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A Flyer 3/16-inch classic

Gilbert’s “3⁄16 scale” O gauge Pennsy K5 locomotive
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The locomotive shown here wasn’t made by Lionel; it’s an American Flyer product. But it will run on Lionel O gauge track – and it won’t run on Flyer S gauge track.

In 1938, toy maker A.C. Gilbert purchased the American Flyer Manufacturing Co. Production was moved from Chicago to Connecticut (Gilbert was based in New Haven). Gilbert turned the Flyer line upside down in the name of realism. Gone were sheet-metal steam and electric-profile locomotives with brassy trim and oversized features. They were replaced by realistic die-cast metal locomotives – scale-sized, but in an unusual way.

These pre-World War II American Flyer locomotives operated on three-rail O gauge track, but were built to a scale of 3/16 inch to a foot. That’s S scale. Only after the war did American Flyer introduce two-rail S gauge track. With that the company retooled its 3/16 line of locomotives and rolling stock to operate on the new track size.

But back to the Pennsylvania Flyer. Among Gilbert’s eight 3/16 scale O gauge locomotives was a model of the Pennsylvania Railroad K5-class 4-6-2 locomotive. Gilbert likely gambled that the K5 would be the most popular Pacific-type locomotive to model. Only in hindsight does the K4 seem a more logical choice.

The Flyer K5 was cataloged in 1940 and ’41 in three numbers – 559, 560, and 561 – with a sometimes confusing mix of features. All have worm-gear drive and feature a no. 558 die-cast metal tender. Some tenders contained a “choo-choo sound” mechanism.

According to Greenberg’s Guide to American Flyer Prewar O Gauge, the 559 came with Remote Directional Control (the 560 and 561 didn’t). This feature replaced a conventional reverse unit with one operated by a pulse of DC power laid over on the AC track power. It’s the same electrical concept Lionel used to trigger its onboard whistles.

On American Flyer locomotives, DC directional control allows operators to skip the forward-neutral-reverse-neutral cycle of a typical reverse unit. Instead, one press of a button is forward, another press is reverse. That’s it.

Reflecting a decade of economic depression, the 559 also came in a less-expensive kit form with decals for the cab and tender. Pre-assembled models were lettered and numbered with rubber stamps.

Today, 3/16 scale locomotives aren’t as common as their S gauge siblings from the postwar era. However, they do show up at train meets and auctions and on dealer lists and Internet sites.

The years haven’t been kind to early Flyer die-cast metal trains. Impurities in the zinc alloy used to make these locomotives are to blame for many cracked, broken, or warped metal pieces. Wheels and other small parts suffering from this problem, which is called “zinc pest,” can disintegrate into a pile of metal crumbs despite modern efforts to preserve the metal. Obviously, prices for these locomotives are directly related to the condition of the metal.

This article by Neil Besougloff originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Classic Toy Trains magazine.

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