In 1972, at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, German toy manufacturer Märklin introduced the tiniest model railroad yet in Z scale, which has a 1:220 ratio and a gauge of 6.5mm. Featuring a locomotive so small it could fit into a walnut shell, this new scale allowed full train sets to be built in briefcases, jewelry boxes, and guitar cases.

The letter Z, the last character in both the English and German alphabets, was selected because at the time no one believed that a smaller model railroad would ever be made. In fact, the T scale (1:450) has since emerged from Asia, but it is still a niche line and is not widely available.

Märklin branded its Z scale line, invented by the company's head design engineer, Helmut Killian, as Mini-Club. Because it was a brand new scale, Märklin had to produce everything model railroads could want—locomotives, tracks, rolling stock, buildings, and toporamas. For a few years, Märklin was the only Z scale game in town, but eventually, other manufacturers got on board.

The 150-year-old company made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1978, when one of its Z Scale engines, pulling six cars, ran 1,219 hours and 720 kilometers nonstop before the motor died.

Also in the late '70s, Nelson Gray in upstate New York produced a highly detailed Z scale model railroad inspired by American prototypes, the F-7 diesel locomotive and its freight cars. He sold this line to Micro-Trains of Oregon in 1982, which soon updated his work and manufactured a popular American line of Z scale trains.

This competition prompted Märklin to release American trains in Z scale, including an F-7 engine, a box car, a gondola, and a Santa Fe caboose in 1984, as well as Santa Fe prototype passenger cars in 1985. Later, the company also manufactured a 2-8-2 Mikado steam engine and a 4-6-2 Pacific steamer.

The small size of Z scale demands precise engineering—for that reason, there’s no such thing as a low-end Z scale train. The diminutive scale allows for long, realistic curves, a...

One of the most collected manufacturers producing high-quality replicas in Z scale is American Z Lines, formerly known as Rogue Locomotive Works, which has made about a half-dozen modern diesel engines. Other current Z scales manufacturers in the United States, Germany, and Japan include Railex, PennZee Freudenreich Feinwerktechnik, Bahls Modelleisenbahnen, and Tokyo Marui.

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