American Flyer trains have been a collectors’ favorite for more than a century now. Their one-of-a-kind design and finish make them one of the most coveted model trains in the world. Throughout their long line of production, they have been manufactured using a variety of distances between the rails of the tracks.
Most American Flyer trains are an “S” gauge, which runs on a two-rail track. Although this is the most popular size of the model, they famously come in a slightly larger “O” gauge that runs on a three-rail track. Other, wider gauge versions have also been produced throughout the years.
To learn more about the various gauges used in the iconic American Flyer trains, along with more detailed information about these models, keep reading.
The Gauge of an American Flyer Train Set
American Flyer train sets, especially after their collaboration with Lionel, are highly regarded as the golden standard when it comes to S-Gauge layout sets. Their top-of-the-line models feature impeccable scale proportions and detailed work, making them some of the most sought-after pieces in the industry.
Their most popular model of all time was built using an S-Gauge track with a two-rail line at a 3/16-scale.
This train was so well-received by fans and enthusiasts. It was the product of choice that was reproduced after the WWII recession to drive sales and compete with other giants, such as Lionel.
With that said, their original O-Gauge still holds an important place in the brand’s history, as their first model trains were built using the standard 1-¼” (31-¾ mm) between the outer rails.
One of the first fully functional American Flyer trains ever created dates back to 1905 when the company wasn’t officially founded. During this time, the son of one of the co-founders built his first clockwork train running on an O-Gauge track.
How the American Flyer Set Came To Be
The manufacturing company didn’t even gain its “American Flyer” name until 1907, so the O-Gauge was a brand staple even before the brand was created. These first models started gaining a lot of popularity among enthusiasts and collectors.
They were widely regarded as an affordable, high-quality alternative to other expensive brands.
Through the production of these models, the company expanded its influence and gained a significant portion of the market. They were able to rapidly progress and increase their manufacturing capacity, which led to the introduction of other variations of the model, including the famous S-Gauge American Flyer Train.
The company’s growth was seemingly unaffected by WWI, as the newest model overtook the market share of German manufacturers. During this time, they also released their latest line of electric trains, which featured an electric motor instead of the classic clockwork version.
During this era of business expansion, American Flyer was able to produce and sell wider-gauge trains, leaving behind the smaller O and S gauges.
These new and larger models were sold at a premium price, but this didn’t negatively affect their popularity. On the contrary, the company experienced some of its most profitable years during this era, as G-Gauge trains were all the range.
During the roaring 1920s, the country’s economy was recovering and experiencing significant growth.
Therefore, this strategic decision to move towards the production of broader gauges was the best choice the company could have made. During this time, as customers were managing larger amounts of disposable income, they were instantly drawn to bigger, more eye-catching models.
The production of G-Gauge trains allowed American Flyer to compete with higher-end industry leaders such as Lionel. But this era of economic abundance came to an end during the Great Depression. Through this challenging time, the company was forced to shift its focus back to smaller, more humble, and economic models.
This was when the popularity of O and S gauge trains soared again.
Although American Flyer found itself struggling after this period of scarcity, the S-Gauge trains released from this time on are still some of the most iconic representations of the brand. These models were widely well-liked even back then, but their value and popularity have further increased with time.
This highly detailed, impeccably proportioned, one-of-a-kind train is one of the most coveted models on the market today, retailing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars depending on their rarity and condition.
What Is an S-Gauge?
Although often the terms S Gauge and S Scale are used interchangeably, they are actually used to indicate two different measurements in a model railroad. Nonetheless, this model has been their most popular piece for decades now. This is why it’s important to properly understand what these measurements mean.
An S-Gauge is a scale that indicates a model train operating on a track with rails placed 22,5 mm apart (~0.89”). These trains can be manufactured in AC or DC-powered varieties and are usually smaller than other models.
On the other hand, a scale indicates the ratio of the model to that of the real-life counterpart.
The S scale, in particular, suggests that the piece is modeled at a 1:64 scale. At this point in time, this measurement is so widely linked to the American Flyer iconic model that the two are often referred to as interchangeable.
Trains built in an S-Gauge are not only smaller but also narrower than most other varieties. They operate on only two rails, making them ideal for hobbyists, collectors, and enthusiasts looking for a more refined model that doesn’t occupy a lot of space.
The average American Flyer S-Gauge train is relatively small in dimensions, with an average length of 7 ¾” (~19.7 cm), an average height of 2 ¾” (~7 cm), and an average width of 2” (~5cm).
Another advantage that this type of train offers is its manageability.
S-gauge trains are famously easier to control and maintain, saving the customer valuable time and effort. This is one of the main reasons why today’s collectors, who are highly focused on efficiency, prefer and covet this model so much.
Newer versions of this train come with many added features, including long-distance controls, enhanced sound, and high compatibility with peripherals. These components, along with the piece’s accessibility, have made the S-Gauge models significantly more popular during this last decade.
Difference Between Traditional and Scale S Gauge Trains
Usually, when searching for an American Flyer train, you’ll come across two different terms:
- Traditional S Gauge models
- Scale S Gauge models
Both these variations are very similar in shape and design, but they differ when it comes to some key characteristics.
First of all, they vary from one another when it comes to size.
Scale S Gauge models are usually a bit bigger than Traditional S Gauge models, which are not made to an accurate 1:64 scale but are slightly smaller. As you’ll see in the following section, throughout the years, the models have evolved to be manufactured more accurately according to this scale.
The traditional variations are more widespread among casual buyers and less experienced hobbyists.
They are a great starting point for a new collector, as they are based on original American Flyer designs. Their sets include all the parts necessary for a beginner to get started, not to mention they are highly customizable.
They come with many accessories that you can add to your starter set to make it more personalized. Another excellent quality of this line is its consistency, as you can take any of the latest accessories and easily add them to your oldest train display.
Because of this, each piece you purchase will offer a great value, as it can be used for decades on end no matter how many new models come out during that time frame.
On the other hand, you have scale S gauge models. These trains are more of a collector’s piece. They are much more accurate to scale, and they contain a lot of the more authentic and highly detailed parts that you would find on their real-life counterparts.
Their engines are much more sophisticated, and their newer variations come with many added technological features, including authentic sounds, and highly sensitive control systems. Due to the level of attention and care paid to these models during the manufacturing process, they often come at premium prices.
This is why they’re usually more geared towards more serious collectors and hobbyists willing to pay the fee for the best possible quality piece.
How the S-Gauge Model Became So Valuable
As enthusiasts are looking for more manageable sets and have less spacious designated areas for their collections, the once highly sought-after G-Gauge variation is going out of style. Given that all antique pieces are pricey and hard to find, getting your hands on the biggest, most eye-catching model isn’t always the best way to showcase your dedication to the hobby.
As many enthusiasts have noticed, S-Gauge variations gain a lot of value due to their intricate detailing and separately applied parts. This is why these pieces are retailing for prices that put them on the higher end of the spectrum.
Even though they are a famously smaller model, they have gradually increased in size as time has gone by and are coming at a more accurate 1:64 scale compared to traditional vintage variations.
For this reason, American Flyer model trains are most sought-after by experienced collectors and hobbyists that have been following the industry for years, as a more practiced eye is needed to truly capture the value of an S-Gauge model. This is because this variety derives worth from the minuscule details that are hard to grasp by an inexperienced observer.
Size isn’t the only characteristic that has changed over time, as engine technology is still evolving every day. Modern locomotives feature advanced control systems and a Digital Command Control feature that has revolutionized the industry.
Specifications of an American Flyer Model Train
Although you can often find many variations of the American Flyer model train, the key specifications that set the piece apart from other brands remain the same. Therefore no matter if you decide to purchase a traditional or scale option, these are the features you can expect on your new model.
One of the most well-renowned features of an American Flyer is its engine, as it is one of the highest-quality options you’ll find in the market. Not only is the motor very well made, but it is also very versatile, and you can always find a type that fits your preferences.
They have a maximum voltage of 17V, which is impressive when it comes to model trains.
Engines of this model can usually run on both AC and DC electric currents, as you just have to search for and find the option that you prefer better. Usually, when checking the engine numbers, you’ll spot an “AC” right at the end.
This means that the motor on your piece can run on both currents, and it’s up to you to choose the method you would favor.
On the other hand, not all motors are made the same, meaning that some versions don’t offer you this possibility. Therefore, if you see a “DC” embedded after the engine numbers, you’ll know that that particular model runs on DC.
Brushes and Springs
The brushes and springs of a traditional American Flyer train are one of the features that have evolved the most throughout the years. Even today, you’ll see the same two engines carrying the same model number, and their brushes and springs will most probably be different.
While older models leaned more towards fuller, rounder brushes, they have started to decrease in size as time has gone by. On the other hand, springs that started being manufactured with a slot and designed as level-like later evolved to become more coil.
When buying an American Flyer train, you’ll probably find it equipped with one of three main types of couplers that are widely used in the manufacturing of this model.
These types indicate a vintage piece, as they were most popular during the 1940-1950 timeframe. You can easily spot them as a black plastic shank that will most often come with a brass round weight on its side.
They are a long and thin component that features a hook on one of its ends.
The manufacturer stopped producing link couplers after knuckle couplers were introduced in the early 1950s.
They get their name from their unique shape, closely resembling a closed fist. They also work through a mechanism that opens and closes like a jaw or knuckle. After they originally debuted featuring a hole or a shaft, they further evolved into what was called a Pikemaster Coupler.
This newer version was considered an alteration on the original knuckle coupler because it resembled its particular shape. But unlike the previous variety, it has no moving parts as it is a fixed component installed during the assembly.
You can’t repair or replace these couplers as you’d have to take apart the whole set to do so.
Lastly, if you’re looking for one of the most budget-friendly options, your model most likely works using a non-operating knuckle coupler, which is a cast-plastic version of the original variation, used mostly for design rather than function.
On the other hand, Whistle units tend to be more uniform throughout the long line of American Flyer models.
On most trains, you’ll find one of two main types of sound units that include horns and whistles.
Overall, every steam or diesel engine comes equipped with the same air chime whistles and the same type of horns. You have to find an activation unit that’s usually wired to the track and turn it on to activate these features. The only exception to this is the 314AW model. This variation is equipped with a Lionel-type whistle, but it also requires it to be enabled through an activation unit.
While American Flyer models never came equipped with smoke pellets, they still manufactured some of the highest-quality units on the market. Throughout their production, they came out with four different types of smoke units for their models.
The earliest version was a smoke-in-tender type.
This means that the smoke unit is placed in the tender behind the engine. You can still find versions of this model throughout antique sales that offer trains dating earlier than 1950.
The version that followed was a smoke-in-boiler unit. This model is one of the most widely used units, which you’ll find on most American Flyer locomotives. In this case, the smoke unit is placed inside the boiler or the central part of the steam engine. You can find two variations of this type of unit.
Earlier models worked through two chambers, while newer locomotives only have one compartment where the smoke coil and wick are located.
Afterward, a new version was manufactured, which closely resembled the smoke-in-boiler unit, only it was smaller and was produced to be used with Franklin, Washington, and HO engines.
The last type introduced to the market was also an alteration of the previous models. It was a boiler-mounted unit made to be paired with Casey Jones-style engines. This variation, along with all the previously mentioned, worked through the use of liquid smoke fluid.
Although American Flyer trains come in a variety of gauges, they have achieved unparalleled success through their S-Gauge models. These are the most common and popular pieces that the brand has sold throughout the years. Today, hobbyists and collectors use the term “S-Gauge train” interchangeably with the brand name itself.