1974 through 1977. Lionel returned to this popular hobby scale in the 21st century and continues to support HO with a range of releases, which include a coming series of all-new tooling freight cars due in late 2023.

The 1970s Lionel HO line began modestly with four train sets appear-ing in the company’s 1974 catalog. Two sets included the return of Lionel’s Alco FA diesel locomotive (tooling based and obtained from John A. English’s Hobbyline around 1960) and a GP9 diesel locomotive (this four-axle Geep had been part of Lionel’s past re-leases though the tooling on this 1970s plastic shell differs and more closely resembles Athearn’s classic GP9 effort than the previous model produced).

Lionel HO Freedom Train

ABOVE: This two-page spread from Lionel HO’s 1975 catalog promotes the pair of American Freedom Train sets. Information on the prototype journey across the U.S. is present with mock-ups shown for the two sets. The Alco FA locomotive is close to its production appearance, while the cars and GS-4 steam locomotive are radically different from what actually saw release in HO scale.

While the locomotive models and the rolling stock selections were nothing terribly new, the mechanism design was fresh with a General Electric drive motor powering newly tooled Blomberg-type truck sideframes, and all residing in a combination die-cast metal and injection-molded plastic chassis. Lionel’s effort on the innards of these 1970s locomotive models was promoted well and the goal of a better starter train set motive power option is admirable for the time. Unfortunately, as many collectors can confirm, the design is not without some short-comings.

Today, the most notable challenge is locating examples with truck sideframes that are not loose and broken. The base and sides of the frame snap over the metal frame housing the gearing and a post extends up into an arch-shaped opening. This post and the snap-on connection on the opposite end of the plastic truck sideframe are the locations that are weak. This set’s Alco FA model was no exception; both of its trucks suffer from the inability to stay put on the gear section.

Lionel HO Freedom Train

ABOVE: Lionel’s diesel-equipped American Freedom Train set included these four cars: two display cars, showcase car, and observation. The standard starter set contents were also present with brass track sections, power pack, and setup instructions for operation.

I’m certain a percentage of readers are asking why I’ve selected Lionel’s diesel locomotive version of this set for an appearance in HO Collector versus the more elaborate set with its impressive 4-8-4 Northern steam locomotive (which was the power most known with the American Freedom Train). A good example of Lionel’s “5-Unit Diesel Freedom Train” appeared at Papa Ben’s Train Place in Houston, Texas, in late 2022. The box was rough and while I was intrigued with it, as I roamed through the store’s always good selection of secondhand model trains I talked myself in and out of taking this set home with me. I left with a large box of goodies from that day’s visit, this set remained on my mind.

Just after the holidays, Papa Ben’s offered a special discount on its used model trains and I decided this set, if it was still present at the store, would be mine and I needed to return. Happily, the set was waiting for me… along with another box or two of other used trains that I added to my collection that day. If you’re ever in the Houston area, I recommend adding a stop at Papa Ben’s Train Place to check out his always interesting selection of used model trains.

Lionel HO Freedom Train

ABOVE: This Alco FA tooling came from Hobbyline and with minor modifications served Lionel in the 1960s, 1970s, and around 1990 in the TrainScope set.

I’d been wanting to feature one of Lionel HO’s American Freedom Train sets and this diesel locomotive-edition example made that possible. I would add that the GS-4 steam locomotive is better known, and went on to serve in Bachmann’s line in the late 1970s and remains available (in an enhanced version) to this day, and thus the Alco FA diesel may be more uncommon and appealing for a collector looking to acquire one of these sets…

HOC 2023-03Read the rest of this article in the 3rd Quarter 2023 issue of HO Collector

This article was posted on: July 16, 2023