Talking Toys: American Flyer a model of excellence

First, let me say my three-part series on Lionel trains has been a great success. The online hits, e-mails and calls regarding the series have been fantastic. And I want to thank all of you for your support.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Lionel’s chief competitor for nearly six decades – American Flyer.

While other toy train manufacturers came and went over the years, American Flyer remained strong, running neck and neck at the mountaintop with Lionel for the majority of the early-to-mid 20th century. If you weren’t a fan of Lionel trains, you chose American Flyer.

The story of American Flyer trains begins in Chicago circa 1905, where toymaker William F. Hafner developed a clockwork train running on O-Gauge track. Around 1907, Hafner’s friend William O. Coleman gained control of struggling hardware manufacturing company Edmonds-Metzel.

Hafner and Coleman soon joined forces producing toy trains using Edmonds-Metzel’s excess manufacturing capability after Hafner secured $15,000 worth of orders from Montgomery Ward and G. Sommers & Co. In 1908, Edmonds-Metzel trains were marketed as “American Flyer” (aka “Chicago Flyer”). And in 1910, Edmonds-Metzel exited the hardware business and changed its name to American Flyer Manufacturing Co.

The company was successful in undercutting the prices of Ives trains, the toy train leader at the time. American Flyer quickly gained popularity, leading to an expansion of the product line. Unfortunately, by 1913 the company’s expeditious growth caused a strained relationship between Hafner and Coleman.

Hafner believed he would be given a significant portion of the company if American Flyer trains were successful. However, Coleman refused to comply, which led to Hafner leaving the company to form the Hafner Manufacturing Co., which sold a line of trains called Overland Flyer.

In 1918, American Flyer introduced its first electric train, an O-Gauge windup model. But the joy of introducing a new product was dampened by the death of William Coleman that same year. His son, William O. Coleman Jr., took over the company. Unfortunately, Coleman Jr. was not the innovator or leader his late father was. Thankfully, brothers Herman and Roy Mack, who joined the company after 1910, remained the foundation of American Flyer with their enormous contributions to the growth of the company. 

In 1925, American Flyer introduced Wide-Gauge trains in an effort to compete with Lionel at the high end of the market. American Flyer’s Wide-Gauge operated on the same size track as Lionel’s Standard Gauge. Because Lionel owned the use of the name Standard Gauge, American Flyer settled with the name Wide-Gauge. American Flyer did very well in the 1920s, selling more than 500,000 trains during its most prosperous years. But the company could not escape the Great Depression, and the company’s focus soon shifted back to the more affordable O-Gauge trains.

In 1928, Ives went bankrupt. American Flyer and Lionel jointly purchased and operated Ives until 1930, when American Flyer sold its share to Lionel. As the 1930s rolled along, the deteriorating economy, Lionel’s stranglehold on the premium train market, and stiff competition forced American Flyer to cease production of Wide-Gauge trains in 1936.

In December 1937, Coleman Jr. sold American Flyer to Olympic pole-vaulter A.C. Gilbert, who first gained notoriety in the toy industry with his creation and manufacturing of the Mysto Magic sets for youthful magicians. Gilbert moved the company from Chicago to New Haven, Conn., and redesigned the product line to 1/64-scale proportions the following year.

Other changes included substitution of the “slot & tab” couplers with tinplated, knuckle-shaped semi-automatic couplers on the higher priced 10-inch freight cars and steam engine tenders. In 1938, the much smaller HO-Gauge line was introduced. The term HO is short for “half oh.” The new line had a much more realistic look and feel than the redesigned O-Gauge line.

In the summer of 1942, Gilbert, like many other American toy train manufacturers, ceased production and service of its trains to support the war effort. At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, American Flyer retooled its trains for the new S-Gauge line. Advertisements boasted the realism of the two-rail track the new trains ran on, contrary to Lionel and Marx, who still used three-rail track.

By the end of the ’50s and early ’60s, competing interests like TV, the space race, and die-cast cars relegated toy trains like American Flyer to an antiquated commodity. In 1961, A.C. Gilbert passed away, and with the popularity of toy trains continuing to decline, the company found itself in serious financial trouble. Finally, the majority of the company was sold to the Wrather Group in 1962, with A.C. Gilbert Jr., acting as CEO. Within a few months, though, Gilbert Jr. died.

Under new ownership, the company continued to struggle, manufacturing a wide variety of poorly designed and poorly conceived toys that hardly sold, and was nearly overwhelmed by store returns of defective merchandise. The company discontinued the American Flyer line in 1966 and finally declared bankruptcy in 1967. Later that year, Lionel gained ownership of the tooling and brand in exchange for liquidating the remaining inventory of American Flyer trains.

Every year since 1979, Lionel has offered a few American Flyer items. And since 2002, Lionel has increased the number of American Flyer offerings. In late 2004, Lionel debuted a new steam locomotive, a 2-8-2 Mikado, marking the first original American Flyer steam locomotive design since the late 1950s. In 2007, Lionel began selling American Flyer track.

Still, American Flyer collectors long for the glory days of Chicago or New Haven. Perhaps it is the memories baby boomer collectors have during their childhood, sneaking the latest American Flyer catalog to school, hidden in a notebook, hoping to one day own that special item that fuels today’s interest in yesterday’s toys. Today, thanks to toy train clubs, toy shows, and the Internet, the toy trains of one’s youth are now within grasp. ?

Justin Moen is a collector of 1:18-scale die-cast cars, 1:16-scale die-cast farm tractors, and Hot Wheels. He has edited more than 25 titles for Krause Publications.


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