Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lessons from York - What We Saw, Part 1: American Flyer

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby. 

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

Age of the aged

Both this post and the follow up (What We Didn't See) are two sides of the same coin. There's been a slow but steady decline in TCA membership, and in toy train collecting in general. In many ways, it parallels trends in other forms of collecting: stamps, coins, dolls, baseball cards, etc. A large part of it, I think, is generational. The generation now in their late middle ages may be the last to have a desire to accumulate physical objects from their childhood. That's not to say that younger individuals aren't interested in collecting things, but it's not the widespread activity it once was.

American Flyer - a bit of background

What does that mean for our little sub-category of collecting? A shift in the market. When it comes to toy trains, Lionel pretty much dominated the market from the 1920s through the 1960s, when interest in toy trains as toys was displaced by other childhood amusements.

Running a close second was American Flyer. Before the Second World War, American Flyer trains competed directly with Lionel -- they both used the same gauges (track width), the same general designs, and marketed to the same demographic.

After the war, there was a major change in both companies. Both began using plastic rather than sheet metal for most of their products. Both moved towards greater realism with their trains. The end of the war brought about a boom in H0 gauge trains. H0 enthusiasts were interested in realistic rolling stock and scenery, considering themselves modelers rather than operators of toy trains.

Lionel stuck with O gauge (twice the size of H0 while AC Gilbert's American Flyer trains moved to S gauge; smaller than O, but bigger than H0. Lionel's trains ran on alternating current and required a middle rail to supply power to the locomotives. Gilbert's S gauge, on the other hand, like H0 used direct current to power its trains. That meant it only needed two rails, which gave it greater realism.

The Rise of American Flyer

There has always been a market for American Flyer trains, and it's always been smaller than the market for Lionel. If you consider that most collectors are trying to replace the toys of their youth, then it makes sense. More parents bought Lionel than Flyer.

While there's always been a good representation of American Flyer trains at the York meet, they were always something one had to seek out. There was that guy in the Red Hall who had a good stock of vintage Flyer, or those three tables in the Blue Hall that had a decent selection.

This time, American Flyer trains were everywhere. Virtually every aisle in every hall had at least one table with American Flyer.


I think it goes to the decline of the hobby in general. Lionel collectors are aging out of the market. Lionel collectors in their 70s and younger have an interest in postwar Lionel, whereas mostly collectors in their 50s and 60s fondly remember American Flyer. So as the older Lionel collectors age out of the market -- and are not replaced by younger ones -- the balance between Lionel and American Flyer collectors evens out a little bit  It should be interesting to see if that shift continues in future shows.

We also saw a lot of prewar trains, too -- as I'll explain in Part 2.

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