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    

1950 American Flyer Trains 466 Silver Comet Diesel Passenger Set In Original BoxAmerican Flyer #332 American Flyer New Haven Alco A-a Diesel Locomotives 494 & 495 Gilbert American Flyer Prewar 0 Gauge 1661,1661,1662 &1623 Green Passenger Car SetAmerican Flyer # 322ac Union Pacific 4-8-4 Northern Steam Locomotive !Union Pacific Mikado 2-8-2 Locomotive /tender With Tmcc / Railsounds 5.0 # 48041Blue Comet Tmcc 4-6-2 Pacific & Heavyweight Passenger Cars With Add On CarsAmerican Flyer #497 New Haven Alco - Vintage 1957 - Nice! Runs Great!American Flyer "o" Scale #570 Pre-war "hudson 4-6-4" Locomotive & Tender- American Flyer 's' 20535 Up Aa And 4 Passneger Cars(2) 1950's American Flyer 652 Pullman Passenger LotAmerican Flyer Lines 918, 952, 953, 954 Red Heavy Weight Pullman Passenger SetAmerican Flyer #326 Nyc Hudson W/wrapper Hygrade ConditionAmerican Flyer Lines 332 Union Pacific 4-8-4 Dc Powered S-scaleOriginal Gilbert American Flyer Gray Unpainted #631 Texas & Pacific GondolaAmerican Flyer K325 4-6-4 Hudson Locomotive / Project / Gilbert S1950 American Flyer Trains 371 Diesel + 5 Cars Nice Condition W/original BoxesAmerican Flyer 20048 Scena-rama Train SetAmerican Flyer All Aboard Rh & Lh Switch Panels W/orig Box Plus Bonus StraightsAmerican Flyer 316 4-6-2 K5 Locomotive With Horn / Project / Gilbert SAmerican Flyer #978 Action Observation Passenger - Hard To Find - Vintage 1956-8Ge Baldwin Nasg Work Train Set 2004 - 2008American Flyer 's' 21205 Boston & Maine Power LocomotiveAmerican Flyer #490 Northern Pacific Alco Powered Vintage 1957 Runs Great!21922 -1 Mopac Alco Aa Bell Ringer Missouri Pacific American Flyer S Gauge D706American Flyer S Gauge Hybrid "camelback" Nyo&w 4-4-2 Atlantic LocoAmerican Flyer A C Gilbert Caboose 24632American Flyer "s" Gauge Union Pacific "northern" 4-8-4, Tender Only-need One?American Flyer Royal Blue #556 Locomotive & Tender For Parts Or RestorationRare American Flyer #24547 Powered Erie Floodlight Car - Compl. - Excllent Cond.Cnw Baldwin Engine # 48067 Vintage American Flyer Gilbert 24558 Christmas Tree Transport Box TreesRare American Flyer Netca 2005 Convention Fisk Tires Boxcar 6-48242 NosAmerican Flyer 360 And 364 Alco Pa And Pb DieselsAmerican Flyer TrainsAmerican Flyer 313 Pacific - Prototype ?American Flyer #273 Suburban Railroad Station American Flyer O Gauge 4 Rail Track - 24 Pcs # 600 Curve, 7 Pcs # 601 Straight American Flyer Union Pasific Passenger SetAmerican Flyer 's' 20520 Bankers SetAmerican Flyer "o" Gauge Pre-war Blue Passenger Cars # 494, 495, & Tender #555American Flyer Postwar Vintage 779 Oil Drum LoaderLarge American Flyer Metal Parts Lot ****must See**** # Z1950s American Flyer S Gauge Newstand + Hot Dogs Masonite Building AccessoryAmerican Flyer S Scale Lot*nib* American Flyer Santa Fe Passenger Cars 6-48945,6-48946,6-48947,6-48948American Flyer O And Standard Prewar # 2029 Whistling Billboard And BoxPrewar American Flyer Tin Litho Cattle Car O-gauge 1919-1935 American Flyer 6-48014 Northern Pacific Gp-9 Diesel Engine Nos(3) 1950's American Flyer 660, 662, 663 Passenger LotAmerican Flyer #24416 Northwestern Refrigerator Line Company 989 With BoxO €Prewar American Flyer Lot Of 3 Milwaukee Road Passenger Cars & Mail 1205 2-1206Prewar American Flyer 1111 I.c.r.r. Tin Litho Caboose O-gauge 1919-1935 2-1920s American Flyer O Gauge 1107 Coach + 1108 Baggage Tin Litho CarsAmerican Flyer 660, 661, 662, 663 Streamlined Alum. Pass. CarsAmerican Flyer 6-48013 Conrail Gp-7 Diesel Engine NosAmerican Flyer 's' 499 New Haven Ge ElectricAmerican Flyer Sit Smoke In Tender Unit For 312 321 322 332 342Model Train Accessories For Parts American Flyer Vintage