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

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What Happened to the Great OO Layouts?

One question that comes up from time to time is what happened, ultimately, to some of the great American OO layouts built in the past, particularly ones featured in the model railroad press. With learning of the passing of Pierre Bourassa I updated an older article in this site, which focused on two great photos of his layout that he worked on actively from 1948-2001. It was featured in the March, 1956 issue of Railroad Model Craftsman (an issue well worth tracking down--the cover photo is of another OO great layout, that of Newton Guerin), and the layout itself was purchased and moved to Pittsburgh, where so far as I know it remains in storage to this day.

Other layouts, the story is not so clear. I was recently sent a small group of vintage OO letters by an eBay seller (thank you!) which open a window on a couple layouts. All the letters to varying degrees touch on the topic of what will happen to their trains or what happened to the trains of others. Pierre spent years breaking up what he had and tried his best to get his models in the hands of people who would still work with them. Others clearly hung on to what they had a bit too long. This quote from a 1980 letter from Temple Nieter is pretty clear to those points when he writes,
There is an OOdtimer near Cleveland who has a lot of OO and a lot of partially-built stock. He won’t part with it, despite my urging; his eyes and body are not equal to doing any work on or with it, so I hoped he would help the active men with it, but no. That goes with the widow of a nearby friend, whom you may recall, Sidney Wells, artist, ad-man, executive. She wouldn’t hear of him trading with me or selling, so now she is hanging onto the stuff for grandchildren or veterans’ hospital plans, where the material will just be lost because it isn’t HO and won’t be understood. Sad way for some rather good OO to lie fallow or worse. 

The Birmingham and Glencoe layout of Sid Wells won the OO division of the Model Craftsman layout contest in 1941 and was depicted as well in Scale-Craft publications (see this article for another view). In working toward the 1942 series for American OO Today I also found these two great photos of his layout published in MC in February, 1942. The caption with these reads in full,
The two photos on the two following pages depict colorful and realistic spots along the OO pike of Mr. Sid Wells of Glencoe, Illinois. The old-time locomotive is surrounded with equally ancient devices for realism. The other photo shows a high wooden trestle along a mountainous section of the high iron. Both pictures emphasize the life-like possibilities of miniature railroading. Mr. Wells’ pike, incidentally, was awarded first prize in the OO division of last year’s MC Layout Contest. Have you sent in your entry for the current competition?

Back to the letter from Temple Nieter, I have mentioned this various places in this website but he was the person who most encouraged me getting into OO and had a feature article in volume 1, no. 2 of The Model Railroader in 1934. I believe most of his equipment is out there somewhere today, and also I feel sure some of it passed through the Morlok auction, as did some from Pierre. Clearly equipment from other big layouts such as the Norfolk and Ohio have passed through eBay as well, models from the Greenbrook seem to have scattered widely, and the Moale trolleys survive. And we have featured many great models from the layout of Howard Winther and many models from Fred Schorr are out there today. As to Sid Wells, I hope his equipment fared OK too, but perhaps as Nieter implies it may have met a less ideal fate, and nothing from the layout of Red Adams seems to have surfaced either. Hopefully at least this website is helping some heirs out there get a handle on what they have, so that they might more easily get their old stored American OO trains into the hands of people actively interested in these classic models.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A box car with Walthers/Scale-Craft OO decals

A recent eBay purchase confirmed something I had wondered, did Walthers actually produce OO decals that differed from their HO decals?

Exhibit "A" is this boxcar I built up, originally featured in this article back in 2008. In that article it is depicted with two other vintage Scale-Craft boxcars. As described and shown in that original article, the other two cars date to the late 1930s and were beautifully built up with the earlier style of S-C decals. (An overview of S-C decal production may be found here).

On this car above however I used a vintage set (1950s) of Walthers HO decals, thinking they seemed a little small but worked OK. Well, surprise surprise, they match exactly the decals in this package of Scale-Craft decals and a second package of the same decals. They also don't match the size or style of the lettering in the drawing that came with them (see this article for all the drawings I have found), the decals being undersized and different, but the S-C/Walthers OO decals match my HO Walthers decals perfectly.

The additional good news is these pre-war "OO" decals look to be completely usable today. I look forward to using them at some point in the near future, I would most like at this point to make a set of three of these authentic, "new" vintage boxcars (I like sets of cars), but will need to do some paint stripping and prep first.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Brief History of American OO Gauge

American OO is a unique gauge with a unique history. The British started making small models in the 1920s with a body scale of 1/76 but the track gauge of 5/8 inch. The appropriate scale for track of that width would be 1/87, so the bodies were over scale. They still make these HO/OO models widely today, and also models may be obtained in several versions of a correct gauge with the 1/76 bodies, including EM Gauge and Scalefour.

When these first models came to the United States in the early 1930s two different tactics were taken to correct this mismatch. One was HO gauge, which has bodies and track correct for 1/87. The other was American OO (pronounced "double O"), which retained the slightly larger body scale of 1/76 and corrected the track gauge to 3/4 inch, which is only a tiny bit different than 19mm. This allowed for the use of larger motors and modeling techniques similar to the O scale models of that day.

Models built in American OO are noticeably larger than HO but smaller than S gauge, which was developed later. American OO was produced in large commercial quantities by Lionel (1938-41) and Scale-Craft (1937-55), and in significant quantities before and after the war by companies such as Famoco, Nason Railways, Kemtron, Schorr, and many other firms, primarily between 1934 and 1955 with some production lingering on into the 1960s.

American OO had a very dedicated following before and after the war. The raw number of individuals peaked before WWII, but quite a number of people had gotten going and were builders who stuck with the scale. As a group, those “OOldtimers” are almost all deceased now.

As the scale lost popularity the OOldtimers had various tactics toward keeping active. There were clubs that met, especially the group(s) in New Jersey, and others corresponded by mail. An OO Speical Interest Group was started that still exists today. They kitbashed and scratchbuilt models. Some got very into scratchbuilding modern cars and converting HO models to use in OO in particular. Which is very possible in some instances as especially older production HO there were models that were produced that were overscale.

Today there is a newer generation of people following the scale. We all got into it long after the scale was popular, but the models are generally speaking pretty affordable and easy to work with in terms of restoration or rebuilding, and of course have a lot of character. Personally I enjoy the history of the scale and working with old and new models. It combines interests in modeling and collecting in a unique way.

So while the main source if you are looking to buy American OO is eBay, there are finds that come up and a lot of things can be modified for OO use from HO and Sn3. Our track gauge is the same as On3, so that track can be used in a pinch for operation along with wheelsets and drive parts. And of course there are British items that can be easily used in a North American context, such as modern 1/76 scale shipping containers.

In short American OO is not dead. It lost the battle of the gauges but has a following, especially from the Lionel collecting side of things. Much more on the history and operation of these classic models may be found in American OO Today, http://americanoo.blogspot.com/

This article was written this summer for the newsletter of the Model Railway Society of Ireland, and is presented here with permission of the editor. The illustration of the comparison of OO and HO gauges is from the October, 1939 issue of Miniature Railroading (presented previously in this article), and the photo is of my first OO car (Eastern) and a MDC HO boxcar, from this article.