American Flyer Smoke and Choo-Choo -
A Half Century of Rail Sounds

by Bob Bubeck

When one thinks of Gilbert American Flyer S gauge trains, visions of great accessories like the Seaboard coal loaders and Mystic talking stations, sleek Alco PA passenger sets, and two-rail T-top track all quickly come to mind.

For the avid Flyer fan, however, the sensory input that will bring the holidays of youth rushing back as fast as the sound of jungle bells or Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" is the Gilbert signature sensation -- the sound of choo-choo synchronized with the expelling of copious quantities of cedar-scented smoke.

Long, long before the advent of RailSounds and ProtoSounds, the A.C. Gilbert Company had hit upon a bullet-proof mechanical means of producing authentic steam engine sound effects - smooth-sounding chuffs without the listener fatigue and the dependability issues that plague many modern digital electronic sound sources.

After World War II, the race was on between American Flyer and Lionel to give their toy trains a greater sense of realism by introducing puffing smoke and authentic sounds, not unlike the current competition between Lionel and M.T.H.

In 1946, Gilbert's first volley in this competition was a smoke and choo-choo mechanism for American Flyer S gauge model steam locomotives that was located in the tender. The device was driven with its own drive motor and fitted with a rubber tube to transfer the smoke to the stack on the boiler. Although more of a maintenance problem than the later arrangement with the mechanism placed in the boiler, the "Smoke-in-Tender" (S.I.T.) system permitted great quantities of smoke to be generated while the locomotive was powered up in neutral. It also meant that a whistle sound had to generated from a billboard accessory since the tender space was occupied. These features were trumpeted at full tempo in the 1946 catalog.

The wizards at Erector Square in New Haven then hit upon the ingenious idea of locating the smoke generator in the boiler and activating it with an eccentric drive using the same worm drive motor that supplied locomotion to the steam engine. This great new advance was offered in the 1948 catalog and the rest, as they say, is toy train history.

As can be seen in the cut-away diagram of a Hudson from the 1949 catalog, Flyer's smoke and choo-choo mechanism is simplicity itself - a piston with a vented cylinder that pushes air into a second chamber containing a nichrome wire element and a fiber glass wick. The smoke is expelled up the smoke refill tube which is centered in the smoke stack.

In 1952, an improvement - realistic fire-box glow - was added by painting the inside of the smoke stack white and permitting the light bulb for the head light to shine through the refill tube now made of transparent red plastic. By about this time, remote control Nathan air chime whistles were fitted into the tenders of many of the engines.

 

The vessels for these miracles of toy train science were the superb scale Gilbert diecast steam engines: New York Central Hudson J3a, Union Pacific Northern, the Nickel Plate Road USRA 0-8-0 switcher, the Pennsylvania Railroad K5, and (sometimes) the Reading P7sa Atlantic. A simplified Pacific based on the New Haven I-4 was added in 1950.

A variant of the mechanism was also fitted into the two Gilbert HO steam engines resulting in some of the most beguiling small tinplate trains ever made. These toy trains were all good scale models of well-known prototypes, but ruggedly made for the play of young budding engineers.

Gilbert believed that scale realism should shape a whole line of rugged toy trains intended for children - no stubby-looking "Frankentrain" steam engines like those from Irvington, no siree!

There were also several affordable steam engines subsequently made of plastic in the 1950s equipped with smoke and choo-choo that ran well and started many a model train enthusiast down the road of a life-long hobby. Gilbert catalogs always heavily emphasized the synchronized smoke and choo-choo feature with advertising copy that appealed to both the kids, and Mom and Dad.

Here's a quote from the 1952 catalog: "No electric trains have smoke like the kind that comes from American Flyer locomotives. It's thick smoke - not thin and thready. One capsule lasts and lasts and lasts - it won't peter out in just a few minutes. It's clean, white smoke that can't harm walls, draperies or fabrics. And it has a delightful scent that actually makes rooms smell clean and fresh. As your train speeds over the rails, smoke streaming out of the stack, right from the locomotive itself you hear the steady, rhythmical choo-choo-choo-choo sounds. LOOKS real and SOUNDS real!"

How could one resist? 

Other features also contributed to the high quality of Gilbert steam engines. All were equipped with worm drive motors to prevent jack-rabbit starts. The parting lines in the diecastings on most of the engines were cleverly done so as not to leave flash on the top surfaces of the boilers. Consequently, there were no disfiguring file marks from removing flash where one would most readily see it. Another famous American Flyer iconic feature is the plastic presentation white walls on the drivers. The need to provide the isolation for electrical pickup in two-rail railroading was used as an opportunity to obtain a striking visual effect.

Great features all, but the visual and sonic glories of Gilbert's simple 55 year old smoke and choo-choo mechanism most of all say "American Flyer". For many, it eclipses the latest in electronically generated rail sounds - and so equipped, these American Flyers will still dependably work their magic in another half century and beyond.

Bob Bubeck is a life-long American Flyer enthusiast.
He co-authored TM's American Flyer S Gauge Price & History Guide.