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

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Memories of Bill Johann, by Ed Loizeaux

I moved to California from New York in the 1960s and found myself working at LOCKHEED ELECTRONICS in the Los Angeles area. While there, I met a gruff Germanic mechanical engineer named Bill Johann. We worked on a couple of projects together – he on the design end and me on the manufacturing end. Together we were responsible for making sure everything went smoothly for new products as they transitioned from the Engineering Department to the Manufacturing Department.

One day while in Bill’s office, I noticed a wall calendar with train pictures. Liking trains myself, I went over for a closer look. Bill noticed my interest and before long it was clear that we were both model railroad enthusiasts. Soon we were having lunch together and spending time together at work all the while talking about model trains instead of MIL SPECS and DoD. I had just moved to California and all my HO trains were packed in boxes and I was contemplating a new layout. Another idea lurking in my head was the possibility of changing scales. I sort of wanted something larger than HO, but was uncertain how to proceed. This would be an opportune time to change scales, I thought, and so I wanted to keep that option open.

At some point, Bill and I began discussing all the pros and cons of the various scales. HO was OK, but not great in my view. But I had never really seen anything else in a hobby shop and had no “feel” for what things were like in the different sizes. Bill then invited me to his home to meet some of his other train buddies and to operate on his layout. I had no idea what to expect, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to go see another HO layout. Obviously, I was making an assumption there. As we all gathered in Bill’s living room, one fellow walked in with a l-o-n-g Walther’s Pullman passenger car in O scale. Someone else had some On3 equipment. One fellow brought an HO car. Soon there were eight guys each with different pieces of equipment in various scales. They were all talking about how much fun they were having in a minority scale other than HO. I sort of got the point, but not fully…….yet.

Then we went into Bill’s layout room and began running trains. I soon realized that something was “strange” but couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. It was different, but not by much. It ran well and looked OK and seemed normal – almost. After a while someone asked me if I knew what this was. I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t need to play dumb, I was dumb. Soon it was ‘splained this was OO which is a tad larger than HO. Just enough, Bill said, to make it run better and be more interesting. I thought OO looked really interesting and wanted to learn more. Bill was eager to help with my education. In retrospect, he was merely dangling the candy in front of a child. But I didn’t care. The experience was enjoyable.

As time went on, I changed jobs and moved to northern California and lost touch with Bill Johann. My scale decision was made and I chose S scale which, as we all know, is between OO and O scales. At the time, there were a total of six locos in S scale and two of them were of no interest to me. So I marched into S scale figuring nobody ever needed more than eight locos. I planned to have two each of four engines and weather them dramatically differently so that they would appear to be eight different locos. That was my plan anyway. Since that time S scale has blossomed with brass imports, mass produced plastic, many craftsman kits, laser structures, figures, vehicles and so forth. No more would I suffer from a shortage of locos.

Twenty years later, there was an Sn3 Symposium in Costa Mesa and I decided to attend. I don’t remember how, but Bill Johann and I somehow reconnected and he invited me over for a visit to see his new layout. Yes, it was still OO, but now it had lots of modern stuff on it. I took along a couple of S scale buddies to Bill’s house and we all enjoyed an afternoon viewing the sights. Bill was now retired and, for some strange reason, appeared a bit older. Amazing how I never change, but everyone else gets older. Bill showed us how he modified Athearn HO stuff to get what he wanted. He liked modern diesels because of the straight flat surfaces which made kitbashing and/or scratchbuilding easier. No more trying to create compound curves by hand for F-unit noses. It was a fun visit, just like the original one years before, and we all thanked Bill and headed for the door.

On the way out, Bill did have one last comment for me. He told me that OO was sadly slipping into oblivion. It was painful to him, but could not be denied. He told me the few remaining OO guys all had lists of equipment prepared with the names of who should get what when the owner passed away. This was, apparently, the only way anyone could actually obtain OO equipment because nothing was being made any more. Bill found this to be a practical arrangement, but sad all at the same time. He was glad to see that I had moved out of the HO world into something more exciting. He smiled when I told him he was the one fellow responsible for giving me the courage to try something different. He really liked hearing that.

“S”incerely…..Ed Loizeaux

The photos spread over this article were taken in 1983-84 and show the layout of Bill Johann, with him on the right in the photo of the golden spike being driven along with George and Orlyn on 1-15-83. Johann certainly enjoyed the interaction with other model railroaders and was initially part of one of two very active OO gauge round robin clubs in New Jersey in the postwar era. He was active in the North Jersey group by 1947 as noted in this prior article, which I just updated to include a photo of Johann as a younger man. Eventually the groups merged and they were still meeting actively into the 1980s.

Back to Johann and California, this particular version of his layout was dual gauge. Almost all of the equipment visible is OO (I for sure own a couple of the cars in the photos now, such as this Railbox car) but the F-3s and the SD35 in the golden spike photo are actually HO models according to the caption on the back. (Note also, the HO SD35 won a RMC kitbashing award! More on that here.) If I had a much larger space I might consider running HO in the background actually, it would be an interesting forced perspective effect if pulled off well. But that is a topic for another day.

Many thanks to Ed Loizeaux for sharing this wonderful view into a world of OO gauge activity of not that long ago. And one final plug, there is a great viedo of his S gauge layout on YouTube and also this article on his layout is easy to access online, check out his great model work.

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