A.C. Gilbert was the largest U.S. toy maker in 1946 when it introduced the "American Flyer®" brand name. At the time the company was better known for its Erector Set as well as its chemical sets. There is a brief, 5-minute video on YouTube of the A.C. Gilbert factory. If you really want to learn about the A.C. Gilbert history, we recommend sitting down with a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy Tom Barker's A.C. Gilbert Documentary.
A.C. Gilbert's main competitor was Lionel®. Gilbert wanted to make cheaper, and more accurate models. The main difference, beside the size (1:48 vs. 1:64), was that Lionel used a center rail down the middle of the tracks, whereas Gilbert used the more prototypical two-rail system. The A.C. Gilbert company manufactured American Flyer trains until 1966, when the company went out of business. Lionel then bought the American Flyer name and product line in 1967 (Lionel subsequently declared its own bankruptcy later that same year).
The cereal company, General Mills, bought the Lionel product line, but not the corporation itself. In 1979 General Mills, under the name Fundimensions Division, based in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, resurrected the American Flyer product line, with little success. You can identify these models by looking at the label underneath, which will state "Lionel/Fundimensions". In the meantime the Lionel corporation came back and started building general toy stores around the country and wasn't really involved in toy trains anymore. They eventually went out of business for good.
In 1986 the new Lionel, LLC, an entirely different corporation from the original Lionel company, bought the toy train product line from General Mills. For a period of time famous musician Neil Young was on the board of directors of Lionel. He invented and holds some patents related to Lionel's sound and electronics. Of course, Lionel's main business is O-scale trains, but they are now also actively producing both re-issues and newly-tooled engines, cars, and accessories under the American Flyer name. Their products are backward-compatible with original American Flyer track, but they are also starting to make some of their models more true-to-scale.
MTH Electric Trains
Lionel and MTH have had a very confusing and intricate relationship over the past four decades. This relates to S, because in 2010 S-Helper Service announced that it sold its product line and tooling to MTH. In 2013 MTH introduced its first "S gauge" catalog, and their products started shipping in 2014. The initial round of products are based on S-Helper Service tooling, but MTH also released some reproduction accessories in 2014. You can read more about MTH's history on the Inc. magazine's web site.
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