CONCORD, N.C. – Howard Hitchcock unlocks the door and we walk into a place that very few people get to see.
“You’re telling me the oldest stuff is right here,” I say, pointing to the first shelf I see in Lionel’s model railroad archive. Yes, he replies.
Inside the archive are roughly 25,000 pieces, some dating back nearly a hundred years. There are entire shelves of locomotives, next to shelves of cabooses, next to shelves full of boxcars, all categorized by handwritten paper tags. If you look hard enough, you can find a missile launching train car from the cold war.
The archive, which isn’t open to the public, is in Concord across the street from the speedway in a big boxy building that, as of this month, functions as Lionel’s new headquarters.
“It just made sense to bring everything in direction,” says Hitchcock, who took over as Lionel’s president earlier this month.
The headquarters are in Concord because Lionel is consolidating its operations in the spot where they’ve been designing die cast stock cars since 2010. Trains are designed here, too. (Both are manufactured in China). And here’s a random fact: Neil Young (yes, that Neil Young) was once a part-owner of Lionel, and designed a control unit that the company still uses.
Lionel has been making model railroads, some plastic, some detailed and some gold-plated, since 1900.
“It’s 114-years old,” says Hitchcock, “So it’s truly a legacy brand.”
Today, Hitchcock says when it comes to o-gauge model railroads, which run on the popular three-railed track, Lionel owns 85-percent of the market.
But there’s a problem.
“Quite honestly,” Hitchcock says, “a lot of people who run trains tend to be a little bit older.”
Lionel’s attempt to get more kids interested in trains? More technology. Now, you can control the smoke, the sounds, the bells and the whistles on trains wirelessly, from up to 50 feet away.
New iPhone and iPad apps are coming within the next few months as well. And after running a train for a few minutes, I had one looming question to ask: Is there any instance where you can make the train go so fast that it'll fly off the corner?
“You can pop them off the tracks,” Hitchcock says, nodding.
That’s a feeling of wonderment that Lionel hopes you’ll continue to have, no matter how big of a kid you are.