I have a great deal of respect for Märklin.  Their engineering has always been solid, Germanic, reliable. I have been involved with mini-club (Z-Scale) for many years.  I have built numerous Z-Scale layouts, I have a substantial mini-club collection, and I have been a Märklin repair center for many years.

As a repair center, I gained first hand experience with the design of mini-club, and I know that these trains are built with high grade materials and are thoughtfully designed. They are meant to be repaired. Please see the locomotive maintenance section of the Guide to Z, here.  Not only does Märklin offer repair parts, there are very clear diagrams for each locomotive which show how the parts fit together. 

In short, Märklin trains are built to last.

That said, during the early years of Märklin’s mini-club, troubling rumors were reported in the German model railroad press of reliability problems with these new tiny trains. This was not entirely unmerited, but it must have been very difficult for a company that was accustomed to producing the very best and most reliable trains.  You can see how it happened.

  • The small size - As any experienced Z-scaler can tell you, the trains can be fussy.  Dirty wheels and/or dirty track conspire to produce sputtering trains and sputtering train owners.  Of course, cleaning track and wheels solves the problem, but if you are new to model trains, you don’t know.
  • New to model trains - One of the hallmarks of the new Märklin mini-club was that it would introduce new people to the model railroad hobby.  Remember our couple from the 1975 catalog.  These people often did not know about cleaning track and wheels, not to mention the periodic oiling of the locomotives to insure a long reliable life.
  • The track power matter - The new mini-club used 8 volts for its track power instead of the more common 12 volts. To further complicate matters, the early starter sets did not include a transformer; it had to be purchased separately.  For more than a few traditional model railroaders, the purchase of a mini-club transformer was dispensed with, and they used, instead, a transformer designed for use with larger trains.  Inevitably, the voltage would get too high and the tiny mini-club locomotive would fail. In other cases, power packs with automatic pulse injection (which was meant to make the trains run better at slow speed) would accelerate the mini-club locomotive’s failure.

Eventually, Märklin addressed the problem by introducing starter sets that included a transformer, starting in 1974, two years after the introduction of mini-club.  The mini-club instruction sheets were updated and a public relations campaign was instituted that also drew popular attention to the new tiny trains:

In 1978, a Z scale locomotive, pulling six coaches, made its entry into the Guinness Book of World Records by running nonstop 1,219 hours, and traveling a distance of 720 km before the train stopped due to failure of the motor.

Reliability indeed.

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