The Aero Monorail was a futuristic monorail train that first hit the market in 1932. Manufactured in St. Louis by the eponymously named Aero Monorail Company, it was designed to suspend over Lionel standard gauge track and run faster than the standard gauge train.
The stands came in two varieties: a pair of free standing towers, and a series of towers that slipped under Standard gauge track and used the same 42-inch diameter. The motor looked like an Erector motor and ran on 6-8 volts, either DC or AC.
Manufacturing in St. Louis
The largest makers of toy trains were all east of St. Louis. Lionel made its trains in New Jersey, and Ives made its trains in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Marx made its trains in western Pennsylvania. In the early 1930s, American Flyer was in Chicago before selling out to AC Gilbert, who moved production to New Haven, Connecticut.
But St. Louis had a vibrant manufacturing industry of its own in for much of the 20th century. Crunden-Martin was the largest domestic producer of the types of items that sell in dollar stores today, and for a time, Welsh was the largest producer of baby carriages.
Aero advertised in magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Science and Mechanics in 1932-1934, billing it as the kind of train you’ll be riding on in 1980. The address, 2712 Big Bend Blvd., would be in the suburb of Maplewood, near the intersection of Big Bend and Manchester. Coincidentally, it was five miles west of the diner with the iconic Brains 25 Cents sign, on the original alignment of Route 66.
My research indicates the building later held Metalife, a chemical manufacturing company, and later, an ornamental iron manufacturer. The state tore down the building in 1966 or 1967 to add left-turn lanes to the two roads. A CVS pharmacy now occupies the corner nearest the building’s former site.
Even though these sets were made in St. Louis, the area isn’t exactly overrun by them. The sets came out at the height of the Depression, and that didn’t help. The introductory price of $7.95 works out to $147 in 2015 dollars, so it wasn’t a cheap toy. An already assembled, ready to operate system started at $12.50 and could run as high as $60. Aero painted the cars with enamel like the Lionel trains of the day, rather than using lithography like some other brands. It was also possible to buy the motor separately for $1.98.
Precious little is known about these sets or the company that made them. It received one mention in Louis H. Hertz’s 1956 classic Collecting Model Trains, which noted that the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair featured monorails. The Q&A column on obscure manufacturers in the Train Collectors Association’s Train Collectors Quarterly gets a question about them every couple of decades, all of which points to not many of these sets selling and the company not lasting long. The last ad I can find for the company was in early 1934.
I wouldn’t say they’re common at all, but that doesn’t automatically make them exceptionally valuable either. To make them valuable, there has to be demand for them too.
A stash of these trains was discovered in St. Louis around 2020 where their inventor, Claude Drake, had stored them decades earlier. After being refurbished, they were donated to the National Museum of Transportion. The museum plans to have them on exhibit, on an operating layout. The museum is also in possession of the American Flyer layout that used to sit in a department store window downtown.
Claude Drake, inventor of the Aero Monorail
The Aero Monorail was invented by Claude E. Drake, a World War I veteran who settled in St. Louis after the war. He lived and worked in St. Louis until his retirement in the mid 1960s. He died at age 82 in Dallas on Tuesday, January 12, 1981. The Aero Monorail was not his only business. In 1940, he founded the Drake Saw Corporation, a maker of high performance carbide saw blades. This venture was considerably more successful, lasting 75 years as an independent company. He remained chairman of the board after his retirement. The company still exists as a subsidiary of NAP Gladu. NAP Gladu bought Drake Corporation in 2015.