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 in an elaborate miniature scene featuring 80-feet of train track surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, crossings, and towns. The hall also contained impressive displays of Erector sets and other Gilbert products like chemistry sets and microscopes, as well as sales offices. 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”)

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 #21089 Washington EngineAmerican Flyer S Gauge Silver With Green Band Passenger Set 963 & 962 & 962 &962Vintage 1950's American Flyer #302 Engine & Tender Train Set W/3 CarsAmerican Flyer Prewar Hudson Engine 1680 W/1620 Type Xi Tender Nr (dakotapaul)American Flyer K5364w Chrome Rocket Passenger Set With Incredible BoxesAmerican Flyer 315, Pennsylvania Pacific 4-6-2 Locomotive & Tender, 1952 OnlyAmerican Flyer B&m F9 Diesel A-unit #21205-1S Gauge Pcc Car/trolley (pope Imagineering-custom Made) American Flyer Dc-rare American Flyer Santa Fe, Aba 470-471-473, Mid 50s Production, SatinAmerican Flyer "o" Gauge No. 3326 Loco W/ 3199 Tender (3) Freights (dakotapaul)American Flyer S Gauge. 2 Engines, 8 Cars, Misc. For Parts And Restoration N/rAmerican Flyer Set Of (4) O Gauge Passenger Cars 1621 G, 1622 No Re (dakotapaul)American Flyer # 25750 Red Coach For Washington SetAmerican Flyer / Mini Craft 1953 #163 Flyerville Station All Orig. OutstandingAmerican Flyer 's' K5375w Sf Passenger Set 'the Chief'American Flyer Railroad Equipment Kit Gilbert # 23032American Flyer # 953, 952, 954 Green Heavy Weight Pullman Cars C-8American Flyer 's' K5406t 'the Silver Bullet'American Flyer 978 Grand Canyon Observation Car W/ Original BoxAmerican Flyer Prewar O Gauge # 429 Switcher 0-6-0 Steam Locomotive & TenderAmerican Flyer 342 Ac Engine Tender Nickel Plate RoadPost War American Flyer 342 Ac Steam Locomotive 0-8-0 No ReserveAf 494/495 S Gauge New Haven Alco Aa Diesel SetAmerican Flyer 346 Nickel Plate Road Locomotive Tender Vintage Gilbert NrGreenberg's Guide To American Flyer - Prewar "o" Gauge - Soft Cover - Pub. 1997American Flyer #332 1947-48 LocomotiveAmerican Flyer Four Car Aluminum Passenger SetAmerican Flyer S Ga 494/495 New Haven Diesel Aa Locomotive Set Vg+deal!American Flyer 1959 Defender Set - Cars Only- Almost Complete - Vg 25056, 24557American Flyer Mp Alco Diesel A-unit #21922American Flyer S Scale Trains Burlington Sd-9 6-48051 Diesel LocoAmerican Flyer By Lionel 6-48042 S Scale Ursa Light Mikado 2-8-2 Steam Loco C-8American Flyer Mp Alco Diesel A-unit #21922-1American Flyer 324 Ac1950's American Flyer S Scale 314aw Engine With Tender Pass. Car Caboose Exc.American Flyer Nh Ep-5 Electric Locomotive #21573American Flyer O Gauge Passenger Set - # 561 Loco, #494 Baggage & 2 #495 CoachesAmerican Flyer 's' 631 T&p Gondola Car (gray Unpainted) Rare!American Flyer Freight Car Assortment All With Knuckle Couplers 4 CarsRare American Flyer 715 W/ Armored Car, ObVintage American Flyer The Royal Blue Vintage American Flyer Lines Texas & Pacific Diesels Locomotives 374-375 W/boxesAmerican Flyer K335 Union Pacific Locomotive Tender Vintage Gilbert NrAmerican Flyer 4-8-4 Locomotive Parts Ok 332 334 335 336 S-scaleAmerican Flyer 24221 C&ei 2-bay Hopper Car In Original Box1940's American Flyer 322 With Tender Steam LocomotiveAmerican Flyer S Gauge No.322 Nyc 4-6-4 Hudson Steam Engine & TenderAmerican Flyer Prewar O Gauge 3116 Electric Locomotive In Green / Tan VgAmerican Flyer Track Maintenance Car 23743, W Kleer Pak, S Gauge, 2 RailAmerican Flyer Postwar Vintage #356 Silver Bullet Chrome Steam LocomotiveAmerican Flyer Lines Lighted Passenger Car 953 Niagara Falls W/ 6 Wheel TrucksAmerican Flyer *early * Boxed Set (1912-15) Rare Cars,exc. NrAmerican Flyer Lines 313 Smoke Choo Choo Headlight Die Cast 4-6-2 Loco & TenderA, C. Gilbert Ho, 1963 Hard To Find Pikemaster Era. Un. Pac. Stock Car, # 33010,#87,american Flyer Zephyr 9914 ( Wide Body Loco )American Flyer Cb&q Coal Dump Car #25060American Flyer 293 Pacific Engine & TenderAmerican Flyer 's' 21918-1 Seabord Baldwin DummyAmerican Flyer #957 Erie Action Box Car 25041 With BoxAmerican Flyer Lines No 375 Texas & Pacific Gp7 Diesel W Horn Generator Included