History of Z-Scale

 The very earliest models of trains must have been crude toys fashioned from wood, the most commonly available material.  Trains were an important part of our society, a technological marvel that signaled the improvement of our world.  Trains were too important to ignore.  From these rough charactures came the toys that we have today.

Inevitably, the capacity of technology limited the size of the trains.  Trains were large because they had to be, because electric motor technology could offer motors that were only so small.  As technology advanced, model trains began growing smaller. When H0/00 Gauge trains entered the market in the 1930’s, it was because they had motors which worked reliably enough for the toy market. After TT-Gauge entered the market in the late 1940’s, it was again because of motor technology.

But there was more to this phenomenon than just motors. The earliest electric trains had been the playthings of the wealthy, because you needed a large house to accommodate these large trains. In that era, there had been trains built to several very large proportions.  Trains built to 1:32 proportion, Gauge 1, remain with us to this day, but there were others in Gauges 2, 3, and 4. The market in that time was such that each manufacturer built to their own notion of the proper sized trains.  But these huge trains also meant that only a few could actually be built. It was the relatively small 0-Gauge that started the trend toward smaller trains. In America, we associate O-Gauge trains with Lionel-made trains, but Märklin, American Flyer, Dorfan and Ives all made 0-Gauged trains, along with others who are lost in the mists of time.

The trend toward tiny trains really started after World War II. TT (for Table Top) had two major proponents.  In America, TT was made by H. P. Products of Hartford City, Indiana.  In Europe, TT was made by Rokal of Germany, with some also made in England by Triang.  There were other companies, but these were the majors. 

These companies also reflected the philosophy of model railroading for each market.  The Rokal line was a complete, ready-to-run product line, which merely required the installation of track and connection of wires.  The H. P. brand was more craftsman oriented, with the prospective model train buyer faced with the construction of locomotive kits, car kits, and the hand laying of rail onto cross ties for the track. The Rokal line featured automatic operation, a major feature of most all European brands of train.  The American train operators viewed themselves as being the engineer of an individual train, while the European model railroaders viewed themselves as being the operator of a control tower with multiple trains being under their direct control.  As Tom Hebert has observed, it is Gods versus Heroes, with the German trains being under the hand of God while the Americans stand on the locomotive’s footplate, reenacting scenes from thousands of pulp novels celebrating brave engineers.

Of course, TT was not to be the smallest, and in 1960, the German company K. Arnold of Nürnberg would enter the market with an even smaller train, the Arnold Rapido 200 line.

By today’s standards, the Rapido 200 product line was crude, yet it created a sensation at its announcement at the Nürnberg train show in 1960, for it was significantly smaller than TT-Scale. In the next few years, Arnold would introduce items which were more closely scaled as the Arnold rapido line. At the same time, another Nürnberg manufacturer, Trix, would also introduce a similar product line (called Minitrix) and the race was on. The market quickly identified this new scale as N. Rivarossi, Lima and others soon joined the N-Scale market.

In 1968, the N-Scale field was crowded with manufacturers.  The phenomenon of N-Scale was such that questions were being raised about why the biggest European manufacturer, Märklin, had not entered this growing field.  We now know that Märklin did consider going into N-Scale, enough so that they produced scale pilot models to estimate manufacturing issues and test the company’s ability to manufacture in this new scale. Märklin was a large, old-line toy manufacturer, dating back to 1859, but it also was a conservative company to the outside world, and in that era, Märklin was unwilling to join the fractious world of N-Scale.

In this advertisement, which appeared in 1968, Märklin told the world what they had been doing.  Märklin N-Scale had been around for four years, but you could not buy it.

This is, of course, classic Märklin, a company certain of its abilities and of its place in the world. Perhaps N-Scale was not good enough to have Märklin manufacture it, but this also held out the tantalizing possibility that Märklin had something better in mind.  But there also was the unspoken understanding that if Märklin had manufactured N-Scale trains, they would have just been another company in an already crowded field. In short, they needed to do something distinctive. And, of course, that is the heart of our story.

Märklin management at that time was still family. In 1907, the Märklin family had taken in a business partner, Richard Safft. Herr Safft was a dynamic businessman, and his presence along with Emil Friz, another individual who had joined the Company earlier, had rejuvenated the Märklin company. It was this core group of families that would control Märklin. As the generations passed, their children would continue in the family tradition, which brings us to Herbert Safft.

Dipl. Ing. Herbert Safft (at left, in the white coat), was head of the Märklin company in the 1960s, when the decisions about N-Scale were made. Herr Safft was a skilled director who had capably led the company for years. He was not above taking a calculated risk, and that is the interesting element to this story. In 1970, the Märklin product line was generally staid. The earlier 0-Gauge product line had been discontinued, and their H0 line was the core of the Company’s business.  The Sprint slot-car line had been added in 1967, but Märklin was in the role of just another company manufacturing slot cars. Likewise, their Minex product line of 0-Scale trains operating on H0 gauged track had not sold as well as expected.  Thirty years later, this would have been a hit...... But, in any case, Märklin was looking for something to expand their product line.

 Of course, this would be Z-Scale. which Märklin called mini-club. Given the times required for product development and preproduction manufacture of the tooling necessary to make a new line of model trains, the 1968 magazine advertisement turns out to have been Märklin’s signal to the world that it was going to do something different. The fact that it was able to keep this giant project a secret until the 1972 Nürnberg Toy Fair is testimony to the Company’s legendary mystique of that era.

In much the same way as the earlier Arnold rapido, Märklin’s Z-Scale was from scratch.  That is to say, since nothing in this proportion had been manufactured before, Märklin was obligated to provide everything necessary to produce a complete model railroad. So, in addition to the first few locomotives and cars, track and electrical components, Märklin also offered a series of model structures, toporamas, even track spikes, to make a complete model railroad world.

By the late 1970’s, another individual began work on some Z-Scale items that would influence the model railroad world.  Nelson Gray, of upstate New York, began manufacturing a line of Z-Scale items. His product line was based upon American prototypes, a series of highly detailed freight cars and an F-7 diesel locomotive. As with so many other things American, Gray was working out of his modest shop, yet these cars were quite nice.  In addition to this line of Z-Scale, Gray also produced a line of N-Scale cars which represented narrow gauge freight cars, in a scale called Nn3.

Eventually, Gray would sell the tooling for his product line to Micro-Trains of Oregon around 1982.  Micro-Trains would enhance Gray’s work and introduced their line of Z-Scale in 1984. The Nn3 product line was introduced at about the same time.

This, in turn, would stimulate Märklin to begin producing a line of American Z-Scale. Starting in 1984, they introduced an F-7 locomotive, a 50 foot box car, a 45 foot gondola and Santa Fe style caboose.  More cars followed in the ensuing years, with Santa Fe prototype passenger cars being introduced in 1985; these cars were first offered in Amtrak livery. Further on, a 2-8-2 Mikado-type steam locomotive was offered, followed by a 4-6-2 Pacific-type steam locomotive.  In 2005, a GG-1 electric locomotive was introduced.

By this time, Z-Scale was reaching a critical mass, with enough locomotives and cars being offered that popular interest began to grow.  When my book, Greenberg’s Guide to Märklin Z was published in 1990, Z-Scale had begun the process of developing into a serious modeling scale, gradually growing away from its novelty roots.  As these words are being written, Z-Scale has arrived as an interesting size for model trains and is poised for yet another developmental spurt of growth.

It’s only been forty years........

Image courtesy of Märklin

[Home] [Guide to Z-Scale] [History of Z-Scale] [Structures] [Planning] [Track] [Electrical] [Building a Layout] [Scenery] [Maintenance] [Narrow Gauge] [Catalogs] [Some Final Words] [Time Flies] [Sources & Credits] [Model Railroads] [Proto Railroads] [Collecting] [Miscellany] [Links]