model train set on track

A Perfect Scale: One Man’s Journey To American OO

e*Train Issue: Jul 2021   |   Posted in:

Freight on North Siding

By Joel Goodman © 2021   TCA #08-62657                    Summer 2021

I grew up with Lionel, starting out with O27, then changing to Super O, and then over to O Gauge, which offered 072 switches. Of course, the choice of track really didn’t change much except the radius of the curves. My rolling stock was basically the same, which mostly consisted of Lionel 1950’s cars and engines. I shied away from the really small 027 rolling stock, some of which were almost Flyer size.

It was in the late 1960s when I began attending TCA shows with a friend and haunting train shops in and around New York City, that I encountered the vast history of Lionel trains. I recall turning down a very nice scale Hudson for $125.00 because it wasn’t “quite perfect,” and, anyway, I really wasn’t a collector – I just liked playing with trains.  

Totally apart from my ramblings in train shops, I literally found an odd little Lionel engine, missing the boiler plate cover and some screws.

Eventually, I brought it down to Madison Hardware, my local train store – well, I did live in Manhattan.  I had been going to Madison Hardware since I was a kid living in Brooklyn. Once in Manhattan I would stop by the nearby Lionel and American Flyer Showrooms off of Madison Square Park. Carl, one of the two owner brothers, told me that the little engine was a OO three rail Hudson, # 001, and that they could repair it. He even pointed out several OO cars sitting in the small display case near the back counter. Of the many times I had been in Madison Hardware, until that moment I had never paid any attention to those little OOs in the case.

I liked the engine, but it held little real interest for me, just being some sort of an oddity. Over time Madison Hardware supplied me with all of the old Lionel Catalogs from the 1930’s and 40’s, and I caught up on what I had missed before my introduction to Lionel in 1951, including their few OO offerings.

Observation Car passing MOW site

Around 2000, I moved to Tennessee and into a building that had a large area for a layout, but as I was working on the building, I didn’t set up my trains. The owner of a local train shop sponsored me for TCA membership and I went to some meets, where on a whim I picked up some OO track and turnouts for a bargain; but did nothing with them.

It was about that time, when MTH and S Helper were producing true S Scale items, that I became fascinated with scale trains, and it was then that I really paid attention to the difference between Lionel’s O gauge and true 1/4″ scale. The O scale that some of the local train guys had was just too large for me. After all, I was accustomed to the smaller 1950’s 027/ O Gauge stuff.

Oil Car

I even considered focusing on S Gauge. Almost all new S was scale, and engines, cars and track were readily available. S was large enough to be handled like a toy, but not small enough to build a decent track-based layout, the way you could with HO, but HO was just too small for me.

I continued looking at scale as it related to model railroading; and what was good and bad about each scale. For example In T Scale you could put 8 scale miles of track on a 4′ x 8′  layout.  In comparison, a G Scale Northern loco and tender would be almost 2 1/2 feet. It comes down to whether your focus is on the trains or the layout.  But I wanted both — car size and layout,

I took a fresh look at the Lionels I liked, especially the 027 passenger cars. They were, though, too selectively compressed in length to have the appearance of a real 70-footer. I even planned to splice two cars together to make a scale length 70-foot coach car. After all, since you could have scale length with S and with HO, why not with this smaller sized Lionel O Gauge?

Box Cars

I measured the compressed passenger cars, the F3’s, the GP7’s and the 6464 box cars. It turned out they more or less shared the same scale to their prototypes, 1:56. I kept thinking how nice a lengthened 027 passenger car, a GG1 and an F-3 would look in true 1/56 scale; and all the existing 027 stuff, if not perfect, would still look okay,

With scale as a determinant, I looked at S again, where scale passenger cars and locos were now the norm; but S was sort of a compromise scale. While almost large enough to be a toy, and smaller than O, it wasn’t small enough to build a layout much more prototypical than what I could build with my newly conceived “R Scale” – O / 027 Gauge.

It was about then that I saw some Scalecraft OO Pullmans on eBay, and since I had some track, for the heck of it I bought them.


What a surprise!

When I put the Pullmans on a table, they were just like the right chair Goldilocks found in the Bear’s house – not too big – not too small; and they ran on two rail track, something which I had come to admire about HO and S.  I compared the OO Pullmans to their HO counterparts. HO was obviously smaller, but not small enough for a real gain in layout over OO, and it was just too small for me, having grown up with trains as a toy.

I put aside the idea of kit-bashing the Lionel passenger cars or switching to S. I started selling off my Lionel collection and focused on picking up more pieces of OO. Eventually I hooked up with Paul Magnussen’s OO Road newsletter, and when well known OO operator Ed Morlock passed away, his collection was put on a Maurer’s (Ted Maurer, Pottstown, PA) auction, and I bought a few pieces.

My journey in search of a personally satisfying set of trains had ended. The Scalecraft Pullmans sitting on the table were perfect. Of course, I couldn’t have as much track in OO as I could in N, or Z, but my goal wasn’t a  prototypical track layout. On the other hand, while the larger R Scale offered a return to my Lionel experience, it really offered no decent layout possibilities; and it ran on three rail track, and nothing in true scale was readily available. OO had everything I needed. I would have a nicely sized model and still be able to do a decent layout. Who could ask for more? Certainly, I couldn’t.

Well, now I have to figure out how to get On3 track to look somewhat more realistic in places where its ties are not covered by a gravel roadbed. So I guess not everything’s perfect – yet.