Gilbert AF Memories

While growing up in Woodhaven in the borough of Queens in New York City in the 1950's, I had Gilbert American Flyer trains, while all of my neighbors had Lionel. I particularly liked my American Flyer S gauge trains for several reasons: The steam locos seemed more to scale (3/16") and better proportioned than many of the Lionel engines, The puffing smoke and "choo-choo" sounds were very realistic for the day, and I can still smell that wonderful pine-scented smoke fluid! The tubular two-rail track had a "T" rail shape, and in conjunction with the AF rubber roadbed, looked pretty realistic. I especially remember the terminal station and its accompanying train shed with platforms. The oil drum loader was one of my favorite accessories, along with the operating mail car. I had two favorite sets: the 5 car A-B-A North Coast Limited set and a work train with all-diecast frame cars, pulled by a Nickle Plate Road 0-8-0 switcher. Two other steam locos were the K5 and the diecast Atlantic with metal tender. Another favorite was the hand car set with three mine dump cars. I also had the operating AF semaphore with relays built into the base, and along with two track trips, could control two different trains on the same track. Another favorite accessory was the black bridge with the bridge tender's shack on the top. The New Haven style passenger cars were also nice and I had a set in red. I also had a green heavyweight set pulled by a Hudson. I had great fun with my Gilbert Flyer in my youth. Alas, in 1958, upon turning sixteen, I sold my trains and got into a new hobby: a reel to reel stereo tape recorder! Ah, memories!  

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Original Post

Growing up in Brooklyn NY  American Flyer trains offered the interesting alternative to Lionel.  Smaller but IMO more to scale and two rail. They only had maybe 25% of the train market but at that time who didn't have an Erector set???? They  fell on hard times in the late 50's when Lionel's sales began to decline and didn't last to the end of the next decade. I always liked the product but like many others my dad purchased the more popular brand and that got me started on O gauge trains.  IMO, Flyer trains were excellent and their trains and accessories were realistic looking. While still a small market today I have fond memories of them way back when. I just wish that the Gilbert Hall of science near 23rd street in NYC was still open when I was a young kid. Never got to see it but old movies show that it must have been a sight to see.

Builder of the Hill Lines ( New Delta Lines). Recreating history for the model RR community.

Did any of you guys make it to the Hall of Science at the 1964 Worlds Fair?
Until just now, I thought Gilbert was the sponsor. I found information on line, and discovered they were not. I guess I had heard of the Gilbert Hall of Science in NYC and got the two mixed up.

Never made it to the Gilbert Hall of Science or the Lionel showroom.
I don't know what year they closed, my father didn't like going into Manhattan, so visits there were very rare.

C.W. Burfle

A lady in my Woodhaven neighborhood was the telephone operator at the Gilbert Hall of Science, and her sister lived across the street from us. This lady very generously offered her 40% discount when my parents purchased the then top of the line A-B-A North Coast Limited set for me! She also arranged for a friend and myself to have a tour of the layouts above the first floor normally reserved for buyers and wholesalers. It was a fascinating visit which I still recall.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Another interesting fact concerning the Gilbert Hall of Science were the folks who maintained the trains on the layouts there: the Savoy Merchandise Company on West 23rd St. They also bought and restored used AF locos from the Hall of Science and sold them at a discount. There was an AF expert mechanic named Ernie from whom I personally purchased motor brushes and other needed parts when I did my own maintenance. My dad and uncle purchased several of my engines there, as they were rebuilt as new and looked and operated well.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

My first train was a Christmas present and it was used american Flyer set as my older brother received a new on.

I received the Hudson 322 with the NYC logo on the tender and the bellows type smoke generator in the tender with a gondola, search light car an caboose track and a power supply. Also I remember the smell that pine-scented smoke fluid! 
My brother received the silver painted version of the silver bullet with passenger cars.

I still have the 322 and it was repainted by me a flat dull gray which I did in the 70's and the smoking bellows is long gone.
I also keep looking for a complete working 322 at a reasonable price and the cars at trains shows so the "S" gauge has not left me.
This engine sites in by book case as a constant reminder of Christmas's past.
My brothers train is still packed in a box in the basement, needs TLC and will get to it one day.

Question: Is the pine sented smoke fluid made for Lionel trains?


Don't Junk it, Make it Work!


When I returned to trains as an adult in 1971, it was Lionel postwar and MPC. I presently operate Lionel Classics and MTH Tinplate Traditions standard gauge and LGB. I recently sold all my O gauge after having a good run of JLC engines and also the VL 700E. Also had a brief hiatus into G gauge live steam!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

Tinplate Art posted:

When I returned to trains as an adult in 1971, it was Lionel postwar and MPC. I presently operate Lionel Classics and MTH Tinplate Traditions standard gauge and LGB. I recently sold all my O gauge after having a good run of JLC engines and also the VL 700E. Also had a brief hiatus into G gauge live steam!

Thank You.



Don't Junk it, Make it Work!


Another interesting fact concerning the Gilbert Hall of Science were the folks who maintained the trains on the layouts there: the Savoy Merchandise Company on West 23rd St. They also bought and restored AF locos from the Hall of Science and sold them at a discount. There was an AF expert mechanic named Ernie from whom I personally purchased motor brushes and other needed parts when I did my own maintenance. My dad and uncle purchased several of my engines there, as they were rebuilt as new and looked and operated well.

I discovered Savoy Merchandise Company walking down 23rd St on my way to Madison Hardware in the very early 1970's. They had a Gilbert American Flyer sign in an upper window that caught my eye. No old stock. But I did buy some current production Lionel MPC there from time to time.

C.W. Burfle

My usual model train oriented rounds in 1950's Manhattan were the Lionel Showroom, Gilbert Hall of Science, Savoy Merchandise, Polk's (5th Ave.), and Model Railroad Equipment Corp on West Forty-Fifth St. Polk's was a multi-level hobby department store, catering more to the burgeoning HO hobbyists. The store on West Forty Fifth had a mini tinplate museum and carried tinplate and postwar Lionel. The greatest stop was the Lionel Showroom, which included a museum display as you entered the layout area, and of course that incredible layout, powered by four ZW's! They also had a parts and service dept towards the back.of the layout.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

I received my first train (No.310 K5) and three cars for Christmas 1949 in New Orleans. Was always glad that 'Santa' liked the 2 rail models!

In 1960/61 I stumbled into a music store and there was a Flyer layout in the back room. Traded ALL my stuff for a cheap Supro electric guitar and small amp. Never did get really proficient on the guitar either...

Growing up in Manhattan. Spent much time at the Gilbert Hall of Science. First visit was n 1950. Still have the catalog from that visit. And most f my trains came from Savoy merchandise. Made my last visit to Savoy i think it was in 1972. Also enjoyed the Lionel showroom.

Hello friends:

A topic was started last summer about whether our first trains were Lionel, American Flyer or Marx, so some of you may have seen my story when I posted a similar response then:

The first trains in my home were American Flyer.  I think my dad used my birth in 1947 as an excuse to purchase our first American Flyer S gauge train, an AF 302AC Atlantic freight set, that Christmas.  I still have a page out of an old Seattle newspaper from that time.  It is a local department store full page ad for AF and Lionel train sets on which Dad made notes of what he liked or disliked about each one following a personal "inspection" tour of the toy and hobby departments of the Seattle area department stores.  His conclusion was that AF trains and two rail track were most realistic.   Other AF sets followed, and I distinctly remember times that my dad, my uncle and a boyhood best friend of theirs got together many times to  set up a fairly large floor layouts.  I, of course, was allowed to watch while they ran the trains.  Although we packed a 5' by 9' sheet of plywood along with us through three moves, a permanent home layout was never built.  

I was given Marx trains from the time I was old enough to put them on the track, but it wasn't until Christmas 1960 that my dad finally entrusted all of the the AF S gauge trains to me.  My primary collecting and operating focus has been American Flyer S gauge ever since.  

I still have all of those first AF and Marx trains.

Insofar as guitars go, C.Sam, I still regret trading in my beautiful Gibson arch-top, f-hole acoustic guitar that I bought new in high school back to the music store on a Harmony(?!) solid body electric guitar and a Gibson amplifier.  Of course I thought I was going to be a rock guitarist.  Although I still have, but never play the old Harmony electric guitar, my brother sold my Gibson amp while I was away at college.  The professional guitarists in our family love those vintage tube amps, and pay big bucks for the good ones.

Regrets aren't limited to old toy trains that got away.  And don't get me started on the cars I drove in my youth!



My late uncle worked for Grumann Aircraft and he fabricated a sliding control panel from scrap pieces of aircraft aluminum alloy. It had a flat wood center panel for my ZW, and two adjoining sloped wood panels for accessory and switch controls. When not being used, it easily slid under the train table!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

My younger brother and I got a Gilbert American Flyer set for Christmas in 1952. Seems like everyone else had Lionel, never found another Flyer guy until high school. If not for Gilbert I would be a 3 railer now

 AF, AM, S Helper, and Flyonel all alive and well here in Wisconsin.


In retrospect, I wish we would made the switch to Lionel early on back then. Several reasons - My dad didn't have the finances to purchase new trains and would buy our few add-ons from newspaper ads and after Christmas sales. Many of my trains didn't run quite as they should have and neither of us were very mechanically inclined so we were at the mercy of a train repair shop all the way across town.

My most desired set was the Santa Fe Warbonnet and when it finally arrived at about age 10 or 11 it was a great disappointment. Mine was a combination of the original 360 AB with a newer B unit and dummy A that had the (awful) horn and the odd Diesel-Roar, of which neither sounded good to me. It could barely haul the ABBA around much less the 4 silver passenger cars. It mostly sat on the siding and I ran the Comet PA and GM 370 Switcher or my two K5s.

In looking today at an American Flyer gondola and comparing it to a Lionel NYC gondola there is almost no comparison. The weight, detail and 'feel' of the Lionel model is much more 'massive' than the Flyer. I never had a Lionel 2046 to hold or examine back then but I can imagine what a steamer like that must have seemed like to a 6 year old! I doubt if I could have picked it up!

There were several of us in the neighborhood who had Flyer but the Lionel's seems to run better and be more sturdy. Yes, we had them beat with the Smoke & Choo but Lionel had a 'real' whistle!

C.SAM: I definitely had much better luck with my Gilbert S Flyer trains for two reasons: First, the technical/mechanical expertise of Ernie and his repair crew at Savoy Merchandise, who had a special relationship with the Gilbert Hall of Science folks and expertly reconditioned all Gilbert locos from the GHOS layout before selling them, and my family's ability to purchase a brand-new A-B-A North Coast Limited set, whose horn and diesel roar worked satisfactorily for what they were at that time. Savoy also had an unlimited supply of spare parts due to their close connection to the Gilbert managers at the GHOS. 

Like you, all my close friends on my street had Lionel. My closest neighbor had quite a Lionel layout with the following motive power: 736 Berkshire, 2340 GG1, Lackawanna FM, and UP Anniversary Set. He also had an operating milk car and cattle car, plus several accessories. His father made a very good salary as a tool and die maker, much more than my dad's income as a civilian medical corpsman with the Brooklyn Navy Yard! I had a total of five-engines and twenty-eight cars plus a hand car, until I sold them at age 16. 

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

C.SAM: It is a small world!  

In addition to his job as a medic/USN ambulance driver, he also drove high ranking Naval officers (Captains and above) around the Yard on inspection tours in black Packard sedans. I remember accompanying him on one of those trips when I was about four or five-years old, and being told by the USN Captain riding with us to duck down as we were in a secure restricted area!  

I especially enjoyed my several visits to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the Navy Days, and once toured the battleship Missouri, and stood on the very deck spot where Gen. McArthur signed the peace treaty with the Japanese officials! On another occasion, I rode a plane elevator on an aircraft carrier to the main deck! Looking back, maybe I had more exciting adventures with MY dad than my Lionel train friend would have had with his dad!  LOL


vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

As a kid in the early 1960's I was strictly a Lionel guy, as were most of my friends.  One day I was at my friend Mark's house and he brought out his trains.  Strangely they had 2 rails and the trestles were made of cardstock.   He had both diesels and steam engines and I was fascinated.  It was not until many years later that I found American Flyer trains and realized that this is what Mark had.  Ever since I have been hopelessly hooked.  I lover Flyer trains and accessories and have a fairly large collection of post war S gauge trains. 

I also have O, G, HO and a small amount of N gauge trains.  I guess if it has wheels and rails I am interested!


I made many visits to Savoy for Flyer, HO and later in the early 70s for N gauge. My best purchase was in 1959. It was the 21115 K5. That was my first smoking locomotive. Still have it boxes and all. I remember being in Savoy one day and there was a box on the counter with the blue docksiders. They were being sold for $5.00. I did not buy any. Savoy came to me from a man that worked at the GHOS. He watched the trains in the downstairs layout and added smoke fluid when needed. He told me that I should go to Savoy to buy trains. And I did.

Savoy Merchandise was definitely the go-to place for Flyer S gauge in the postwar period through the mid 1950's, and they had excellent service to boot! Their special relationship with the Gilbert Hall of Science gave them an "edge"! I still remember those porthole windows in the GHOS, through which you could watch some of the science demos. My favorite was the Jacob's Ladder, which could be activated by pressing a button! I also had a deluxe Gilbert chemistry set which eventually led to my taking a total of five-years of chem courses, three at Brooklyn Tech High School, and two at Adelphi College. Did not finish with a chem degree due to my difficulty with calculus!  I finished college with an MA in English Literature instead. Currently on renal hemodialysis, my knowledge of chemistry has made me a proactive patient over the last almost-thirteen years on dialysis.  

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

My favorite smoking AF locos were my K5 and the NPR 0-8-0, as they both had the "firebox glow" smokestacks, and were great puffing smoke engines, much superior to my friends Lionel pellet-type engines! And that wonderful pine-scented smoke I will never forget!

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

One of my last toy train purchases as a kid before the inevitable digression into cars, sports, girls, etc. was the Blue AF docksider.  Columbia Cycle and Toy in Wenatchee, WA where we lived at the time had a bunch of them on sale for $3.99! Even though it had only one non-operating coupler, no reverse and sounded like a cement mixer, how could I pass it up?

I got it home and decided that blue was not a real color for a working steam engine.  I promptly painted it a dark grey.  Big mistake! Still have it, but I stripped the grey paint years ago so it is now kind of a dirty blue.  I keep it around as another reminder of the many follies of my youth.



Although I  (at age 16) and my four girl cousins and their girlfriends had many fun times listening to top rock 'n roll tunes on the reel to reel tape recorder I purchased with the proceeds from the sale of my AF trains, I still have some regrets! That recorder cost $250 in 1958 dollars, and it had three speakers. I later added a third playback head and converted it to stereo, and used an external amp/speaker combo in addition to its own speakers for the full stereo sound. At that time, you could purchase prerecorded stereo tapes. This led to my acquiring a good quality hysteresis-synchronus turntable with a strobe disc and a $100 Rek-O-Kut tone arm, plus an additional amp and speaker for some awesome stereo sound.

vita sine litteris mors est  (Seneca)

My dad built a 4 x 40-feet AF layout in the basement of our home in Peoria, IL. It was the full length of the basement with a large perimeter loop and an elevated second level with a reversing loop at its south end. It had a few switches and some yard tracks. It was larger than the showroom layout at the downtown HOBBY MODELS store. My next-door neighbor friend Tommy had Lionel trains, and we rotated from house to house to play with the trains.

I regularly received AF trains as birthday and Christmas presents for several years in the late 1940s and early 50s:  a steam Atlantic with red NH passenger cars, a steam Berkshire with various freight cars including a die-cast depressed center flatcar with a cable reel load, and a Santa Fe warbonnet passenger set - the pride of my fleet.

I was then the go-to neighborhood kid for lawn-mowing, leaf-raking, and snow shoveling chores. I applied my earnings to my first self-bought purchase of a DC controlled AF Pennsy O-8-O steam switcher with its own neat-o rectifier. So I could run two trains simultaneously and independently; one controlled by the AF transformer throttle, the other by the rectifier.

As a teenager, I attended a private boarding school in a Chicago suburb and was separated from my trains. In 1955 my dad called me at school and said the father of a neighborhood kid inquired if the trains might be for sale for enjoyment by his son who would be bed-bound for a year while recovering from a heart condition.  I accepted $330 for all the stuff valued at about $1600 in mid-50s dollars. But the memories of that layout never died.

Decades later as a 50-ish adult, I re-entered the hobby with Lionel trains and set a goal of acquiring O-gauge trains made by all manufacturers of the Rock Island RR, the railroad that served Peoria at that time. My RI collection, accessories, and related gear grew to an inventory eight pages long.  After a stroke in 2014, I decided to exit the hobby and sold the collection via Stout Auctions. Everything was sold in a weekend. However, I kept two Lionel train sets as mementos.








IIRC,  Julies on 23rd street may have sold Gilbert Stuff. As a toy store they sold Erector sets and Lionel but not certain about Flyer. My dad use to take me to Julies to buy a Lionel piece each December as they were the cheapest, and had better prices than Madison Hardware a block away.

Builder of the Hill Lines ( New Delta Lines). Recreating history for the model RR community.

Yes, I too went to Julies on 23rd St..  I remember buying a Lionel Z trans former, in the late 60's.  IIRC, I paid $25 for it at the time.    

Lots of memories for me in this thread.  My first train set was an AF Frontiersman, got it for Christmas around 1959.  I also went to Brooklyn Tech, and was a Chemistry Major.  Graduated in 1968, and flunked calculus, and that ended my career in chemistry.

My father grew up on North Elliot St. not far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  His 18th Birthday was Dec. 8,1941, I can't even imagine what that must have been like.  He built my first layout on a 4x8 plywood board in the basement, when we lived at 253 Rutledge St., in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Yes Julie's on 23rd st. Almost across the street from Madison Harware. Julie's did have  AF trains. I did buy a GP7 234 from Julie's. I read that they would get left over trains from the toy show or stuff from Hall of science. I should have shopped more often at Julie


My first train was an AF 3/16" scale O gauge 3 rail freight headed by a PRR K5 #561.  Dad was in the 47th Infantry Div and returned home to Lake Ronkonkoma, NY from Germany in February 1946.  For Christmas that year Santa left a 4 car American Flyer freight set under the tree headed by the American Flyer K5.  I wasn't quite 3 years old and fell totally under the spell of the electric train.   I understand that set was produced by Gilbert using left over pre-war components.  Unfortunately the following year's American Flyer's catalog featured only 2 rail S gauge trains.   The path to expanding the Christmas set was not clear.  Dad decided to go with Lionel for new equipment and track.  For Christmas 1948 Santa delivered  three Lionel O-27 green streamlined passenger cars.  To enable the Flyer K5 to pull the Lionel passenger cars Dad machined a dummy knuckle coupler with an under side pin that fit into a hole he drilled on the upper surface of 561's link coupler.  To pull AF freight cars I could lift off the dummy knuckle and couple up to the AF tinplate car's link couplers.   Over the next 6 years (and with a move to a house with a basement) Santa delivered a number of Lionel locomotives, operating cars, and accessories.  Occasionally I'd bring out the AF train but eventually 561's e unit failed and the locomotives's final disposition is unknown.  By the time I was in 5th grade Dad convinced me to build an HO layout with him and we traded the Lionel trains in for HO equipment at a local (Bay Port, NT) hobby shop.   For the next 12 years I was into HO.  Years later we moved to the DC area I had the good fortune to visit John Armstrong's  O scale railroad in 1971.  I was totally taken by the mass and detail of O scale models.  Since then it's been Pennsy O scale 2 rail all the way.   I AF K5 561 with infecting me with Pennsyitis - an incurable passion.

Four years ago I was able to purchase a very clean AF 521 and a set of cars that matched my first train set.  At this time of the year I set up a small table top 3 rail Xmas tree layout in my basement train room.  Dad passed on several years ago - but seeing the AF train running under the tree never fails to bring back warm family memories.




An accurate scale model of PRR K5 5698 has never been offered in O scale so several years ago I commissioned master craftsman and friend Frank Miller to build one for me.  Below is a shot of AF 521 side by side with 5698 on my railroad.  As a young kid I never faulted the look of a 3/16th scale model on O gauge track. 

 K5 521 American Flyer

Ed Rappe           PRRT&HS 421


Photos (2)

Add Reply

Likes (1)

OGR Publishing, Inc. PO Box 218, Hilliard, OH 43026 330-757-3020