Colber was a manufacturer of electric train accessories from 1949 to 1954, and electronics components from 1955 to around 1995. They were based in Irvington, New Jersey. The name was an amalgamation of its founders’ last names, Collett and Burke.
Origins in the appliance business
Founders Anthony Collett and William Burke initially started in the appliance business in the New York area. Later they began repairing trains as a Lionel service station. In 1946, trains became their primary business and they soon became a large Lionel distributor. They were unable to meet demand for accessories for the booming train market, so they started making knockoffs of popular Lionel accessories in 1949 using the brand Colber Corporation.
Their versions included beacon and floodlight towers, a tin litho version of Lionel’s Gateman accessory, street lights, a wig-wag signal, a water tower, and bridges. They also made a universal lockon that worked with both O and S gauge track, imitation coal, track ballast, smoke fluid, and track cleaner.
Colber and Lionel
Lionel threatened Colber with legal action in 1950 over their packaging, which was a near copy of Lionel’s. This led to its modification. They used the same orange and blue color scheme and a nearly identical typeface. Colber switched to green print on plain unbleached cardboard.
Colber and American Flyer
During 1951-54 Colber supplied American Flyer with several accessories to supplement their own line. Flyer wanted to offer 50 different accessories, and the easiest way to reach that goal was to buy several from Colber.
Their products for Flyer used different nameplates and different colors of plastic. By 1954 Flyer no longer needed Colber’s help and the toy train market was past its peak. Post-1954 Flyer accessories like floodlights and Gabe the Lamplighter were based on in-house designs.
Making matters worse, the tooling was pretty worn out. (More on that in a minute.) This combination of factors led Colber to leave the market.
Exiting the market… via Marx
American Flyer no longer needed Colber’s help, but Marx was interested in their tooling. Marx had revamped its train line in 1952 to use more plastics. They saw this as an opportunity to expand their line cheaply and keep a competitor from getting the molds. Marx bought the tooling in 1955. Colber had considered selling the dies for scrap, so Marx probably didn’t have to pay a lot.
Soon, Marx resumed production of the streetlight and deck girder bridge. Marx’s 074 Boulevard Lamp was a reissue of the Colber streetlight. Curiously, Marx didn’t use any of the other dies. In 2013, Marx collector Al Osterud recalled attending the Marx bankruptcy auctions in the late 1970s. He said he saw the Colber molds still in the Girard factory, but they were all worn out.
A surprise return to the train market in the 1970s… sort of
Colber switched to making electronic resistors in 1955. They enjoyed a run in that line of business of about four decades. One of its customers in the 1970s and 1980s was General Mills, who used Colber resistors in MPC era Lionel smoke units.
William Burke died in 1985, but Tony Collett continued to own and operate the firm into the mid 1990s along with his son, Wayne.
The company’s eventual fate is a bit unclear. The company name disappeared from electronics supply directories after 1996, and Wayne Collett moved from New Jersey to Nevada in 1995, which suggests Colber folded sometime around 1995.