History of the Slot Car
Model Electric Racing Cars make their First Appearance
Sporadically over the next forty years, several other electrically powered commercial products came and went from companies such as Marx and the Bachman Brothers in the United States as well as Marklin and Fleischmann in Europe. Initially nearly all powered cars were guided by raised rails, either at the wheels (railroad-style), the lane center, or along one edge. These came to be known as rail cars as opposed to true slot cars.
Robert L. Mapson who along with Lee A. Woolley produced the Electricar for the Kokomo Stamped Metal Company. Originally the fence came rolled in two 10-foot lengths which was then assembled with wooden posts to form a continuous oval. Electrical pickup was accomplished using a front bumper guide system that ran along the perimeter of the course. In 1930 the company was consolidated with the Kingston Products Corporation. Additional bodies including dump and ice trucks and 1931 you could even race a bus full of terrified passengers using a 6th wheel chassis extension. Finally the country's continuing economic depression forced production of the Electricarto be halted in 1933. At the time the set was considered pricey ... it cost $8.00
While certainly a novelty these early efforts did not produce the speed that enthusiasts expected from their racing cars. It should be noted that the companies mentioned so far were primarily in the business of selling model railroads and the cars were considered to be just another accessory. Leave it to an American to introduce some speed. That happened in 1937 in of all places Los Angeles, California a traditional hotbed of car racing in this country.
"This particular Sunday evening, the discussion came around to the possibility of building a miniature car powered by a small gas engine similar to the motor used in my airplane. Being like any other average American, I have always had the desire to tinker with gadgets of one sort or another, and this model car idea could not be passed up. The following week, with the aid of my brothers, we assembled our first car." The first gas-powered car that the Dooling brothers built was a rather crude contraption, with front wheel drive powered by a Bunch Gwin Aero engine. In describing the car, Dooling remarked: "This little buggy had the beauty and grace of a one-legged duck - and with all its ugliness."
The performance of Dooling's first car was marginal; but, nonetheless, it attracted the attention of a number of fellows who had come to the Dust Bowl to fly their model airplanes. While most of the die-hard model airplane buffs ridiculed the unreliable little racer, a few decided that they too wanted to try their hand at building their own gas-powered cars. Following their initial attempt at building a gas-powered miniature racecar, Dooling noted: "The basic principle proved a success, and we immediately started designs for a new one." On that Sunday afternoon early in 1937, a new hobby was born on the West Coast and the Dooling Brothers were in business. These big cars, built to a scale of 1/18th to 1/16th, ran largely uncontrolled on tethers or sprawling tracks. In rail racing the cars raced on the surface of a board track usually consisting of 4-6 lanes. The cars were attached to a pair of ball bearings mounted on the front and back axle and guided by a rail on the track, which added more fun for the spectators. Maximum speed, which reached close to 100mph, was the goal here, as the electronics required to control these cars remotely had not yet been invented.
The First Slot Car
Though he had offers from the AC Gilbert and Louis Marx toy companies he felt the offer was too small. Holding out for what he hoped would be a bigger payday, it never came, and he never made any money on his patent. He did however apply for another patent for a new and improved track but this to seems to have come to naught. Cullen continued to apply for patents for other inventions, whether any of these provided the lucre he dreamed of history reveals no answer.
In England due to its dodgy weather indoor rail racing grew from necessity. Adding to this environment is the strong tradition in model engineering in the UK brought about by a limited market for manufactured hobby supplies and the generally lower living standard at that time. This meant that modelers were left to their own abilities to manufacture their toys if they sought a certain level of sophistication. In 1940s British modelers Ken Wallis and later Charles Woodland created what are currently considered the first slot cars but it is another modeler by the name of Henri Baigent along with Alban Adams and Fred Francis who did the most to help push the hobby forward.
Baigent developed a new centrally positioned monorail system using 5/16ths to 1/4 inch tubing supported on thin pillars. Cars would straddle the rail through the use of three or four wheeled spool-shaped appendages known as 'zonkers'. Patents were applied for in 1950. Baigent's system proved popular and several tracks were made using this configuration. Baigent applied for a patent and formed a company called Henri Baigent Ltd. A public demonstration of his invention occurred on August 22nd 1951 at the Model Engineer Exhibition, Westminster. This would prove to be a seminal event in the history of slot cars as the diesel racecars speeding along the large figure-eight was the hit of the show.
Early Developments in England
As a model engineer / inventor Henri Baigent had few equals but as a businessman he fell victim to sharper minds, chief among those was a certain Alban Adams. Adams was a partner in the original firm whose main line of business was said to be as a building contractor. When the firm required additional funds to meet growing interest and future expansion he grabbed the opportunity to take over the business and rename it Model Road Racing Cars Ltd, (MRRC). While the name of Henri Baigent has since receded back into history it would not be an exaggeration to consider Baigent the father of English Rail Racing if not slot cars in general.
Early Commercial Tracks
Still racing diesel cars indoors must have been similar to sitting in the garage with the motor running. Adams eventually switched from diesel racing to the electric car racing. In the early days of electric car racing, He purchased tinplate Scalex cars from Woolworth's and used the bodies to put over his new electrified chassis. According to Adams when visiting the Scalex factory to negotiate a deal to buy the bodies direct he was told by Fred Francis, the founder, that no more Scalex tin bodies would be available as the company was going electric with their new Scalextric racing cars and sets and the rest they often say is history...
In 1939 Bentram "Fred" Francis 1939 started a tool-making company, which ran twenty-four hours a day throughout the war years. Two years after the armistice he turned to a gentler cliental following a childhood ambition to become a toy-maker, and founded Minimodels Ltd which, among other toys, produced Scalex and Startex clockwork cars. What separated his Scalex cars from the competition was that a hidden fifth wheel discarded with the need for a key. By 1952 demand for Minimodels toys was so great that in order to expand the company relocated to a new, purpose-built factory at Havant in Hampshire but as often happens with toys the public soon was demanding something new. At a London toy fair Francis saw a display featuring battery-powered cars running around a track, but without user control. As a true toy man he new straight away what was missing, real 'play value'. After 6 months of investigation and seeing the giddy reactions of his marketing people as they tried to control the now electric-powered Scalex cars - renamed Scalextric convinced Francis that he was onto a winner.
In 1957 Scalextric caused a sensation at the Harrogate Toy Fair with cars running on a rubber slotted track that picked up electric current from beneath a groove with the aid of a gimbal wheel. Power was supplied by batteries located in a little cardboard hut with each driver had his own on-off button to control his car and the race was on. After two hugely demanding years he sold the expanding company at the end of 1958 to Lines Brothers Ltd, producers of the Tri-ang Railways system. Tri-ang replaced the tinplate bodies with plastic moldings and replaced the motors with ones of their own make. Tri-ang also introduced hand controllers that greatly improved the users ability to control their car. The American public by this time had been introduced to the new hobby by retailers such as Polk Hobbies of New York, a major promoter of slot car racing in the 60's.
By 1964 Scalextric was well established having signed the 1963 World Champion, Jim Clark to promote their brand. Cars were being produced in factories in France, Australia and New Zealand as well as a manufacturing and distribution agreement in Spain which would evolve in later years to the SCX brand. Also that year the first Scalextric World Championship was held in London.
The results were reported on in the January 1965 issue of Model Cars: Former World Champion, Jim Clark, who acted as timekeeper, led the terrific burst of cheers for Fritz Jakober - for 14-year-old Fritz of Lucerne sailed through heats and finally won the overall championship at the miniature European Grand Prix organized by Scalextric.
Within a short space of time, other British companies such as VIP, Wrenn, SRM and Airfix introduced their own slot car racing systems while MRRC continued to supply cars and parts, now for the new slot cars. Tri-ang strove to stay on top of an ever-growing hobby by heavily promoting Scalextric through the efforts of various drivers including Graham Hill. In America manufacturers such as Aurora, Strombecker, A.C. Gilbert and Eldon produced cars while in Continental Europe, manufacturers included Miniamil, Circuit 24 and toy companies Jouef in France, and Faller, Fleischmann and Carrera in Germany.
Strombeck-Becker from Moline, Illinois, started by Swedish immigrants as recycler of scrap wood. In 1922 they started to produce wooden toys. In 1961 Dowst acquired the hobby division of Strombeck-Becker, hired 14 designers, and retooled its factory to facilitate production of car-and-track sets. The first model of Strombecker was a modified version of the battery-powered Maserati 250F. Strombecker sold its cars in kit form and ready-to-race models. RTR models were also offered in sets. Sales of the toys, which were marketed under the name Strombecker, jumped from 20,000 to 500,000 sets by 1963. With the cars now comprising the firm's main source of revenue, Dowst Manufacturing changed its name to Strombecker Corporation. Originally the company offered two scales, 1/24 and 1/32. The production of the 1/24-scale models was ceased in 1964 and the company concentrated on the 1/32 home market becoming Scalextric's main competitor.
The Birth of HO
After numerous complaints the cars were replaced by the legendary Thunderjet 500 slot car model that was introduced in 1963. The T-jet motor, also invented by Brand sat upright in the chassis and were easy to service because of the simple gearing and replaceable parts. This motor is sometimes referred to a pancake type. The size of the cars made it possible to easily set up a course on the family carpet. By 1965 Aurora had sold an astounding 25 million HO slot cars, the most popular line of slot cars in history. Dwarfing the sales of any other slot car company in the United States regardless of scale.
Commercial Raceways Explode upon the United StatesThe first indoor rail car raceway in the United States is credited to Tom Cook of Kalamazoo, Michigan. This was followed in 1961 by an actual slot car track on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles built with the help of Autorama's Jack Tate and at Polk's Hobbies in NYC. Polk's Hobbies was involved with Fred Francis in the development of his Scalextric cars which initially allowed them exclusive rights to sell them in the United States. Nat Polk, one of the owners of Polk Hobbies, recalled having sets flown over from England to meet demand. Most of the early commercial tracks were coin-operated tracks with an hour of track time costing anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50. By that time, even Kalamazoo had converted to slot and soon slot car racing exploded upon the American consciousness. What had more or less been invented in England developed a very American flavor. Gigantic tracks of 200 to 300 feet in length were built including one 408 foot behemoth at Motorama Raceways in Van Nuys, California and an even larger track in East Meadow, New York that was said to have measured in at 475 feet. Raceways with five tracks and a drag strip were not uncommon.
In late 1962 or early 1963 American Model Car Raceways out of Burbank, California was formed and soon business was booming designing and manufacturing 8-lane commercial tracks that were sold to too eager raceways all over the globe. Each of their layout designs were assigned a particular color - Red, Yellow, Green, Black, Orange, Purple, and finally Blue and though they also had names such as Monarch, Sovereign and King the name and color became synonymous and anyone who raced regularly knew what the track was by naming either. For example, the "Orange" was called the "Monarch" and had 8 lanes of 100’ each. The Red was the "Imperial" and was 150’ per lane. The "Sovereign" was American’s "biggie" - a 220’ dream which ultimately became known as the "Purple Mile." Of all the tracks American made, the single most popular design produced was the final model they sold - the "Blue King" - and was nearly identical to the Red Imperial except for a few up-to-that-date changes to increase speed and general flow of the cars. In fact there were those pro racers that could almost drive the circuit blind-folded for it was on the King that the World record speeds were kept. AMCR was soon joined by Altech, Ascot, R & J Custom-Line and Stan Engleman.
A number of organizations were established for the purpose of developing common rules for competition. The big three in the United States were MINRA, NAMRA, NASSRA while in England ECRA was paramount. NAMRA was heavily focused on the East Coast and promoted scale models while NASSRA centered in the Midwest and prefered 1/32 scale.
Unlike the other organizations MINRA's main sponsors were the commercial slot car industry so it was not much of a surprise when it was named the national coordinating organization by the Hobby Industries of America trade association.
Later these organizations were joined by USRA in the United States and IMCA in Europe.
By 1966, there were some 3,000 commercial raceways in the United States and over 200 in Europe. They sold the latest cars, controllers and parts to hordes of enthusiasts, resulting in the slot racing industry generating annual sales in excess of $500 million for three years in a row. Slot car racing had entered its golden years.
While commercial tracks dominated the hobby in the US, or at least in the eyes of the general public in there were many clubs with tracks where the competition was just as intense. One such club was the Miniature Electric Scale Automobile Club (M.E.S.A.C.) in Inglewood, California and their legendary 190-foot 6-lane track that could be altered into 8 different configurations through the use of a four-inch wide sliding board that had 12 lanes routed into it, 6 straight and 6 curved. The circuit had the look of an English club track in that it was completely detailed with the famous Martini & Rossi bridge a signature feature. There were even operating pits that the racer was required to use in longer races, by way of railroad type points. Race control was conducted in an elevated room offering a commanding view of the activities. A few of the clubs members worked in the aerospace industry and at least one by the name of Jim Russell went on to make a name for himself manufacturing slot cars under the Russkit banner. Besides the core group of members the club opened its doors to local hot shoes who were required to meet the clubs strict scale rules if they wished to race on the demanding course. Racing was held in at least five different classes and a championship trophy was awarded at the end of the year. Special events such as enduros were also held.
Top drag racers of the period included Bob Braverman, author of "Here is Your Hobby Slot Car Racing" and a drag cyclist. Gene Hustings who also raced full size cars, introducing the first rear-engined dragster to Don Garlits who later perfected the arrangement after a near fatal crash. Husting also set a sub-one second time in a slot car drag racing meet that was said to have lasted 28 years.
The Mabuchi Motor Company
Over the next several years a small industry led by Ron Mura in Northern California and Champion of Chamblee, Georgia would develop around the customization and aftermarket parts for these simple motors. In 1967 Champion, founded by businessman Jim William produced the American made 517 and 617 with a high-temperature endbell as well as other design improvements over the motors produced by Mabuchi. George and Ron Mura followed their lead using a can manufactured for Tradeship with some modifications, as well as a new molding of an endbell. Designated the M400 series, it debuted in early 1968. Interestingly an improved second series incorporating technical input from recently signed ex-Champion professional racer John Cukras followed shortly thereafter.
The Rise of the Factory Teams
In 1964 Phil Barchetta who was Strombecker's PR man started one of the first factory sponsored teams that raced at various tracks in the Greater Chicago area. The following year Jim Russell hired four local hot shoes from Southern California; Mike Morrissey, Rick Durkee, Ron Quintana Len Vucci and formed the legendary Team Russkit. The racers had their expenses paid as well as any parts required to build and maintain their cars. Team Russkit would go on a 30 day nationwide tour which had a tremendous effect on the development of professional slot car racing in America. The first thing Team Russkit discovered is that they were not as far ahead of everyone as they thought! In Car Model, February 1966, pg 24, Mike Morrissey writes, "To begin with, everywhere we went, we were surprised at how fast cars are going. From Las Vegas to Long Island, we found cars almost as fast as ours, and in Detroit... well, I'll come to that later." Detroit was the home of The Groove Raceway and there things did not go exactly as planned according to Morrissey:
"We didn't have much trouble going as fast as anyone else except in one place, The Groove, in Royal Oak, Michigan. It was here that we got clobbered, whipped, and obliterated. I mean, they could have saved themselves some time by simply beating us with hammers and throwing us outa the joint!"
"You see, it was at The Groove that we learned all about 'supertraction' tracks... the hard way. We had heard about these midwest track surfaces, but we'd never realized just how sticky they were. They use a high-gloss paint that is nearly shiny. Then after the track is broken in and builds up a little tire goop on the paint surface, it becomes so sticky that you can't believe it!"
"Anyway, our cars are built for normal surfaces and are, as I said, very light. They wouldn't slide or drift at all, but instead would just do snap rolls. The locals' cars weigh 5 to 6 ounces or more. They use flat brass plate about 1/8" thick for frames, those 'Silastic' tires, and a variety of motors. The flat plates give a very low center of gravity, which kills the flipping tendency, and the weight stabilizes them. To get all that mass down the straights, they use hairy motors like Dyno-Chargers, Rams, and wildly rewound Pittmans and Mabuchis. To stop they use up to 6 volts of power brakes. We'll be back that way, though, and next time we'll be properly armed! Maybe we can put up a decent fight." A year later Team Russkit returned and that year they beat the locals at their own game. A sense of equilibrium had returned to the slot car racing scene. If you can imagine what it must have been like going up against a group of hired guns in factory blazers no less.
Russkit was soon followed by teams from Cobra, Dyna-Rewind, Champion and Mura with Team Champion finally supplanting Russkit as the top professional slot car team. In the United States, the American Model Car Racing Congress announced a contest with $100,000 in prizes, and Strombecker organized a nation-wide contest for young drivers, with the grand prize being a Plymouth Barracuda, $5,000 Pepsi-Cola Scholarship and trip to Paris for the World Title. John Cukras of Teams Champion, Mura and Riggen amongst others were rumored to benefit from an income of $50,000 a year. Howie Ursaner, a champion at 14 along with Sandy Gross formed slot car's legendary "Gold Dust Twins". L. M. Cox Manufacturing would sign a sponsorship deal with Jim Hall's Chaparral team, which would carry the slot car manufacturer's emblem on all future racecars during the 1965 season.
A Brief Look at Chassis Development
Cutting edge slot car technology did not take long to filter down to the local raceway. In fact Northern California racers looking for ever lower lap times were incorporating aerodynamic designs for their bodies with little resemblance to actual race cars were made in late 1966 by John Chotia. Later side air dams were added and the transformation was complete. There is some controversy around the idea that wing cars hastened the demise of slot cars but the fact remains that their incredible speeds raised the bar for anyone wanting to enter the hobby at least at the commercial level.
Slot Car's Downfall and Revival
There have been several small revivals but nothing quite like the 60's will ever be seen again. But the story does not end here, slot cars did not die they just went underground or more accurately back to living rooms, basements and club houses where it had all started. What interest that existed in slot cars by the general public was now concentrated on HO and to a lesser extent, at least in the United States, 1/32 scale cars. Jim Russell of Russkit fame had dissolved his company and gone on to work for Aurora where he spearheaded a team of racers that included John Cukras who introduced the G-Plus and Super G-Plus HO cars that revolutionized the smaller scale. In 1/32 scale, Scalextric continued to produce home racing sets and cars and the early 1990s saw the beginning of a revival, particularly in home set racing, thanks mainly to a new Spanish manufacturer, Ninco, who began producing cars and later sets of far superior quality than Scalextric’s offerings at the time, which had started to take on a ‘toy-ish’ feel.
By the mid 1990s another Spanish manufacturer, Fly Model Car, upped the game even further when they introduced cars with an exceptional level of detail. The hobby is currently experiencing good solid growth, with Scalextric again producing top quality and innovative products, along with Carrera, SCX and Ninco. In addition to those big four smaller special firms such as Italy’s Slot.it have actually led the way in performance if not overall quality of detail. There is also a dedicated group of collectors who purchase hand built resin cars form makes such as Spain's Slot Classic and now much of America looks to Europe to lead the way.
The proof in the genius of this idea is that they have managed to inspire the return of many famous racers of past including John Cukras, Bryan Warmack, John (Tore) Anderson, Lee Hines, Terry Schmid, Howie Ursaner, Philippe de Lespinay and Keith Tanaka. Unfortunately what makes D3 so appealing may actually be a barrier to others, the requirement to build your own chassis. When a person can buy a flexi chassis, couple it with a souped up motor and non-scale body why go through the trouble of building a D3 car? The answer goes to the root of why slot cars will never be as popular as they once were. The youth of today is looking for instant gratification, which they can find in video games. The desire and/or skills in building a slot car or anything for that matter is dead or dying. It is also the reason why for others the return to the hobby of their youth is the next best thing to reuniting with their first girlfriend ... maybe even better.
in Slot Car History
Model cars have been around as long as there have been cars to model. Early propulsion was provided by a wind-up clockwork mechanism. The first commercial slot cars or more accurately model electric racing cars operating under constant power were made by Lionel (USA) and appeared in their catalogues in 1912. They drew power from a toy train rail sunk in a trough that was connected to a battery. They were surprisingly similar to modern slot cars, but independent speed control was available only as an optional extra. Sets of cars and track sold for between $7.50 to and $18.00. For reasons unknown Lionel discontinued their slot cars in 1915 after an estimated 12,000 slot cars were manufactured.