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    

Original 1950's American Flyer 1000+ Parts Inventory In Original Envelopes Nos1950s Gilbert American Flyer Main Street Of The Northwest Train Set Rare !!!American Flyer 4 Car Lot ~ Keystone Box Car, 938 Caboose, 925 Tanker, 921 HopperAmerican Flyer 374 & 375 Texas & Pacific Gp7 Diesel EnginesAmerican Flyer 4914a New York Central Four Car Passenger Train 1949 Nice!!!!1950s American Flyer 20730 Train Set In Original BoxAf 596 Water Tower, 752 Seaboard Coaler & 708 Air Chime WhistleAf 343 0-8-0 Vg+ Runs, Smoke, Choo-choo, Pullmor, Headlight!American Flyer Prewar O Gauge 5640 Engine LocomotiveAmerican Flyer S Gauge Poswar "s "21910 Aba Santa F`e Great ConditionAf 326 4-6-4 New York Central Die-cast Steam Locomotive And TenderAmerican Flyer 316 Pennsylvania 4-6-2 Steam LocomotiveAmerican Flyer Steam EngineAmerican Flyer S Scale Train The New York Central 4-6-4 326 Loco American Flyer S Gauge 768 Gulf Oil Supply Depot & Box 1934 Very Nice American Flyer Pre-war O Gauge Set 3308 3307 3309 7715 American Flyer 326 HudsonAmerican Flyer Toy TrainAmerican Flyer 314aw 4-6-2 Pennsylvania Locomotive / Whistle / Gilbert S GaugeAmerican Flyer Gilbert 343 0-8-0 Locomotive W/tender S-scaleAmerican Flyer 23743 Track Maintenance Car W/org Kleer Pak LnOriginal 6 Unused 1950's American Flyer Xa10587b Loco Reverse Units, NosAmerican Flyer #474-475 Rocket Dual Motor Diesel Set C-6American Flyer Trains Gm Gp7 Diesel Engine, S Gauge, No 370, Exc, No ReserveAmereican Flyer Train Set K325engineAf 583 Crane, 766 Animated Station & 761 SemaphoreAf 3116 Tinplate 0-4-0 Electric Locomotive W/track Activated ReverseAf 742 Afl Motorized Handcar W/ ReverseVintage American Flyer 23571 Truss Bridge & 730 Scarce Red Bumper S Gauge OriginAmerican Flyer Mint Brand New Rare 578 Station Figure Set ObAmerican Flyer 30b Transformer With 300 WattsAmerican Flyer S Scale Train Nickel Plate Road 0-8-0 343 Loco American Flyer Circus #353 Locomotive, #349 Passenger Car + 2 Flatbeds. 1934 Very Nice American Flyer Pre-war O Gauge Pass Set 3160 3161 3162 3308 Af 19b 300 Watt TransformerOne Unopened Case Of Four 24316 Mobil Tank CarsStandard Catalog Of American Flyer Trains 2007 David Doyle49606 Silver Flash Diesel And Passenger Car SetVintage American Flyer 370 American Flyer Brand New Rare 23796 Operating Saw Mill ObAmerican Flyer S Scale Train Nickel Plate Road 342 Loco 0-8-0American Flyer Set 5515t 283 W/ow And W/obs 1955 Ln‏ American Flyer Train Set W/ #313 EngineAmerican Flyer Lot Seaboard 21918 Gon 931 Cab 930 Trans 22020American Flyer # 792 Railroad Terminal Lot # 3441American Flyer 315 Engine And TenderAmerican Flyer 481 Silver Flash Pa Diesel '56 W/ Diesel Roar & Wrapper Ex Plus!Prewar American Flyer O Gauge 8647 ? Steam Locomotive & Tender Pdx14American Flyer S Gauge 370 General Motors Gp9 Diesel W/knuckle Couplers & BoxAmerican Flyer 21145 Model Train With TenderAmerican Flyer The Royal Blue 556 Locomotive O Gauge Pre-war,for Parts RepairAmerican Flyer S Scale Train Passenger Car 963 American Flyer S Scale Trainpassenger Car 955#799 Automatic Talking Station By American Flyer Used Lot # 3440American Flyer Pre War O Gauge 3 Rail Track ( Lot Of 25) American Flyer Mfg. Co. Town - Station No. 96 Pre War 1927 Chicago FlyerAmerican Flyer Brand New Very Rare 164 Red Barn Lionel Also ObAmerican Flyer O Gauge Burlington-zephyr Cast Aluminum Passenger CarsAmerican Flyer 314aw Steam Locomotive American Flyer # 579 Single Street Lamps