Aristo-Craft Trains, initially called Aristo-Craft Distinctive Miniatures, was founded in 1935 by Nathan and Irwin Polk. Initial offerings included models in
HO and 'O' gauges. Some Aristo-Craft HO products were made by Pocher of Italy. Aristo-Craft eventually became famous for producing the largest selection of G
gauge products in that market. The G gauge evolved from the 1 gauge which was first used in Europe and England by toy train manufacturers in the early 20th
century. G gauge trains were typically in the scale of 1:32 (⅜" to the foot), with the consistent aspect being 45 mm (1.772 in). The Aristo-Craft trains
were highly detailed, well built and sturdy performers.
In June of 1985 Aristo-Craft started making G gauge buildings by licensing some Delton wood structure designs and converting them to
plastic kits. These were successful and later converted to fully built-up and painted items.
In 1988 Aristo-Craft teamed with Railway Express Agency, Inc. (REA) and created a new scale of 1:29 for trains running on 45mm 'G' gauge track.
This G45 development filled a need for mass-produced American prototype trains in a market that had been dominated by European
outline trains. The choice of 1:29 was an attempt to create cars and engines that would compare favorably in size with existing
LGB rolling stock which at the time dominated the hobby with 1:32 scale trains. These trains were originally created
for branding and sale by Lionel. Aristo-Craft's products,
at 1:29 were 30% larger by volume than the 1:32 products made by other manufacturers. In addition 1:29 was exactly three
times the size of HO scale making it easier to enlarge existing scale model drawings for consumer construction of accessories
and scratch-built engines and rolling stock. After this original venture was undertaken by Aristo-Craft, two other major companies,
USA Trains and AML/American Mainline, joined in the 1:29th market along with some other smaller companies creating a wide range of
rolling stock and locomotives. The early releases in this scale were more toy like, complete with brass railings and other
decorations. Since that time there was a steady move toward more and more realism with subsequent releases in live steam
radio controlled engines. 1:29 is predominantly American mainline although some locomotives and rolling stock are also made for
the European market.
Aristo-Craft had designed and started selling a G gauge track line which they merged into their partnership with REA. The track had the
highest percentage of copper in the market and featured a patented screw-together rail joiner capability. The REA trade name was used during the partnership.
When it was dissolved in 1990 the line was continued under the Aristo-Craft name.
Aristo-Craft's primary focus was on making G45 scale/gauge trains easier to use without increasing the technology threshold for the average
user. They also believed in mass production of quality products at fair prices. Aristo-Craft introduced radio control and battery operation for its G45 trains.
This allowed reduction in reliance on fixed connections through the train tracks to power packs. This greatly facilitated the operation of trains in an outdoor
garden setting. Aristo-Craft introduced a trailing stock car equipped with the R/C and antenna system pre-installed so that hobbyists could run any and all of their
locomotives without the need for modification or installation of separate R/C units in each power unit. This system was completely plug-and-play, so there was no need
for tools or to open up the locomotive to add the R/C capability since all Aristo-Craft locomotives were equipped with battery M.U. plugs. On-board battery power
and R/C control meant that there was no need for metal wheels or clean track with better conductivity. Aristo-Craft battery packs utilized Lithium Ion batteries and
were fitted with their own printed circuit boards, so changing these batteries only took a few seconds. The PCB charged and monitored each cell independently.
These packs could also be utilized in parallel to extend running time. Typical running time on a single pack was 2-3 hours, but short consists could run
for up to 12 hours on a single charge. The R/C unit utilized a 27 MHz frequency in the Citizen's Band that could support up to 100 separate trains running at a time.
Aristo-Craft's remote control system was called the Train Engineer. This was a device that was intended to be electrically inserted between the power pack
and the track. The power pack was set to full throttle and left alone and the TE controlled the power delivered to the track providing the advantage of walk around
wireless control. The receiver was called an ART-5471 and the transmitter was the ART-5473. The ART-5490 on board receiver was also developed and was intended to be
installed inside a loco and powered from an onboard battery or constant track power. Aristo-Craft sold their R/C products under the Crest brand. These products were also
available for trains in other gauges.
With battery operation there was no current in the track to operate switches remotely, so Aristo-Craft created a pre-wired 6
AA cell battery box to allow enough current to operate remote switch machines for several switches on a layout. The Train Engineer R/C system allowed for remote
operation of multiple switches and the battery box provided the power to operate the CRE55465 receiver easily without access to track power.
To accompany the easier to use R/C and battery system Aristo-Craft offered low cost track that provided the required strength to operate heavier trains while
still looking good enough. They also offered higher cost/higher conductive rails knowing that the battery concept would only get a portion of the market.
Aristo-Craft designed their track primarily for outdoor railroads. Their brass rail had a high content of copper to make it more durable. The plastic ties
had an ultra-violet inhibitor to keep the sun's rays from deteriorating the plastic. Starting in 1997, at no additional cost, all Aristo-Craft American style track
was sold with 400 series type stainless steel rails. To accompany their track, Aristo-Craft sold 2 types of roadbed. One was made of thick dark gray foam, and
the other was vacu-form roadbed. The thick gray foam roadbed was designed to work well outdoors. These were available in 2’ lengths and came in a variety of
curves and straights. The roadbed allowed the drilling of small holes for water drainage and to peg and secure it to the ground.
Aristo-Craft eventually produced a 900 MHz Train Engineer with all the functional capability of DCC for easier use by the outdoor train
enthusiast. This was called an ISM – DSS system. It was license free and could be used anywhere in the world. The signal would automatically hop to an open
frequency in a millisecond un-noticeable to the user if there was interference encountered. Clean track was a necessity for DCC as the signal traveled through the
tracks. The range was roughly 1000 feet. Polk's had previously offered similar radios with a range of up to a mile for use with R/C airplanes. These systems also
featured EMF feedback and two way communication with the loco for obtaining actual speed information and other remote data.
Prior to establishing the model train business, the Polk's were pioneers in the hobby shop business, starting in New York City
in 1935. The famous five-story Polk's Hobby Shop on 5th Avenue in Manhattan operated from 1946 before it was closed down
in 1991 so that the family could concentrate their efforts on the Aristo-Craft product line. Polk's manufactured and imported a wide
line of innovative hobby products such as Scalectrix slot racing, Aristo-Craft HO trains, Stadden miniatures, Shuco models, Jetex motors,
Heller plastic kits, Constructo ship models, the Atom gas engine, and Mabuchi motors. Lewis M. Polk, President and son of
Nat Polk, made the decision to pursue manufacturing of the Aristo-Craft G gauge trains and radio control equipment rather than continue
in retailing or wholesaling hobbies. Operations were established in Irvington, NJ. Early manufacturing was done in Korea by REA and then later moved to China under
Sanda Kan. The 1992 catalog featured the 4-6-2 Pacific streamlined steam loco. The engine and tender were sold separately with the engine listing at $299.95 and the
tender at $99.95. They were available in undecorated, PRR, B&O, Milwaukee, CNJ Blue Comet, and Southern Crescent liveries.
The 1996 Aristo-Craft catalog was 66 pages long. By 1997 it had grown to 82 pages. These catalogs were of heavy card stock and glossy pages with
color photographs. Credit for the catalog design goes to Jonathan Polk. One stand out item in this catalog was the newly released set of extruded aluminum
streamlined passenger cars that were in development for 2 years. Each Car was polished to a stainless steel mirror finish. A coach, diner, Vista dome, and
observation car were offered. All were available undecorated or in ten different road names. In 1998 Aristo-Craft obtained a licensing agreement
with Sesame Street, the famous PBS show featuring the Muppets. Two limited edition G gauge Sesame Street 30th Anniversary sets were issued shortly thereafter.
One set was the Old-Timer Freight Set featuring a Rogers 2-4-2 steam locomotive, a slope back sound tender, gondola and bobber caboose, all decorated with
official Sesame Street colors and graphics and accompanied by Big Bird, Bert & Ernie and Cookie Monster figures. The second set was the Camp Sesame Express
which included a Lil’ Critter Diesel Switcher #22529, Gondola #40007, and Caboose #42229. This colorful train came with four Sesame Street characters dressed
in their camping outfits ready to hop aboard the Camp Sesame Express.
A whimsical and fun item that Aristo-Craft was famous for was their Eggliner powered unit. These were Tongue-In-Cheek shorty units
with a single power truck, interior lighting and operating knuckle couplers that came decorated in several themes including a Jeweled Russian Egg, Lady Bug and
the Presidential 1 Oval Office Egg. The Eggliner looked like two end units from an observation car locked together. In 1993 Aristo-Craft acquired
Delton Locomotive Works, makers of G scale trains. The acquisition was made primarily to acquire
Delton's popular C-16 Classic locomotive representing the 19th Century era. Aristo-Craft updated the loco with die-cast wheels to replace the plastic wheels with
metal covers that were hard to produce as round wheels. They also added their patented Prime Mover gear boxes, so that every axle was powered, and fitted the engine
with their patented smoke system and a well-style port for DCC or QSI sound. The locomotive was offered as either a wood or coal burner with a matching classic style wood
caboose of the same era and a host of former Delton freight cars in the same scale and classic style were also available.
Aristo-Craft issued many G gauge models of famous American diesel locomotives including NW-2 switchers, EMD SD-45's, EMD E-8's, EMD GP-40's, ALCO RS-3's, GE U-25B's,
ALCO FA-1's & FB's, Budd Rail Diesel Cars (RDC's), and GE Dash 9-44CW's. Steam Locomotive models included a 2-8-0 Consolidation, a Rogers 2-4-2,
an 0-4-0 Switcher, a Pacific 4-6-2, a 2-8-2 Mikado, and the 2-8-8-2 Mallet. They also made a Doodlebug Gas Electric,
a PCC Trolley and an EP5 Electric. They entered the European market with a Pan European locomotive called the 'Class 66'. It had features similar to the
U.S. style locos. Its prototype was made by EMD in Canada, but not sold or used in the U.S. The Aristo-Craft model was only marketed and sold in Europe.
In 2003 Aristo-Craft became the US Distributor of Kiss, a Swiss firm that made G gauge equipment. The Kiss line consisted of brass locomotives and detailed scale-length
narrow-gauge Swiss freight cars in plastic with metal wheels. It was these cars that Aristo-Craft began stocking.
The Aristo-Craft G gauge 2-8-8-2 fully articulated Mallet steam loco and tender introduced in 2005 was a top of the line model and collector's
edition that retailed for $890. It featured the patented smoke unit with burnout protection (SD-45 type), dual can motors
with built-in cooling fans, gear drive on all 8 drive axles, patented 16 ball-bearing race equipped prime mover gearboxes(2), 6 flywheels for better locomotive
performance, operating front headlight with direction controlled tender light, operating marker/classification lights, moveable cab side windows, black metal
drive wheels with electrical pick-up, blackened solid brass grab railings, boiler and cab details including bell, whistle, headlight, and domes, MU plugs for
battery hookup, modular PC board with plug & play capabilities, sound, battery, DCC & RCC ready, front AAR knuckle coupler, rear drawbar for long, Vanderbilt
or USRA Tenders, extra weight for extra pulling power, and prototypical painting and lettering. This loco could navigate eight foot diameter curves.
Starting in the 1930's
Nat Polk became very active in the Hobby Industry Association of America (HIAA), eventually becoming its Vice-President.
He promoted the philosophy that every community should have a hobby shop. And he won the first hobby wholesalers award for
promoting this philosophy. In 1990 Polk was inducted into the Society of Antique Modelers Hall of Fame. And in
1996 he was declared a pioneer in Model Railroading by the National Model Railroad Industry. He was a member of the Model Aviation
Hall of Fame and a life member of the National Model Railroad Association, a former vice-president of the Hobby Industry Association of
America and was active in the Train Collectors’ Association, International Plastic Miniature Society, and the Military Figured Collectors’ Association.
Nathan J. Polk retired to Florida in 1993, and passed away in August of 1996. Mr. Polk had traveled the world over promoting the hobby industry and
was one of the best-known personalities within the field. Nat's son Lewis M. Polk and Lewis' wife Maryann took over full responsibility of the company after Nat's retirement.
Lewis Polk's nephew Scott Polk joined the company in 2003.
Aristo-Craft offered a multitude of G gauge freight cars. These included a 20' Gondola, 20' Tank Car, 20' Flat Car, 20' Box Car, 40' Drop-end Gondola,
40' Covered Gondola, Covered Hopper, Single Dome Tank Car, 100 Ton Coal Hopper, Triple Dome Tank Car, 2-Bay Coal Hopper, Long Caboose, Bobber Caboose, 40' Double Door Boxcar,
40' Plug Door Boxcar, 40' Steel Box Car, Stock Car, Reefer Car, Stake Flat Car, Searchlight Car, Bulkhead Flat Car, Piggyback Flat Car, Wood Truss Reefer, Wedge Snow Plow,
RoadRailer, a Track Cleaning Car, and 53' Evans Double Door Box Car. Aristo-Craft large scale indoor/outdoor trains were featured at the Christmas display of the New York Botanical
Gardens and at the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. in December, 1994. One of Aristo-Craft's crowning achievements was producing a reliable strong live-steam
2-8-2 Mikado locomotive in G gauge around 2006 that had many great features and was affordable for the masses. This loco had a piezo switch self-starting flame, a 45
minute runtime, built in remote control, insulated wheels to run on electrified track as well, a water watch glass and a pressure valve all included in a metal,
wheeled carrying case. In 2009 Aristo-Craft released its second G gauge live steam offering in the form of an 0-4-0 switcher with a slope-back tender.
The passenger car line consisted of the Sierra Coach, Sierra Combine, Sierra Observation, Heavyweight Coach, Heavyweight Observation, Heavyweight Diner,
Heavyweight RPO, Heavyweight Baggage, Heavyweight Combine, Heavyweight Pullman, Streamline Baggage, Streamline Coach, Streamline Observation, Streamline Diner, Streamline Dome,
smooth side Coach and smooth side Observation. In 2007 Aristo-Craft updated their streamline passenger cars to include full interiors, led lighting, ball bearings in the trucks,
lowered height, shorter couplers, rubber diaphragms and seated figures. In 2008, Sanda Kan, the O.E.M. contractor for Aristo-Craft, declared bankruptcy under J.P. Morgan’s
ownership. A year later, Kader purchased Sanda-Kan and began to rebuild the company. 2010 was the 75th anniversary of Aristo-Craft and Lewis M. Polk, president of
Aristo-Craft Trains and Walter M. Matuch, president of Ready Made Trains/RMT, a manufacturer of 3-rail 0-27/O gauge electric toy trains announced a joint marketing
effort called 'RMT by Aristo-Craft', whereby RMT products would also be offered to model railroad and toy train enthusiasts through Aristo-Craft's worldwide distribution
In January of 2012 Scott Polk was appointed President of Polk's Hobby, Aristo-Craft Trains, and RMT. On Dec. 31, 2013, after 78 years in business,
Aristo-Craft Trains/Polk’s Model Craft Hobbies ceased operations.
The long time toy train railroad manufacturer, most recently based in Irvington, N.J., was forced to close its doors when
like many other hobby manufacturers, they fell on hard times due to the recession. The company had managed to stay afloat but fell
into unsustainable debt. The Crest Electronics business, which provided the digital train control and maintenance, was to be spun off and would continue
“Since 1935, we have provided service and innovation to the hobby industry,” said the Polk family, owners of Aristo-Craft, in a
press release announcing the closure.
“In this latest downturn, we cut back staff to the minimum required to survive. Then the government battle over the debt ceiling drove
the consumer market down even further.” The company will be running a closeout sale to move any remaining supplies before Dec. 31,
Lewis Polk said. Aristo-Craft had been growing steadily, according to the release, until 2008. Like many hobby manufacturers,
Aristo-Craft fell on hard times when the recession hit. The company managed to stay afloat but fell into “debt that was unsustainable.”
“We have put several million dollars into product development over recent years, but the need for customers to cut back on
non-essentials has caused this investment to be lacking in returns,” the family said in the release. The higher cost and space
requirements of large-scale trains had also depressed Aristo-Craft’s market share, according to the release. This problem was
exacerbated by the company’s losses in the radio-controlled airplane industry. “Our airplane R/C portion of our business was
lost when our patented frequency changer was lost to the 2.4-GHz portion of the marketplace, with no frequency compounds needed
any longer,” the Polk family said. Model Retailer’s sister publication, Model Railroader, reported that Lewis Polk said the
Aristo-Craft Trains forum will be “in service as long as possible.” The family thanked its loyal customers as well as the numerous
employees that kept Aristo-Craft relevant since 1935. “Our apologies for not being able to keep this almost 80-year-old business
going,” the Polk family said. “It’s a heartbreaker for us all.”
Scott Polk attempted to revive the company in 2014 with focus on a new line of G scale trains under the name of
Polk's Generation Next. Unfortunately this effort did not succeed. In 2016 Lewis Polk retired at the age of 77 and moved to Port. St. Lucie, Florida after selling the
business property in New Jersey.