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Chugging Along With American Flyer Trains
by Bob Brooke
 

QUESTION:  

I got an American Flyer toy freight train for Christmas when I was kid. I loved that train. My dad and I used to get it out each year and set it up under the Christmas tree, complete with little houses and even a tunnel which the train entered as it went under the back of the tree. As I got older, I began to buy other trains and accessories with money I had saved up. By the time I was in my teens, I moved my trains to the basement where I created my own world in miniature. I still have those trains and accessories and now would like to know more about them. What can you tell me about American Flyer trains? Are they worth collecting?

Thanks,
Henry


__________________________________________________________

ANSWER:  

One of the fastest growing fields of collectibles is toy trains, and those from the post World War II era are especially hot. While Lionel trains have dominated this segment for some time, American Flyer trains, originally independently made and later on produced by A.C. Gilbert, have been creating a stir among new and old collectors alike.

The growth of post-war trains as collectibles harkens back to memories of a youngster's first toy train racing around the Christmas tree on a wintry morning, much like yours. Adults, like myself, remembering their first American Flyer train, once again seek to purchase and own trains of their own, but this time for a different reason--their collectibility.

Until 1891 most manufacturers and buyers tended to think of toy trains as they would toy boats, tops, or other playthings--as objects complete in themselves. Railways, however are different. They’re not just individual toys, they’re systems.

It wasn’t until the Marklin Toy Company of Germany, presented three different sizes of trains at the 1891 Leipzig Toy Fair that the idea of using different gauges of track came into existence. Not only did they produce different gauges, but, for the first time, accessories to go with their trains.

Soon after the introduction of the three gauges--the smallest, Gauge I at 1 3/4 in., the next, Gauge II at 2 inches, and the largest, Gauge III at 3 inches--Marklin brought out another gauge, known as Zero Gauge at 1 1/4 inches. Because a zero looked like the letter “O,” the new gauge became known as O Gauge. From then on additional new gauges were given letter designations--S, OO, HO, TT, N and Z.

Up to now, all toy trains were operated by clockwork windup motors. But in 1897, the obscure American firm of Carlisle and Finch, of Cincinnati, Ohio, brought out a four-wheeled electric tram that was to revolutionize the toy train industry. At first, a center rail conducted the electric current, but the company dropped it in favor of the two-rail system. The unexpected popularity of their electric trams encouraged the company to expand its product line by adding steam locomotives and rolling stock.

Unlike the Germans and the British, the American train manufacturers weren’t enthusiasts, also, so they didn’t care about scale likeness and correct livery. Joshua Lionel Cowan, who founded Lionel in 1901, produced a new 2 1/8inch gauge and christened it “Standard gauge.” Thus, from then on, all other gauges produced by other manufacturers would be designated “non-standard.”

American Flyer Beginnings
American Flyer began in 1900 when William Hafner of Chicago, Illinois went into business as a toy manufacturer. When Hafner decided to add windup trains, he brought in a financial partner, William Coleman. Together they founded the American Flyer Manufacturing Co. in Chicago in 1907 and made windup and electric Wide gauge (the competitor to Lionel's Standard gauge) trains, but fought against its image as only a producer of economy toy train lines. By 1910 trains were the company’s strongest product line, and, accordingly, they changed the firm’s name to American Flyer. Hafner left in 1914. Coleman remained.

Originally, the makers of American Flyer trains used tin-plate for their rolling engines and rolling stock, lithographing details on almost smooth surfaces. But as the buying public wanted--no demanded--more detail on its toy trains, it switched to die-cast locomotives and cars, more realistic, but still toy-like. In an effort to make its passenger cars more competitive, American Flyer replaced its original passenger coaches with ones decorated in the Lionel style--enamel paint, brass window trim and name-plates.



Until the 1920s, American Flyer had been content to compete in the American market with cheap cast-iron wind-ups. After failing in the British market with a special “British Flyer,” the company entered the Standard Gauge market in 1925 with a line of large and good looking equipment. For the first year, American Flyer bought passenger coaches from Lionel, painting and lettering them for its own trains. But when its own passenger stock came on the market, it aimed to compete directly with its former supplier, its trains being larger and cheaper than comparable Lionel trains.

In the mid-1930's, however, toy train manufacturers in the U.S. received an unexpected boost. Most people traveled by train and a new fleet of streamlined trains caught the public’s imagination in a way that earlier trains had not. The new streamliners, as they were called, were shiny symbols of hope for millions struggling out of the Depression. Lionel inaugurated a popular series of streamliners which proved to be good sellers. American Flyer followed suit. Unfortunately, they weren’t a success.

In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, in dire financial straits and close to going out of business, American Flyer dropped its wide gauge line.

Erector Set inventor A.C. Gilbert bought the company in 1937. The base of American Flyer operations began to slowly shift from Chicago to New Haven, where Gilbert started redesigning all the trains. Under its new management, the firm scrapped its old trains and designed a new line from scratch. Though made in O gauge, they were to a much smaller scale and to a much higher quality. The finely detailed die castings and good proportions were a great success with the public. And American Flyer was reborn.



In 1939, Gilbert began to manufacture 3/16 scale, which were more highly detailed and realistic-looking trains than any in the previous history of toy trains. By 1941 the entire line was 3/16, which, despite its heightened realism, still ran on three-rail tracks. The company also brought out smaller, or HO gauge , American Flyer trains with rails 16.5 mm apart and a scale of 1:87. However , World War II put a stop to production and this size wasn’t revived after the War.

The end of World War II found almost all of the toy train companies intact and prepared to put their pre-war lines back on the market. Europe had been hit hard by the war, and austerity and the widespread shortages of raw materials meant that recovery was slow for European manufacturers like Marklin. New companies had started up, particularly in Switzerland and Italy, but it was in the United States that toy train makers like Lionel and American Flyer were in the best position to resume full-scale production.

American Flyer had the advantage of having in stock a line that had been completely redesigned in 1938. Although the size was smaller than the normal gauge 0 1:43 scale, the proportions and detail of the trains were excellent. After the war, American Flyer reduced the distance between the track to 24mm, so that the gauge was a better match for the scale, and it christened the result "S" gauge and concentrated all its efforts into producing the new "S" gauge trains.

The company continued to use tin-plate for the majority of its rolling stock until the early 1950s. Post-war America had been turned upside by the use of plastics and toy trains weren’t to be any different. Through the use of detailed die-castings, American Flyer began to produce trains that were at the same time light-weight, inexpensive, and realistic looking. During the early 1950s, the trucks(wheel sets) on train cars had chrome-like tin wheel covers and pointed arrow-like link couplers, but by the late 1950s, the wheel covers were modeled in an overall gray tone and the couplers had been changed to the more realistic knuckle type. By the time the decade was over, American Flyer trains looked and sounded like the real thing, complete with the livery of the top U.S. railroads of the time and choo-choo sounds and smoke billowing from the stacks of its steam locomotives. But what distinguished these trains from others was what Gilbert labeled “Pul-Mor” power, a strength in the engine motors that allowed them to pull more cars than their competitors’ counterparts.

Lionel was even quicker off the mark than American Flyer, and it soon had a sizeable catalogue of new trains, all of which made extensive use of pressure die-castings. The old tin-plate look had vanished, as had the streamliners from the Depression years. Gilbert dropped its previous line and introduced accurately-scaled trains that moved by a two-rail system.

America was enjoying a post-war boom, and Gilbert didn’t see any need to diversify the American Flyer product line. The huge pent-up demand from buyers who had been unable to afford toy trains during the Depression of the 1930s and had been frustrated by the lack of production during the war meant that neither American Flyer nor Lionel had to hunt for customers. Both companies began a new program that emphasized automatic accessories and electrical novelties. Almost all these new accessories "did" something. One of the most popular was a refrigerator car, from which a trainman inside unloaded miniature milk churns on to a loading platform when a button was pushed. American Flyer also produced saw mills that sawed logs into boards, barrel loaders, log loaders, a station with baggage smasher that loaded baggage, a stockyard cattle loader, and even a cow that walked onto the track which stopped the oncoming train.

The company also brought out a series of “action” cars in 1958, featuring freight cars that unloaded lumber and logs, dumped coal, launched rockets, or had trainmen signaling from cabooses or walking on top of boxcars. In 1961, Gilbert produced a motorized rocket sled and an exploding T.N.T. boxcar, which at the press of a button, flew into pieces with an explosive “WHOOM!” The new accessories were ingenious but not very realistic. While popular with children, their toy-like qualities didn’t please serious buyers who wanted to build realistic railways.



For 10 years Lionel and American Flyer enjoyed record sales and ignored the developments that were taking place outside their own closed worlds. But people everywhere were becoming much more interested in scale model railroading and, by the mid-1950s, ready-to-run HO train sets had become cheap and widely available. By 1950, all of Gilbert’s innovations had pushed American flyer into sixth position among top makers in terms of sales. However, a thorn in the firm’s side was its new two-rail S Gauge trains, which never really took off.

The post-war toy train boom was suddenly over, and the sharp decline in the sales of the relatively expensive O Gauge trains caught both Lionel and American Flyer unprepared. Both firms tried desperate remedies, but both went under. American Flyer stopped production, and Lionel trains became a small, loss-making subsidiary of a large conglomerate. The long era of American toy train manufacturing was effectively over.

In 1961 A.C. Gilbert died. Jack Wrather, owner of the T.V. series "The Lone Ranger" and "Lassie" grabbed the trains. He cut back drastically. Sales did rise 30 percent in 1965, but borrowed capital and production costs offset the good news. In 1966, Lionel finally purchased its long-time competitor, thus ending production of S Gauge American Flyer Trains.. Three years later, General Mills became the new owner, with the train production that had ended with Lionel’s purchase resuming, but on a limited basis.

Identifying American Flyer Trains

Identifying American Flyer trains is easy, since every piece ever produced has emblazoned on it a big three (early models) or five-digit (later ones) product number and the name American Flyer. Greenberg’s American Flyer Pocket Price Guide has become the “bible” for used American Flyer products. It not only has all the price listings for all the S Gauge / Flyer materials, including Gilbert, Lionel/Flyer, but it also explains how to “Grade” trains and tells how much to expect from a dealer.



Among the more popular Flyer S-gauge trains among collectors today are the series of aluminum-like diesels produced in the 1950s, especially those that came with streamlined passenger cars. These were the top-of-the-line Flyer trains of their day and remain the most visually pleasing. Condition of the exterior of the trains counts a lot. Another popular locomotive is the 4-8-4 Northern steamer, also known as the “Challenger,” the biggest Flyer made. Of course, there are some less visually exciting pieces and operating accessories that are much more valuable because of scarce production numbers, such as the No. 21004 Pennsylvania R.R. switcher engine which originally sold for $27.50 and is now worth over $400 in excellent condition, and the automatic coal loader which sold for $19.95 and is now worth over $300 in excellent condition.


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