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

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Vintage American OO Train Sets

When people today think of American OO gauge train sets (if they think of them at all…) they think Lionel. Actually, three makers sold train sets in American OO.

The first important maker, the one that really broke ground with a new type of product, was Scale-Craft. Their sets were introduced in their 1937 catalog as follows:
We are now introducing an innovation in the model field by offering for the first time a complete scale model train [emphasis original]. The passenger car set consists of a complete locomotive kit, a baggage car kit, two passenger car kits and 16 sections of curved track (1 circle), as well as 4 sections of straight track. The locomotive and rolling stock parts are pressure die cast, insuring the super-detail so important to the model enthusiast. All the drilling has been done; only the assembling remains…. The baggage and passenger cars are super-detailed, with all of the exterior features of their prototypes. The doors on both the baggage and passenger cars are working doors; likewise the traps on the passenger car operate. The track comes assembled for two rail operation….

The SCALE-CRAFT freight train set is as complete as the passenger set. It consists of a locomotive kit, tank car kit, box car kit, hopper car kit, caboose kit, and the complete circle of track and straight sections furnished with the passenger set. As on the baggage car, the doors on the box car are operating doors, and our hopper cars constitute an innovation in that they are fully working hoppers. A full realization of what wonderful models these are can only be obtained by actually seeing one of these new kits. They are beyond doubt the finest model train kits ever offered.
While the text emphasized the kit versions, they were also available fully assembled. These sets were revolutionary compared to any toy train set of 1937 or really any other OO gauge product of 1937. This photo is from their Blow-Smoke newsletter in 1939, where another view (of the passenger version) may also be seen (follow link above). And, as the catalog noted, they could “easily be installed and operated on the top of a standard 5’ x 9’ ping-pong table.” They were priced as follows:

K15 Passenger train kit--4-6-0 locomotive, baggage, and two coaches, $48.50
X15 Assembled passenger train (lettering is unspecified: illustration shows C&NW lettering on loco and cars), $68.00
K16 Freight train kit--4-6-0 locomotive, box car, tank car, hopper, and caboose, $48.50
X16 Assembled freight train (lettering is unspecified: illustration shows Rock Island locomotive and caboose, C&NW box car, C&O hopper, and Pure Oil tank) $68.00

One mechanical detail of the new line should be noted; the original locomotives were shipped with their 7 pole, permanent magnet motor which ran on DC current. The transformer-rectifier unit they sold for OO use produced 24 volts DC.

I see no mention of these sets in the 1938 or 39 catalogs but they had not been dropped from the line as they were featured in fall, 1939 issue of their Blow-Smoke newsletter, as already noted. These photos show the set boxes and track in addition to the built up trains; no catalog numbers were given at that time but the same sets described above were available with your choice of either the 4-6-0, 4-4-2, or 4-6-4t locomotives, priced at a “Special Price” of $29.95 per set or for $41.55 “Completely Assembled.” Also of note: the locomotives were now powered by their 12 volt universal motor. As already noted, promotional photos of both of the sets in this issue of Blow-Smoke may be found in this post. Also, more photos of the freight train set, from a promotional movie, are here, and for more on the launch of the Scale-Craft OO line in 1937 see this article.

These Scale-Craft sets are extremely rare; certainly very few complete, boxed sets exist today (I don’t know of any), and I have no details to offer that would set apart factory-built models from kit-built models but they must exist--if we only knew what to look for! The track on a metal base was well designed--for information on this track and a comparison with Lionel track read this article.

These Scale-Craft sets of 1937 certainly caught the attention of Lionel in a big way, who got right on the ball and introduced their own very similar OO gauge sets in 1938. Produced 1938-42, one of these sets is almost always for sale today on eBay. The initial, 1938 sets were three-rail only, and from 1939-42 they offered two and three rail versions.

I very recently finally obtained copies of the 1938-41 Lionel catalogs; the following is how they were cataloged, which does not take into account the possibility of factory variations and items that were never produced.

I love the screaming headline on page 6 of the 1938 Lionel catalog:
One background point--Scale-Craft and Lionel were competing already in the O scale market. The Lionel O scale models were introduced in 1937, a market that Scale-Craft had pioneered back in 1933. In fact, an article in Model Railroader in 1946 (quoted in the link above) credits Scale-Craft as having "designed the first mass-produced model railroad items." Thus, the 1938 Lionel catalog text might be a bit overstated when they state
LAST YEAR, Lionel startled the whole model world by mass production of a quarter-inch-scale locomotive -- amazing in its accuracy and in its fidelity of detail. No one had ever attempted such a thing before! No one had even dreamed it possible....

BUT -- what Lionel did in 1937 was only an introduction for this year's engineering achievement!...

In the 1938 catalog the new OO gauge sets were referred to as “outfits,” of which there were two. The 0080 outfit included an 001 locomotive with 001T tender, 0014 box car, 0015 oil [tank] car, 0016 coal car [hopper], 0017 caboose, eleven sections of 0061 curved track, four sections of 0062 straight track, the 0064 curved connection track, and the 88 controller all for a price of $35.00. $39.75 would buy the similar 0080W set but with a built in whistle and whistle controller. More on the 1938 launch of this line may be found in this article.

Lionel expanded the line with two rail and super-detailed and modified cars and locomotives in 1939, where this photo of a display layout may be found. There were eight different sets offered.

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. The same outfit without the whistling tender sold for $37.50.

The original 0080 set was still available for $35 but the components changed. This was now listed as super-detailed and included cars that were “similar to” those in the 0090W set (car numbers not specified), eleven pieces of 0051 curved track, four 0052 straight track, and one 0054 connection track. The 0080W set was still $39.75, with the whistle in the tender. One major note, not mentioned in the catalog, is that the connector between the 001 locomotive and tender was modified compared to 1938 production and the cars are decorated differently.

The other four sets for 1939 included versions of the modified engine and only three cars. The cars listed with the 0092W set were the 0074 box car, 0075 oil tank car, and the 0077 caboose. The differences are pretty minor between the modified and scale versions, lacking only a few small details (no brake cylinder, modified valve gear, etc). The 0092W outfit included the 004 locomotive and 004W tender, the three cars, and track as in the 0090 set; the 0092 set was the same but lacked the whistling tender and controller. The 0082W set included the 002 locomotive and 002W tender, three “similar” cars, and track as in the 0080 set; the 0082 set was the same but lacked the whistling tender and controller. It was the cheapest version, selling for $27.50. More on the Lionel OO line for 1939 may be found in this article.

Potential purchasers must have found the catalog listings a bit confusing, as in the 1940 catalog Lionel clarified the kit contents further. On the two rail side of things the 0090 super-detailed sets included the 0044 box car, 0045 oil car, 0046 hopper, and 0047 caboose and the modified sets included the 0074 box car, 0075 oil tank car, and the 0077 caboose. For three rail the 0080 super detailed sets included the 0014 box car, 0015 oil car, 0016 hopper car, and 0017 caboose and the modified 0082 sets included the 0024 box car, 0025 oil tank car, and 0027 caboose. All of the above sets were still available with the W option.

Now that it was all sorted out, the 1941 catalog contained exactly the same outfit listings. So essentially there are ten sets to locate to own them all, the 1938 sets and all the versions of sets sold 1939-WWII.

The Lionel sets were AC powered, like their other train products, so their OO models were not compatible with DC powered Scale-Craft, which was probably a bit of a marketing blunder. The locomotives were incompatible electrically, which is why it is not uncommon to find examples of the Lionel 4-6-4 that have been modified for DC operation with new motors and drive parts. At least Scale-Craft cars will run on any Lionel track and two-rail Lionel cars will run on Scale-Craft track. The three rail Lionel cars would only be usable on three rail as the wheel sets are not insulated.

So, how many Lionel OO outfits were sold? Certainly many more than Scale-Craft shipped out. But in spite of being fairly common, with the Lionel name and the many variations and separate sale items found in the catalogs collectors keep the market going today. There are a lot of variations to track down and sort out. To own them all now it would cost you many thousands of dollars and take many years of effort.

For photos of Lionel items they may be found on this website and on eBay, but also be sure to check the Lionel OO photos at Also note the fine article on TM's Lionel OO Studio Layout; this photo is linked from that article, of a very rare Lionel OO dealer display.

Going back to the late 30s, if those prices for Scale-Craft or Lionel outfits set you back too far there was actually one other option for an OO scale train set.

The final maker to produce train sets was the Strombek-Becker Mfg. Co. (Strombecker) of Moline, IL. These prewar sets were un-powered wood and paper kits--static models--for a freight train, but the cars could be converted for model railroad use. They were built to 5/32"=1' scale but were marketed as OO. Versions were offered that included either a 2-8-2, tender, gondola, boxcar, and caboose or a 2-8-2, tender, NYC MDT reefer, and caboose. See this article for more on Strombecker OO. Their OO products were actually the first OO "train sets" on the market as they appear to have been introduced in 1936.

One final note: Actually, the Lionel 1940 and 41 catalogs also say that their models are built to the scale of 5/32”=1’, the scale of the Strombecker models. Technically OO is 4mm to one foot, but the difference is small, and in those pre-war days it probably was better marketing to use the English measurement rather than metric.

general overview of Lionel OO production may be found in this article and a general overview of Scale-Craft OO production may be found in this article.

[Updated 2012]

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