American Flyers & The Brooklyn Dodgers - The Little Known Connection
It was a cold December morning when I saw my first American Flyer train. I was seven-yearsold. It was Christmas, 1951. I can still smell the distinctive aroma of the Flyer smoke as I ran down the steps from my bedroom. My dad had set up the track during the night and the train was running around our Christmas tree. There was the wonderful 290 steam engine, puffing huge clouds of smoke and making those magical Choo Choo sounds, pulling a 651 green baggage car and two New Haven 650 green coaches.
My eyes popped and I immediately got down on the floor to get a closer look. I really loved that train but I must admit, as time passed, I became a little disappointed. You see, all my buddies had Lionel freight trains and they seemed to have more fun playing with their freight trains than I did playing with my passenger set. There was just more to do with a freight train. But the passenger train was better with the lights out. I¹d get close to the track, watch the headlight as it came closer, then the lights in the windows of the passenger cars would flash by. Of course, the answer was to have two trains one freight and one passenger.
Life in the fifties was rough for a boy who had American Flyer trains. I was always trying to defend my train against all those Lionel lovers. I knew my train was superior to my buddies¹ Lionel trains and in their hearts they knew it too. I think defending Flyer kind of shaped my life, because ever since, I have always wanted to be different, I have always rooted for the underdog, and I¹m loyal. I think it¹s better that way because infrequent victories are much sweeter. I mean, if you win all the time, like I do in golf, it gets boring.
In 1951, it seemed everyone had a Lionel train, a Ford V-8, Schwinn bike and rooted for the New York Yankees. Little Louie had Flyer trains, a Chevy 6, a J.C. Higgins bike, and I loved the Dodgers. Those were the years of the great Yankee-Dodgers World Series and every year I bet on the Dodgers. I lost in 1952 and 1953 but I finally won in 1955. Oh, how sweet it was. Anybody could root for the Yankees but being a Dodger fan built character and taught me how to deal with defeat and adversity. Like the very next year, 1956, my beloved Bums lost again. But I remained loyal. In fact, I¹m still a Dodger fan today. And I still love American Flyer.
Lionel trains were the Yankees of toy trains, and, being a Dodger fan, I hated the Yankees. Maybe that¹s where it started my deep seated resentment for the front-runner. And to top it off, Joe DiMaggio, the Yankee Clipper and murderer of Dodger pitching, promoted Lionel. Looking back, I think there may have been a conspiracy. Lionel was in more stores, they advertised more and they had bigger catalogs. But their one big drawback was tubular, three-rail track. ³Who ever heard of a real train needing three rails,² I¹d ask my pal Frankie, who had a basement full of Lionel. ³I¹d rather have three rails than that stupid-looking coupler you have,² replied Frankie, referring to Flyer¹s stupid-looking link coupler. And so it went. Lionel guys acting smug, thinking they had the best, making fun of Flyer guys. We learned to defend the underdog, to make the best out of a bad situation, and to understand that bigger does not always mean better. Flyer guys were the true toy train connoisseurs. Anyway, once you¹re a Flyer guy, you're always a Flyer guy, so we just have to deal with it.
In 1969, the all-but-defunct Lionel Corporation was bought out by General Mills. Lionel had purchased Flyer in 1967 when General Mills took over Lionel, they got Flyer trains too, whether they wanted them or not. It wasn't until the late seventies that the new owners started to produce American Flyer trains and then it was only three measly, rolling stock pieces. Just shows what the new owners thought of the Flyer market. The collector market boomed in the Eighties and again, American Flyer trailed Lionel. The prices of the Postwar Flyer were five-to-seven years behind those of the Postwar Lionel. However, I must admit during the mid-eighties there was a big increase in demand for Flyer S gauge. It seemed that anyone who ever wanted Flyer made their move to buy during those years, which were the peak years for Flyer. I would see packs of avid Flyer collectors roaming the aisles at every train meet trying to uncover fresh and rare Flyer. Top dollar was being paid for anything Gilbert. Flyer mail order sales were also at an all-time high. American Flyer S gauge was hot, hot, hot.
It was also during the Eighties that Lionel started to reproduce more American Flyer. The early stuff was OK, but it didn't make my heart sing. Lionel produced B&O Alcos, which were nice, Erie Alcos, which were horrid, and a bunch of geep freight sets, which were really boring. However, two shining stars emerged the Boston & Maine GP-7 freight set and the Southern Pacific Daylight passenger set. These gorgeous sets caught fire and were quickly gobbled up by the Flyer fanatics. Their value doubled and they remain good collector items to this day. I don't know if it were the availability, the aesthetics, or the timing of their production, but these trains were and are the only AF reissues that have made a huge impact. Even though Lionel continued to produce some of the great Flyer sets of the fifties the UP Pony Express set, Missouri Pacific set, Bankers¹ set, etc. none of these ever had as much impact as the Boston & Maine and the Daylight sets.
In the Nineties, the market for American Flyer dropped from their high mark of the Eighties. I tried to figure out why, and all I can come up with is the old supply and demand thing. There is just not enough new Flyer collectors entering the market to create additional demand for the supply.
Many of my customers who used to be Flyer fanatics are now selling their beloved trains at shows through e-Bay. Of course, the same is true about Lionel. Lots of Lionel guys are dumping too, especially average stuff. If you don¹t have LN or better with the box, you¹re going to get about half of what you would have got five years ago. So Flyer is not alone but there are more new Lionel collectors entering the market than S gauge folks. On the bright side, if you have LN or better with the box (Lionel or Flyer), you can get prices you never dreamed of thanks to auctions and the Internet. Who knows how long that will last?
You just got to love those S-gauge guys. Like me, they have a chip on their shoulder when discussing S verses O. That¹s mainly because they¹ve been fighting a losing battle for years. Sgauge guys are a little snobbier, a little pickier, and a little cheaper than O-gauge guys in general. There are exceptions, but over all, that¹s the way I see it.
However, during the Golden Eighties, serious Flyer collectors would pay obscene money for a LN-to-mint-boxed set or accessory. But let¹s not get carried away and use that one market to generalize and conclude Flyer guys always pay top prices. Besides, Lionel guys were paying gouge prices too. By the way, where are all those Flyer ³big spenders² today?
But, don¹t get me wrong, I still love American Flyer S gauge and I always will, but I must confess that I crossed over many years ago. I started to collect Lionel O gauge. I¹ve tried to keep that a secret but I decided to come out of the closet and just admit it. I have both American Flyer and Lionel. There. It¹s out. I feel much better even though it means a lot of Flyer collectors won¹t speak to me and will call me a traitor. But I understand. I can respect their deep commitment and fanatical loyalty to American Flyer train snobs that they are.
Clean, rare Flyer still is in big demand especially the accessories (try to buy a boxed Gabe). However, S gauge needs to attract more collectors if it's ever to be a major player in the toy train arena. K-line, Williams, M.T.H., Atlas, Weaver are all new O-gauge manufacturers. There are two new companies producing S gauge. That should indicate the relative size of the two markets. But there are signs that some of these new O-gauge companies will produce some S gauge and they should, especially the accessories. There are some really great Flyer accessories that look fine on Lionel layouts. M.T.H. recently cataloged the 785 Coal Loader. However, the reissue at $149 will probably hurt the value of the original.
Where is Flyer going? Who knows? Who knows where the entire train market is going? I¹m looking for an O-gauge blood bath because of all the stuff being produced. I just don¹t see how all these guys can survive. But no matter what, I feel high volume trading in S gauge will never occur. Prices have stabilized and I would not characterize the current S-gauge demand as brisk. If you buy a large Flyer collection at today's prices look for a long love affair with those trains because it may take many winters to get rid of them at a profit.
However, that is only my opinion, I may be wrong.
Like Dennis Miller on Monday night football, now that¹s a stretch.