IT ALL STARTED WITH A COAT HANGER
& the A.C. Gilbert Parts Department
Looking back 30 years to the spring of 1968, it seems almost as if
fate wanted me carry on the American Flyer Repair Parts business, but
quite honestly at the time it was the last thing I would have expected
doing. Of course, I was well aware of the troubles the A. C. Gilbert
Company had been going through. By 1968 I had been operating several
hobby shops in Connecticut for over 25 years. The Gilbert factory was
just about 20 miles South of us and Flyer trains were always a featured
part of our toy train inventory.
It was early in May of 1968, that a gentleman from The Connecticut
Development Commission stopped in my store to borrow a coat hanger. He
had locked his keys in his car, which by a quirk of fate he had parked
in front of my hobby shop. As I helped him get his car open, he told me
he was on his way to visit the liquidator of the bankrupt A.C. Gilbert
company. He suggested I go down and look into buying the Train Repair
Service Department. I laughed and did not accept.
A few hours later, he called to say he had made an appointment for me
with the representative of the Walter E. Heller Company, the liquidator.
At this meeting I was persuaded to put in a bid for the contents of the
Repair Service Department consisting of a very large area with thousands
of small bins on wooden shelving, and several tons of paper exploded
views, parts lists and ledger books.
I returned from summer vacation a few weeks later to find I had bid
twice as much as others. Feeling sorry for me, they also included the
Service Parts for race sets!
Removal necessitated a great many trips to the factory, about twenty
minutes from my store. Each trip seemed to turn up more things to buy. I
inquired about a room in the factory containing what was supposed to be
the archives. Upon inspection, I found very few things left in there,
(according to a few employees still there most had been taken by
departing workers). Since all that was left was mostly incomplete common
items I offered $1,500. The Heller representative laughed and said he
was going to have Park Bernet Auction Gallery sell the
"archives". He asked me to provide a couple of hundred dollars
worth of parts needed to complete some of the items. I attended the
auction but because a rainstorm slowed traffic into New York, I arrived
when auction was almost over. A representative of Dan Olson of Seattle
had bought most of the stuff. Maury Romer later told me that after all
Park Bernetís expensive work; the lot brought in about $1,200!
TOO MANY PARTS
Besides the parts located within the repair parts department that I had
purchased, the basement of the factory was full of crates of parts
already manufactured when it was shut down. I inquired of the liquidator
what would happen to them. He refused my offer of $5,000 for all of it.
He pointed to a big crate with thousands of armatures for the Casey
Jones loco and said factory cost for that one crate alone exceeded my
Later, a group of men were hired to bring all the thousands of trays
and boxes of parts upstairs. They were spread out all over the empty
production floor. A price of $1.50 a tray of parts was asked. I bought
several hundred trays of things I thought could be used in the next few
years. Later on, I saw a scrap metal dealer emptying the trays into
fifty-gallon drums. He said that all he wanted was the metal trays. He
had resold them to a factory for $4.00 each. The parts would be sold as
scrap metal. Later, Harry Gordon told me he purchased several barrels of
miscellaneous small parts and had his children sort them out for resale
as repair parts. I doubt that the liquidator received anywhere near the
$5,000. I had offered!
TONS OF PLASTIC
Large bins of molded plastic bodies also attracted my attention. The
liquidator told me it would be sold to a scrap plastic dealer. He said
he would sell me any I wanted by weight. Huge amounts of plastic bodies
were spread all over the factory. I was told there was 365,000 pounds of
molded and virgin plastic. After researching its scrap value, I
purchased it all by offering slightly more than its scrap value. I knew
I could never store all of it, as it would have required a huge
warehouse. Since, I had several months time for its removal, I picked
what I thought I could use in the near future and made a deal to sell
the balance to a plastic molding business.
Two million small plastic trees for the All Aboard, and Sears HO Race
set panels were in the deal. The trees were contained in hundreds of
wooden cubic yard crates. On top of the plastic cost, the liquidator
wanted $5.00 a crate if I kept them. So, instead of keeping the crates,
I used the wine room in my Grandfatherís cellar to store those trees.
(During prohibition, he had made the legally allowed two hundred gallons
of wine a year from his grapes.) Every few days, we would drive our flat
bed three-ton truck the 20 miles to the factory returning empty crates
and picking up another load of plastic trees. We set up a childís
sliding board through a wine cellar window and just poured the trees
into that room. Lots of model railroad "forests" were created
in the twenty years it took to sell all those trees.
Sixteen thousand plastic buildings, houses and barns for use on All
Aboard tiles were part of my bulk plastic purchase. However, no roofs
could be found! The liquidator allowed me to locate and borrow the roof
molds. Before I sold the unwanted virgin plastic, I had roofs molded to
complete the houses. That summer, I employed a school teacher who
supervised a crew who spent ten weeks bagging those sixteen thousand
buildings into complete kits with roofs, windows, chimneys and doors.
There were five thousand shell tank car bodies all printed and ready
to be put on the chassis, but once again the chassis had not been
molded! I borrowed the chassis mold and had them made to complete the
shell tankers. I had previously purchased all the tens of thousands of
Pikemaster trucks that were left in the factory.
Andy Kriswallis, of Endicott New York was producing Kusan Box and
refrigerator cars for use on Lionel O Gauge during this period. He
offered to buy the three thousand or so un-printed boxcar bodies and
stamped chassis I had. I wouldnít sell, but I shipped Andy the bodies.
He painted and printed them and shipped me half of the finished bodies.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have borrowed more molds and
had Diesel bodies, accessory parts etc. molded. But, I didnít have a
crystal ball to foretell the future and at the time everyone thought I
was crazy for holding on to what I kept.
I almost melted more Gilbert plastic down during the early 1970ís
oil crisis. Somehow, a Korean plastic factory became aware of all the
plastic I still had and offered me $50,000 for all of it. I was very
tempted, but in the end, I refused.
Thirty years later, I still have thousands of plastic tender bodies
printed and un-printed. As well as caboose bodies, Atlantic Loco bodies,
Casey Jones Loco bodies and lots of Gilbert Racecar bodies.
The dies, molds, etc required for manufacturing were all stored on
skids in a very large area of the factory. I was told that since efforts
to sell the name and manufacturing rights were not successful, these
would probably be sold as scrap iron. I was assured I would be notified
if this came to pass. I donít know how I would ever have handled such
a large quantity of items had I had the opportunity to buy. Finally,
since the liquidator was also liquidating Lionel, I was told the
equipment was being shipped to Lionelís facility in New Jersey. When
General Mills acquired the manufacturing rights to Lionel, the American
Flyer remains also were included and ended up in Michigan.
The A. C. Gilbert machinery and office equipment was auctioned to
industrialists. I did attend the auction, but purchased only a fireproof
file cabinet (to store my collection of original catalogues) and a
rotating shelf display showcase for my store.
PILES OF PAPER
The purchasers of desks and file cabinets did not want the paper in
the cabinets. Most of it was dumped on the floor then taken to the dump.
I happened by a person emptying a cabinet of erector set handbooks.
Almost every handbook ever used was there. I rescued them and soon had
disposed of them for a few dollars each. As I made my way through the
factory that summer I frequently saw truckloads of paper being loaded
for the landfill.
The Repair Department itself contained tons of paper. Mostly exploded
views and parts lists for supplying Gilbert repair stations around the
country. One day I arrived home with my large van almost dragging the
ground because it was so full of paper. My wife was quite surprised when
I informed her that I had run out of space and planned to store the load
in our basement. Over the years, we have assembled thousands of sets of
the exploded views from the paper contained in that van.
Many notebooks and ledgers were in the repair shop, as well as many
instruction sheets on trains, planes, science sets, etc. These were not
looked at until recently when I allowed Bob Tufts, and Julian Spector to
study them. Bob Tufts has used much of the information in the various
American Flyer articles he has written for magazines. I have considered
publishing some of the information such as exact copies of the make up
of catalogued and uncatalogued sets. But, I donít believe the expense
would be covered by possible sales, so I havenít yet done so.
LOST, FOUND, THEN LOST AGAIN
A great deal of Gilbert racecar track was offered to me for almost
nothing. But I did not feel there would ever be a market for it, and I
later observed it being loaded on dump trucks for disposal. It seemed
like tens of thousands of pieces of track.
While coming and going in the removal of the Repair Department and
the plastic, I had seen a locked enclosure full of race and train sets.
When I inquired I was told these were the subject of a law suit between
Gilbert and a famous New York department store. They had been shipped
back as defective. The majority of the cartons had not even been opened.
Eventually, the lawsuit was settled, and I purchased the room full of
merchandise. That summer, I hired a vacationing schoolteacher to
supervise a crew who removed every item from the sets, tested them and
repackaged the sets. Very few things were really defective. I believe
those All Aboard sets and the race sets simply sold poorly prompting
their return as defective.
I have made a few major mistakes in the use of the plastic. We had
thousands of racecar bodies with little demand for them. We assembled
them with body, chassis, and wheels, but no motor, for sale as toys. We
sold them for fifty cents or a dollar each. Much later, we discovered
that one of the cars; the Corvette was used on flat car #24578. These
Corvettes now sell for $100. or more. But, of course, we donít have
Some time during this period, I received a call from a Baltimore, MD
machine shop. A train collector who was a barber had ordered dies and
punch presses to make reverse unit contacts for Lionel and Flyer reverse
units. The barber died and the shop wanted to sell the setup. I visited
Baltimore and purchased the machines, dies and some finished products.
For several years, until others provided these parts, we did manufacture
Word that I had purchased so much from Gilbert spread and offers came
for various lots remaining in distributorsí warehouses. I purchased
one such lot from a St. Louis distributor. It contained about five
hundred All Aboard panels, and quite a bit of various small locomotives
and other items. The locos and accessories went very quickly. But the
All Aboard panels did not sell. Five years later, my store in New
Britain, Connecticut was destroyed when the building burned beyond
repair. More than 400 All Aboard panels had been stored in the storeís
cellar. While wet, they had not touched by fire. Because almost none had
sold in the five years I stored them there, I did not bother to remove
them. They are now buried under what is now a parking lot. Iíd like to
be there when some future archaeologist tries to figure out what they
were used for!
THE COAT HANGER OPENED MANY DOORS
Although I had begun to operate a mail order division of my hobby
business in the 50ís, HOBBY SURPLUS SALES really took off with the
purchase of the A.C. Gilbert inventory. Besides the parts and plastic
items, weíve used several items purchased from Gilbert to help promote
our mail order sales. I bought thirty five thousand switch machines,
made in Japan for use on Pike Master Switches. I realized these were
exact copies of the Atlas switch machine then used on HO track layouts,
except with a more powerful solenoid. For years we advertised these for
$11.99 a dozen. The retail price for the Atlas machines was then $2.50
each. We attracted many new customers before these were all gone. We did
the same thing with double pole double throw slide switches often used
for reversing on D.C. power layouts.
People who were exploring renewed production of S gauge trains have
approached me several times over the years. I could supply start up
quantities of Atlantic or Casey Jones Loco bodies, tenders, and caboose
bodies and chassis. So far, no one has actually carried out any such
idea. However, many S clubs have used our original freight car bodies
over the years to customize special cars for their annual conventions.
More than thirty years have passed since that fateful day when a coat hanger
caused me to get involved with the liquidation of A.C. Gilbert Company.
I have made many new friends and customers. We have been able to help
many S Gauge and even HO and O Gauge train enthusiasts to continue to
use their no longer manufactured trains. Thousands of collectors have
found the needed parts to restore their trains. Although figuring out
what we had and cataloging it for sale has been more work that I ever
imagined back in the summer of 1968, it has also been a lot of fun.
Owner Hobby Surplus
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