The A.C. Gilbert Company was started and owned by Alfred Carleton Gilbert. Early on A.C. Gilbert was better known for "Erector Set" as well as its chemical sets. In 1938 A.C. Gilbert bought the "American Flyer" brand name from W.O. Coleman, and used it to manufacture and sell toy trains. Before WWII, the trains were gauged to Lionel's track gauge (O-scale), but the models were 1:64 scale. After the war, the track gauge was changed closer to 1:64. This made American Flyer trains look more realistic than Lionel's, especially since American Flyer used the two-rail system as opposed to Lionel's 3-rail system.
There is a brief, 5-minute video on YouTube of the A.C. Gilbert factory.
If you really want to learn about A.C. Gilbert's history, we recommend sitting down with a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy NASG member Tom Barker's 30-minute, professionally-produced A.C. Gilbert Documentary.
A.C. Gilbert won a gold medal for pole-vaulting in the 1908 Olympics in London, England. Upon returning to the U.S., Gilbert and two other athletes were given a hero's welcome in New York, and they were given the medal shown in the photos below. They met with President Theodore Roosevelt after that ceremony.
The A.C. Gilbert company manufactured American Flyer trains until 1966, when the company went out of business. Lionel then bought the American Flyer name and product line in 1967. Lionel subsequently declared its own bankruptcy later that same year. The post-WWII generation had lost interest in model trains, leading to the decline of both companies.
The cereal company, General Mills, in 1969 bought the Lionel product line, but not the corporation itself. In 1979 General Mills, under the name Fundimensions Division, based in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, resurrected the American Flyer product line, with little success. You can identify these models by looking at the label underneath, which will state "Lionel/Fundimensions". In the meantime the "Lionel Corporation" continued as a holding company for a variety of toy stores around the country and wasn't really involved in toy trains anymore. In 1993 they went out of business for good.
In 1986 Lionel Trains, Inc, owned by Richard Kughn, an entirely different corporation from the original Lionel Company, bought the brand name and product line from General Mills. In 1994 famous musician, and part owner, Neil Young invented, and still holds some patents related to, Lionel's TMCC system (digital command control). In 1995 Richard Kughn sold his interest to the Martin Davis Investment Group (later called Wellspring Capital Management), and they renamed "Lionel Trains, Inc" to "Lionel, LLC". This company is the one that currently produces Lionel and American Flyer products. Lionel's main business is O-scale trains, but they are now also actively producing both re-issues and newly-tooled engines, cars, and accessories under the American Flyer name for S-scale. Their products are backward-compatible with original American Flyer track, but they are also starting to make some of their models more true-to-scale. Lionel, LLC filed for bankruptcy protection in 2004 due to them loosing a lawsuit filed by M.T.H. Electric Trains. This eventually led to Guggenheim Capital Management becoming a major stakeholder in the company, and that ended Neil Young's investment in the company, although he remains a consultant to the company. Lionel, LLC came out of bankruptcy in 2008.
Across other S-scale-related web sites, you may find the terms "American Flyer" and "tinplate" used interchangeably. They generally refer to the same thing, although "tinplate" may also be referring to the pre-WWII-era models (O-gauge wheels).
You may also come across the term "hi-rail". This is generally within the context of a more scale-oriented use of A.F. products. "hi-rail" can also be used to differentiate between true scale modeling and those who use a mixture of A.F. and/or taller rail and/or claw couplers. The NMRA defines S-scale "hi-rail" as using a rail height of code 125 or taller.
This is a common question we get. Like with any collecting, the price of an item is based on what the owner is willing to sell it for and what the potential buyer is willing to pay for it. For American Flyer products, the recommended guide is the Greenberg's American Flyer Pocket Price Guide. A new, updated guide comes out around September/October of each year and usually sells for around $16. The guide does not have any photos, but does have detailed explanations regarding condition, grading, etc. It is published by Kalmbach Publications (of Model Railroader magazine fame), and it should be available at nearly any model railroad hobby shop or on the Web.
Q: I have just unpacked my old American Flyer trains that have been packed away for decades. They are generally in very good shape although some of the cars have mildew on parts of the plastic. Typically parts of the body, trucks or the old link couplers. What is the best way to clean them up that will not diminish their value?
A: Many American Flyer enthusiasts who return to the hobby have encountered a white film on their American Flyer plastic cars when they've uncovered them from storage boxes in their basements or attics. It is commonly thought that the white film is mold. However, it is actually a mold release agent that was used in the early days of plastic manufacturing. To remove it simply hold a hair dryer, set on hot, to the car and you'll see the mold release agent disappear before your eyes. You can buff gently with a soft cloth.
Dick Karnes, MRR posted on the S-scale Groups.io discussion forum what he remembered about the early A.F. plastics. He remembers that in 1946 A.C. Gilbert used Tenite. It was a wood-based plastic. The material looked good when it came out of the molds, but it would eventually deform, because it never really solidifies.
A.C. Gilbert eventually switched to using Bakelite. This was the first synthetic plastic. It was a significant improvement over Tenite, but its main downside was that there were no glues available at the time that would allow attaching anything to Bakelite, making kitbashing extremely difficult. Two-part epoxies finally solved that problem.
Later, A.C. Gilbert switched to using styrene, which we all know and love in our hobby.
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