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American Flyer Trains

History

American Flyer 'O' gauge wind-up passenger set with deluxe clockwork steam loco and working battery operated headlight
American Flyer 'O' gauge painted cast iron clockwork locomotive, #121 tender, #1108 baggage, #1107 coach and #1118 tank car

American Flyer was a popular brand of toy train and model railroad in the United States in the middle part of the 20th century.

American Flyer Standard gauge 4-4-2 steam locomotive Although best remembered for the 'S' gauge trains of the 1950's that it made as a division of the A. C. Gilbert Company, American Flyer was initially an independent company whose origins date back nearly a half century earlier. Chicago, Illinois-based toymaker William Frederick Hafner developed a clockwork motor for toy cars in 1901 while working for a company called the Toy Auto Company. According to the recollections of William Hafner's son, John, he had developed a clockwork train running on 'O' gauge track by 1905.

Hafner's friend, William Ogden Coleman, gained control of the Edmonds-Metzel Hardware Company, a struggling hardware manufacturer in Chicago, in 1906 or 1907. Hafner and Coleman began producing American Flyer Standard gauge #4667 electric outline locomotive toy trains using Edmonds-Metzel's excess manufacturing capability after Hafner was able to secure $15,000 worth of orders. By 1907, two American retailers, G. Sommers & Co. and Montgomery Ward, were selling Edmonds-Metzel trains. In 1908, Edmonds-Metzel adopted the American Flyer brand name for the trains, and by 1910, Edmonds-Metzel was out of the hardware business and changed its name to American Flyer Manufacturing Company.

Initially American Flyer -- aka "Chicago Flyer" -- was something of a budget brand, undercutting the prices of Ives, which was at the time the market leader. The trains proved popular, and American Flyer was soon expanding its product line. However, the company's rapid growth led to strains in the relationship between Hafner and Coleman.

American Flyer #4687 Blue 4-4-4 Electric Loco circa 1927 American Flyer Standard Gauge #4695 Steam Locomotive with #4693 Tender American Flyer Standard gauge #4684 Electric Locomotive

In 1913, Hafner left the company. Believing he would be given a significant portion of the company if the trains proved successful, Coleman refused when Hafner asked to exercise this option. Hafner American Flyer No. 1218 Engine and 3 No. 1201 pullmans started the Hafner Manufacturing Company, which sold a line of trains called Overland Flyer. Sommers immediately stopped carrying the American Flyer trains in favor of Hafner's brand. Initially, the Hafner and American Flyer product lines were very similar, suggesting they may have been built using the same tooling. This suggests the possibility of the two companies continuing to collaborate. Hafner's business survived as a manufacturer of clockwork trains until 1951, when he sold his business to All Metal Products Company.

American Flyer's business grew during World War I, which locked out the German manufacturers that had dominated the U.S. toy train market to that point. During this time, American Flyer also introduced American Flyer #4643 electric outline locomotive in Standard gaugeAmerican Flyer No. 3014 Mid-Sized Boxcab Engine from 1925-27 bicycle and motorcycle toys, segmented its market by creating both a low-priced and a high-priced line, and began to depart from its earlier designs by William Hafner.

In 1918, American Flyer introduced its first electric train, an 'O' gauge model that was simply a windup model with an electric motor in place of the clockwork motor. This was a common practice at the time. The same year, William Coleman died and his son, William Ogden Coleman, Jr., took over the company. At that time the factory and administrative offices of the American Flyer Manufacturing Co. were located at 2219-2239 South Halsted Street in Chicago. The factory had its own railroad sidings and dock so cars could be slid inside the building for unloading/loading.

In 1925, American Flyer began offering 2⅛" Wide gauge electric trains at a premium price, attempting to compete with Lionel Corporation's Standard Gauge trains at the high end of the American Flyer Potomac Passenger Set 3186 w/3180 3181 market. Wide gauge was the fad gauge of the 1920's, with Flyer and Lionel the big makers, and Ives, Boucher and Dorfan with significant shares of the market. In 1926 American Flyer used Lionel bodies for their first standard gauge freight cars. In order to fit on the American Flyer engine coupler slot, one of the coupler inverted "T" tabs was filed off. These freight cars are easily identifiable as on the bottom of each car is marked "Made for American Flyer Lines".

The Great Depression killed all the Wide gauge lines and 'O' became the mainstay of all makers that survived. Flyer Wide gauge production ended in 1932. Having weathered the depression, Flyer, like Lionel, concentrated on more scale accurate trains that the public was demanding. Like most of its competition, American Flyer did well in the 1920's, selling more than half a million trains in its best years, but suffered in the Great Depression, during which the company's focus shifted back to the more economical 'O' gauge trains.

In 1928, American Flyer's competitor Ives went bankrupt. American Flyer and Lionel jointly purchased American Flyer #9915 Aeolis streamlined 'O' gauge motive unit from the 1935 #1324 RCT Century Setand operated Ives until 1930, when American Flyer sold its share to Lionel. During this time of joint operation, American Flyer supplied Ives with freight car bodies and other parts. In return, American Flyer received the Ives die-cast #1134 Wide gauge locomotives and tenders, as well was tasked with handling the Ives clcokwork line of trains in 'O' gauge. Flyer only used the #1134 boiler and tender casting. The running board had to be cut slightly, to accomodate fitting the American Flyer motor. And some piping had to be eliminated, due to the cutting of the section of the running board. The tender maintained the original Ives design. American Flyer utilized their own trucks and coupler. A "Golden State Limited" name plate was installed on the tender. The automatic reversing version of the #1134 locomotive was given an American Flyer brass button #4694". A whistle was added to the American flyer #1134's but not to the Ives' versions.

During the early 1930's, American Flyer struggled under increased competition, especially at the low end of the market. In 1931, Flyer announced it would not produce an electric train set to sell for less than $4 like its competition had. However, within three months, it relented and released a train without transformer that sold for $3.95, and in 1932, it released a set with transformer that retailed for $3.50. Sales increased, but the company was not profitable. Expansion into other toy arenas also failed.

American Flyer 'O' gauge #3015 electric outline locomotive that headed up the 1927 Jeffersonian set In 1938, W.O. Coleman sold American (Chicago) Flyer to Alfred Carlton Gilbert, a former Olympic pole vaulter who first made a name for himself in the toy industry earlier in the century when he created and manufactured Mysto Magic sets for youthful magicians. A few years later, his A. C. Gilbert Company also became the makers of Erector Set construction toys. The two toy magnates were just finishing shooting on Gilbert's game reserve in New Haven when Gilbert casually mentioned he was thinking about manufacturing toy trains. Instead, Coleman said he'd give his struggling American Flyer Co. to Gilbert in return for a share of the profits. Gilbert quickly agreed.

To A.C. the American Flyer train was a real challenge. "Chicago Flyer" was a second rate company just hanging on. The trains were no better than the Lionel items being marketed at the same time. In 1938 AF sales were not quite at the million mark. As an attempt to improve the image, A. C. Gilbert decided in 1938 to release a line of HO gauge trains for the first time. The introductory American Flyer HO line, was called "Tru-Model Trains." The HO line remained in place through 1963, but it was not promoted very highly. The A.C. Gilbert Co., in what litte advertising they did for the HO line, emphasized the high amount of precision within their HO steam locomotives. A valiant effort was made to appeal to true scale modelers during the early HO years. Unfortunately, Gilbert did not have quite the impact they desired in the HO market during its first years of production. Gilbert had bought the name and nothing else when he got American Flyer. He planned to redesign the entire line from track to transformer.

American Flyer Prewar Standard gauge #4020 cattle car American Flyer 4006 Red Hopper
American Flyer 4010 Blue Tank Car American Flyer 4023 Orange Log Car American Flyer 4011 Red Caboose

Gilbert soon moved the company from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut, and re-designed the product line. American Flyer Prewar Hudson Engine 1680 w/1620 Tender He pioneered the 3/16" to one foot (S-scale) variant of 'O' gauge in 1939, in which the locomotive and car bodies are scaled to 1:64 scale, making them approximately 25% smaller than the standard 1:48 for 'O' gauge while still running on the same type of three-rail track. While this allowed the 'S'-scale trains to navigate tighter curves that would cause a conventional 'O' gauge train to derail or jump the track, Gilbert actually introduced a wider radius (20") track for added realism. This still resulted in curves that were much tighter than those that appear in the real world, but appeared much more realistic than the 13.5" radius (O27) gauge train cars that appeared "stubby" in length. The new 40" diameter circles allowed more track in the same space as a layout constructed with O72 (36" radius) curves.

American Flyer 'O' Gauge Electric outline 4-4-4 locomotive By 1941, Gilbert had discontinued the earlier designs and advertised his new American Flyer products as "Every train 3/16" scale from front end to rear end." Some boxes were labeled "3/16 scale" and others labeled "Tru-Model" As most prior trains from American Flyer and other manufacturers paid little attention to scale (proportional size mirroring the prototype), this new wrinkle made Gilbert American Flyer distinctive, as his cars at 1:64 were much closer in scale dimension to the prototypes on real railroads than the comparatively stubby 1:48 scale rolling stock that ran on 'O27' track. At the same time, Gilbert also released a line of HO scale trains.

American Flyer 'S' gauge B & O The Royal Blue Streamlined Loco & Tender During the war years, the A.C. Gilbert Company converted completely to war production. Hundreds of thousands of flares were produced. Drawing on their experience with magic tricks, booby traps that caught the enemy off guard and triggering mechanisms were produced. The motors that controlled the trim tabs on the first American fighter planes came from the genius of the A.C. Gilbert Company. Designed in a record 72 hours from inception, these tiny motors were produced in thousands and became the prototype for the motor that powered more than a million and a half engines that pulled a string of freight or passenger cars around the family Christmas tree.

American Flyer Santa Fe Streamliner set circa 1950 In 1946, after World War II, Gilbert discontinued manufacturing three-rail 'O' gauge trains entirely in favor of the slightly (25%) smaller and more realistic 'S' gauge and in the process eliminated the most unrealistic aspect of toy trains -- the center rail. His 3/16" American Flyer used two-rail track sized closer to 1:64 scale, or about seven-eighths inches between rails. The minimum radius for Gilbert's curves was 19 inches, which added to the look of "realism" missing with larger 'O' gauge trains running on curves with a smaller 13.5-inch radius. It was a new scale and a new gauge for toy trains. These new trains ran on realistic two rail track that was not rounded on top due to some antiquated extrusion process, but it was "T" shaped like real prototypical railroad track. The surface contact on this new track was greater and so was the pulling power. AF never needed "magna-traction" - it had real traction in its engines.

In order to further differentiate his product line from that of Lionel, Gilbert employed a bullet-shaped American Flyer NH EP-5 #499 (link) coupler, but within a few years (1952), a newer, more realistic knuckle coupler design appeared. Flyer played up its improved realism and attention to details, with two-rail track and prototypical couplers, with Gilbert himself saying the design was inspired by his son's dissatisfaction with other toy trains available on the market. "Kids want realism", he said. His trains, which were closely proportioned to their prototypes, also had more detail elements than most 'O' gauge competitors. All engines were die cast to make them look real and to have the heft of the real thing. There were, in the company's prime, seven basic steam type engines. There was one basic diesel and one basic diesel switcher. In 1957 there was a model of the New Haven's electric created and marketed. It cost $100,000 per engine design.

The Gilbert HO line went back into production after the war also. The primary difference being that trains that were previously produced in diecast, were now plastic. In 1951, the HO line was idled due to the Korean War. It was not offered again until 1955 when a new revitalized line 3/16 Scale (S-Scale) Vintage American Flyer Water Tower #23772 called Gilbert HO, consisting of ready-to-run trains made by Gordon Varney's Florida based company was released. Varney provided the A-B F-3 diesels which Gilbert started offering for the first time in 1955. And Varney created the first HO boxcar offerings that the Gilbert line ever carried. They also made freight cars, passenger cars and steam locomotives for Gilbert. Once again however, sales were not what Gilbert had expected them to be.

On their 50th anniversary in 1959, Gilbert produced the famous Frontiersman Old Time passenger train in both 'S' gauge and HO. The 'S' gauge is fairly easy to find these days, but the HO version is not so easy to come across. Gilbert manufactured the 'S' version, but looked outside to Tyco/Mantua to manufacture the HO version. This set, which included a 4-4-0 wood burner type loco and two passenger cars is referred to as the 'Fifty Years of Progress' set and is highly sought after by collectors.

Although popular, American Flyer was always the No.2 brand to Lionel in terms of market share at the high end of the market. Based on comparative sales records taken from Moody's Industrials of the A.C. Gilbert Company and Lionel Corporation between 1950 and 1960, the total train sales were about $340 million. Of this, American Flyer is estimated to amount to $120 million, or as much as 1/3 of the market. With Marx and a handful of other brands relegated to the low end of the market, Lionel and American Flyer shared premium status. A rivalry emerged between both companies' fans that continues today.

Like Lionel, Gilbert was caught off guard by the popularity of HO scale trains that offered better realism at a lower price than its American Flyer 'S' gauge products. But the true reason for the demise of the toy train industry was the changing interests of American youth. A new technology called television was taking the place of many traditional hobbies, and the toy market was subject to the success of unpredictable overnight fads like the Hula-Hoop and yo-yo. Kids were also eschewing their Lionel and American Flyer trains in favor of remote-control slot car racing sets.

American Flyer 'S' gauge Atlantic freight set no. 490T, circa 1949 including #300 steam 4-4-2 loco, Reading Lines tender, #640 hopper, #639 boxcar and a #638 caboose.

Finally, the national phenomena of the discount store craze was ravaging toy train companies' traditional distribution network -- mom-and-pop hobby shops -- and sending them into financial oblivion. The discount American Flyer #583A electromagnetic crane accessory stores demanded train sets at a low wholesale price and refused to offer the personal attention and repair services of the hobby shop. In order to get product on the shelves of discounters, toy train manufacturers cheapened their lines to get the price point down on sets -- which exacerbated the downward economic spiral. Longtime train collectors and hobbyists were offended at this newer production, dismissing the new products as "cheap junk", an accurate description.

These problems were compounded by the death of its founder, A.C. Gilbert in 1961. With the popularity of toy trains and construction toys declining, and without another successful product line to buoy the company's finances, Gilbert found itself in serious financial trouble. Finally, a majority of the company was sold by the family to a holding company, the Wrather Group, in 1962 with A.C. Gilbert, Jr., acting as CEO. Within a few months, though, A.C. Jr., died. The company continued to manufacture trains of limited appeal, thanks to the questionable quality. The family sold all its 144,000 shares to the Disneyland Hotel and Lassie Conglomerate owners right after A.C.'s death.

3/16 Scale (S-Scale) Vintage American Flyer #332 Union Pacific 4-8-4 steam loco and 12 wheel tender Under the new ownership, the A.C. Gilbert Co. continued to struggle, although the new owners took a more aggressive approach to advertising and marketing than when the firm was headed by the more conservative A.C. Gilbert. The Company never made money after that year. It lost and it lost and it lost - for five straight years - up to $17 million. It manufactured a wide variety of poorly-designed and poorly-conceived toys (dolls, racing sets, games) that sold slowly, if at all, and was nearly overwhelmed by store returns of defective merchandise. Gilbert took an especially-hard hit when a majority of a poorly-designed and manufacture red James Bond 007 slot car racing set flooded back as returns after component failures. Because of the number of returns, these sets are rare and extremely collectable, now selling for an average of $1000 on ebay. In addition, the company delivered many of its toy line products to discounters with a "100% sale guarantee." When the merchandise didn't sell through, it ended up back in Gilbert's warehouses. The company discontinued the American Flyer train line in 1966 and finally declared bankruptcy in 1967.

American Flyer 'S' gauge #20550 Frontiersman set circa 1960 In May 1967, Lionel Corporation announced it had purchased the American Flyer name and tooling even though it was teetering on the brink of financial failure itself. A May 29, 1967 story in The Wall Street Journal made light of the deal, stating, "Two of the best-known railroads in the nation are merging and the Interstate Commerce Commission couldn't care less". Former Lionel treasurer Robert A. Stein said Lionel did not initiate the deal; both companies had farmed out their accounts receivable departments to Arthur Heller & Co., who initiated the transaction. While various accounts published over the years valued the deal at $150,000, Stein's recollection was that Lionel simply liquidated $300,000-$400,000 worth of American Flyer inventory for Heller in exchange for the tooling, which, by some accounts, sat unused and neglected in a parking lot for some period of time. Lionel Corporation never manufactured American Flyer trains.

American Flyer 'S' gauge #21812 Texas and Pacific Baldwin Switcher Within two years, Lionel Corp. was bankrupt itself and had sold its train lines to General Mills, including the unused American Flyer tooling. In 1979, General Mills' Lionel division started to reissue Flyer products under that name employing a mix of previously unused railroad heralds and traditional Gilbert American Flyer designs.

American Flyer 'S' gauge #740 hand car In 1984, General Mills sold the Lionel Co. to Kenner, a toy manufacturer. One year later, the company was sold to Richard Kughn, a Detroit toy train collector who made his fortune selling and developing real estate. For over a decade, Kughn moved both the Lionel and American Flyer brands forward, getting a shot of momentum from a resurgence in the toy train hobby in the early 1990's. In 1996, Kughn sold a majority interest to Wellspring Partners LLD, a Chicago-based national turnaround firm headed by Martin Davis. Kughn retained a small percentage, and rock star Neil Young, another toy train buff, also became a minor investor. Young's contributions include designing a sound system for trains (RailSounds) in 1992, as well as the Trainmaster Command Control (TMCC), a unique radio control system. The new company is known as Lionel, LLC.

American Flyer 'S' gauge #8350 Boston & Maine GP-7 loco made by Lionel in 1984 The American Flyer brand name survives today under the guidance of Lionel, LLC, although Lionel's advertising and marketing emphasis seems to remain locked on promoting its own 'O' and 'O27' gauge product lines. True American Flyer aficionados claim this narrow focus is a conflict of interest and prevents the growth of 'S' Gauge among new train operators. Most of the American Flyer-branded product sold by Lionel, LLC today is reissues of 1950's designs utilizing refurbished old Gilbert tooling, decorated in traditional road names and paint schemes used by Gilbert, as well as an influx of some of today's modern railroad heralds. One complaint by longtime American Flyer devotees is that Lionel isn't creating Flyer products that appeal to the toy train masses -- rather, focusing instead on a small market of Flyer collectors.

American Flyer 'S' gauge #24036 New Haven boxcar However, winds of change are blowing. Each year since 2002 Lionel has increased the number of American Flyer offerings, a sign the demand for 3/16" 'S' gauge is growing. In late 2004, Lionel finally debuted a new steam locomotive -- a highly-detailed, 2-8-2 Mikado in multiple road names. Utilizing all new tooling and issued under the American Flyer name, the Mike is the first original American Flyer steam locomotive design since the late 1950's. Complete with TMCC (Lionel's proprietary wireless remote control technology) and a superb sound chip/system (TrainSounds), the Mikados proved to be a hot seller and their success has led to future similar issues. In late 2006, Lionel began delivering an updated remake of its largest steam locomotive, the famous 4-8-4 Northern, as well as a gray Union Pacific Northern with smoke deflectors (elephant ears); both new versions have digital sounds. Due in late 2006 or early 2007 is a new high-detail Pacific (4-6-2) with both TMCC capability and RailSounds. Additionally, Lionel released in 2006 the first newly tooled passenger fleet. These heavyweight style cars are neither a refashioning of older Flyer designs nor a repurposing of Lionel '027' rolling stock (as some earlier Lionel/Flyer freight cars had been.) Lionel's investment in new tooling is being taken, among 'S'-scalers, as a sign of real commitment by the manufacturer to their market segment, and as an optimistic future view for the brand, the gauge and the hobby itself.

American Flyer 'S' gauge 'The New Clipper' New Haven passenger set #20340, circa 1957
American Flyer 1934 Burlington Zephyr 3 piece set #9900 in 'O' gauge
American Flyer S gauge 21922 21922-1 Missouri Pacific Alco PA diesel locos
American Flyer 'S' gauge #377 Texas & Pacific GP-7 power diesel unit American Flyer 'S' gauge #24633 silver bay window caboose American Flyer 'S' gauge #356 chrome Silver Bullet 4-6-2 streamlined locomotive and tender

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