Dorfan: Bleeding edge electric trains

Last Updated on March 31, 2022 by Dave Farquhar

Dorfan Manufacturing Company was a pioneering toy company specializing in electric and clockwork-powered toy trains. Diecast trains at that, which was state of the art when the company started in 1924.

Dorfan was an offshoot of the German toy company Fandor, founded by German immigrants Milton and Julius Forcheimer. They named the company after their mother and their aunt and were headquartered on Jackson Street in Newark, New Jersey, and operated from 1924 to around 1938.

Fandor: the German roots

Julius and Milton Forcheimer and their cousin, Joseph Kraus, founded Fandor in 1910 in Nuremberg, Germany. The Fandor name was an amalgamation of their mothers’ names, Fannie and Dora. Nuremberg was a cultural center for the manufacture of toys. Fandor found a niche as something as a budget brand, producing a quality train that was less expensive than Märklin or Bing. The Germans did big business exporting toys to the United States, but World War I put a pause on that.

Of course, Germany couldn’t export toys to the United States while we were fighting a war with them. This gave U.S. toymakers a double opportunity. They had several years to gain market share without having to compete with the Germans. In addition, the war effort gave them lucrative government contracts. And at the end of the war, the U.S. toymakers lobbied to keep the Germans out.

So the aftermath of World War I reduced Fandor’s ability to sell in the United States, but there was another problem. Fandor’s management was Jewish. The Forcheimer brothers made two trips to the United States in the early 1920s to scout out the market. They emigrated to the United States in 1924, in plenty of time to escape the Holocaust. Joseph Kraus stayed behind, helping his cousins get started in the United States, but he narrowly escaped the Holocaust himself. In 1936, someone tipped him off that the Nazis were coming for him, and he escaped to England.

The electric train industry in 1924

Dorfan train with zinc pest
This Dorfan train locomotive from the 1920s shows the effects of zinc pest. The cow catcher has broken off, and the wheels are chipped.

The Forcheimer brothers saw an opportunity in 1924. The dominant makers of electric trains in the United States were Lionel and Ives, and their products had weaknesses to exploit. The Dorfan philosophy was to make the train engines out of diecast metal, which would be cheap, and allow a level of detail that cast iron or pressed tin could not. They also wanted their product to be easy to take apart and reassemble. The pitch was that kids could take the train apart, in some cases without tools, learn from it, and be able to put it back together and continue to play with it. It allowed them to spin it as an educational toy.

The Dorfan name was just the Fandor name reversed. They applied what they had learned at Fandor, brought Fandor engineer John Koerber with them, and continued to work with their cousin. Early Dorfan train sets were a combination of Dorfan and Fandor components. The Dorfan windup mechanisms and even some of the bodies were made by Fandor, and so were the accessories. To a degree, forming Dorfan in the United States was a clever way around the German import ban.

O gauge and wide gauge

The product followed the dominant American standards of the day, starting with smaller O gauge trains at first in 1924. In 1926, Dorfan introduced larger Wide Gauge trains, fully compatible with Lionel’s Standard Gauge trains, which were only standard because Lionel said so. Then they trademarked the name to keep other companies from using their nonstandard, proprietary standard. That’s why companies like Dorfan used the Wide Gauge name. Although Ives and American Flyer sold enameled wide gauge trains, Dorfan was the only one to produce lithographed wide gauge trains. The lithography was very detailed and attractive.

Advantages of Dorfan’s trains

The engines were generally diecast, which made them hold up to falls from a table much better than cast iron Ives trains, which would shatter, or pressed tin Lionel trains, which would dent. The rolling stock was made of pressed tin with lithography, much like Ives and American Flyer. When kids would visit the Dorfan factory, Julius Forcheimer would take a wide gauge engine, throw it on the cement floor, and it would bounce.

The motor was integrated into the diecast body, with the pieces slotting in for easy assembly and disassembly. The design, which Dorfan patented, allowed the motor to run more efficiently. This meant more speed and pulling power and the ability to climb steeper grades at the same voltage as competing trains. Louis H. Hertz, in his 1944 book Riding the Tinplate Rails, noted that their O gauge display layout at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York had a 25 percent incline. Dorfan even offered a money back guarantee if a competing motor worked better.

The design also permitted Dorfan to sell the locomotive as a kit. It assembled easily with household tools, but it saved the labor costs associated with assembly. Dorfan could pass some of the savings on to the consumer, but didn’t have to pass all of it along.

Dorfan was also the first manufacturer to have automatic uncoupling, and the first outside of Ives to have a remote-controlled reverse unit. The Dorfan reverse unit didn’t have a neutral position like the Ives e-unit, but instead worked more like the Marx reverse unit.

Dorfan’s crumbling fortunes

Dorfan wide gauge
Dorfan was the only company to make lithographed freight cars in Standard/Wide Gauge. The detailed lithography really pops.

The Dorfan trains sold well at first, thanks to their durability and level of detail inspired by the company’s German roots. The company soon had 150 employees producing state of the art trains for a hungry audience. But they soon developed a problem. Soon after they were produced, sometimes within a year, zinc pest set in. Zinc pest is a phenomenon caused by lead reacting with the other metals in diecasting, causing the metal to expand. This causes swelling, cracking, and even pieces falling off or, in the earliest cases, the whole thing crumbling to dust. It’s easy to dismiss stories of the trains disintegrating completely as exaggerated, but some veteran collectors have photos of trains that no longer exist.

The problem wasn’t just the bodies

This caused multiple problems for Dorfan. Even if the body didn’t fall apart, it could cause mechanical problems. Since the motor was integrated into the diecast body, if the pieces would swell or distort, the parts didn’t line up anymore, causing the motor to not run. Stress from the design of the motor could theoretically exacerbate the problem. Essentially, this expensive train self-destructed. The train could survive a fall off the table but could crumble just sitting in a box in storage.

That’s a problem for a premium product that sells for a premium price. Dorfan’s sets sold for between $6.00 and $38.50 in 1928, which translates to $98 to $628 in 2021 dollars. If you remember the Red Ring of Death problem with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console from around 2007, it’s a similar problem. Microsoft spent over $1 billion solving its problem and preserving its brand equity, which was a luxury Dorfan didn’t have. You can imagine the unhappy families when the big Christmas gift from a couple of years before fell apart.

The problem affected Dorfan’s competitors to a degree as well, but since they typically only used diecast wheels, it took longer to set in. And the competitors had old tooling and methods to fall back on. Dorfan had no Plan B. They had to sink or swim with the state of the art.

Dorfan also had problems with its paint. The paint, made by Du Pont, was as good as any other of the time. But Dorfan didn’t degrease its trains after they emerged from the molds. The residue interfered with the paint adhesion, so Dorfan trains often suffered from flaking paint. The lithography was fine, but the roofs and frame could sometimes flake as well.

What went wrong

In the early years of diecasting, the metallurgy wasn’t very well understood. People talk today about how employees would throw their gum wrappers in the pot and they would sweep the floor and throw the metal they found in the pot as well, as if Dorfan should have known better. But in 1924, that was what you did. Diecasting was just the newest form of pot metal, and that was exactly how you made pot metal.

Dorfan learned this was a mistake and improved their diecasting process as the years went on. From what I understand, the Dorfan trains from 1929 onward held up much better, and perhaps the surviving examples of Dorfan trains were later production. But the problems with those early castings sealed the company’s fate.

The newest technology is sometimes called the leading edge. But when things go wrong because that technology isn’t quite perfected yet, that’s often called the bleeding edge. Dorfan was on the very forefront, and they drove innovation in the toy industry. But they didn’t survive long enough to benefit from it themselves, at least not to the degree they could have.

The Ives-Dorfan hybrids

In 1930, Dorfan developed a wide gauge steam locomotive, planning to introduce it in 1931. They showed it at a toy fair in late 1930 and it was a hit. But they found they didn’t have the money to produce it. So instead, they approached Lionel, and asked if they could buy the remaining Ives 1134 castings. Lionel and American Flyer had jointly bought Ives two years before, and while American Flyer used the Ives 1134 tooling, Lionel never did. Lionel agreed to sell what was left of the Ives 1134 castings to Dorfan, who used them to produce their only wide gauge steam engine.

Dorfan also wanted to produce an O gauge steam engine, and produced a prototype, but couldn’t afford to put it in production either. Lionel came to the rescue again, selling Dorfan its remaining Ives 1122 castings.

Ironically, a product Ives produced to compete with Dorfan that failed to save a competitor ended up helping Dorfan live a little while longer. It shows how much financial trouble the company was in, buying surplus parts from a defunct competitor because they couldn’t afford to put their own design into production.

Financial pressures

Dorfan stood behind its product. When anyone complained about their damaged Dorfan train, Dorfan replaced the damaged parts free of charge. But the failure rate was so high that the cost of doing the right thing proved ruinous. And their reputation crumbled along with their trains. Pressures from the Great Depression made matters worse, so by the time metallurgists understood what was going on and could correct the manufacturing issues, the company’s fate was sealed. Dorfan stopped making trains in 1934, holding together a skeleton crew to sell old inventory through 1936 or possibly even as late as 1938, and closing up for good not long after that.

Most of what you read about Dorfan says they went out of business in 1934, but the company didn’t disappear overnight. Searching newspapers of the era, it’s easy to find advertisements for Dorfan train sets during the Christmas season in 1934 and 1935. But ads featuring Dorfan product became scarce from 1936 onward. Dorfan filed bankruptcy in 1936, not 1934.

At some point, the remnants of Dorfan sold some of their tooling to Unique Art, who reused the Dorfan passenger car designs in the early 1950s as part of their effort to enter the electric train market as a direct competitor to Marx. The resemblance between the two is recognizable.

HO scale and Forchan

Sometime around 1938, the Forcheimers considered getting back into trains, producing a toy-like train product in HO scale. The product might have resembled 1970s Tyco trains at least in spirit. If successful, they would have considered new O gauge products as well. Both Lionel and American Flyer had been dabbling in smaller scale at the time, with Lionel’s OO scale line and American Flyer’s HO scale line.

But no new train products ever hit the market. Instead, the Forcheimers played it safe, subcontracting to other toy makers under the name Forchan. But their influence lived on. Within a few years, diecast train engines were commonplace. The Forcheimers, two refugees from Germany, deserved all the recognition they got for the innovation they brought with them.

Restoring Dorfan trains

It is possible, if the train hasn’t completely crumbled, to strip the paint, epoxy the remains back together and fill large voids with body filler. After repainting them in close to original colors, the trains could look good again.

I know of hobbyists who did such a thing in the 1980s and 90s and their efforts still hold together today. Getting the parts to line up well enough for the Dorfan motor to work well again can take weeks of fine adjustment, and sometimes isn’t possible.

The solution when the original parts won’t line up is to modify the body so a period correct Lionel or American Flyer motor or a common and inexpensive Marx motor will fit. The result violates the original spirit of Dorfan trains, but it looks like a Dorfan train and it still runs. I think most would agree it’s better than broken fragments of an old train languishing in a box, and such trains refurbished in the 1980s had a longer useful service life than they did when new.

Original Dorfan trains in pristine condition are rare and valuable. And of course they have the danger of hidden zinc pest kicking in.

Reproductions of Dorfan trains

T-Reproductions of Johnson City, TN, reproduced Dorfan’s #70 crane and wide gauge Crocodile locomotive around 2002, by some accounts using original tooling. Both received good reviews, but the expense resulted in limited quantities. Starting in 2004, MTH registered the Dorfan trademark and produced copies of Dorfan locomotives as part of its Tinplate Traditions line.

The reproductions became sought after collectibles in their own right.

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