Q&A with Former Lionel Trains CEO Richard Kughn

Former CEO of Lionel Trains, Inc. Richard P. Kughn. Photo courtesy of Richard P. Kughn.

Through a series of six sales at Pace & Hong Auctions, the collection of former Lionel Trains, Inc. CEO Richard P. Kughn, which features thousands of rare Lionel trains, vintage toys, and related Lionel memorabilia, will head to auction this fall.

Our editors sat down with Kughn, the man widely credited for saving the Lionel brand from untimely demise, to gain insight on the art of model railroading, Lionel trains, and why they resonate with collectors today.

How did you first become interested in trains, and what is your earliest memory with a Lionel?

I got my first train on trash collection day when I was seven years old. I was coming home from school and there in a barrel was an old, beat-up Lionel train. I reached in the barrel and got everything I needed: the engine, tender, three cars to go with it, a few pieces of track, and a transformer. I took it home and showed my father what I had found. Once my father and I got it running, I immediately fell in love with its mystique. A couple of years later, Santa Claus brought me a much better train set. All I could talk about was Lionel, and I constantly played with that train.

Richard Kughn’s childhood tree house. Photo courtesy of Richard P. Kughn.

What initially drew you to collecting, and Lionel specifically?

Around Christmas of 1941, which was right after Pearl Harbor, [my family and I] were in a train store in downtown Cleveland and I saw a beautiful train on the shelf.  It was a more upscale, higher priced Lionel train. My mother was with me and she could see how much I wanted that train. When I unwrapped it on Christmas morning, I was so excited. Receiving that Lionel train really got me into building a layout and all the rest that goes along with it. From that point on, I began to understand what model railroading was all about and focused primarily on Lionel.

Richard Kughn’s childhood layout featuring Lionel trains. Photo courtesy Richard P. Kughn.

You have acquired thousands of Lionel examples over the years. Is there a particular example that is most meaningful to you?

Like my children, I cannot choose just one as a favorite. They are all special to me; each one has its own personality.

Alternate view of Richard Kughn’s childhood layout. Photo courtesy of Richard P. Kughn.

In addition to model trains, you’re also a known collector of classic cars. What drives your interest in transportation?

I love the art of the automobile, and the history of the development of the automobile. Every car represents an element of the world of transportation of four wheels. That’s what drives my passion for the hobby.

What other types of objects or antiques do you collect? How has your collection evolved over the years?

I first began collecting in 1937 or 1938 with my soap collection of little figurines: The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Snow White, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. At the height of my collection, I purchased a building on the northwest side of Detroit. As my collection grew, the building expanded and became my private museum, Carail, which housed many nostalgic collectibles including my classic cars, Lionel trains and layouts, fine automobile art and sculptures, pedal cars, auto memorabilia, motorized bicycles, antique gas station pumps and signs.

At my home, I also displayed a custom-built train layout, Lalique hood ornaments, antique toy banks, University of Michigan Football memorabilia, personal memorabilia, along with various items I’ve collected during my travels over the years.

Railroading layout from Richard Kughn’s home. Photo courtesy of Richard P. Kughn.

How did you see the Lionel brand evolve during your time as CEO? What was your most memorable experience during your tenure with the company?

When I bought the company in 1986, I invested large amounts of money on new tooling, launched more contemporary locomotives and re-issued a number of collector models with greater quality, detail and improved features. We also launched the S gauge scale of trains that included American Flyer in all new décor. Aside from broadening the collector line of toy trains, we introduced new sights and sounds, RailScope, launched in 1988, using onboard cameras and small black and white monitors to provide the viewpoint of the engineer. A year later, we released RailSounds, digitally recorded audio of real trains programmed into a memory chip.

A layout on display at the Kughn home. Photo courtesy of Richard P. Kughn.

I would have to say that the creation of LionTech was one of my most satisfying and interesting accomplishments. One of my goals [as CEO of the Lionel organization] was to develop a state-of-the-art remote control system for Lionel. This goal had not been achieved until I received a phone call from Neil Young requesting a meeting to present the technology he and his team had developed, which included a remote controller that would make the train stop and start, blow the whistle [and perform other audio sounds].

Neil and I formed LionTech and licensed Lionel to do all of our product line. LionTech became the driving force behind TrainMaster Command Control, a technology that allowed O gauge operators the ability to manipulate more than one locomotive on the same track. Not only did we have a great business relationship, but we developed a special friendship during the years we were in business together.

What advice would you give to a rising train collector? Where should he or she start?

Be an operator, not a collector. Operators don’t want stuff sitting on shelves. They are not going to collect anything; they are going to build a train layout, operate it, repair it and run it. When a train engine burns up or runs out, they will try to repair it or go out and buy another one. They share their train and layout with their family and friends. They let them play with the train; they let them enjoy it. Operators join a club to share and learn from fellow Lionel train enthusiasts. Collectors love to just look at these great toy trains. They buy them to put on a shelf or keep in a box under the bed.

Click here to explore the Richard P. Kughn Collection coming up at Pace & Hong Auctions this fall.