|This article does not cite any references or sources. (October 2011)|
It was founded in the 1950s by a company that pioneered extruded foam ice chests under the Lifoam trademark. Because ice chests are a summer seasonal item, the company needed a way to keep the factory operating year round. As model railroading was becoming popular in the post-war years, they saw this as an opportunity and so manufactured extruded foam tunnels for model trains. Over the years, Life-Like expanded into other scenery items, finally manufacturing rolling stock beginning in the late 1960s. At some point in the early 1970s, Life-Like purchased Varney Inc. and began to produce the former Varney line as its own.
In 2005, the company, now known as Lifoam Industries, LLC, decided to concentrate on their core products of extruded foam and sold their model railroad operations to Wm. K. Walthers.
Proto 2000 line of products
The company was well known and highly regarded by hobbyists for its Proto 1000 and Proto 2000 line. These locomotives and freight cars were the best detailed for their price class, and even older, used examples are in high demand by hobbyists. Parts are readily available as the earlier drive systems are clones of Athearn drives and later drives are Kato clones.
Some early Proto examples such as the EMD BL2, GP18, GP20, GP9, SD9 and Alco FA-2 were plagued with Chinese-made axle gears that would crack, causing the unit to run erratically or with loud "thumping" sounds. This problem was not exclusive to Life-like and also affected other manufacturers (like Bachmann) that manufactured models in China. The company honored its lifetime warranty on these units; one needed only to contact the company to obtain free replacements. With Walthers' purchase of the company, the warranty continued to be honored as before, however changes in the industry has made replacement parts harder to obtain. Contacting their Customer Service Department will still sometimes yield free replacements although replacement parts are more and more frequently out of stock. Because of this, more and more modelers are opting to skip Walthers Customer Service and buy original Athrean gears which are identical because the drives were cloned. The gearing problem has continued to plague various manufacturers using Chinese parts to this day.
Starting in 1996, Life-Like began releasing HO scale freight cars under the Proto 2000 banner. These cars feature the same level of detailing as their locomotive counterparts. Complaints were received from various modelers as the small detail parts were easily lost or broken, so Life-Like now offers the cars in kit or ready-to-run form.
Proto 1000 line of products
The Proto 1000 line originally was created to compete with Athearn products at a lower price point. The detailing was not as extensive as with the Proto 2000 line (as an example, details like grab irons or uncoupling bars were not included) so as to provide a model that was more resilient to handling by, and more attractive at lower price to, less-experienced modelers. However, the line included the proven smooth Proto 2000 drive, and the models would run as well as their better detailed, more expensive Proto 2000 cousins. Models released under the Proto 1000 line include the Budd RDC-1, -2, -3 and -4, Alco RS-2, Fairbanks-Morse "Erie-Built," and EMD F3 in A and B configuration.
The Canadian distributor for Life-Like products, Canadian Hobbycraft, saw a missing segment in the HO scale market for Canadian model prototypes. Working with Life-Like, models like the Fairbanks-Morse C-liner(CFA-16-4) and MLW RS-10 and RS-18 were made available. Oddly, these models feature the fine detail of Proto 2000 models, but were badged under the Proto 1000 line. With a few modifications these models were offered in the US market with US roadnames, and in the case of the RS-10/RS-18, the tooling modified to produce the US version, the Alco RS-11.
Life-Like took the tooling for three of their former train-set line freight cars and upgraded the tracking capabilities to match Proto 2000 standards. Along with Kadee-compatible couplers and upgraded paint schemes, these inexpensive cars are popular with model railroaders for their smooth tracking and low price point.
Train Set quality products
Life-Like still offers train sets using their older, lower-quality but less expensive line of products. They usually come with their Power-Loc brand of integrated roadbed track (originated in 1996 as the first HO track system that connects without the need of traditional rail joiners), along with action accessories such as an operating log dump station and car or railroad crossing with operating gates, building kits (usually a snap-together train station or their older "trackside shanty" kits), and additional accessories such as autos, trees, figures, signs and utility poles, to help make the most out of starting a model railroad. Most locomotives in these sets are either high-nose or low-nose GP38-2, F7, F40PH, or 0-4-0 with tender, and roadnames include Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Chessie System, and Amtrak.
The locomotives and rolling stock are also equipped with the older horn-hook couplers used on many HO locomotives and rolling stock from other manufacturers until the 1990s, making Life-Like one of the few HO model railroad manufacturers today to still offer trains with horn-hook couplers.
Models of Australian rolling stock are also produced.