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]

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 "the Silver Bullet" 5306t, Passenger Train Set Boxed Set, 1953O Scale Vintage Brass Trolley. Rare ! American Flyer? Lionel?American Flyer Lines 343 Nickel Plate Road 0-8-0 Switcher & Tender: 1953-58 !Vintage Boxed American Flyer 594 Animated Track Workers Plus++ Lionel Compatibl Vintage American Flyer 494 495 New Haven Pa Powered/unpowered Diesels Nice!American Flyer #20450 Rare "trail Blazer" Set With BoxesAmerican Flyer S Gauge #336 Northern Repainted Into Rock Island Lines 5104Pre-war American Flyer Train Set Engine, Tender & 3 Cars, Station, Lamp & TracksPrewar American Flyer No.211 Salt Lake Wood Trestle Bridge - 28" Long American Flyer Lines No. 21004 Prr 0-6-0 Switcher & Tender: 1957 !American Flyer Very Rare Spectacular 8-piece 57 Sf Pass Set Close To New ObsAmerican Flyer 322 New York Central 4-6-4 Hudson Steam Engine & Tender:1946-50 !American Flyer S Gauge Set 20764 Klondike Great Northern Boxed Nice Runs American Flyer Lines 342ac Nickel Plate Road 0-8-0 Switcher & Tender: 1949-51 !American Flyer Prewar Wide Gauge 4637 "shasta" Loco For Pocahontas Set!American Flyer 342ac 0-8-0 Steam Switcher & TenderVintage American Flyer S Gauge No.234 C&o Gp-7 Diesel Engine With Ringing BellVintage Prewar American Flyer Standard Gauge No.4019 Nyc Type Electric EngineAmerican Flyer S Gauge #312 4-6-2 Steam Engine With Original Box And WrapperAmerican Flyer 474 Rocket Diesel Powered "a" Unit In Satin Silver, 1953-1955336 American Flyer Up Northern Locomotive - Large Motor - Runs WellAmerican Flyer O Gauge Union Pacific City Of Denver 4-car SetAmerican Flyer 315 Prr Pacific Locomotive And Tender, 4-6-2, Excellent W WrapRed American Flyer O Scale Engine #3100 & 3 Passenger Car Set - (l103 Vintage American Flyer Rare 24422 Opening Door Great Northern Reefer Painted VerAmerican Flyer Gilbert Texas And Pacific T&p 812 Boxed Set 20610 S Gauge Runs American Flyer S Gauge 342ac 0-8-0 Switcher-nickel Plate RoadAmerican Flyer #326 HudsonAmerican Flyer 710 Steam Whistle Control Complete In Original Box, 1955--rare--American Flyer Comet Passenger Train Set With 466 Alco Diesel Locomotive American Flyer 24419 "canadian National" Refrigerator Car In Very Good Plus CondVintage American Flyer 322 4-6-4 Nyc Sit Locomotive Train Engine Fix PartsVintage Streamline American Flyer Electric O Gauge Articulated Passenger SetAmerican Flyer Prewar Wide Gauge 4694 Steam Loco! Transition Ives 1134! Nice!!!S Gauge, American Flyer 30b 300w - Dual Transformer - Very Good Condition!!!1960 American Flyer S Gauge Set #20655 Pres. Washington Frontiersman Set +3 CarsAmerican Flyer Boston & Maine Boxed Set 20710 Hooker Chemcial Nyc Scarce RunsHuge Train Lot Lionel, Marx, American Flyer 48 Pieces Set Of Three Gilbert American Flyer S Gauge Green New Haven Passenger CarsAmerican Flyer Lines #315 Prr 4-6-2 Pacific Engine / Tender Working!American Flyer S-gauge Dual Motor Diesel Chassis, Likenew, No ReservePre War American Flyer O Scale 3 Rail 3116 Engine, 3176 & 3177 Passenger CarsAmerican Flyer #24319American Flyer S Gauge Lot 290 Steam Locomotive With Tender Baggage Coach CarAmerican Flyer Parts - All Contents Of Parts Cabinet - See DescriptionAmerican Flyer 322ac W/ob & Wrap + 651 650s Ln 1949‏ American Flyer Pre-war "o" Or Standard Gauge-6ea. 1920's Very Nice Accessories!American Flyer Gilbert #25061 Tnt Exploding BoxcarAmerican Flyer 497 New Haven Alco Pa Diesel American Flyer 979 "a.f.l." Operating Bay Window Caboose In Very Good Plus Cond American Flyer S Gauge 654 Green Observation Passenger Car American Flyer 322 Steam Engine Smoke Tender New York Central S Scale Gauge American Flyer 21004 Switcher Beautiful + "ob"American Flyer Pre War O Gauge #556 Steam Locomotive & #555 Tender.Vintage S-scale American Flyer Union Pacific Locomotive K335-heavy/well MadeVintage 1953 American Flyer S Gauge No.18b 190 Watt Dual Transformer With BoxSet Of Two Gilbert American Flyer S Gauge Freight Cars Us Navy Canadian PacificAmerican Flyer Prewar Wide Gauge 4654 Orange Electric. Nice!American Flyer Lot Of 4 Freight Cars With 24636,25071,245661948 American Flyer Royal Blue Locomotive 350 & Tender Train