Aristo-Craft Trains, initially called Aristo-Craft Distinctive Miniatures, was founded in 1935 by Nathan and Irwin Polk.
Initial offerings included models and building kits in HO and 'O' gauges. Some Aristo-Craft HO products were made by
Pocher of Italy and Faller Brothers of Germany. While the boxes and labeling for the building kits were printed in
English, many of the signs and markings on the building parts were actually in German. From 1948 to the end of the
1950's all distribution of Rivarossi products in the United States was handled exclusively
by the Polk Brothers out of New York City. 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.
The 1:87 scale HO trains sold by Aristo-Craft in the post-World War 2 era were cast in metal,
factory painted, finely detailed and were equipped with open frame 12 volt DC motors. The lineup included 4-8-2
Mountain type C&O locos, 2-8-0 Consolidation types, 4-4-2 Atlantics, 2-4-2 Baldwin Columbias,
2-6-0 Moguls, 0-8-0 Heavy Switchers and 2-8-2 Mikado's. A few HO lcocomotives, such as the 1958 model of the 4-6-0
B&O Royal Blue classic 10-wheeler, the 1960's model of the 0-6-0 Uncle Tom Old time tank type switcher, a 2-6-6-2 Great
Northern type, and the Economy Series 0-4-0 Camelback were produced in Japan.
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 ata.
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,
Schuco 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 Offset Cupola 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 channels.
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 operations.
“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.