How it started

When Gérard Gilles returned from France after fleeing in early 1940, he did not want to be involved, directly or indirectly, in the production of anything related to military equipment. As a self-employed electrician, he started making flour sieves and churning machines. However, the spark flew at a scrap dealer, where he found a metal locomotive, probably JEP, in gauge 16.5mm (HO).

In 1941 the first piece with the brand name Gils saw the light of day: a tram with power supply via a trolley (reversible direction of travel by reversing the position of the trolley), based on the Liège city tram. All this with track gauge 'I' (45mm), which was not very common at the time. All parts were made or cast in-house, down to the bolts, starting with the moulds. The tram was sold in a blue box that also contained the rails and transformer. Neither the tram nor the box showed the Gils brand name. Tram in its box Despite all efforts, the order for 400 units for Sint-Niklaas in 1941 could not be realized and only 200 units were completed in November '41. Because Grand-Bazaar did not want to risk unsold stock, the remaining 200 sets, completed a few days before the arrival of Santa Claus, were not purchased. Yet these 200 sets were still delivered to Grand-Bazaar. They looked great in the display cases of Grand Bazaar and were all sold quickly. A trailer was also provided, but due to problems with the first delivery, it did not go beyond the drawing board.

On the advice of the Grand Bazaar store managers, the tram was put aside in 1942 in favor of the train, as it was more popular with the public. It became a replica of the Santa Fe, an American train, a symbol of freedom and greatness. The Gilles family moved to Jupille, to a larger house, necessary for production. The train was produced using the technique of metal cast on sand, for both the locomotive and the carriages. The rough casts were smoothed and polished, and then decorated by hand. Bear in mind that this cast aluminum alloy was processed under the nose of the occupying forces, who of course preferred to use this material in the aircraft industry! The required material therefore had to be obtained from the steel industry via forged documents. Gérard was in his own way a resistance fighter who took material from the occupying forces' aircraft industry through toy production. It becomes completely crazy when you know that the first 'SilverGils', a model of an American Santa Fe train, in Grand Bazaar was very popular with ... the German officers, who bought these trains and sent them to their families! This train set cost 2,500 BEF in the Grand Bazaar in 1942, a considerable amount at the time, so that these trains were only reserved for the very wealthy. Nevertheless, all manufactured sets sold quickly.

A three-rail system with 3 independent rails, devised by Gérard Gilles, was already chosen for this first train produced, expanding the possibilities on the network. The rails were mounted on metal sleepers, with cardboard insulation plates.


In addition to the Gilles family, several children were also working at that time, and in the evening even 3 mobilized soldiers. The bosses themselves often worked more than 10 hours a day.

In 1943, they switched to gauge '0' (32mm) like JEP and Marklin. In contrast to the other major train manufacturers, the 'cast' period preceded the 'tin-plate' period at Gils. The first element, the same Santa Fe locomotive as the version in scale I, but with fenders, which was cast in '0', also included carriages, although with a revised design, and with red instead of purple bands on the flanks.

The O-scale rails were also made in-house. However, the metal sleepers of the I-track rails were replaced by Bakelite sleepers that were made using a waffle iron-like machine and manually deburred piece by piece.

Later, in 1945, the first aerodynamically shaped steam locomotive (based on the fabolous Belgian Railways Type 12 steam locomotive) was introduced, in various colors: black, green and grey. It was also made of cast aluminum. The trains were completed with passenger cars with the same aerodynamic shape, or freight cars made of lithographically printed tin-plate. However, the first freight wagons were equipped with wooden side walls. None of the cast aluminum alloy locomotives bore the Gils brand name!

After the liberation, mountains of empty US Army canning boxes were cut up, flattened and made into rails. These canning boxes, originally used for food, were collected by local residents at the request of Gérard. Gérard gave 5 Belgian Francs per can. This material is of very high quality and, even so many years later, it still offers better resistance than other tin-plate, which explains the difference with the rails of other brands of the same age that can still be found.

Printed sheet metal for the production of the trains was only available after the war, from 1948 onwards. The large plates of 70x50cm were supplied printed by another company and then cut. Several pieces were printed on one plate. After being cut out with the metal shears, they were stamped out and finished. The moulds were accurate to 1/100 mm.

Gils produced tin steam locomotives 'Gils Express' in red or black in 1948 . New versions followed in 1950 and 1951 , in red, black or blue, some of which had a small resistance in the chimney. It was sufficient to add a collofonium ball to make the steam locomotive produce real smoke. The required rosin balls were made overnight. A collofonium reservoir was placed above a water barrel. The product fell drop by drop into the water and hardened. They then only had to collect them in bottles, bags or boxes for sale.

Please note, cellophane balls were previously mentioned, but this was due to an incorrect translation. It is indeed collofonium (Colophane in French, Rosine in English, the name Hidersine is also used). This is an extract from resin of certain pine trees. This product is still sold, for example, in blocks for coating violin bows. However, this product is used in many applications! Colophonium comes from 'Colophon', an ancient Ionian city where the pine trees from which this resin was extracted grew. See Wikipedia Dutch, English Wikipedia of French Wikipedia .

Some versions of these Gils-Express locomotives also had a whistle system built into the tender.

In 1953 a new production technique followed: locomotives again in cast metal, but this time zamac, an alloy of Zinc with additions of Aluminium, MAgnesium and Copper. For example in 1953 steam locomotives were introduced in Zamac and in 1954, also in Zamac, locomotives based on electric locomotives followed. A diesel locomotive based on the Belgian NMBS diesel locomotive type 59 was introduced in 1956

The last model, in 1958, was a model based on the Belgian Railways example of a type 50 motorset, in tin-plate.

In connection with the foregoing, it can be noted that the steam locomotives in tin and zamac carried a locomotive number that refers to the year of construction. There are tin Gils-Express locomotives from 1948 (no. 0148), 1950 (no. 0150) and 1951 (no. 0151), and the Zamac steam locomotive with number 53-55 from 1953.

A certain evolution can also be seen in the carriages and freight wagons. The oldest carriages were made of cast aluminum alloy (SilverGils), the oldest freight wagons had a body that was partly made of wood and with tin bogies. Later, equipment in printed tin followed, first with tin bogies, later with beautifully shaped bogies in zamac, and with cast buffers instead of turned buffers. The latest equipment is also equipped with finer couplings.


Gils' main customers were the department stores (Grand Bazaar in Liège and Vaxelaire-Claes in Brussels). This meant that they had to deliver once a year, within very short periods and at competitive prices. Add to this that the representatives eventually complained about the quality of this material that did not have to be 'replaced' often and you have an idea of the persistence of the Gilles family. Moreover, due to international trade relations - to balance the infamous trade balance - astronomical quantities of trains from Märklin, JEP or Hornby, to stick with these big three, were imported into Belgium at very competitive prices, to compensate for the exports by the Belgian steel industry railway rails and rebar. This illustrates even better the efforts Gilles and the entire team had to make to produce trains for 20 years. Since the Gilles family worked on such a small scale, it was never possible to obtain an export permit. Production never exceeded 1,000 boxes per year, despite children's preference for the real, beautifully colored Gils material over the more realistically shaped models from other brands. Cyrille, the son of founder Gérard Gilles, always did demonstrations of the Gils trains in Grand Bazaar during the holidays. It was seen that the fathers bought Märklin for themselves and Gils for their children. It also happened several times that Gils' stock was exhausted before it reached Sint-Niklaas, and that the Gils demonstration table was used for the other brands.

In 1965 Sinterklaas lost one of his most loyal employees. After 20 years, the Gils company stopped producing its trains. The charm of Gils is due to the sight of these toy trains, which were produced in a traditional manner in a family atmosphere, and therefore do not give the appearance of a factory-produced mass product, but rather bear the traces of the efforts of a small group of people. who ensured the soundness of their product and worked with passion for their task, the toys and... the train....

The Gilles family switched to the production of soldering irons, spotlights (disco bars, stage, etc.), kitchen fans and they currently provide the installation of industrial ventilation systems.

Close encounters

In December 2003 I had the pleasure of visiting Cyrille Gilles who still lived in the house with annex workspaces where the Gils trains were manufactured. He showed me the Gils track that he had built in the space where the trains used to be assembled, above the production hall, where time had stood still and nostalgia was everywhere. Some pictures:

Gils layout Cyrille Gilles

Inside casting mould loc 53-55

Outside casting mould loc 53-55


Manufacturing hall

Manufacturing hall

Manufacturing hall
Cyrille Gilles at the right

End of an era?

Cyrille left us in April 2006. The last train builder of the Gilles family disappears with him. Thank you Gérard and Cyrille for the enchantment you have given to so many! But the fruits of the Gilles family's hard work remain cherished to this day in various collections.

There is a Gils collection to be found in the toys museum of Brussels (closed unfortunately), Mechelen and Ferrières

A part of the collection in Brussels

A part of the collection in Ferrières

And there is this website, and my demonstration layout (disassembled due to water damage, unfortunately)

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