Finally, in 1918, with the market already dominated by Lionel and Ives, American Flyer began producing electric locomotives and cast-iron O Gauge trains, using technology that had been developed 20 years earlier. Between 1920 and 1934, the company released electric toy trains meant to resemble trains running in New England at the time. They were made out of lithographed steel, enameled steel, and cast iron.
To compete with Ives, Lionel, and Dorfan, American Flyer launched a larger, “premium” line of electric toy trains in 1925. These trains could run on Lionel’s “Standard Gauge” tracks, which American Flyer named “Wide Gauge” (both were 2 1/8 inches between the rails). Marketed as “Wonder Trains,” American Flyer’s shiny, brightly colored train sets had patriotic names like “American Legion,” “President’s Special,” and “Mayflower.”
They were also extremely pricey for the 1920s. The cadmium-plated “Mayflower” set, for example, ran about $100, a full month’s salary for an average person. In 1926, the company joined up with Lionel to produce hybrid freight cars for a line featuring Lionel bodies on American Flyer trucks.
Around 1929, American Flyer joined forces with Lionel again to buy out Ives, and for a few years, all three brands were produced by the same conglomeration, featuring a mix-and-match of each company’s parts. Then, in 1931, Lionel bought out American Flyer’s share of Ives, and American Flyer was on its own again.
These efforts were not met with much success. American Flyer was hit hard by the Great Depression that started in 1929—by 1932, it had stopped manufacturing its Wide-Gauge line entirely, and it sold off its stores through 1936. Instead, it focused mostly on low-end O-Gauge toys, with the exception of its high-quality diecast New York Central Hudson, produced in 1936. Toward the end of the decade, Coleman was struggling with a failing company and failing health.
Fortunately, entrepreneur Alfred Carleton (A.C.) Gilbert, inventor of Erector toys, was looking for a way to break into the toy train market. In 1938, he eagerly bought out the company. A Yale medical school graduate and record-breaking Olympic pole-vaulter, the vigorous and aggressive Gilbert had just what the company needed—high standards and the business smarts to pull the company out of debt. Coleman worked out a potentially lucrative royalty deal with Gilbert, but he died in 1939 before he could reap the benefits. After Coleman’s death, Gilbert closed American Flyer’s Chicago plant and moved all of its manufacturing to New Haven, Connecticut.
Right before World War II, Gilbert revived the company by tapping into the emerging adult-hobbyist market, launching its own 3/16-inch scale (1:64) trains, which were about two-thirds the size of O-Gauge trains but ran on a three-rail O-Gauge track. Focusing on realism, Amercian Flyer put out this line of tiny, high-quality, and highly detailed diecast train sets in 1939, led by the acclaimed Union Pacific 4-8-4 “Challenger” Model 806.
Model train hobbyists were even more taken with 1940’s diecast Pennsylvania K-5 locomotive and the Baltimore & Ohio “Royal Blue” 4-6-2. American Flyer also produced inexpensive sheet-metal versions for consumers who didn’t have such deep pockets—Gilbert gave the O-Gauge line a sprucing up in 1941 with updated features and a new coat of paint. However, the arrival of World War II meant the company had to devote 95 percent of its production and materials to the war effort, making pieces for machine guns and landmines.
In anticipation of America’s involvement in the war, Gilbert opened the Gilbert Hall of Science in New York on September 17, 1941, to keep his company’s name in the public consciousness. It was a brilliant marketing maneuver, showcasing American Flyer products in an elaborate miniature scene featuring 80-feet of train track surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, crossings, and towns. The hall also contained impressive displays of Erector sets and other Gilbert products like chemistry sets and microscopes, as well as sales offices. Soon, other cities had their own smaller versions of Gilbert Hall.
After the war, Gilbert was caught off guard by how quickly Lionel introduced its new train featuring a life-like knuckle coupler (the mechanism for connecting train cars). In 1946, Gilbert struck back with its even more realistic S-Gauge track, a two-rail line for its 3/16-scale American Flyer trains. Still, Gilbert could not knock off the patented Lionel coupler, which meant its customers were left with its disappointingly simple link coupler.
Still, the S-Gauge line had a devoted following of fans, who were drawn to the detail and realism of the trains. Lionel trains, however, had more bells and whistles—literally. Lionel’s patented built-in whistle sounded just like a real steam engine’s—American Flyer fans had to content themselves with “whistling billboards” off to the side of the track, or the wheezy, fake sound of the “Nathan air-chime” whistle.
Like Lionel, Gilbert sent vast American Flyer train layouts and sets to department stores for their Christmas displays. In the 1950s, his company even made special displays for television shows like Dave Garroway’s “Today” show, “The Price is Right,” and “American Bandstand.”
When Gilbert died in 1961, his son, Alfred Jr., took over the company, only to sell 52 percent of it to “Lassie” producer Jack Wrather. By 1966, American Flyer was sold to Lionel, which continued to produce popular American Flyer pieces like the Alco PA and the Electro-Motive GP7.
Operating Tips For American Flyer Trains
TIP #1 CLEANING TRACK
One of the most important factors which causes poor operation of electric trains is dirty track. Track Cleaner is specially formulated to cut through the type of dirt build up on track.
Make sure the power to the rails is turned off.
1. Dampen a soft cloth with Track Cleaner.
2. Rub the cloth over the tops of the rails. Use firm pressure.
3. Then with the use of a dry cloth wipe the rails.
4. Reapply on any stubborn areas.
5. This should be done every few days if the trains are in constant use, or before using after a long period of non-use.
If severe oxidation exits or light rust is present, it may be necessary to use a fine sand paper, and buff the top and inside surface of the rails. Then follows steps 1 to 4.
NEVER use steel wool. And NEVER use any flammable liquids as a track cleaner.
Track Cleaner can also be used to clean the metal pick up wheels and pick up shoes.
TIP #2 REVERSE UNITS
Reverse units should be cleaned and lubricated periodically, specially formulated cleaners not only clean and lubricates, but also promotes good electrical contact.
A few drops of cleaner should be places on all the contact points of the moving parts. Such as the pawl, drum axle etc. Also a few drops should be spread on the reverse unit drum.
It is especially important on AMERICAN FLYER "E" Units which have had sticking problems, to apply a liberal amount of cleaner to the pivot point where the pawl is connected to the actuating plate. Activate the unit manually several times, and apply more cleaner.
TIP #3 CLEANING PLASTIC
All Plastics are prone to oxidation, that's the white material that can be seen on the surface.
Plastic Cleaner gently cleans all plastic's with out scratching. Leaves a lustrous shine that resists fogging, repels dust and eliminates static. Protects against smudges, scratching and oxidation.
Plastic shells, couplers and all other plastic parts on accessories, transformer cases, etc.
1. Remove surface dust with soft cloth.
2. Shake well. Apply a small amount of cleaner on a clean cloth.
3. Spread evenly over the entire surface to be cleaned.
4. Buff with a clean, soft, lint free cloth.
5. For stubborn cases, such as oxidation, (white surface residue), rub the cleaner into the surface, then buff.
If severe oxidation exits it may be necessary to use a hair dryer to soften the oxidation. EXTREME CARE MUST BE TAKEN.
Only heat the plastic until the white oxidation turns clear. Then wipe it away and treat the item starting with step 2.
TIP #4 LUBRICATION
Proper lubrication can not be stressed enough. An engine that is not properly lubricated will draw too many amps and will over heat the motor and burn it out. Cars wheels that are not properly lubricated will drag and overheat the engine motor.
It is very important to use the proper lubricant with the proper viscosity.
OIL is a high quality general purpose oil. It can be used on all points on accessories, that require oil.
LIGHT OIL is a very low viscosity oil, for lubricating moving parts, such as valve gear and car wheels.
MEDIUM DUTY OIL Best oil to use on motor bearings.
PEN OILER a new High Tech oil in a convenient pen oiler. This oil can be used almost anywhere.
The high viscosity, allows it to coat and stick to surfaces. Plastic safe.
GEAR OIL is a high viscosity oil, specifically designed for gears. Will cling to gear teeth surfaces.
DRY GRAPHITE is a superb lubricant, and helps reduce friction. Use in areas not conducive to liquid oils.
Grease is a high quality medium fiber grease meant for gears and delicate moving parts.
It only takes a small amount on a regular basis to achieve excellent results. Grease and oil should be used every 30 days or after about 10 running hours.
TIP #5 SMOKE UNITS
Most American Flyer steam type locomotives are equipped with a smoke and choo choo unit, so they resemble their prototypes in every respect. Proper care is essential for continued long lasting smoke. Using the wrong smoke fluid can clog the unit. And operating the unit for long periods without fluid in them can cause them to burn out. The choo-choo sound is accomplished by the movement of a piston in a cylinder, which forces air through a small hole and against a baffle plate. The same air then follows through the smoke chamber and out of the smoke stack. A heating element, wound around a glass wick which is saturated with fluid, causes the smoke, and the passing air pushes it out the stack in very realistic puffs.
When the smoke in your locomotive diminishes and a refill is needed, insert the small funnel into the tube in the smoke stack.
Then open the nozzle on a bottle Smoke Fluid and squeeze the liquid into the funnel; put it in slowly, so it has a chance to flow down into the reservoir and not spill over the sides.
Do not over fill, use only 8 to 10 drops.
You can attempt to clean out a smoke unit, by filling it with Smoke Fluid and letting it stand overnight without use. Then turn the engine over, placing a cloth under the engine and allowing the fluid to drain back out.
TIP #6 GENERAL CLEANING
General cleaning of all types of train equipment can be done with any mild soap and a few simple tools. A small brush, clean rags and a little elbow grease will do the job. The most important thing is to take care around lettering and to dry each item thoroughly.
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