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

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Scale-Craft and Lionel sectional track for OO gauge

As leaders in the OO market, Scale-Craft and Lionel both produced lines of sectional track in American OO gauge.

In conjunction with the launch of their OO line in 1937 the first maker to introduce sectional track was Scale-Craft. Their sectional track is two rail on a metal base. It is rarely seen today but those that have it recommend it as Scale-Craft track has often held up over time better than Lionel track. Lionel track is similar but on a Bakelite base and is prone to warp, crack, and become unusable.

I don’t [as of 2008 ... see update at end] own any examples of either brand, but Dick G. has kindly provided these photos of Scale-Craft and Lionel two rail track which illustrate the differences well. The Scale-Craft track line was produced 1937-42 and included:

1154 Straight section, 10"
1159 Curved section, 16 to circle, 26" radius
1199 Straight section with transformer leads

In the 1938 catalog S-C track was priced at .25 for each straight or curve and .40 for the straight with transformer leads. This was at a considerable savings over the OO three rail track listed in the 1938 Lionel catalog; it sold for .40 for each straight or curve and .75 for the curved connection track.

In the photos the Scale-Craft track illustrated is the curve and the straight section with transformer leads. It has steel rails and fiber ties on a steel base. Dick notes “The straight S-C track in the photo is a connection piece. There is an oval hole in the side of the base (at the center) allowing you to run wires through the hole and under the track, and solder them to the clips holding the rails to the base. Regular S-C straight and curved track don't have the connection hole.” He also adds that “there are no markings on S-C track. You have to know what it looks like to identify it.” They also produced turnout kits that were not on a metal base but were intended to mate with their sectional track.

The rail used on S-C and two rail Lionel track is similar, approximately code 125 and solid. The sections between the two brands will however not mate without modification. Lionel three-rail track has in contrast a hollow, tubular rail.

Lionel introduced their line of sectional track in 1938. The initial offerings were three rail, with spring clip connections between sections. In 1939 they changed the connections in the three rail line and added the two rail line of track. Both types were available until 1942.

As the photos from Dick are of the two rail track, I will start with this part of their line. The curve is a very slightly tighter radius than Scale-Craft, making a 48” diameter circle. The Lionel two rail track included a curved connection track (in the photo), a straight section, and a curved section. Turnouts were not marketed but pilot models are said to exist for two rail turnouts.

The primary type of track produced by Lionel was their three rail OO track. It is designed around a much tighter radius, making a circle of only 27” in diameter, and has a more toy-like/tinplate look. The three-rail line included:

OO-51 Curved section (1939-42)
OO-52 Straight section (1939-42)
OO-61 Curved section with spring clip connections (1938 only)
OO-62 Straight section with spring clip connections (1938 only)
OO-63 1/2 curved section
OO-64 Curved connection track
OO-65 1/2 straight section
OO-66 5/6 curved section
OO-70 Crossover
OO-72 Switches (sold as pair, L and R)

The Lionel name and part number are on the bottom of each piece. See the UPDATE 2014 at the end of this article for a note on the roots of the three-rail track design.

The very important point to note is that Lionel produced three distinct types of OO track. Besides producing two-rail track they also produced two different types of three-rail OO gauge track with different connectors that are actually incompatible with each other. When they made the change over in 1939 to the new type for the curves and straight sections they changed the catalog number but the part number on the sections remained the same. The other types of track were also changed to the new connector but sold under an unchanged catalog number. Confusing? Yes!

An article that details the three types of Lionel OO track is the aptly titled “The Wacky World of Lionel OO, part 1” by George J. Adamson, published in volume 23, no. 4 (Summer, 1977) of The Train Collectors Quarterly. The types of track are illustrated on page 22. If you are a TCA member this issue may be accessed as a PDF in the “Members Only” area of their website, a wonderful resource. Adamson introduced his story as follows; one I believe lived by many Lionel OO enthusiasts over the years.
Can you imagine someone back in about 1940 who had bought one of the early OO sets and then buys some extra track to make the layout on Christmas Eve …, only to discover that the track won't fit together? Bleep! Bleep!

This writer had a similar experience recently in trying to build an OO layout. My first set had only two straight sections with the circle of track, and after begging for track two sections at a time I was finally able to make a decent loop. After assembling the curves I started to add the straight, and lo and behold! Some of the straight track wouldn’t join. All of the curved track had a spring clip underneath the center rail of each section, and there was one round mating pin on each of the outside rails. Most of the straight track, however, had a thin flat blade on each end of the center rail and each outside rail had a thicker blade with a notch (like a hook) at one end. The end of the track was completely open so that the blades would slip inside. There was no spring flip. Further examination revealed that the blade type track had beveled holes for screws while the spring clip type did not. The blade ends were mounted into the bakelite base, and any chance of mating the two tracks seemed less likely than finding an OO set at its original catalog price of $35. The building of a railroad came to an abrupt halt.
There is much more in the Adamson article. The photos above from Dick Kuehnemund show the different connectors. See this article as well for two interesting 1938 track sections which are likely Lionel engineering samples for sections that were not produced.

To give an overall view of the three rail track I have however linked in these last two photos from the online article “TM's Lionel OO Studio Layout” in Toy Train Review. This article is a must read for anyone interested in Lionel OO, with a number of photos of the three rail track in use. The layout was built for shooting videos on the history of Lionel, which I would highly recommend also. The one I have, on VHS, is Lionel OO & HO in Action. They note in the text that the switches are “very rare” and that an oval of 2-rail track “is almost impossible to find.” As to using this classic track on the layout they noted that “the track was gently fastened down …. [being] careful to leave some play in the track because the bakelite roadbed of Lionel OO can be brittle and crack.”

As to what this track is worth, it is all quite valuable, so much so that some manufacturer out there ought to notice eventually and produce reproduction track. The only Greenberg guide I have handy is from 1995, which lists the Lionel switches as selling for $225 a pair in excellent condition. They are even more valuable today for sure. Besides the switches, Lionel two rail straight track is probably the least common. Any type of Lionel track on a good day and in usable condition may sell for toward $50 a piece on eBay. [UPDATE: A lot of ten pieces of Lionel two rail straight track recently (2/09) sold on eBay for over $1,000! Over $100 a piece! Thanks to Ed Havens for this update.]

And the Scale-Craft track? It almost never shows up on eBay but is also desirable for operators and rare. As to why it is desirable I will let Dick G. have the final word:
I think the S-C track is superior to Lionel 2-rail track because it doesn't warp like the Bakelite base on the Lionel track. When you assemble and disassemble S-C track multiple times, the rails tend to slide a little on the base. If you don't tap them back in place, you will get gaps in the rails above the rail joiners on the ends. This is the only problem I've had with S-C track.
UPDATE 2012: Within a year or two I did pick up some examples of Lionel and Scale-Craft track. As I say in the article where I note that I purchased some Lionel track finally,
It really does not “feel” pre-war. I can kind of imagine how someone would have felt back then to hold it in your hands for the first time, this is pretty amazing stuff. I did a quick survey with a couple of my favorite junior high students to guess how old this track was. They guessed that it dated to the 1960s-70s. Lionel had quite a product going with the pre-war OO line; no wonder collectors drive a market for our defunct but most interesting scale.
UPDATE 2014: A reader noticed something that I don't think has ever been noted in articles/writings on Lionel OO--that their three-rail track seems to have been copied and scaled up from the 1935 Trix Twin HO/OO track line. See this article for more on the comparison of these products.  

1 comment:

Peter B. said...

Today I found some sections of Scale-craft 00 (OO) track in amongst some of my Hornby Dublo. It was not until I looked at it closely that I realized it was not 16.5mm gauge. I then discovered by research that it was prewar Scale-craft 00. It is grubby but could be cleaned easily. It is identical in every respect to that shown in this article.