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Catching some Z

October 9, 2006, by Bill Cawthon

Like a lot of men my age, I had a train set when I was a boy. It was your basic HO scale Christmas train set and, to be honest, it held my attention for about as long as most childhood train sets do. I was far more captivated by a neighbor’s beautiful Lionel setup with all the working accessories. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I even paid attention to model railroading. That’s when I found a magazine with photos of John Allen’s legendary Gorre and Daphetid. I was entranced by the wonderful scenes but I still wasn’t hooked. My model railroading was limited to picking up a magazine now and then. It wasn’t until the Christmas of 1989 that I graduated from spectator to participant. Marge bought me an HO scale locomotive, some cars, a caboose, a starter set of sectional track, a power pack and a book of starter layouts. The following year, I joined Northwest Crossing, a great model railroad club, and it was official: I had become a model railroader.

This Märklin DRG Class 89 tank engine is the world’s smallest production locomotive. Compare it to the quarter in the photo to get an idea of the size.

Of course, things change. About four years after starting on my first layout, I began the switch to N scale, which has been my scale of choice ever since. However, even sparing the space for anything but a temporary N scale layout or module has been impossible. But I may have found a solution. I recently had a chance to try Z scale and I must admit I was impressed.

It’s been almost thirty-five years since Märklin introduced Z scale at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany and it’s still the smallest commercially produced model railroad scale.

Märklin is one of the best-known names in the model railroad world and one of the world’s oldest manufacturers of toy and model trains but the company got its start making tinplate dollhouse accessories. The company was founded in 1859 by Theodor Friedrich Wilhelm Märklin (1817-1866), a master tinsmith living in Göppingen, a town in what is now the modern state of Baden-Württemberg.

Märklin himself likely never made a train. He was only forty-nine and his company was barely seven years old when he was killed in an accident. Caroline Märklin, Theodor’s widow, took over the firm, running it herself for many years because none of the couple’s three sons were interested in the toy business. Finally, one of the Märklin boys, Eugen, began to help his mother while keeping his regular job. In 1888, Eugen and his brother Karl decided to leave their jobs. They incorporated their parents’ firm into a new company and began to lay the foundations of the Märklin we know today. Realizing that toy trains offered the same possibilities for add-on sales, the brothers and a partner named Emil Friz developed a clockwork locomotive system and presented it at the 1891 Leipzig Toy Fair. The Märklin train set was revolutionary because it was the first toy train that could be expanded with more track and railcars. It was this system that was the direct ancestor of every train set on the shelves today. In the same year, The Märklin brothers announced new standard scales for their locomotive system. Four years later, Märklin introduced the first electric train. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, Märklin had developed what is now O and added it to its range of scales. In 1935, responding to government-imposed restrictions on raw materials, the company introduced OO/HO.

Märklin offers a variety of locomotives and rolling stock and Herpa makes some nice trucks to go with them.

Fast-forwarding a few decades, Z scale was being developed under the leadership of Helmut Killian, chief design engineer for Märklin. Killian, who died just a couple of years ago, was working on a new, smaller scale for Märklin trains and was considering N or 1:160 scale, which was still in its infancy. He heard rumors that Trix, a rival German train maker, was working on a 1:180 scale railroad line and decided to go them one better and created the Mini-Club line, a miniature railroad with a track gauge of just 6.5 millimeters (about a quarter-inch) from rail to rail. This works out to a scale of 1:220.

How small is 1:220? Well, a foot in the full-size world would be the equivalent of 220 feet in the Z world, so a mile translates to about 24 feet. If you gave yourself a safety margin of two inches from each edge, running a Z scale track around the perimeter of the time-honored 4 X 8 sheet of plywood would give you about eight-tenths of a Z scale mile. No room for a four-by-eight layout? No problem! It’s not only possible to build a Z scale layout in a briefcase, you can actually buy one ready to go. Or you can build one in a drawer. In other words, no matter how little room you have to spare, chances are you’ve got enough room to enjoy a Z scale train.

Tiny track needs tiny locomotives and Märklin certainly has them. At just 44.9 millimeters (about 1.76 inches) long, the smallest commercially produced Z scale locomotive will fit on the first two joints of my forefinger. It’s a replica of a 1934 DRG (Deutsche Reichsbahn Gesellschaft or German Imperial Railway Company) 1934 Class 89 0-6-0 tank engine. For those not familiar with the nomenclature, an 0-6-0 is a steam locomotive with no pilot wheels, six driving wheels and no trailing truck wheels. A tank engine carries its own water and fuel, eliminating the need for a tender but limiting the locomotive’s range. By the way, the DRG existed for years before the Nazi party rose to power in Germany; it was a private company created after World War I when the various regional railroads were combined into a national rail system.

Märklin also makes larger locomotives, including a few based on American prototypes. There’s even a classic 2-6-0 Mogul with matching old-time passenger cars.

Herpa also makes this Mercedes Actros tractor with a Eurovan trailer . It’s a scaled down version of Herpa’s very nice N scale rig. Photo courtesy of Herpa/Promotex.

Tiny size doesn’t mean tiny performance. A Märklin Z scale locomotive earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. In 1978, the locomotive pulled six cars for 1,219 hours non-stop. That’s over seven weeks of continuous running. During that time, the train covered more than 720 kilometers or about 447 real miles. Considering 447 real miles is equivalent to over 98,000 scale miles, that’s quite an accomplishment.

While Märklin is the major player in Z scale, they are not alone. In 1988, Micro-Trains Line, best-known for its exquisite N scale rolling stock and realistic operating couplers, entered the field. Today, Micro-Trains produces track, F7 and GP-35 locomotives and a variety of railcars. There’s even a Christmas train with a “Twelve Days of Christmas” theme.

In 2000, American Z Lines began producing a line of premium brass locomotives and now offers the widest range of North American-style motive power. They’re beautiful but the prices start at about four hundred dollars which is a bit rich for me.

And that’s the fly in the ointment: Z is one of the most expensive model railroading scales. A MiniClub starter set will start at about $179.00 for a Märklin set with a locomotive and two cars, an oval of track and a power pack. Micro-Trains sets start at about two hundred dollars and don’t include a power pack.

Z scale is also lacking in the wide variety of American-style structures and scenery accessories offered in HO and N, but that problem is being addressed by manufacturers like Miller Engineering which offers some interesting structure models in 1:220.

Among those manufacturers is Herpa, which offers a pair of over-the-road rigs in Z scale that you can get at Promotex Online. The first is No. 065207, Mercedes-Benz Actros with a tri-axle flatbed trailer. The other truck is No. 065245, another Actros with a tri-axle van trailer.

Herpa and Märklin created this special Z scale train decorated for Kamag. Those Towbears would be perfect for one of Herpa’s 1:200 Wings models. Photo courtesy of Herpa/Promotex.

Herpa even has a Märklin Mini-Club Z scale train set. No. 065269 is a truck transport train decorated for Kamag. It has two specially decorated tractor-trailer rigs and three Kamag Towbear airport tugs.

This brings up another point. Z is small enough to enjoy with some of Herpa’s 1:200 Wings models. A 747 might be a bit much, but a Convair 440 or one of the regional jets might make for an interesting scene and Herpa has a growing line of accessories.

Looking ahead to the holidays, one of the neat things about the Märklin and Micro-Train Z scale sets is they way they can put a new twist on the traditional Christmas train set. Instead of being a holiday gift, they can be a part of the holiday decorations. The small size means a complete circle or oval of track can fit on an end table or other furniture with a flat surface at least fourteen inches wide and deep. Watching one of the Märklin steam locomotives with its moving crosshead and drive rods is especially fascinating. Just be careful to keep everything out of the reach of smaller children; these tiny trains are designed for handling and operation by teens and adults, but they can be almost irresistible to toddlers and preschoolers.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon


Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is the managing editor of Model Railroad News and a marketing and public relations consultant working with the hobby and information technology industries. He also writes about real cars and has a monthly column covering the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 09, 2006