The most overlooked toy train maker of the 1950s
by Dave Farquhar, from the web with credit to author
While almost everyone knows American Flyer and Lionel, and a lot of people have heard of Marx, there was a fourth maker of toy trains in the late 1940s and early 1950s that was much smaller, although very innovative, and today is nearly forgotten: Auburn, Indiana-based American Model Toys.
Its legacy, however, ties into virtually every major producer of O gauge trains in business today.AMT tended to take more risks than Lionel, and its cars were slightly larger, slightly closer to scale, and well-made. Its beginnings predate World War II, when Jack Ferris, a tool and die maker, designed trains the way his son liked them. Initially selling its products to other companies, Ferris founded his company in 1948 after producing a set of aluminum passenger cars that could negotiate Lionel track. Their realism and style was unmatched by anything Lionel produced for several years.
Eventually Lionel caught up, and AMT survived by finding weaknesses in Lionel’s product line and producing models that filled those weaknesses, contenting itself as an aftermarket producer who would sell its items to Lionel’s customers. In 1952, AMT started producing box cars in the latest, most colorful paint schemes they could find in use by real railroads, and made them to more realistic proportions than Lionel. The next year, Lionel responded with its famous 6464 boxcars, which were better than anything it had produced before, but still did not match AMT’s realism.
The following year, AMT decided to produce a model of a diesel locomotive, which also permitted them to sell train sets for the first time. Demand wasn’t as high as expected, and in 1954, AMT reorganized and changed its name to Auburn Model Trains. Although Auburn’s offerings are highly regarded today, they were not very popular, and by the autumn of 1954, Auburn sold out to Kusan, a plastics and toy company based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Kusan produced train sets from the AMT tooling, as well new designs of their own, largely with atomic and military themes. Kusan is also credited with making the first O gauge trains that could run on both 2-rail and 3-rail track (an idea MTH would rehash some 40 years later). But the market had peaked in 1954, and Kusan, dissatisfied with its share in a declining market, ceased production in 1960.
Kusan then sold its tooling to a hobbyist named Andy Kriswaulis (or Kriswalus) in Endicott, New York, who operated as Kris Model Trains, or KMT. Kriswaulis only produced rolling stock, not locomotives. After Kriswaulis’ death on Sept. 6, 1990, KMT dissolved and much of the tooling was sold to Williams Electric Trains, a small Maryland-based toymaker who had begun reproducing Lionel’s prewar tinplate equipment in the late 1960s. Coincidentally, Williams employed a contractor by the name of Mike Wolf (who would go on to found MTH Electric Trains). Williams soon decided to change focus, selling the tinplate tooling to Wolf, and concentrating its efforts on 1950s-style trains. (Wolf would then work as a subcontractor to Lionel, before a disagreement led him to go off on his own and found MTH.)
The remainder of the AMT/Kusan/KMT tooling went to K-Line, a North Carolina-based toymaker who had bought much of Marx’s tooling when Marx dissolved in 1978 and was using it to produce inexpensive trains that competed with Lionel’s entry-level offerings. Like Williams, K-Line used the old AMT/Kusan/KMT tooling to produce rolling stock that directly competed with Lionel at higher ends of the marketplace.