Aristo-Craft Trains, initially called Aristo-Craft Distinctive Miniatures, was founded in 1935 by Nathan and Irwin Polk.
Aristo-Craft produced the largest selection of 'G' Scale products on the market. The trains were highly detailed,
well built and sturdy performers. In 1988 Aristo-Craft created a new scale of 1:29 for trains running on 45mm 'G' gauge track.
This 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. 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. Since this original venture, at least two other major companies joined in
the 1:29th market (USA Trains and AML/American Mainline) as well as some other smaller companies creating a wide range of
rolling stock and locomotives. Early releases in this scale were more toy like, complete with brass railings and other
decorations. Since that time there has been a steady move toward more and more realism with recent releases in live steam
radio controlled engines. 1:29 is predominantly American mainline although some locomotives and rolling stock are made for
the European market.
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. Lewis Polk, President and son of
Nat Polk, made the decision to pursue manufacturing of the Aristo-Craft trains and radio control equipment rather than continue
in retailing or wholesaling hobbies. Operations were established in Irvington, NJ.
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. Nathan J. Polk retired in 1995,
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.
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.
On Dec. 31, 2013, after 80 years in business, Aristo-Craft Trains/Polk’s Model Craft Hobbies ceased operations.
The long time toy train railroad manufacturer, most recenlty 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.
“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.”