American Flyer toy trains first chugged onto the scene around 1907 as windup, tinplate O Gauge trains, a cheaper alternative to the larger-scale electric trains made by Lionel and others. The firm that produced them, founded by William Ogden Coleman in Chicago, was originally called Edmonds-Metzel Manufacturing Company, and Ogden was briefly joined in it by William Hafner, who went on to launch his own Hafner line of windup trains in 1914.

Before the company changed its name to American Flyer Manufacturing Company in 1910, it only produced passenger-train sets, known as “Chicago cars,” as they weren’t numbered but had “Chicago” stamped onto their sides. Then, in 1910, the newly minted Amercian Flyer company launched its first line of freight cars. The company also produced a lower-end Hummer line of passenger and freight cars, though these were never branded with the American Flyer name.

Finally, in 1918, with the market already dominated by Lionel and Ives, American Flyer began producing electric locomotives and cast-iron O Gauge trains, using technology that had been developed 20 years earlier. Between 1920 and 1934, the company released electric toy trains meant to resemble trains running in New England at the time. They were made out of lithographed steel, enameled steel, and cast iron.

To compete with Ives, Lionel, and Dorfan, American Flyer launched a larger, “premium” line of electric toy trains in 1925. These trains could run on Lionel’s “Standard Gauge” tracks, which American Flyer named “Wide Gauge” (both were 2 1/8 inches between the rails). Marketed as “Wonder Trains,” American Flyer’s shiny, brightly colored train sets had patriotic names like “American Legion,” “President’s Special,” and “Mayflower.”

They were also extremely pricey for the 1920s. The cadmium-plated “Mayflower” set, for example, ran about $100, a full month’s salary for an average person. In 1926, the company joined up with Lionel to produce hybrid freight cars for a line featuring Lionel bodies on American Flyer trucks.

Around 1929, American Flyer joined forces with Lionel again to buy out Ives, and for a few years, all three brands were produced by the same conglomeration, featuring a mix-and-match of each company’s parts. Then, in 1931, Lionel bought out American Flyer’s share of Ives, and American Flyer was on its own again.

These efforts were not met with much success. American Flyer was hit hard by the Great Depression that started in 1929—by 1932, it had stopped manufacturing its Wide-Gauge line e...

Fortunately, entrepreneur Alfred Carleton (A.C.) Gilbert, inventor of Erector toys, was looking for a way to break into the toy train market. In 1938, he eagerly bought out the company. A Yale medical school graduate and record-breaking Olympic pole-vaulter, the vigorous and aggressive Gilbert had just what the company needed—high standards and the business smarts to pull the company out of debt. Coleman worked out a potentially lucrative royalty deal with Gilbert, but he died in 1939 before he could reap the benefits. After Coleman’s death, Gilbert closed American Flyer’s Chicago plant and moved all of its manufacturing to New Haven, Connecticut.

Right before World War II, Gilbert revived the company by tapping into the emerging adult-hobbyist market, launching its own 3/16-inch scale (1:64) trains, which were about two-thirds the size of O-Gauge trains but ran on a three-rail O-Gauge track. Focusing on realism, Amercian Flyer put out this line of tiny, high-quality, and highly detailed diecast train sets in 1939, led by the acclaimed Union Pacific 4-8-4 “Challenger” Model 806.

Model train hobbyists were even more taken with 1940’s diecast Pennsylvania K-5 locomotive and the Baltimore & Ohio “Royal Blue” 4-6-2. American Flyer also produced inexpensive sheet-metal versions for consumers who didn’t have such deep pockets—Gilbert gave the O-Gauge line a sprucing up in 1941 with updated features and a new coat of paint. However, the arrival of World War II meant the company had to devote 95 percent of its production and materials to the war effort, making pieces for machine guns and landmines.

In anticipation of America’s involvement in the war, Gilbert opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York on September 17, 1941, to keep his company’s name in the public consciousness. It was a brilliant marketing maneuver, showcasing American Flyer products, as well as Erector sets and other Gilbert items like chemistry sets and microscopes. Soon, other cities had their own smaller versions of Gilbert Hall.

After the war, Gilbert was caught off guard by how quickly Lionel introduced its new train featuring a life-like knuckle coupler (the mechanism for connecting train cars). In 1946, Gilbert struck back with its even more realistic S-Gauge track, a two-rail line for its 3/16-scale American Flyer trains. Still, Gilbert could not knock off the patented Lionel coupler, which meant its customers were left with its disappointingly simple link coupler.

Still, the S-Gauge line had a devoted following of fans, who were drawn to the detail and realism of the trains. Lionel trains, however, had more bells and whistles—literally. Lionel’s patented built-in whistle sounded just like a real steam engine’s—American Flyer fans had to content themselves with “whistling billboards” off to the side of the track, or the wheezy, fake sound of the “Nathan air-chime” whistle.

Like Lionel, Gilbert sent vast American Flyer train layouts and sets to department stores for their Christmas displays. In the 1950s, his company even made special displays for television shows like Dave Garroway’s “Today” show, “The Price is Right,” and “American Bandstand.”

When Gilbert died in 1961, his son, Alfred Jr., took over the company, only to sell 52 percent of it to “Lassie” producer Jack Wrather. By 1966, American Flyer was sold to Lionel, which continued to produce popular American Flyer pieces like the Alco PA and the Electro-Motive GP7.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

American Flyer Displays

American Flyer Displays

Dale Smith's homage to American Flyer model trains does an especially good job of showing the lengths to which the … [read review or visit site]

Airfix Model Railways

Airfix Model Railways

Dave McCarthy's Airfix Model Railway treasure trove is an in-depth archive of the company's plastic railway kits fr… [read review or visit site]

Gateway NMRA

Gateway NMRA

This great reference site for model railroaders, from the Gateway (St. Louis) division of the NMRA (National Model … [read review or visit site]

HOseeker.net

HOseeker.net

This site is a treasure trove of HO scale model railroad manufacturer catalogs and other reference information, inv… [read review or visit site]

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Bernie Schulz’s Lionel Trains Library focuses exclusively on postwar Lionel trains and accessories. The site cont… [read review or visit site]

Eric's Trains

Eric's Trains

Eric Siegel's site displays his collection of O-gauge/O-scale trains, tracks, turntables, and other accessories. A … [read review or visit site]

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

MIT's model railroad club, as one might expect, has one of the best websites for learning about how people play wit… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

American Flyer Set 20530 Nighthawk W/21130, 24558, C.1959-'60 Lnob OsbVintage American Flyer 20535 Union Pacific Pony Express Set W/ All Boxes!!S Gauge American Flyer #346 Rare 0-8-0 SwitcherAmerican Flyer 24863 Missouri Pacific Vista Dome Car Nos Mint Un-run W/obPre-war American Flyer O Gauge Royal Blue 4-6-2 Pacific Loco With 555 TenderAmerican Flyer 332 Challenger Engine & Union Pacific Tender Set W/ WrapVintage American Flyer 499 New Haven Electric Nice!S Gauge American Flyer Washington Set S Gauge American Flyer 484-485-486 Blue & Yellow Santa Fe A-b-a Diesel SetVintage Comet 466 American Flyer Train Diesel Engine Track Lionel Controller American Flyer Silver Bullet And Two 655 Cars Set With Original Engine Wrap!!American Flyer Search Light Car Lot 7210 Two Variations Look No ReserveVtg 1960 American Flyer 20655 Civil War Frontiersman Electric Train Railroad SetVintage Gilbert American Flyer The Arrow Includes Illinois Central 24579 American Flyer 24856 Missouri Pacific Combine Car Nos Mint Un-run W/obPre War American Flyer O Gauge Model Train 561 + 553 Tender Stiff WheelsAmerican Flyer #4675 Steam Locomotive And Tender (#4692x/4671)American Flyer 24866 Missouri Pacific Observation Car Nos Mint Un-run W/obS Gauge American Flyer 332ac 4-8-4 Northern Steam EngineS Gauge American Flyer #23780 Gabe The Lamplighter American Flyer New Haven 494 Powered A-unit...dual Pulmore Motors..very Good +American Flyer Prewar O Scale Locomotive 3322 And Tender 3199 Chicago Train Set Vintage American Flyer Pre-war O Gauge Lot Of 4 Red Passenger Cars #494 & #495 Super Nice American Flyer Hudson Tender Chassis With Reverse Unit And Whistle!American Flyer 1950's S Gauge Track Side Accessories Lot Of Six Different Ones American Flyer Train Set"the Royal Blue" American Flyer No. 556 Locomotive W/ No. 555 Tender - Nice American Flyer 322 Engine And Tender. The A.c. Gilbert Co.American Flyer S Gauge 954 Maroon Red Passenger Car C-6 Nice!Vintage American Flyer 322 New York Central System Engine And Tender.American Flyer Passenger Car 960 961 962 Set Of 4 Columbus Jefferson HamiltonAmerican Flyer K 335 4-8-4 Locomotive / Parts / Gilbert SS Gauge American Flyer #342dc 0-8-0 SwitcherAmerican Flyer # 356 Silver Bullet Silver Steam Engine And 655 Passenger CarVintage 1952 American Flyer Train Set (1950's ?) A.c. Gilbert Co.Vintage American Flyer Train Silver Flash 481 A Unit Diesel Passenger Locomotive1997 American Flyer Alco "santa Fe" 52-53 Diesel Engine 6-48130 New Old Stock2004 American Flyer "santa Fe" Alco "b" Unit Model 6-48136 New Old StockAmerican Flyer Overland Express Engine With Passenger, Baggage And Freight CarsAmerican Flyer No. 984 New Haven Box Car !Burlington Silver Express American Flyer S Gauge American Flyer S Guage Rocket Transport + Launcher + Red Truck Train Flat CarsAmerican Flyer # 370 Gm Diesel Look No ReserveAmerican Flyer Gilbert Ho 30335 Northern Pacific Train Set, Complete W/boxAmerican Flyer S Gauge Silver Flash Nice Train Set With Extra Car +boxes 6-49606(8) American Flyer Freight Cars,716,632,625,pa-9180,630,638,629,640, Lot 218American Flyer Comet Diesel Locomotive 466American Flyer #21801 Chicago Northwestern Cnw Baldwin Diesel Switcher ShellAmerican Flyer Trains Up 332 W/dc Motor 4-8-4 Northern/challenger Nice Orig 1948American Flyer 25061 Tnt Exploding Car With Original Perfect Cond. W/obVintage American Flyer 322 New York Central Hudson Steam Engine 4-6-4 & TenderAmerican Flyer Up Tender (has Four Steps)Vintage American Flyer Gilbert Co Chicago + Nw Locomotive & Tender Model #283Vintage American Flyer 981 Central Of Georgia Box Car Nice!Vintage 1950's American Flyer Water Tower A.c. Gilbert S Gauge American Flyer #377-378 American Flyer Lines T&p Diesel SetAmerican Flyer S Gauge 953 Maroon Red Passenger Car C-6 Nice!American Flyer # 312 Steam Engine Look No ReserveS Gauge American Flyer 405 Silver Streak Set With Rare 502 Vista DomeS Gauge American Flyer 343 Nickel Plate 0-8-0 Steam Switcher