The online magazine on the history and operation of vintage scale model trains in American OO gauge

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Lionel OO Gauge Trains 101

An article by George J. Adamson that was published in the Summer, 1977 issue of The Train Collectors Quarterly is titled “The Wacky World of Lionel OO.” It is an apt title and is a world that is explored in depth in American OO Today.

The Lionel OO gauge line was introduced in 1938; this image is from their 1938 catalog. American OO (or 00) is 1/76 scale running on 3/4" track--thus, these classic Lionel trains are larger in every dimension than HO models, which are built to 1/87 scale running on 5/8" track. Visually OO is about half way between HO and S gauge, which was developed later. More on the topic of "why OO" toward the end of this article.

As there was at the time this site was launched (in 2008) an online resource on Lionel OO, one that remains online today, and there were other published resources to consult (such as this Classic Toy Trains article), I initially posted in this location only a very short article on the topic of Lionel OO Gauge to quickly introduce the topic and move on to other makers that interested me and were not so widely known. That article was in fact one of the first ten posts to this site, and it originally read exactly as follows:

Over the summer I will be doing a series of posts with basic information on a number of classic OO gauge lines. One link I just found today however is to an area in the website on Lionel OO gauge trains. While the text has at least one obvious inaccuracy (Varney never produced any OO) it does have good basic info on the line, produced from 1938-42, and links to photos of most of the variations. This photo is of the super detailed Hudson locomotive, taken from this site.

While highly collectible today, I actually own very little Lionel, OO or otherwise. More on that another day.

While the bulk of my personal collection as of this latest update of this article is and will always be non-Lionel, I do now own more examples of their models and have also been able to post quite a bit of information on Lionel OO gauge in American OO Today. Explore the links here and check this page often, it is updated a little probably every month as it is by far the most popular page on the site.

For many years there has been solid collector interest in this line, which was clearly also very popular with modelers of the period; virtually every OO layout boasted a Lionel Hudson. Lionel was an established manufacturer of toy trains and needs no introduction. Following the lead of Nason Railways who had their OO line in production by 1934 and Scale-Craft who introduced their OO line in 1937, Lionel entered OO in 1938 and initially used modified Scale-Craft OO cars in their pre-production sets and catalog photos. Lionel actually infringed upon Scale-Craft patents in their truck design and ultimately had to pay the latter a royalty. And it is also worth noting that their three-rail track seems to have been "inspired" by the 1935 line of Trix Twin HO/OO track. More on that here.

There were only five basic models produced in the Lionel OO line and it should be pointed out that all of them were models that had been produced prior to that time by other makers. The NYC 4-6-4 and the same style boxcar were produced as sand cast models by Nason Railways and the tank car, hopper, and caboose had all been produced as die cast models by Scale-Craft, with S-C also producing a line of sectional track with a metal base generally similar to that later produced by Lionel. It is logical that Lionel would have used these various available models as mock ups for the sets they were conceiving, and it is clear as well that their versions were better than the older models. In this photo the Scale-Craft caboose is on the left and the Lionel on the right for comparison--click on the photo for a larger view, and see this article for more information on the comparison.

By 1939 their OO line was pretty much set, with two and three rail versions of everything and also kits of the cars available. While the line was not extensive in terms of types of models produced, it was a quality product. Also it should be noted that Lionel had one great asset in comparison to every other OO manufacturer--really effective marketing--and also hit a price point that was below that of other makers.

The discontinuation of this line with the outset of WW II is often cited as the "final blow" to American OO, although a number of manufacturers continued serving modelers in the scale after the war, including in particular a line of very interesting early Japanese brass imports by Fred Schorr.

Lionel OO gauge has achieved "honorary toy train" status today as much of it is three rail and it all runs on the same AC transformers used for toy trains. In light of the high monetary value of models from this line today, it is interesting to note that used Lionel Hudson prices in the post-war period show that the line was not then as valuable as comparable kit-built engines. Times do change!

As introductory articles on their line in this site I suggest the following either for the information contained or for the photos of actual Lionel models.
All of these models were die cast and available ready to run (but the freight cars were also available as kits, 1939-42) in scale and semi-scale versions. The latter models lack some minor details. All were produced in 3-rail versions 1938-42 and 2-rail 1939-42, and the kits included paint and decals. To be more specific about what the sets (or "outfits") were as of 1939, I recently wrote in answer to a question from a reader that
The most expensive of the new sets was the 0090W at a price of $42.25, the super-detailed two-rail outfit. For your money you got the 003 locomotive with 003W tender, 0044 box car, 0045 oil car, 0046 coal car, and 0047 caboose, eleven pieces of 0031 curved track and one piece of 0034 connection track (no straight track), and a whistling controller.
More details on set contents may be found here. Their line was not large, but to own all the variations and track to match will take some time and effort (and $). For example the locomotive was available in four versions and each of those was available with a standard or a whistling tender, with the 1938 version of the 001 additionally having a different connection between locomotive and tender. So while the list below looks like four models, actually to own every variation you would need a total of nine locomotives.
  • 001 scale, 3-rail
  • 002 semi-scale, 3-rail
  • 003 scale, 2-rail
  • 004 semi-scale, 2-rail
At least four pilot models are said to exist which were never produced--a NYC caboose, a depressed center flat, a gondola, and a stock car (all die cast). It would have been great to see what an expanded line might have looked like; the Hallmark Lionel OO F-3 is an interesting (but much more recent) model to contemplate in that light.

Earlier in this article I mentioned that there was an article on Lionel OO in Classic Toy Trains. This is the cover of that issue, one well worth tracking down for great photos of mint condition Lionel OO models. More on this issue and cover story here.

I would be remiss also to not mention clearly that British OO is not to be confused with American OO! In short British OO models are 1/76 scale models running most commonly on track that is gauged for HO, 16.5mm gauge instead of 19mm gauge. The differences are described in the sidebar of this website, and for an illustration and more on the differences see this article, A Brief History of American OO Gauge.

Finally, one question that I think is wondered often when people look initially at these models today is that of why--as in why Lionel got into OO instead of HO. The big picture is that New York City was the major hotbed of American OO activity starting back in 1930. More than anything I personally think Lionel was swayed toward OO by that local activity and enthusiasm, especially led early on by F. D. Grimke, who for many years was chairman of the New York Society of Model Engineers. The NYSME had an OO layout alongside their O layout by 1934, and Nason was in New York with their OO line in production by 1934, so it was a very visible scale locally, and besides that OO was better suited to the motors of the day than was HO (the Mantua Midjet Motor was especially notable in this regard, being widely used in the early 1930s). Then Scale-Craft jumped into OO in 1937 with their ground breaking die cast OO scale models and sets with sectional track which also certainly caught the attention of Lionel in a big way. Ultimately the Lionel OO gauge line was the wrong business decision of course, but we still get to enjoy the great models today. Hobby pioneer Nat Polk shares more insights on the topic of why as well in this article.

One other FAQ type question to answer here is what power pack to use with Lionel OO models? They will operate with any Lionel AC transformer, and one with a whistle controller will be handy for the models with operating whistles. These models are AC, not DC operated. Early Scale-Craft was incompatible as it ran on DC (24 volt), and after WWII OO makers and modelers settled on 12 volt DC which is the setup of my layout. Lionel models without a whistling tender will operate, it should be noted, on DC.

With that as an introduction to Lionel OO please feel free to explore more than just Lionel OO on this site! In particular get to know the other major makers and especially Scale-Craft, as their models are often confused with Lionel models.

I started this site because there was so little information--online or otherwise--about American OO gauge, there were many interesting models produced back in the day, and there is a big picture that the great Lionel OO models desired by collectors fit into. Welcome to the "wacky world" of American OO gauge.

See also:
Updated extensively in 2010, and most recently updated 2015


Steve Neubaum said...

I have heard something about one reason Lionel didn't make OO after WWII was that the molds they used were direct copies of Scale-Craft tooling, and Lionel was threatened with legal action over this.

This would seem correct to me. I have a Scale-Craft O Scale NYC caboose that is very, very similar to Lionel's prewar O Scale NYC design caboose. Anyone know if there is truth to this?

John Ericson said...

They are not direct copies but what Lionel did in 1938 was copy fairly closely existing Nason (4-6-4 and boxcar) and Scale-Craft (tank, hopper, caboose) models and improve them a bit. It is easy to imagine that they used the Nason and S-C models as design mock ups to figure out the best combination for their line which was a mistake in the end as there were too many models made that were almost the same but different companies. As to legal action, my understanding is the only infringement that held up had to do with the equalization of the truck design and Lionel had to pay a royalty to Scale-Craft.