Back in the 1960s there was a dog food commercial on television set to the words of a jingle that went “My dog is better than your dog!” Kids were often portrayed in ads and on sit-coms as being competitive braggarts that was somewhat true of the kids in my neighborhood. It was often: “My dad’s Chevy is better than your dad’s Ford.”, or “Public school is better than Parochial school”’ or “Lionel is better than American Flyer!”. Yup!- bragging rights extended to what brand of electric train set you had.
After World War II when toy companies were no longer doing war work and were again allowed to produce electric train sets, there was a new dynamic afoot in the competition between Lionel, the industry leader and it’s chief competitor, the A.C.Gilbert company, the maker of American Flyer trains.
As stated in Part 1, Lionel surpassed the Ives company in toy train sales in 1924. By 1928 Ives was bankrupt and was soon aquired by Lionel who continued to produce a cheap line of trains under the Ives name for a few years. This left the Chicago based American Flyer Company as Lionel’ main competitor. ( It should be noted here that the Louis Marx toy company was also a competitor of sorts offering an extensive line of inexpensive trains that carried on well into the 1970s. However, as interesting as Marx equipment was , I never met a kid who boasted about owning a set.)
Having produced trains as far back as 1910 the Flyer brand was aquired by A.C.Gilbert in 1938 who moved the operation to New Haven Connecticut. Gilbert had been known in the toy field for it’s Mysto-Magic sets and Erector constructions sets. Like Lionel, Flyer equipment ran on O gauge three-rail sectional track. The running rails were 1 1/4” apart with an insulated third-rail , carrying the electric current , running between them. Marx used the same system.
After the war, Gilbert introduced a new line of American Flyers that ran on 2-rail S gauge track. As the rails of this new line were 7/8” apart, American Flyer locomotives and cars were no longer compatable with that of Lio- nel. The new trains were more realistically proportioned though the quality standards were not quite as high as Lionel’s. Gilbert could point to it’s better proportioned trains and more realistic 2-rail track but it still ran a poor second in sales to Lionel,
Lionel offered a more extensive line than AF with more operating accessories providing greater play value. Lionel’s trains were more rugged and a bit easier to set up and operate. Still, if you had a set of Flyers you could argue that YOUR trains ran on realistic 2-rail track while virtually NO real trains ran on 3-rail track.
The Lionel vs. Flyer debate as to who’s trains were better often carried on throughout the year; even into the summer when most kid’s trains were put away until next Christmas. It was a sort of tradition at our house that my father would get out the trains around Thanksgiving . I would be allowed to set-up a semi-permanent layout in the basement that would remain up sometimes until the Spring. These were American Flyers. Later on, my parents purchased on old set of pre-war Lionels for me from a neighbor that I would set up around the Christmas tree.
Interestingly, even though into the 1960s Gilbert and Lionel were running TV ads in November and December amid the build-up to the holidays, both were in financial trouble. In 1966 Gilbert went under and the American Flyer brand and tooling were ironically aquired by Lionel the next year. Lionel continued to limp along and has survived as a brand through many aquisitions and still produces many extensive lines of trains, even some under the American Flyer name. The toy train business had been in a decline since the mid-1950s. The interest in electric train sets dropped dramatically since the boom years after World War II. For awhile it looked as though slot-car racing had supplanted electric trains but even that faded over the years.
Also of interest is that the decine of the toy train business was paralled by the decline of rail travel in the United States. The Interstate Highway system built after the war helped to finalize the decline of the railroads that was on-going since the 1920s.
Never-the-less, many baby boomers now in their 60s and 70s still have their train sets or have aquired new or vintage equipment and maintain modest to extensive toy train layouts. The Lionel/Flyer debate still rages on among us gray-bearded boomers even though some of us collect and operate both. Even Marx fans eagerly collect, operate and proudly display (even brag about) their favorite trains.
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