The S gauge vs O gauge rivalry is certainly a natural one. They were the two most popular sizes of electric train immediately after World War II, before HO scale eclipsed both of them in the later half of the 1950s. Let’s take a look at the two standards for trains, what’s different about them, and see what kind of common ground we can find between them.
Lionel and American Flyer
We most closely associate S gauge with American Flyer. And we most closely associate O gauge with Lionel, although Marx played a big and largely unheralded role in the 50s. But Lionel was the big name of the three, a venerable juggernaut founded in 1901 that had outlasted so many other brands. For a couple of generations of Americans, at least, the name “Lionel” was synonymous with electric train sets.
Lionel made a couple of larger sized trains before settling on O gauge. A combination of factors played into this. At the turn of the century, it was difficult to manufacture small electric motors. So the large, decadent train sets of the early 20th century suited the technology well. And in the early 20th century, electricity was a luxury anyway, so making large, decadent train sets was a good fit. Lionel introduced a smaller O gauge set in 1915, but Lionel didn’t shift its focus to O gauge until the 1930s, when making its product line more practical and affordable became a matter of survival.
American Flyer was a Lionel rival that went head to head with Lionel in the teens, twenties and thirties. But it, too, struggled in the 1930s and didn’t survive the decade. In 1938, the Coleman family sold American Flyer to AC Gilbert, the maker of Erector sets. Gilbert’s attitude toward toys differed from Coleman and from Lionel.
The first thing to know about S gauge vs O gauge is that O gauge has no standards. Well, it does, but there are so many standards there might as well be none. Generally speaking, when we talk about O gauge, O gauge refers to off-scale toy-oriented trains, and O scale refers to 1:48 scale models. But we can’t really agree about what the proper scale for O gauge should be. In the United States it’s 1:48, but in Europe it’s 1:45 and in the UK it’s 1:43. There was a short-lived 1:45 movement in the United States too.
And it’s fair to say that when it came to making its trains, Lionel was all over the place. Joshua Lionel Cowen famously said he didn’t care about realism. He observed that women tended to purchase trains and accessories for their children, and said they didn’t care about realism, they just wanted bright colors.
After World War II, Lionel settled down to a point. Plastics lended themselves to mass-produced models of real train cars more readily than pressed steel. But the size was still all over the place. Lionel used a lot of selective compression when designing its products, and their larger designs were closer to 1:55 scale than 1:48. Lionel’s entry level sets were closer to 1:64 in scale. Lionel’s entry level cars, usually called O27, confuse modern hobbyists. Lionel put the same sized trucks on both its O and O27 products, but the O27 car bodies tend to be much closer to 1:64 scale.
Don’t forget the three-rail track!
And of course, there’s that issue of the track. Lionel track (in)famously has a third rail down the middle that serves as the hot rail, with the two outer rails serving as the common. This makes wiring up complex layouts with loops that reverse on each other and change the direction of the train trivial, even with turn-of-the-previous-century technology.
But for the electrical advantages of the three-rail system, it’s not realistic. There are three-rail track systems in the real world, but they’re unusual. The trains closest to your house probably run on two rails. All of the trains around me do.
The advantage of O gauge was the wiring, which could be overcome, and familiarity. Lionel had been around for decades. Marx was there if you wanted a train but couldn’t afford Lionel or Flyer. And niche players like Kusan were willing to step in and offer products if Lionel left an opening. Even during S gauge’s heyday, the O gauge ecosystem was larger.
Joshua Lionel Cowen was something of a mad scientist. He never finished college, and he founded his company as a seller of electrical novelties he invented on his own. Of all the things he invented, an electric train he made caught on, so that’s how he ended up making trains.
A.C. Gilbert was an intellectual, and something of a renaissance man. He was an Olympic gold medalist and earned a degree in sports medicine from Yale. His attitude toward toys was that they should be educational. So when he took over the American Flyer product line, he sought to make them more realistic.
S gauge first appeared before World War II, as a hobbyist scale, but Gilbert brought it mainstream. World War II interrupted toy production, putting a halt to the American Flyer line for four years. When Gilbert resumed production, he discontinued the O gauge trains and replaced them with S gauge trains, scaled at a consistent 1:64 scale and running on 2-rail track. And where Lionel’s designs tended to be fanciful representations of trains with no real-world equivalent, most of Gilbert’s designs were based on real trains that actually existed. On top of that, Gilbert used a 40-inch diameter track that provided more reliable and more realistic operation. Oddly, that meant the smaller train took a little bit more space.
Gilbert made a compelling argument. If you wanted a no-compromises electric train in the early 1950s, an American Flyer S gauge train was your best choice.
The O gauge-S gauge rivalry
Proponents of O gauge and S gauge have been arguing over the virtues of each ever since. Sometimes it’s a good natured rivalry and sometimes it’s more hostile. I’ve covered a lot of this before.
In the end, the choice between O gauge vs S gauge comes down to which type of nostalgia you prefer. O gauge has a longer tradition, which may or may not matter to you. The O gauge product line is more diverse. But S gauge had a good run.
Sometimes we like what our parents liked. Sometimes we like the opposite of what our parents liked. In the end, we choose our own set of compromises. I prefer prewar Lionel and Marx, with some prewar Flyer mixed in. All O gauge. But I certainly understand the appeal of S gauge. If I had room for a nice postwar S gauge layout, I’d build one.