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 New!

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]

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    

594 Animated Track Gang S Gauge American Flyer TrainsPrewar American Flyer Standard No.1491 Iron Monarch Steam Engine & Passenger SetAmerican Flyer Prewar O Gauge "the Panther" Set! C8 Boxed! Nice!!!Vintage Prewar American Flyer O Gauge Potomac Passenger Car Set - 3180 3181 3182American Flyer 313 Locomotive And Tender Gilbert Train S Gauge ScaleAmerican Flyer S Gauge Complete Set Of Four Link Coupler Green Painted H.w"sAmerican Flyer S Gauge 1957 #21004 Pa. 0-6-0 Switcher Super Condition, No FlawsAmerican Flyer S Gauge Mid 1950's Alco Lot Of Three, Rockets A & A, And Comet A American Flyer Prewar O Gage Union Pacific 800 Class 4-8-4 Steam Engine OnlyAmerican Flyer Original Near Mint 20655 Washington Civil War Train SetUnion Pacific Boxed Passenger Toy Train Prewar Strmlinr American Flyer Lionel O American Flyer # 652, 652, 653, & 654 Olive Heavyweights- Really Nice !American Flyer 643 Circus Flatcar, Pressed Wood With Box , S GaugeAmerican Flyer Prewar O Gauge City Of Denver Cars Rare GreenVintage 1950's American Flyer "s" Scale Passenger & Dome Cars Lot Of 4American Flyer Set #5670 New Haven Alcos, Orange Stripe Cars, A Gem!American Flyer Mid 1950's S Gauge Streamline Santa Fe Passenger Cars Set Of 4Vintage 1950's American Flyer "s" Scale "northwestern" Diesel Locomotive #355Vintage Prewar American Flyer O Gauge No.1681 Hudson Steam Engine & TenderS Scale American Flyer Engin #8458 Southern Very CleanAmerican Flyer Lot Of Pullmand And Rea Cars 655 655 651 955 955 975 951 718 American Flyer S Gauge #332 Union Pacific 4-8-4, Found With Green Painted H.w"sAmerican Flyer S Gauge Full Set Of Four 1954 Rocket Satin Silver Passenger Cars American Flyer Pre-war "o" Gauge 3/16" Passenger Cars 3ea-orig. Boxes-very Nice!Vintage Prewar American Flyer O Gauge No.3116 Potomac Electric EngineAmerican Flyer 21918 S-gauge Seaboard Air Line Baldwin S-12 Diesel Switcher (in Jc Penney Nation Wide Lines American Flyer Set 1929-1934 O GaugeAmerican Flyer 6-48080 C&o Gp-7 Locomotive, Defender, Dr125057 American Flyer Tnt Exploding Box Car All Original.American Flyer O-gauge Royal Blue Train Set (rare Very Dark Blue Version)2002 Special Gilbert Train Show & Factory American Flyer Flat Car Pa 9952 RareAmerican Flyer 5 Engines And More 21160, 234,355,312,302American Flyer 6-49601 Missouri Pacific Passenger Set, DrAmerican Flyer 6-48130 Alco Pa/b Locomotive Set, Santa Fe 52 + 53, Dr2Gilbert American Flyer Sante Fe Engine #472 Train Engine,diesel Locomotive #472American Flyer Pre-war "o" Gauge "minnehaha" Streamline Freight -1935 Orig-nice!American Flyer 1936 Prewar "0" Ga. Union Pacific Deluxe Streamliner SetVtg American Flyer Train Set In The BoxAmerican Flyer 980 B&o Box Car Baltimore And Ohio S Gauge Scale Gilbert TrainAmerican Flyer A.c. Gilbert No 770 Baggage Loading PlatformOrig 1950s American Flyer S Scale Guilford Animated Passenger Station AccessoryAmerican Flyer 952 953 954 Green Passenger Car Set1959 American Flyer 21234 Chesapeake & Ohio Gp-7 Diesel #234 Engine Bell TrainAmerican Flyer Trains Diesel Engine BoxesAmerican Flyer Trains - Pair Of "western Pacific" Alco's - Factory ReplacementsAmerican Flyer Trains Car Boxes For Train Set #20340 .American Flyer Set- 4 Red Stripe 21813, 24869, 24868, 24867 Luggage++ W/ ObAmerican Flyer Train SetVintage American Flyer No 342 Ac Engine & Coal Car TrainAmerican Flyer Pre-war "o" Gauge 3/16" Freight Cars-6ea. Orig. Boxes-very Nice!American Flyer Twin Toy Train Dual Transformer #22090 350 Watt Ac Gilbert American Flyer S Gauge 48100 Wabash Alco Pa Aa Diesel Units.. New In BoxVintage 1940's American Flyer "s" Scale Die-cast Locomotive & Tender #310Old American Flyer By Gilbert 973 Operating Milk Car With Nice Box American Flyer # 785 Gilbert Coal Loader In ObVintage Lionel/ American Flyer S Gauge 4060 Baldwin Diesel Southern PacificAmerican Flyer 355 Baldwin Diesel Switcher Engine - Motor & Chasis - S ScaleAmerican Flyer Lines O Gauge Prewar Vanderbilt Tender. Nice!!rare!!Vintage 1950's American Flyer "s" Scale "mobilgas" Tank Car (#24315)Orig 1950s American Flyer S Scale # 771 Stock Yard W Cows Accessory