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

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    

3 Pre-war American Flyer Cars, Pullman, 2- No.3001's & 1- No.3000 Mail CarAmerican Flyer #577 Remote Control Whistle (ringling Bros. Circus) Orig BoxAmerican Flyer Pa Two Motor Diesel Chassis Only American Flyer/gilbert Pacific Ho Bm Box Car #522Very Nice, All Original & Rare American Flyer #24059 B&m Box Car18-t American Flyer 3200 Series Cars,for Parts Or Restore.niceAmerican Flyer S Ga # 955 Silver Bullet Passenger CarAmerican Flyer Lti 48000 S P Gp-9 Diesel Shell #8000 New Untrimmed Fits Gp7 Gp9American Flyer Locomotive & Car- Old!!!American Flyer #747 Figure 8 Trestle Set, Original Box And CompleteS Helper Service Showcase Line #01027 Prr/ Df "defect Free" Like American Flyer American Flyer/gilbert Pacific Ho Cb&q Hopper Car #501American Flyer Diesel - Santa Fe Alco 360/361 (a + B Unit)Ives Dorfan 1134 Tinplate Tender Coal Load Wide Gauge American Flyer 4694American Flyer "s" #6-48005 Gp-9 Pennsylvania Diesel Shell W/ Box/computer Board1949 American Flyer Train - Wonderful Crossing Grate W/ Horrible Paint (woks) American Flyer/gilbert Pacific Ho Gulf Single Dome Tank Car G.r.c.x. #5016American Flyer Original Box & Wrap Only For 320 Engine And Tender American Flyer Post War Transformer Red Handle (2) American Flyer/gilbert Ho Reading Caboose #506Original American Flyer O Gauge Toy Train Side Rods For Loco # 1680 1681 447 449American Flyer General Washington Old Time Engine ReplicaAmerican Flyer S Gauge Vintage 1953/56 Southern Gondola #920American Flyer No. 708 Diesel Horn Open BoxAmerican Flyer S Gauge Green New Haven Coach 650American Flyer Steam Locomotive Tender, 1930's Vintage, Restored, OriginalAmerican Flyer Track Gang Set S-ga#49808 New,mint,sealed Shipping Box,wow,l@@k !American Flyer Santa Fe Streamline Full-vista Dome Passenger Car#49940 L@@k2010 American Flyer #705 Uncoupler W/controller, Rerailer, 90 Degree Crossover, #704American Flyer 1108 Express Baggage Antique Tin Litho Toy Railroad Mail CarAmerican Flyer Lines Locomotive #307 S Scale12 Original American Flyer Brass Chassis Pins For Mounting Frams To ChassisAmerican Flyer S Gauge Diamond Chemicals Single Dome Tank Car 6-48413 Toy TrainAmerican Flyer Minneapolis & St. Louis 70525 M&stlAmerican Flyer No. 633 Baltimore & Ohio (b&o) Box Car In Original "633-r" Box !American Flyer 310 312 4-6-2 K5 Sit Tender Chassis Asy Vg S ScaleAmerican Flyer R.r. Flyer Town Station No. 96American Flyer 6-48234 National Toy Train Museum Nttm Work Train Boxcar S GaugeAmerican Flyer 6-48230 National Toy Train Museum Nttm Work Train Gondola W/pipes5) American Flyer Gondola Cars 2 631,641,24103 & 24108 Scale Nice Lot LqqkMiscellaneous American Flyer 's' PartsAmerican Flyer Lti 6-48316 Bar Reefer (3-18-17)American Flyer No. 2 Train Transformer - 75 Watt - 1950's - TestedAmerican Flyer 634 Searchlight CarAmerican Flyer S , 707 Track Power Clip-ons 2 TotalAmerican Flyer 21004 21005 Prr Reverse Unit Replacement Cover.American Flyer 20345 New Haven Electric Freight Set W All Boxes, Complete, 499American Flyer 21925/21925-1 Up Alco's And 4 Cars American Flyer Santa Fe Set - Aa's - B-unit - 4 Cars - Plus 2 Add On CarsAmerican Flyer By Lionel Texas Special Alco Passenger Set 6-48162Vintage American Flyer #9900 Burlington Zephyr Streamliner With Cars American Flyer Prewar O Gauge Union Pacific Streamliner And 3 CarsA New-in-the-box American Flyer By Lionel 6-42562 Nickel Plate 2-8-4 BerkshireAmerican Flyer Complete Set With Accessories - Ready To RunAmerican Flyer No. 353 Circus Locomotive 643 Flatcar W Load & 649 Passenger CarAmerican Flyer S Gauge 336 Up 4-8-4 Northern - Big Motor Variation4 American Flyer S-scale Texas & Pacific Gp-7sAmerican Flyer New Haven Engine Plus #960, 961, 962 And 963 Passenger Cars American Flyer 336 Challenger Or Northern Locomotive -- 336 (br)American Flyer Custom Prr Set