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History of Gilbert American Flyer Trains

Updated on September 10, 2012


By Robert F. Giardina

American Flyer, where did it come from? Well, we all know where it ended up, China. And what it has ended up as is nothing like what it started as. So let’s go back to the beginning.
American Flyer was born in 1907, the child of William Frederick
Hafner, who had started making trains in 1905. The name American
Flyer was adopted when Hafner joined up with William Ogden Coleman, Sr.
Coleman later took control of the entire American Flyer line from
Hafner. This all took place in Chicago, Ill.
The first trains were wind-up, clock-work toys. The electric train was to come much later. The American Flyer Manufacturing Company grew in size and the American Flyer name grew in stature.


The first electric trains were actually battery operated. And the large size of early electric trains was due in part to the size of the motors and batteries. Motors were very large since the Gilbert Co. had not yet invented enameled wire. The wire in motor fields and armatures were insulated with cloth.
American Flyer Standard Gauge or wide gauge as they called it was their first A.C. operated trains. Later narrow gauge was introduced. It was advertised as miniature trains, it was “0” gauge.
Some other toys were also produced under the American Flyer trade mark, including a cash register and typewriter.
American Flyer trains did not have an auspicious beginning. There was a good deal of controversy over W.O. Coleman’s gaining of control over Hafner. In fact, Hafner left to found Hafner Trains.

The quality of the line was also suspect. It is said that Coleman
didn’t pay much attention to the quality at all, but more to the profits.
Many items were bought from other manufacturers, repacked and marked American Flyer. Lionel was one of the biggest suppliers. Much of the rolling stock for a while came from Lionel.


It’s said that in 1937 A. C. Gilbert told W. 0. Coleman he planned what would be the first American made H. 0. line. Coleman, in failing health, offered Gilbert American Flyer. Gilbert agreed and bought American Flyer.
Up until 1938 Gilbert manufactured small appliances, magic toys, Erector and other items using small motors. The electric train, whose heart is the fractional horsepower motor was a logical extension of his manufacturing.
Upon taking over American Flyer, Gilbert replaced wide gauge with H.0. Wide gauge was permanently discontinued. Several other changes took place. The most important of which was quality. Gilbert prided himself with the quality of his products. He also liked realism, so 3/16” scale “0” gauge was born.
Gilbert was attempting to capture the train market with realism. In just a few years, Gilbert had used state-of-the-art engineering to upgrade the American Flyer line. Operating accessories, choo-choo, sound effects, the works.
Almost all of American Flyer was made in the Gilbert factory. Unlike Chicago Flyer and even Lionel, the Gilbert factory was large, well equipped and modern.


Even before World War II caused an end to train production, Gilbert had wanted to add more realism to American Flyer. Two rail track was what Gilbert wanted. H.O. was running on two rails, but H.O. had not caught on. There was a two rail kit system on the market called CD. So World War II offered the opportunity to make the changeover to scale.
U5H gauge was dubbed at its inception, scale model trains. Earlier
H.O. had been dubbed Tru-Model trains. So American Flyer now represented “S” gauge and H.O. scale trains.
As the American Flyer name became more well known, Gilbert began using it to identify all its motorized toys. So prominent was the American Flyer name that Lionel felt American Flyer was a real threat. This, after the early years of cooperation between Coleman and Lionel, including the joint takeover of Ives.

In the 1960’s road racing sets and model airplanes bore the American Flyer trade mark.
When the Gilbert Co. was liquidated in 1967, American Flyer was sold to Lionel. For a short time in 1969 the name was used by American Flyer Industries to sell some of the finished goods left over when Gilbert closed.

Lionel was acquired by Fundimensions Fun Group of MPC of General Mills of CPG Products Corp. and leased the American Flyer trade mark from Lionel Corp.

Today American Flyer is owned by Lionel LCC.

Gilbert American Flyer Trains Factory


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