It’s happened again and I was powerless to resist.
While on a flying visit to my wife’s hometown in Germany I popped into the local model shop.
(Yes, model railway shops still exist in Germany. Even small towns still have them).
I just dropped in to have a look and maybe buy a few tools. But then I saw it….
The Märklin 81701 Z gauge starter set. A Pandora’s box of wallet-bursting model train delight.
Who is this suitable for?
Z gauge is the smallest commercially available model train size. It was created in 1972 by Märklin to compete with N gauge and give enthusiasts wanting a model railway but restricted by the small sizes of modern homes a way of building a layout not possible with larger traditional scales.
And at a scale of 1 to 220, with a track width (the gauge) of just 6.5 mm, it’s small enough to build a good-sized layout in even the smallest of spaces. It’s tiny. Far, far, smaller than traditional HO and OO gauges and even N gauge (the next size up).
Because of this, I’ve often been tempted by Z gauge in the past and I already have a small section of Z gauge track and a solitary loco which I run when the mood takes me.
The most common model railway in the UK, OO gauge (as used in Hornby railways), is lovely but needs space; I recently built a shed just to house for my OO railway and N gauge is great for small, limited, indoor spaces but both still need considerable room.
To create an oval, for example, requires an area approx.742 millimetres (29 inches) wide for OO gauge track, 762mm (30 inches) for HO and even in N gauge you’ll need approx 432mm or 17” inches. Add in sidings, scenery and buildings and the area space expands dramatically.
By contrast, a Z gauge oval will fit into 290mm (just under 1 foot) and as such, it’s possible to build layouts in much smaller areas. Enthusiasts have built Z gauge sets in suitcases and even guitar cases.
Hence why I’d often considered it but I’ve previously discounted it because what I’d seen of Z gauge previously just didn’t look right.
I’ve seen some Z gauge trains but they looked cheap and lacking in detail. In the distant past, I’d also head some worrying comments about their reliability.
And then I passed the German model shop. There in the window sat this train set.
The tiny steam locomotive sitting atop its packaging looked fabulous. Even viewing at distance, through the shop window, the quality of the locomotive and it’s accompanying rolling stock was obvious.
I went back the next day and had a second look. I was hooked and powerless to resist.
My lovely wife took pity on me and offered to buy it for me as an early Christmas present. How could I say no?
So how does it perform?
I’ve been testing it for a while now and I’m hooked.
Firstly, the quality screams out.
Even the cube-shaped packaging looks and feels good but it’s the locomotive, rolling stock and track that impressed the most.
The locomotive (a Deutsche Bahn class 89 steam locomotive, the smallest standard locomotive in service with the German National Railway, think of a UK tank engine) is constructed of metal. This compares very favourably to the cheap plastic engines found on some larger train sets and has a ridiculous amount of detail given the size — the pipework of the steam engine is clearly visible. The two wagons, a refrigerator car and low side wagon with a tarpaulin covering, are of similar quality and look great.
Reinforcing the manufacturing quality, the instructions are clear and include sections on how to maintain and clean the locomotive (sorely missing from some other train sets I’ve come across). Disassembly of the locomotive is also surprisingly easy and simple, with a single retaining screw allowing the upper shell to be removed to expose the internals for maintenance if needed.
Secondly, there’s the track.
The 10 pieces of track (two straights, two 45° degree and two 30° curves) that come in the box work as you’d expect. Sections fit together using rail joiners to form an oval circuit. This track can be expanded by purchasing additional sections* to create a layout of your choosing or following the track plan detailed in one of the enclosed pamphlets.
At first, I was concerned that aligning each section with the next to push the rails into the metal rail joiners would be challenging given the size. In reality, they clipped together very easily. Maybe I was just lucky but every section slotted into place perfectly the first time (I’ve never been this lucky with OO gauge track). The joiners look the same as OO and N gauge so I’m not sure why the track worked well easily but it did and it reinforces the quality build of this set.
And finally, the electrics.
Power for the trains works exactly like other DC (analogueue) small-scale model railway. Power goes through a controller — allowing the speed and direction of the train to be set — to the rails from where the train picks gets its power. Wiring this is straightforward. One of the straight sections of the track has a wiring attachment, with two wires from this clipping into terminals on the controller.
The controller is simple construction, featuring a two-directional dial and graduated speeds. The housing of this controller is plastic but feels more robust than some of the controllers found in N and OO gauge starter sets. There is also a second set of terminals…
All this leads to an enjoyable running experience.
Many OO gauge trains are known for racing off at a speed disproportionate to the locomotive, especially so on small shunting engines. It’s disconcerting to see tank engines that are designed for slow heavy work shoot off like Formula One car.
This is not so with the Märklin locomotive. Although it doesn’t move at the lowest settings on the dial (in either direction) when it does move it can start and run appropriately slowly before increasing to a decent pace.
The movement is also smooth and responsive, allowing me to set the locomotive off and bring it to a halt very accurately. Undoubtedly, due to the use of a 5-pole motor.
There are however some problems but these are with Z gauge in general, not specific to this Märklin or this set.
Firstly, like all model railways, the track needs to be kept clean but this is even more so on Z scale. The tiny wheels, through which the locomotive picks up its power, are even more susceptible to dirt and dust on the track and even hair will cause problems. Regular cleaning with a low-cost cleaning fluid is vital.
Secondly, there isn’t the range of accessories and buildings available for Z as there are for OO/HO. N gauge has a limited range too but it’s even more so for Z gauge. Be prepared to make your own buildings. (This situation is changing quickly as N and Z gauge grow in popularity).
Lastly, consider your eyesight. If you struggle to see N or OO gauge then z gauge probably isn’t for you. If your eyesight isn’t a problem, however, I can recommend this set.
All in all, I’m really impressed by this set.
Being Z gauge, a layout can be built in much smaller area than would be possible with N, OO or HO gauge. The quality of the locomotive, rolling stock and track work is far beyond what I’d hoped and is very robust and the control responsive. It worked the first time and has worked perfectly every time since.
Z gauge is very definitely worth considering if you are space limited and the Märklin 81701 starter set is a great introduction.
The Märklin 81701 Z gauge starter set is available for between £100 and £160, depending on postage costs.
* I’d recommend looking into the track range from Rokuhan, who offer a more diverse range of z gauge track options. For more information on Z gauge see my introduction to z gauge – what you need to know.
Full disclosure: The reviews I share here come from hands-on experience establised over many decades of making and building models and model railways. I personally test each product, often for weeks or months, before writing about it. For this review, I purchased the product myself at the regular price, and the seller had no idea it would end up featured here. No special treatment or behind-the-scenes deals – just honest feedback on my experiences of using this product.
Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of modelrailwayengineer.com. He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.