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 Chief Santa Fe A-b-a Locomotive Set332 American Flyer Union Pacific Northern / Challenger Loco & TenderAmerican Flyer Die Cast O Gauge Yard King Switcher Locomotive 0-6-0 With TenderPrewar American Flyer 572 Steam Engine.American Flyer # 321 New York Central 4-6-4 Hudson Sit 1946 Free ShippingAmerican Flyer Die Cast Engine And Tender322 American Flyer New York Central Nyc Loco & Smoke Tender Hudson 4-6-4American Flyer S Scale 342 Locomotive & Tender Smoke Train Estate LotAmerican Flyer O Scale 435 Locomotive With Original BoxGilbert American Flyer Ho 35099 Frontiersman Set, In Original Set BoxAmerican Flyer The Chief Santa Fe Passenger CarsAmerican Flyer #23796 Sawmill- Vintage Late 1950s - Complete In Original Box!American Flyer 313 Large Motor Pacific Steam Locomotive 4-6-2 Very GoodVintage American Flyer, # 316 Pennsylvania K-5 Locomotive, 4-6-2,with Prr TenderAmerican Flyer S Guage #915 Auto Unloading Car W/ Renwal Gas Truck Near Mib American Flyer 21005 1958 Pennsylvania 0-6-0 Engine & TenderAmerican Flyer # 7210 Flood Light Car "die-cast Generator/chrome Light" Nice!American Flyer 423 Engine With TenderAmerican Flyer Lines Niagara Falls & Grand Canyon Passenger Cars 953 & 954Vintage O Scale Electric American Flyer Lines Hiawatha Streamline Train Set/runs1958 American Flyer Docksider Set 20405 Original Box Tested W/ L@@k Rare Find!American Flyer S Metal 290 Engine & Cars Lot American Flyer Prewar O Gauge Streamliner Burlington Zephyr 9900American Flyer O Scale Red Passenger Car SetAmerican Flyer 3115 Engine And Golden State Passenger Car Set. American Flyer 20551 Frontiersman Set W/box Nice!American Flyer Die Cast Engine With TenderAmerican Flyer Engine To 21105 And Rocket Launcher Rocket Sled And Much MoreVintage Antique Prewar O-gauge American Flyer Engine, Freight Cars,& TransformerAmerican Flyer #314aw Loco & Tender,hard To Find LocoOld American Flyer The Royal Blue Engine & Tender *vintage S Scale Toy TrainNo. 355 American Flyer Chicago Northwestern Baldwin Diesel EngineAmerican Flyer Rocket Pa-1 Passenger Set From 1950's, C-5, American Flyer 0-4-0 Prewar Electric Trian Set Excellent Original Paint O GaugeVintage O Scale Wind Up American Flyer Lines Hiawatha Streamline Train Set/runsOriginal Gilbert American Flyer S Gauge New York Hudson Steam Engine Tender American Flyer Bell Ringer Engine And TenderAmerican Flyer O Gauge Tinplate Air Service Tank Car #3018American Flyer Original Cow Lot 76+ Pieces About 1/2 Black & Brown Holy CowAmerican Flyer O Gauge 2-6-4 For Parts Or Restoration American Flyer 'o' 494 & 495 Passenger Car LotAmerican Flyer Postwar Alco Aba 3 Unit Set, Union Pacific, Chromed JqClean Working Dual Motor American Flyer Pa Diesel Engine ChassisAmerican Flyer 3200 Series Passenger Car Set - 5 Cars In AllAmerican Flyer Die Cast Engine Tin Tender With Wing Decal 3189Vintage Lot Of 50 American Flyer #23025 Red Smoke Cartridge Capsule With FluidAmerican Flyer S Gauge New York Central Gp-9 EngineVintage American Flyer 695 Reverse Loop Relay With Box & Instructions! Very NiceSet Box B1049 Af Set #4607 W/ Boxes CompleteAmerican Flyer Prewar Locomotive O Gauge Partial RestorationAmerican Flyer 430 Die Cast Tender With Original BoxAmerican Flyer Pre War O Gauge Tin Lighted Observation Car No. 3282American Flyer 779 Oil Drum Loader (very Rare Gray Base) (pre-prod Sample) In ObAmerican Flyer Train Set4 American Flyer Orange Stripe Passenger Cars W/ Original BoxesAmerican Flyer 24225 Santa Fe Hopper 1960 Kleer-pakVintage American Flyer O Scale Silver Eagle Locomotive And Tender Toy Stamp & 1930s Or 40s American Flyer Train Set W #561 Engine And Shell Tanker3 American Flyer #600 Plastic Series Passenger Cars For Restoration Or Parts..American Flyer 31205-1 F-9 Dummy Boston Maine Engine