History of American Flyer Trains

Production of American Flyer trains first began in 1907, when William O. Coleman, the owner of the Edmonds-Metzel Hardware Company, teamed up with toymaker William Hafner, and began producing clockwork trains running on O gauge track. The venture proved successful, and the following year the company ceased producing hardware and devoted its efforts to producing trains full-time, changing its name to the American Flyer Manufacturing Company. In 1918, American Flyer began producing trains with electric motors. Coleman sold his company to the A.C. Gilbert Company in 1938, which moved production to its New Haven, Connecticut factory.

Gilbert was a manufacturer of toys and small appliances, and was best known for its Erector sets, Mysto-Magic sets, and science toys. In 1939, Gilbert undertook an extensive overhaul of the train line, scaling the trains to 1:64. These “3/16 scale” trains had a much more realistic appearance than other O gauge trains produced by Gilbert’s competitors, a fact Gilbert was quick to point out in its advertising literature. Train production was suspended with the outbreak of World War II, which brought material shortages and restrictions on the production of non-essential goods such as toys. In 1946 following the end of the war, train production resumed with the introduction of S gauge trains running on two-rail track. Many of these early S gauge trains were produced using leftover pre-war parts. The S gauge line continued to evolve through the 1950s, which saw the introduction of diesel locomotives and operating accessories.

Train production peaked in the mid-1950s, a time characterized by the production of some of the most colorful and most sought-after American Flyer items. By the early 1960s, however, toy trains began to decline in popularity, mirroring fundamental changes in the toy industry overall. Consumers were buying toys at discount retailers rather than traditional toy stores and department stores, and their emphasis had shifted away from high quality, lasting products, towards fad items which were cheaply made, cheaply priced, and heavily promoted on television. Traditional toy manufacturers such as Gilbert were forced to cut corners to compete, and the result for American Flyer was the introduction of Pikemaster, a line of inferior quality trains. Gilbert eventually ceased train production in 1966 and declared bankruptcy the following year. The American Flyer name and tooling were purchased by rival Lionel.

In 1979, a successor to Lionel re-introduced American Flyer by producing three freight cars using the original Gilbert dies. Production has since continued on a limited basis, with the manufacture of freight cars, passenger cars, diesel engines and accessories. Mike’s Train House, another manufacturer, has also made reproductions of many of the American Flyer accessories.