Scale-oriented O scale enthusiasts often bemoan the lack of true 1:48 O scale cars (as in automobiles) to go with their O scale trains. Often they go so far as to call 1:48 scale autos non-existent. That’s not entirely the case. There are 1:48 scale vehicles out there. Finding them just requires some creativity and imagination.
I know of more than 20 1:48 scale vehicles suitable for O scale train layouts. They fall into two broad categories: ready made diecast vehicles, and plastic model kits, which require assembly. The model kits tend to be costlier but allow a greater level of detail. Not only that, some of the model kits are 4-door sedans, the perfect ordinary car. For the realism-craving hi rail or 2-rail enthusiast, they are hard to resist.
Diecast 1/48 scale vehicles
Ready-made diecast 1:48 scale vehicles are scarce. One of the first popular diecast scales was 1:43, and the hobby of collecting 1:43 vehicles dwarfs the popularity of O scale trains, much to the chagrin of would-be finescale O scale railroaders. But a few 1:48 diecasts exist, even if only one so far was marketed as such.
1950 Studebaker. Although Yat-Ming marketed it as a 1:43 vehicle, Yat Ming’s 1950 Studebaker is undersized compared to other 1:43s because it’s actually 1:48! Although not the most common postwar vehicle, the 1950 Studebaker has a very distinctive look that will set your layout’s era in the early 1950s instantly. It also gives you something other than a Ford or GM to look at. And unlike some of your options, it’s common and inexpensive and effortless–just buy it and take it out of the box.
Be careful–other companies made 1:43 1950 Studebakers and those other makes actually are 1:43. So if you really want a 1:48 model, get the Yat-Ming.
In 2017, Menard’s stunned the hobby by introducing a 1:48 model of a 1940s Chevy panel truck. The Menard’s product received a warm reception. Being a panel truck, it’s immensely useful on a layout. Team it up with some of these other vehicles and you can have a nice fleet of 1:48s that almost nobody knew existed.
Convertibles and luxury cars
Matchbox’s Models of Yesteryear line tends to be closer to 1:48 than they are to 1:43. Two examples include the 1930 Duesenberg (1:47) and 1930 Packard (1:46). So if you have some flexibility, these may work for you.
New Ray, a maker of inexpensive die-cast cars, has a line of “1:43” scale vehicles that 1:43 hobbyist Jerry Rettig, in his book American Wheels, determined are actually 1:48 scale. These cars range from a 1949 Buick to a 1969 Corvette, covering the era of the steam-to-diesel transition. These New Ray convertibles are inexpensive on Ebay.
Model kits for 1/48 scale vehicles
It turns out that 1:48 is a popular scale for military modeling, so a few 1:48 scale vehicles exist to cater to that crowd. Additionally, Renwal produced a small number of civilian 1:48 models several decades ago and Revell reissued them in the 1970s and 1980s.
Model kits require assembly, and in some cases, some adaptation. Be sure to put one or more seated people in the vehicles for additional detail. I’ve covered assembling models and painting figures in the past.
Prewar 1/48 scale vehicles
Ford Model T. Wiseman makes several Ford Model T kits in various configurations. In the right era, the Ford Model T was the most common car on the road, so this can be a useful kit.
1929 Ford Model A. Renwal issued a 1929 Ford Model A in the 1960s. With some hunting you can track down this vintage kit on Ebay.
Ford Model 40. In some ways this model is the holy grail. It’s an ordinary looking Ford 4-door sedan in 1:48 scale. Ford made the Model 40 from 1932 to 1934. It just so happens the Soviets built their own version of the Model 40 and used it as a staff car. Painted civilian colors like black, tan, or maroon and placed in a civilian setting, this Soviet impostor easily passes for a 1930s Ford sedan.
1934 Ford pickup. For something that passes for a 1934 Ford pickup, look for a GAZ M415, another Soviet design based on U.S. technology. Pickups weren’t nearly as common in the 1930s and 1940s as today. But in a rural setting, a 1934 Ford pickup will look correct.
1942 Ford Super Deluxe. Tamiya also makes a model of a U.S. Army staff car based on the 1942 Ford Super Deluxe Fordor sedan. Painted civilian colors, here’s another good 1:48 model of an ordinary family car.
1930s luxury cars. Renwal and Revell also made a 1930 Packard, 1931 Cadillac, 1934 Duesenberg, and 1939 Mercedes. Renwal made them first, then Revell re-issued them a couple of times. All of these are a far cry from the ideal “ordinary car” for a train layout, but they are 1:48.
Postwar 1/48 scale vehicles
Volkswagen Beetle. For parts of four decades, the Volkswagen Beetle was one of the most common cars on the road. Tamiya makes a WWII-era German staff car that, painted civilian colors, can pass for a 1:48 Volkswagen Beetle.
Chevy 2-ton truck. Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, Revell issued a 1:48 model of a Chevy 2-ton stake truck, an incredibly useful vehicle for a train layout. You can park these in front of any business or industry without it looking out of place.
Willys Jeep CJ. Of course there are plenty of models of military Jeeps. Omit the military gear and paint it a civilian color like blue or red, and one of these kits easily passes for an early Willys Jeep CJ.
1965 Corvette. If you want something sportier, Renwal made a 1:48 model kit of a 1965 Corvette. Due to its extreme popularity, a Corvette, like a VW Beetle, is another car that works across decades.
1956 Ford pickup. In the 1970s, Revell made a 1:48 model kit of a 1956 Ford pickup, which is another useful postwar-era vehicle, especially for rural settings.
1966 Jaguar. Renwal issued a 1:48 scale 1966 Jaguar in the 1960s and Revell re-issued it in the 1970s and 1980s. If you need a swanky 1960s luxury car, here you go.
Hummer H1. For something more modern, a Tamiya Humvee kit, with military gear omitted and painted different colors, can pass for either a Hummer H1 or a police SWAT vehicle. The Hummer H1 was less common than the later H2 and H3, but certainly had a following in the 1990s.
While 20 vehicles sounds like a lot, it’s fewer vehicles than you need to populate a large layout in an urban setting. It’s also hard to envision a layout where everything from a Ford Model T to a Hummer H1 fits in and looks right. To get the quantity of vehicles you need while avoiding repetition, buy multiple examples of various cars, then paint them different colors. Most steam-era vehicles came in 3-4 different colors. You can do a Google image search to get an idea of what colors these cars really came in when new.
If you avoid bunching all of your 1942 Ford sedans together and place them facing different directions on your layout, you can disguise exactly how many 1942 Fords you have.
The book Building Vehicles for Model Railroads offers ideas for assembling kits, kitbashing, and detailing model vehicles. It targets HO scale, but the techniques will work in O scale just fine.