O gauge refers to model train tracks whose rails are 1¼ inches apart. Even though O scale model trains frequently run on O gauge tracks, strictly speaking, the two Os have nothing to do with each other.
The letter "O" is actually a misnomer since the designation was initially conceived to identify trains and tracks that were smaller in size than 1, which had been the standard. Since the only number smaller than 1 is 0, that’s how early O scale trains and O gauge tracks were identified, but the letter O (pronounced “owe”) crept into everyday use among model train buffs and has remained the way to refer to the gauge ever since.
The O gauge was introduced to allow toy manufacturers to sell trains that took up less space than their standard counterparts. These trains were also less expensive for customers...
This smaller size took off in the 1930s, when affordability trumped most other concerns thanks to the Depression. It was adopted wholeheartedly by Lionel, which sold two different O gauges for its O scale toy trains. Lionel’s regular O gauge track was the same width as its O-27 gauge track (1 ¼ inch), but the O-27 had a lower profile than regular O, and its thinner rails allowed all but the longest O scale model trains to make tighter turns (a circle of O-27 tracks has a diameter of 27 inches instead of 31).
Some of the most famous and sought-after model trains ran on O gauge tracks. Cars with vista domes for Santa Fe, B&O, and New York Central lines, among others, are considered standards of any self-respecting O gauge collection, even if the car was an East Coast line (tunnels back east were too low for vista domes, so in reality they only ran out west). Pointed observation cars such as the ones for the Empire State Express are also popular, as is a short N5 caboose labeled Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley.
Other model trains sought by O gauge collectors include a work caboose with a boom tender, a Fairbanks-More Trainmaster locomotive (it was painted orange and blue, even though those colors never appeared in real life), and steam locomotives such as Lionel’s S2 Turbine. After World War II, Lionel actually made four versions of the S2 locomotive in both O and O-27 gauges.
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