“For God’s sake! Real trains run on two-rail track!” was a common reaction among astute children and adults when they gazed at the popular three-rail O gauge and standard gauge trains that dominated the toy train industry in the pre-World War II era. That sentiment was not lost on the legendary A. C. Gilbert when he acquired the struggling American Flyer Manufacturing Company in December 1937. Less than ten years later Gilbert’s American Flyer S gauge trains that operated on realistic two-rail track gave Lionel its first real competition since the demise of the storied Ives Corporation in 1928.
The origins of American Flyer date back further to 1907. Chicago-based Flyer was the creation of William Frederick Hafner and William Ogden Coleman. Hafner designed a clockwork motor for toy cars and in 1905 Hafner created his first clockwork train set. His friend Coleman acquired Edmonds-Metzel Hardware Company and using the excess capacity at the hardware company, the pair stared producing clockwork train sets. Those early sets were positioned to undercut the sets produced by Ives, the dominant toy train leader of the era. By 1907 two retailers G. Sommers & Company and Montgomery Ward were selling Edmonds-Metzel trains. In 1908 Edmonds-Metzel changed its brand name to American Flyer and in 1910 Edmonds-Metzel was out of the hardware business and changed its name to the American Flyer Manufacturing Company.
Like competitors Ives and Lionel, American Flyer did very well in the prosperous mid to late 1920s. American Flyer electric O gauge and standard gauge trains were added to the clockwork line and its accessory products were expanded. In 1929 Flyer released two of the signature standard gauge sets of the era, the President’s Special and the Mayflower. Ives went bankrupt in 1928 and Flyer and Lionel purchased the company assets and jointly produced Ives products until 1930 when Flyer sold its interest in Ives to Lionel. Despite fielding an impressive four-track operating display of standard gauge trains at the Century of Progress in 1933 and 1934 and half-hearted attempts at other toy lines later on, Flyer fell on hard times.
Flyer was a logical extension of the expansive line of toy products Gilbert had developed after he introduced Mysto Magic sets in 1913. Alfred Carlton Gilbert was a former Olympic pole-vaulter that believed in developing entertaining, inspiring, and innovative toys for young boys. The popular Erector Set Line was born one afternoon while riding a New Haven train when Gilbert spied workers building the steel X-frame supports for the overhead catenary for electrification.
The period from 1938-1941 was the transition period when Gilbert revised all the Flyer O gauge line to resemble prototype locomotives and cars more closely. Locomotives in that era included an Atlantic (4-4-2), Pacific (4-6-2) and an 0-6-0 switcher. Flyer also introduced a limited line of HO trains at the same time. History has it that Gilbert was inspired by the 3/16 scale (later known as S scale) that was introduced in 1937 by the Cleveland Model Railroad Supply Company. Gilbert gradually converted the Flyer O scale line to 3/16 Scale but by 1942 further development and production stopped incident to the war production restrictions.
Production resumed in 1945 and the last O scale designs of 1941 including a Reading Lines Atlantic, Pennsylvania K5 Pacific, a NYC Hudson, a B&O streamlined steamer (Royal Blue), a UP Northern (4-8-4) and an NKP 0-8-0 Switcher were converted to two-rail 3/16 scale (though Gilbert did not use the S scale name at that time). Other refinements included chugger/smoke system and realistic knuckle couplers.
An intense rivalry commenced between Flyer and Lionel and both were considered in the upper -tier market with Louis Marx & Company at the lower end. Throughout the 1950s Flyer maintained its commitment to following popular prototype designs. During the 1950s Flyer focused on replicating new, colorful prototypes that arrived on the postwar railroad scene including the Alco PA passenger diesels, streamline passenger cars and freight diesels and new freight car designs. Production of the HO line continued but cultural and technological changes occurred in the late 1950s and Flyer was not able to successfully adapt to those new challenges. Some suggest that the A. C. Gilbert Company lost its spirit of innovation as its founder aged.
A. C. Gilbert passed away in 1961 and in 1962 the Company was sold to the Wrather Group with A. C. Gilbert, Jr as its Chairman. The death of A. C. Jr several months later placed further stress on the Company and survival methods including cutting quality of the toy train line and expanding into other ill-conceived toy products further drained the treasury. The Company declared bankruptcy in 1967 and shortly afterward Lionel Corporation announced it purchased the American Flyer name and tooling. The affiliation of Lionel and American Flyer (both financially challenged entities at the time) was a model railroad precursor to the “prototype”, ill-fated Penn Central merger that followed in 1968.
That roller coaster history and second to Lionel status should never diminish the spirit of innovation, depth and realism American Flyer S gauge products added to the world of model railroading. Flyer raised the bar for attention to detail, realism and successfully captured the visual impact and excitement of postwar railroading in miniature, on two-rail track as well. Their models including the Reading Atlantic, NYC Hudson, PRR K5 and UP 4-8-4 kept the drama of mainline steam locomotives alive. The Alco PA sets lettered for the Comet, Rocket, Silver Flash and the prototypically correct Santa Fe war bonnet livery look as enticing today as they did 65 years ago.
Later-day efforts by newer management at Lionel have preserved much of that quality line and we have several items in both O and S gauge available. So go ahead and rekindle that old love affair with Flyer or start a new romance with the many other model railroading products we have available! The ModelTrainStuff family, supported by our award-winning rewards program, are here to help you!
FAW- M B Klein, Inc.