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    

American Flyer Pre-war "o" Gauge "overland Flyer Set" Very Early-cute-beautiful!Toy Stamp & 1950s American Flyer Frontiersman Train Set Mint Unused In The BoxAmerican Flyer Standard Gauge #4643 Locomotive-1927-original Box-gorgeous!(2) American Flyer Train Sets,1930's-40's,engine #336,cars 918,953,954,952,l@@kAmerican Flyer Model Train S Scale Locomotive Rolling Stock Track Lights & More!American Flyer #6-49606 Silver Flash Diesel Engine Passenger Train Set In BoxAmerican Flyer 21145, Nickel Plate Road, 0-8-0 Locomotive Switcher & Tender American Flyer 332 Dc 4-8-4 Northern Steam Locomotive & Union Pacific TenderAmerican Flyer S Gauge 342ac 0-8-0 Nickel Plate Road Switcher And TenderAmerican Flyer #343 Nickle Plate Road Engine And Tender Produced 1953-1958American Flyer Steam 4692 Engine & 4671 Tender Wide GaugeAmerican Flyer S Gauge 477 478 Chrome Silver Flash Ab Diesel SetAmerican Flyer Train Set With Accessories - Ready To RunAmerican Flyer 0-scale Pre-war Tinplate "the Comet" Passenger For Parts/restoreAmerican Flyer Train - Santa Fe #360 - Deisiel - Passenger TrainRare American Flyer 372 Union Pacific Gp-7 Engine Made By American Flyer Type 1American Flyer K335 Engine & TenderAmerican Flyer 6-49604 S Gauge Western Pacific Passenger SetAmerican Flyer S Gauge 360 361 Santa Fe Ab Diesel Set4 Aluminum American Flyer S Passenger Cars 660 661 662 663Nice Assortment Of American Flyer Locomotive PartsVintage American Flyer Texas & Pacific 812 Baldwin Diesel Engine-parts/repairAmerican Flyer Standard Gauge Set-2 Litho Pass. Cars-1926-originals Boxes-nice!A Pre-war American Flyer 1680 Hudson Locomotive & Tender 1623-a, Tested Working 4 American Flyer Aluminum Passenger Train Cars 661-662-663Very Nice Original American Flyer 313 Pacific Steam Loco - Runs & Smokes American Flyer Prewar 1680 Hudson Loco! Runs Great!!!American Flyer Train Set # 4621 1947 332 Challenger Loco-tender & 5 Pass CarsNice Assortment Of American Flyer Mixed PartsVintage American Flyer 373 Operating Milk Car Toy Train S Scale GilbertAmerican Flyer Train Set Santa Fe 470 471 473Super Nice American Flyer 715s And Early 740 Handcar1950s American Flyer Train CarsAmerican Flyer Train 20465American Flyer 5011 Passenger Set 334dc And CarsVery Nice Original American Flyer 332 Northern Steam Loco - Dc - Runs & Smokes American Flyer ,burlington - Zephyr ,9900 ,6 Pieces ,o Gauge ,parts Or Restore American Flyer 3110 "potomac" Prewar, Tinplate, Locomotive "o" Gauge, 0-4-0American Flyer Train Northwestern Refrigerator Car (box Frame Only ) #989 IobAmerican Flyer 400 Locomotive And Cars W/ Buildings Cars Signal Light Marx Etc.American Flyer (lionel) #6-42589 Up #7494 Es44ac LocomotiveBurlington 21210 American Flyer Lines S Gauge F9 Diesel Power Unit No ReserveAmerican Flyer 0-scale Pre-war Tinplate 9900 Burlington Zephyr Lot Parts/restore1940 Ac Gilbert American Flyer Train Set ,engine ,cars, Track,box Look 962 963+American Flyer Train 812 Texas & Pacific Baldwin Diesel Locomotive Engine OnlyAmerican Flyer No. 779 Oil Drum Loader Excellent Condition Works Great !!!American Flyer Lines No. 25052 Rubber Man Action Caboose 1958 Prewar American Flyer 9900 Burlington Zephyr 4 Piece Set Rare Runs Look Good SetAmerican Flyer Lot Mixed Parts +accessories Guard Shack Fire Dept. TransformerAmerican Flyer 4692 Pre War Steam Locomotive Standard GaugeAmerican Flyer Prewar O Gauge 3014 Electric Train EngineAmerican Flyer S Gauge 322 Steam Locomotive With Tender Shell For PartsAmerican Flyer Prewar O Gauge Cars..passenger And Baggage American Flyer S Gauge 952 953 954 Awesome Passenger Cars - Exceptional BoxesAmerican Flyer Prewar Streamlined Passenger Cars In Blue! 4 Car Set!!!American Flyer 350 Royal Blue Engine & TenderAmerican Flyer Comet 466 Locomotive Engine Vintage Model Train Working ConditionAmerican Flyer S Gauge Sit Smoke In Tender Chassis For 322 Works!American Flyer No. 728 Re-railer In Excellent Condition !Vintage Prewar American Flyer Locomotive And Tender 5414