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Life-Like Trains
IndustryToys and hobbies
HeadquartersBaltimore, Maryland, United States
ProductsModel trains and accessories

Life-Like was a manufacturer of model trains and accessories that began as a division of parent company Life-Like Products, a manufacturer of extruded foam ice chests and coolers. In 1960 the company purchased the assets of the defunct Varney Scale Models and began manufacturing model trains and accessories under the name Life-Like in 1970. In 2005 the parent company, known as Lifoam Industries, LLC, chose to concentrate on their core products and sold their model railroad operations to hobby distributor Wm. K. Walthers. Today, the Life-Like trademark is used by Walthers for its line of value-priced starter train sets.


Kramer Brothers advertisement from February 1948 edition of Model Railroader

Life-Like Products was founded by brothers Lou and Sol Kramer, whose parents were Lithuanian immigrants residing in Baltimore, Maryland.[1] Their experience in the hobby industry began in the 1930s when they became interested in constructing model airplanes. With money borrowed from their mother, the brothers formed the Burd Model Airplane Manufacturing Co. and sold their own model airplane kits using balsa wood they would salvage from discarded banana crates. As the business grew, their line had expanded to include more than 200 different kits. America's entry into World War II put a halt to their production as they could no longer get materials like balsa wood and rubber bands to produce their kits.[2]

Following World War II, the focus of the business shifted from manufacturing to distribution and Kramer Brothers Hobbies was created to sell items like model cars and fishing tackle. They also began making items like model trees and grass mats under the name Life-Like for the first time. They also introduced dyed lichen moss for use as a scenery material, imported from Norway.[3]

Realizing that hobbies had year-round appeal, versus toys that had seasonal sales spikes around the Christmas holiday, the Kramer brothers formed a silent partnership with Lou Glaser and his Revell injection-molded plastic model company in Venice, California. The company's breakthrough came in 1953 when Revell offered a scale model kit of the USS Missouri, the battleship where the Japanese surrender that ended World War II was signed.[4] Revell briefly manufactured its own line of HO scale model trains beginning in 1956.

The Kramer brothers sold tunnels for toy train layouts as part of their Life-Like line. The original supplier was making the tunnels from papier mache, but was unable to deliver on a consistent basis. At the same time, they learned about a German manufacturing process to mold expanded polystyrene foam into shapes that could later be painted and decorated. They imported the technology and began making tunnels out of the polystyrene foam. According to son Jay Kramer, workers at the factory discovered the insulating properties of the foam tunnels could be used to keep their lunches hot or cold. Soon after, the company began producing foam ice chest coolers under the Lifoam name in 1954.[5]

Life-Like Trains[edit]

Life-Like logo introduced in 1970

Model railroading pioneer Gordon Varney sold off his Varney Scale Models company in 1960 to Sol Kramer. These HO scale model trains continued to be produced under the Varney name until March 1970, when the first advertising for Life-Like trains appeared in Railroad Model Craftsman magazine. The Life-Like line quickly expanded to include trains, track, structure kits, and accessories.

In 1973, Sol Kramer approached industrial engineer Wai Shing Ting to help produce a source of electric motors for his model trains. They launched Sanda Kan as a joint manufacturing venture in Hong Kong. Sanda Kan later expanded into all aspects of manufacturing model trains and accessories for Life-Like, as well as other companies including Atlas Model Railroad, Lionel, and Marklin.[6] Sanda Kan was acquired by Kader in 2008.

Known for its line of train sets, Life-Like was known primarily as a "down-market" supplier. Looking to expand into the world of scale model railroading, the company put together a plan to manufacture models with more accurate and fine details as well as an improved motor drive, with a reasonable increase in cost. In 1989, Life-Like introduced the Proto 2000 line of finely detailed HO scale diesel locomotives. The first offering was the Proto 2000 BL2. The Proto 1000 line was later created to produce a line of trains that would compete against other mid-range products like those made by Athearn and Walthers.

The Kramer family sold the business to private interests in 2000. Lou Kramer passed away in 2003, followed by his brother Sol in 2013.[7] In 2005, the parent company Lifoam Industries, LLC, chose to concentrate on its core manufacturing business and sold the model railroad division to Walthers.

Proto 2000 line of products[edit]

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 Lifelike 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 Athearn 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[edit]

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.

Walthers Train Sets[edit]

Successor Wm. K. Walthers continues to offer less-expensive train sets under the Life-Like name. 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 EMD GP38-2, EMD F7, EMD F40PH, or 0-4-0 steam locomotive with tender, and roadnames include Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Chessie System, and Amtrak.

For the majority of their production history, 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 have still offered trains with horn-hook couplers, but recently the Life-Like products have quietly been updated with Kadee-compatible knuckle couplers.

Other countries[edit]

Models of Australian rolling stock are also produced.

In the 1980s, Life-Like produced a range of models for the South African market competing with Lima.


  1. ^ Jacques Kelly (2 May 2013). "Sol Kramer, wholesale hobby business owner". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  2. ^ Jacques Kelly (27 December 2008). "Robust Business Built Of Tiny Products". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  3. ^ Jacques Kelly (27 December 2008). "Robust Business Built Of Tiny Products". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  4. ^ Jacques Kelly (27 December 2008). "Robust Business Built Of Tiny Products". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  5. ^ "The Story of Lifoam". Lifoam. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  6. ^ Kenneth Haedrich. "The Unassuming Man Who Built a Model Railroad Empire". Atlas Model Railroad Co. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  7. ^ Jacques Kelly (2 May 2013). "Sol Kramer, wholesale hobby business owner". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 January 2017.

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