American Model Toys and Kusan trains

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.

American Model Toys passenger cars: Making what Lionel wouldn’t

American Model Toys passenger cars
American Model Toys passenger cars were more detailed than anything Lionel made at the time.

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.

Yes, Lionel only created the 6464 box cars to respond to a competitor you probably never heard of.

Train sets and Auburn Model Trains

The following year, American Model Toys 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 trains takes over

Kusan Atomic Train
The Kusan Atomic Train is a good example of a late 1950s space/military-themed train.

Kusan produced train sets from the AMT tooling, as well new designs of their own, largely with atomic and military themes. Injecting space and military themes into trains was a popular tactic to try to keep boys interested. Kusan was also a pioneer. 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). The Kusan Atomic Train retains a collector following even today.

But the market had peaked in 1954 thanks to a growing interest in HO scale trains. Kusan, dissatisfied with its share in a declining market, ceased production in 1960.

Into the modern era

Old train tooling almost never dies. It just changes hands and someone stamps new paint jobs on it. That’s certainly been the case with the AMT/Kusan tooling.

Kris Model Trains

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. New-old-stock Kris Model Trains product still turns up from time to time.

Williams Electric Tains

After Kriswaulis’ death on Sept. 6, 1990, KMT dissolved. Williams Electric Trains, a small Maryland-based toymaker who had begun reproducing Lionel’s prewar tinplate equipment in the late 1960s, bought most of it. 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.)

K-Line

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.

Ready Made Toys

A relic of the Kusan era, a small, nonprototypical (but realistic-looking enough to be convincing) switcher ended up at Williams. Nicknamed the “Beep” (for Baby Geep), Williams manufactured it briefly but resold the tooling to Ready Made Toys. Ready Made Toys took an odd route into the train business.

Taylor Made Trucks gained a license to put the Lionel logo on die-cast vehicles. In 2001, Taylor Made Trucks subcontracted RMT to make a miniature locomotive to put on a truck bed. So RMT used the Beep tooling to produce a Lionel-logoed mini-locomotive. TMT placed on a freight truck.

But then collectors realized they could remove the body from the truck bed and place it on an old Beep chassis. The result was a powered non-Lionel Lionel locomotive, and Lionel wasn’t happy. So Lionel revoked TMT’s license. This RMT/TMT Beep remains the only Lionel-logoed locomotive ever produced by and marketed by someone other than Lionel.

Two years later, Ready Made Toys released the Beep in a powered version. Initially it priced it at $49.95 and lettered it for numerous railroads, but not Lionel. Released at a time when few brand-new locomotives retail for less than $400 and fewer still for under $200, the Beep was much more popular this time around.

The legacy of American Model Toys and Kusan survived well into the 21st century. Any time someone wants to undercut Lionel in price, it comes off the bench and gets back into the game.

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