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Friday, May 1, 2015

S scale, an Intriguing Option

I was going through my normal planning and brooding over what layout to do next and then I stumbled upon a very interesting scale.

S scale, with trains at 1/64th the size of the prototype, has become an oddball scale to the model railroading community.  To many, S scale died a while ago with American Flyer, the original supplier of S scale.  However, in the 21st century there is just enough S scale being produced by a few manufacturers that layouts are possible even though it's larger cousin, O scale, has more variety and it's smaller cousin, HO scale, has both more variety and popularity.

But what are the advantages to S scale?  As stated on the Sscale.org website, http://sscale.org/about-s-scale/why-model-in-s/ S scale has several advantages that either HO or O scale do not have:

  • S scale is larger than HO scale, and yet only takes up a bit more room.  American Flyer radius was 20", vs HO scale's standard 18", and in modern day, 27" radius track is quite acceptable to diesels and small steam locomotives.
  • S scale has much more detail than HO scale, being half way between HO scale and O scale.
  • Despite being more detailed than HO scale and being 3/4th's the size of O scale, S scale has a similar price range to HO scale.  One such manufacturer, American Models, produces diesel locomotives with an average price around $210.00, some being cheaper and some being more expensive.
  • S scale apparently runs just as smoothly as O scale, while HO scale tends to need more attention. 
I'll also offer a couple additional advantages to think about:

  • S scale, having more room inside locomotives and cars than HO, is perfectly suited to Remote Control and DCC.  I've read that the size of S scale is about the same as On30, so if that's true, then RC control installation would be a breeze.
  • S scale is 100% proportional to the prototype.  Unlike most scales, S gauge is exactly, or near exact, 1/64th the width of standard gauge.
So then, if S scale is so great, how come so few people model in 1/64th?  That's the question I asked myself yesterday, and I think I know the answer:  Marketing.

HO scale is covered by nearly every publication in the hobby, and O scale enjoys popularity with the countless numbers of today's kids and the baby boomers, who all seemingly had Lionel trains growing up.  Both my father and grandfather had Lionel, and I'm toting around some of the more collectible items 50 years later.  

S scale, on the other hand, was only widely produced and marketed by American Flyer, originally started in 1907 and discontinued in 1938, and was then owned by the A.C. Gilbert toy company from 1938 to 1967.  Lionel bought the brand in 1979, but it seems that more of a move to keep out competition, as American Flyer and Lionel had been fierce rivals in the decades prior.  So then, it's no secret that the biggest producer of S scale trains lost out in the 60's to Lionels larger, heavier, and more robust O scale line.  Many contribute that as being the primary reason S scale trains aren't as popular today, and for the most part, those people are right.

HO scale further sealed the fate of S scale as the smaller, cheaper mechanisms were able to be produced even quicker than the easily built O scale trains and the trend continues to this day with HO scale having the lions share of the market an a slight technical edge.  In the meantime, S scale has shrunk to a few diehard individuals, but the technology is finely here where S scale can be produced in a similar fashion to HO scale, and at a reasonable cost.  Even if the market is small, it is stable, so S scale at least isn't going anywhere.  Like the Libertarian party, S scale is in a distant third place, but still alive and well (no political offense intended).

So then, if the advantages match a modeler's requirements, how does one get into S scale?

This is perhaps the biggest hurdle S scale faces.  With so few people entering S scale, there is almost no demand for train sets.  While in HO and O scale, people can simply go to the local hobby store and buy a set, S scale modelers do not have that luxury,  Instead, everything needs to be ordered unless you like a very particular locomotive, such as the GP9, which is offered in a set.  In fact, I can really only find one manufacturer that makes any sort of train set in S scale, American Models (which make American Flyer compatible models along with scale-like equivalents)

Here's the links:

The first link is to American Models sole steam train set offering, the Milwaukee Road Chippewa set.  To be honest, I can't imaging many want that set, since the MILW has been out of business since the 80's and the Chippewa ran in the northern Midwest, instead of in a more romantic setting like the deserts of the Southwest, the Northeast, or along the Southern coastline.

The second link is to American Models diesel sets, which has several offerings people may be interested in.  The first set is the GP9 Texas and Pacific set.  While the T&P might not be a popular road name, the GP9 unit is iconic and saw service on every regional and class I railroad, a few units still serve to this day.

Next on the list of sets is American Models E-8 set which represents either the Missouri Pacific's Colorado Eagle, the Southern Pacific's Daylight, or the Missouri Kansas and Texas' Texas Special.  The E-8 and aluminum framed cars are popular across the country and like the GP9, could be found operating almost anywhere in the 60's.

There's also the Amtrak superliner that features and F40PH locomotive and superliner cars.  This set has add-on cars so you can model just about any passenger train from Amtrak up until the new diese units came out. 

And then, finally there is the set many people might get a kick out of, the Trailer Hauler set.  This one, unlike the other sets, features a Baldwin S-12 locomotive, a reasonable popular switching locomotive that is still used on some shortlines.  The set features three of the classic trailer flat cars that could be seen before the modular containers of present day.

So there you have it, essentially there are 4 different train sets, Ready to Run, offered in S scale.  Lionel and MTH offerings at this time are so limited I won't even go into them.  The photos are stock photos from American Models, so copyright goes to them, and you can see the sets in the two links above.

The strength of S scale lies not in the ready to run, like all other scales, but rather in the kitbashing and scratchbuilding category.  Brass locomotives can be had that rival in detail of O and even G scale models, and there are a few kits offered for building locomotives.  One such kit is the 70 Tonner and 44 Tonner by Smokey Mountain Model Works, http://www.smokymountainmodelworks.com/S_scale_kits.html

The kits are expensive, but they are cheaper than brass and it seems that all the parts an pieces are there, so overall it's about what you could ask for.

Going back to American Models, there are several diesels offered that could be kitbashed:

GP9 -->  GP7, GP15C
FP7 --> F7, F9, FP9
GP35--> GP30, GP40, GP38
SD60 --> SD40, SD40-2, SD45, SD60M
U25B --> U30C

Basically, 5 models can be worked to represent 18 different locomotive models, and dozens of specific build runs within each model.  For the most part, all that's required is to either shorten or lengthen the deck slightly, replace the cab, and build new radiator fans.  All in all, it's a pretty straightforward process.  And, at an average of $210 per locomotive, these potential projects aren't any more expensive than buying a Ready to Run locomotive in O scale, but you get more realism and DCC/RC power.

Then there are track products.  Finescale track is often handlaid, but American Models does make it's own track brand, as well as MTH, Lionel, and Tomalco, which uses Micro Engineering design.

Unlike HO or O scale, S scale track is offered in pretty limited,and generally incompatible product lines.  Therefore, the best thing I could say is that beyond a trainset or a simple layout, anyone modeling in S scale will want to handlay track.  Thankfully, there are three big advantages S scale has over HO scale on this subject:
  1. S scale, being bigger than HO scale, has more room for error, which makes handlaying easier
  2. The ties are bigger and therefore easier to work with
  3. Code 83 and 100 rail scales nicely to branch line track, so HO scale size rail will most likely work with scale wheels and couplers.
If Handlaid track is combined with Remote Control power, then S scale doesn't seem to be any more difficult to model than HO or O scale.

While the track and locomotive offerings are somewhat lacking, S scale does have a wide variety of rolling stock comparable to what's offered in O scale, but more realistic and somewhat cheaper.  The small market of S scale means that the equilibrium price (the most ideal selling price for a particular product) is lower than O scale but more than HO.  However, S scale is still within a reasonable budget for most people.

Scratchbuilding in S scale seems to be common with the fine scale modelers.  In fact, rolling stock can be scratchbuilt much easier than in HO scale or O scale, since O scale uses a lot of material and HO scale is quite small.  If someone can score an assortment of trucks, wheelsets, and couplers, modeling car bodies wouldn't be a big issue and you may even come out cheaper than buying Ready to Run.

So, in conclusion, it seems S scale is a viable option assuming your goal is to have a layout with popular locomotive models, primarily diesel era, and in a room size space.  If you are wanting to model the steam era, your options are more limited with cheap, ready to run models.  But, a bold modeler can easily get into brass locomotives and kitbashing.  I've even read somewhere that Bachmann On30 models can be widened and kitbashed into good looking S scale models.  When you think about it, a small On30 locomotive will look like a midsize brother in S scale, especially the Mogul and 4-6-0 models.  All that would be needed is to widen the gauge, build a new cab, an make some minor modifications to the boiler and details.

For further reading, here are some links I found inspiring:

It seems that the dark years of S scale may finally be coming to the end.  What I can tell you is that there needs to be a modeler who builds a finely detailed railroad many can relate to, and publicize the crap out of if, maybe it'll grab enough attention to make S scale more popular, which means more models.  I may dive into this scale myself, the train sets look to be reasonably priced (considering the detail and the amount of equipment in the sets) and will go from there.  In the meantime, I should get some spring air and do some rail chasing.


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