Thursday, May 25, 2017

Lessons from York: What We Saw (Part 4) - American Flyer flown

Pre-war standard gauge AF trains.
We saw about the same amount we
normally do at this show.
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.

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons for what I see as a major shift in the hobby. Basically, younger collectors seem more interested in operating their trains rather than simply displaying them. And that, I think, explains what we say this time at York -- the results of upgrading.

And it wasn't just limited to Lionel. We saw a lot of postwar American Flyer sets, locomotives, and rolling stock.

A little background

American Flyer trains, like those of Lionel, have a long history. The company started out in 1907 as a low-cost alternative to the higher-priced (and higher-quality) German imported toy trains. In the 1920s and 1930s, it competed directly with Lionel, offering trains in the same track gauge. A.C. Gilbert (or Erector Set fame) bought the company in 1937.

In 1937 A.C. Gilbert bought American Flyer. It seemed
to be a good match.
Toy train production ceased during World War II, and when it resumed, American Flyer had changed. Lionel continued to use O-gauge track, with a middle rail for the motor's electric pickup. American Flyer went with S-gauge track and used the same two-rail electrical system as the new H0 trains.

Flyer was never as successful as Lionel and went out of business in 1967. Children who received American Flyer trains in the 1950s grew up to be American Flyer collectors in the 1970s. It was a smaller group than Lionel collectors, but no less enthusiastic.

Limited resources

Unlike Lionel trains, which were in continual production even after the original company was bought out, American Flyer trains were not reintroduced into the market until the 1990s.

American Flyer, 1955. We saw plenty of these pieces, both in sets and for
individual sale.
So if you wanted to have an operating S-gauge layout, you were pretty much confined to vintage Flyer equipment

S-Helper Service helps

S-Helper Service and American Models jump-started the S-gauge operator's market in the early 1990s. These independent companies produced their own lines of rolling stock -- and eventually locomotives -- for S-gauge operators. S-Helper Service was purchased in 2013 by MTH, one of the largest toy train manufacturers in the US. American Models is still in business.

An example of MTH's S-gauge offerings. There's a greater variety
of road names and more realistic detail in these cars, compared
to vintage American Flyer rolling stock.
In the meantime, Lionel had purchased the assets to the old American Flyer line of products and started reissuing old trains. And they also began offering new products.

A sampling of Lionel's American Flyer-branded S-gauge trains. Like MTH,
Lionel offers models and road names never made by Gilbert

So what does that mean?

New products mean modern materials. New S-gauge cars roll more easily than older AF. The electronics in the locomotives offer remote control and more reliable operation. And there's a greater variety of road names and locomotive types, which lets the operator model the rail lines he wants, not just the few Flyer offered.

What did we see?

A LOT of American Flyer trains. But not from the prewar era. No, most of the American Flyer we saw was post-war. Train sets from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as individual locomotives, freight cars, and passenger cars. We didn't see a lot of postwar accessories, though.

Conclusion? As with their O-gauge brethren, S-gauge operators are trading in their aging Flyer pieces for newer, better-running equipment.

So what didn't we see? 

Across the board, anything that would be useful for modern toy train operators was in short supply. We didn't see operating accessories, buildings, crossing gates, billboard signs, etc.

The hobby has indeed changed.

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