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 Set #5012-t W/370 Gp-7,633 Red Ptd, 715 W/manoil-exc.boxed OsbAmerican Flyer Very Rare #24519 Western Electric/pennsylvania Reel Car C-6American Flyer Prewar Tinplate O #108 Switch Tower House Original Lighted 1929American Flyer Am Fly Pre War O-gauge 1621, 1622 Red Streamline Passenger CarsAmerican Flyer Handcar 740 With Vintage Original Box Plus Tender Cars (3)20 Pieces- American Flyer, Lionel, Ect Accessories Standard Gauge LotLot Of 3 American Flyer 2210 Tinplate Standard Gauge Double Arm Lamp Posts 1928American Flyer Prewar Tinplate O Gauge 215 Water Tank Lighted 1934American Flyer Locomotive Diesel Train Texas & Pacific # 21831American Flyer #336 4-8-4 Steam Engine With Large Motor For Restoration Or PartsAmerican Flyer 360 And 364 Diesel Santa Fe Engines Vg 1950s EraSouthern Pacific Sunset Limited 3 Passenger Cars 2bxs American Flyer Ho Train SAmerican Flyer Train LotS American Flyer 353 Red Circus Pacific 4-6-2 Locomotive And Tender. No Reserve!Gilbert Post War American Flyer S Gauge #477-478 Silver Flash Diesel LocomotivesAmerican Flyer Prewar #4696 Steam Locomotive & Tender, Standard Wide GaugeAmerican Flyer Locomotive Train # 325ac-good Condition W/ Box Vintage & OriginalAmerican Flyer Prewar Tinplate O #92 Watchman's Tower With Bell 1929 #2American Flyer Ho Hot Shot Freight Set W/31004 Smoke & Chug Loco American Flyer 432 Super Atlantic Loco Ca 1939 ExcAmerican Flyer S Gauge 360 364 Santa Fe Alco Pa-b Diesel UnitsAmerican Flyer 21004 0-6-0 Switcher 7 TenderAmerican Flyer 1959 S Gauge Hooker Tank Car # 24324 Suoer Nice Factory PaintAmerican Flyer 936 "pennsylvania" Reel Carrier Car In Excellent Minus Cond W BoxAmerican Flyer 342 Ac Steam Engine & Tender Nickel Plate Road S Gauge 0-8-0American Flyer Wide Gauge 4694-parts Or Restore-nice Shell. NrAmerican Flyer 19083 Figure 8 Speedway Race Set C.1962 New Old Store Stock MintAmerican Flyer #5103-wt Set (boxes Only) For 295, 650, 651 Green-new Haven-1951Vintage - Pre War - Tin - American Flyer O Scale Streamliner - The Comet TrainO Gauge Prewar Toy Train Book American Flyer Greenberg's Guide 2nd Edit 1997New York New Haven Railroad Co. American Flyer Lines S Scale Steam Train Engine American Flyer #k 335 4-8-4 Union Pacific Northern Locomotive Circ. 1952O Gauge Junior Bridge In Orig Box Train Bridge For Lionel American Flyer MarxAmerican Flyer/greenberg's Guide To Af Prewar O Gauge Revised Addition 1997Lionel/american Flyer S Gauge C&o Aa Diesel SetAttention!! Vintage American Flyer Lines S Scale Trains Nickel Plate Switcher ��Set Of Six Original Gilbert Post War American Flyer S Gauge Freight Cars CleanVintage American Flyer Train Lot Engine 293 And More In Boxes American Flyer Trains Train Custom "dow" Car BlueAmerican Flyer Green Pullman Coach #652American Flyer Green Pullman Observation Car #654Prewar American Flyer O Gauge #3115 Electric Engine - Low Bid No ReserveAmerican Flyer #649 Circus Coach Car Made 1950 To 1953American Flyer #21234 "defender" Diesel C&oAmerican Flyer Die Cast O-gauge 435 Locomotive For PartsAmerican Flyer ,952,953, & 954, Pikes Peak Grand Canyon ,niagara Falls, S GaugeAmerican Flyer Die Cast S-gauge Locomotive & Tender With SmokeAmerican Flyer 1680 Large Nyc Hudson Type Loco And Tender Has NeedsVintage Postwar American Flyer 316 Engine & Tender American Flyer 293 4-6-2 Steam Locomotive ~ New York, New Haven, HartfordAmerican Flyer 6-49612 B & O Passenger TrainAmerican Flyer O-gauge 435t Tender OnlyAmerican Flyer Train Set With Accessories - Ready To RunAmerican Flyer No. 982 State Of Maine Bangor And Aroostook Bar Boxcar 1956 -1957American Flyer Super Clean 571 Up Challenger O Ca 1940 Exc PlusAmerican Flyer 650, 650, 651 S-gauge New Haven Passenger CarsJim Cohen's Original Ives 17 1118 & American Flyer Lines Rubber Stamps W ReceiptAmerican Flyer No. 274 Harbor Freight Station Made By Mini Craft 1952 - 1953American Flyer Baldwin Chassis PartsMint Boxed American Flyer Lti 48246 Smokey The Bear Box Car -- Ttos 2008