Time Flies

Märklin Factory, Stuttgarterstraße

This section of The Railroad Guide, “Guide to Z-Scale”, is based upon the words that originally appeared in “Greenberg’s Guide to Märklin Z”.  I wrote them in 1989, after many years of building layouts in Z-Scale using Märklin’s products.  That book was as thorough as possible for its time.

When I received the rights to those words, I sat down and converted them over to the web pages that you see here. Along the way, it became apparent that some updating was necessary, and the Guide to Z-Scale section was improved.  I then occupied myself with other subjects on this web site, and things have grown to over 400 pages related to various railroad topics. 

I have been working on a Z-Scale layout for myself, and it was natural that I should write about the process, which is located here.  But as I worked along, I found myself going to the catalogs and other online resources to get updated information. By doing so, I realized that much of my Z-Scale layout material has not kept up with the changes in the Z-Scale world. Of course, there are the multitude of web sites about Z out there, a real blessing for those interested in this model railroad scale. But, there’s more, and you, or may not, have heard about some of it.

Change of Ownership

Perhaps the biggest change of all is that Mother Märklin is no longer owned by the Märklins; nor the Safft family, nor the Friz familiy.  Founded in 1859 by Theodor Friedrich Wilhelm Märklin, the company had grown over the years into a large family owned company.  Along the way, the Safft family and the Friz family had joined as investors, which resulted in about 37 stockholders. As could be expected, there were three groups within the investors, each with their own philosophy of corporate governance.  Board meetings must have been interesting.

In 1980’s, other model railroad companies began going through a period of change.  K. Arnold had been sold to Rivarossi, of Italy (which, itself, is now owned by Hornby of England). In 1997, Märklin had bought Trix as as result of Trix’s investors seeking to sell.  The overall state of the model railroad industry in Europe was that the different company owners had grown old and their children were not interested in being in the toy business. So there was a sea change in the European model railroad industry.

Initially, Märklin was sold to an investment group, Kingsbridge Capital in 2006. Kingsbridge expanded further into the model railroad business by purchasing LGB, another company with retiring ownership.  The Märklin company eventually fell into bankruptcy in early 2009. The bankruptcy process was completed a year later, resulting in a much smaller Märklin. In 2013, it was announced that the Simba-Dickie-Group had purchased the Company.

At this writing, things are slowly returning to normal, with distribution in the North American market being handled by Wm. K. Walthers.

Technological Changes

Although the announcement of Z-Scale by Märklin in 1972 was revolutionary, most technical improvements of the Märklin Z-Scale line have been evolutionary, done with little fanfare or announcement.  As an example, the earliest Z-scale freight and passenger cars from Märklin were fitted with plastic wheel sets, but within two years the Factory quietly began switching over to metal wheel sets.  Likewise, the earliest cars were fitted with one style of coupler design, but within a few years, this design was quietly tweaked to improve operation.

Since the mini-club line of trains entered in the model railroad world, there have been a number of changes to the product line.

  • 5-pole Motors.  Starting in 2000, and without notice, Märklin quietly began switching its Z-Scale locomotive production over to 5-pole motors.  These motors were a significant improvement over the earlier 3-pole motors, operating more smoothly and more quietly.  There are pages devoted to converting older locomotives to the new (well, it’s been 15 years, so maybe not new) motors.  One of them is here.
  • Plugs & Sockets. Again without fanfare, Märklin switched from its traditional, model railroad industry standard, 2.6mm plug & socket system to a newer design. To my knowledge, there was never a public statement from the Factory as to why this design change had been made, but there was speculation that the change was made for “safety”. I’ll leave it to your imagination, but the new plugs and sockets have smaller metal conductors and have interlocking collars.  These plugs and sockets are typically referred to as “new design” or “new style”, and they do not interconnect with the older 2.6mm design.

Old-style plugs (above)

New-style plugs & sockets (left)

Of course, with the change to the new-style plugs, new control boxes and a new distribution strip were added to the product line. It is not clear if Märklin is still manufacturing the old-style plugs, but since they were manufactured for over fifty years, plenty remain in the market place.

  • Signals - Märklin Z-Scale had two different signals, the 8939 color light signal and the 8940 semaphore. Sometime around the year 2000, these venerable signals were replaced with improved signals which are apparently manufactured for Märklin by Viesmann.  The general principles of train control continue with the use of signals and relays, with one minor difference.
  • Relays - Märklin has slowly been switching over to different relays for use with signals and model train control.  In the 0296 track plan book (published circa 2005), illustrations of both the 8945 signal relay and the 8947 reverse loop relay are shown. At the time of this writing, the 8947 has disappeared from the market and although it is still available, the 8945 appears to be being phased out. In its stead, the 7244 relay is now the relay of choice, which presents an interesting problem.  While the earlier 8945 and 8947 relays used 10 volts AC for operation (as did the track switches), the 7244 requires 16 volts AC.  This means that if you want to use relays for train control in Z-Scale, you need a separate power supply for the relays. Fortunately, the older relays show up regularly on eBay, so for the short term, this is not a problem.
  • Transformer - For decades the venerable 6727 110-volt transformer powered Z-Scale model railroads in North America.  There were periodic shortages of the 6727 because Märklin only had one production run per year of the North American unit, but, overall, it was the power supply of choice.  Over the years, there were some minor graphics changes, but the 6727 largely stayed the same for decades.  Of course, there were the few value-oriented consumers that insisted that they could use conventional DC transformers to run their Z-Scale trains.  This usually resulted in fried Z-Scale trains and a dissatisfied customer.  In any case, the 6727 was a classic example of the differences between North American train operators and European train operators, discussed here.  Märklin eventually switched over to the 67271, which has finer train speed control.
  • Structures - Most of the Märklin Z-Scale structures are no longer marketed.  Periodically, some structures are reissued, but only for short periods of time. As mentioned here, the Märklin structures were very necessary in the early days of Z-Scale, and Mother Märklin did some very interesting things with their early structures.  Since that time, other manufacturers have filled in the gaps, although Märklin has also produced some laser-cut structures, again on a short term basis.

That said, there is one interesting exception to “things change”:

  • Track - Perhaps the most interesting thing about Märklin’s Z-Scale product line is the thing that has not changed very much in 40 years, their track. Early on, after the initial offerings, there were a few minor changes to the track.  The 110mm circuit track and the 110mm uncoupler were replaced with 55mm sections, with the 8503 being used to complete a basic 110mm section, but that was about it.  Märklin’s research indicated that there were problems with the track design in the marketplace, but nothing was done. In part, a retooling of the track line would have been expensive but without a commensurate increase in Märklin’s Z-Scale sales, so things were left alone.  Of course, there was a demand for better track product, a gap which Micro-Trains would fulfill.  For those preferring the Märklin track, IBL would create cork roadbed and track switch pads. And, much later, another Z-Scale track line would come into the market, Rokuhan.  But Märklin’s reluctance to improve their line of Z-Scale track was a matter of numbers

Time Flies

Perhaps the biggest change is that while Märklin once dominated the Z-Scale marketplace, Z has come into its own.  Märklin is still a major player, but other manufacturers have emerged, confirming that Z-Scale is here to stay.

Sometimes you don’t see things until much later. Consider this Z-Scale layout,  No. 1 from the 0290 track plan book of 1974:

Every item used to create this small railroad came from Mother Märklin.  I’ve always loved this track plan because it represented an opportunity to create a model railroad that was interesting but still manageable because of its small size.  All the elements were there, including two-train operation using the catenary.  If you wanted, you could also have automatic two-train operation by changing a few track pieces and adding a few relays.

Forty years later, things have changed.  In addition to having a good number of manufacturers making Z-Scale products, the formal track plans of the 0290 have been replaced with more interesting scenes. What had once been a tiny toy has become a way to realistically represent a railroad in a small space. Z-Scale has come into its own.

And, after years of making Z-Scale model railroads for others, I finally am making one for myself, based upon plan No. 6.2.1 from the 0296 track plan book, published in 2005. It is physically smaller than the No. 1 railroad above, yet it offers so much in a smaller space, the genius of Z-Scale all along.

Time flies.

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