The First Slot Cars
The history of slot cars and slot car racing. is a history of multiple inventors devising similar systems, often in parallel and often ignorant of other developments such that, absent a definitive history we will describe a number of systems, mostly of the rail type with propulsion provided by either electricity or diesel fuel. It would also be a mistake to presume that slot cars followed after rail cars, though the switch in clubs at the time to slot from rail might make someone believe this. Research has shown that a patent describing slot cars racing on a track was issued on March 22, 1938 US patent # 2112072 to an Albert E. Cullen. The patent issued to Albert E. Cullen and associated drawings clearly show a track with a slot. In the slot is a conductor that besides being isolated from the rest of the track makes contact with a roller attached to the car. The circuit is completed by a second contact emanating near the rear wheels that makes contact with the metal track. The slot guides the movement of the car though the conductor at the front of the car does now swivel as it would in a modern slot car but rather it along with the front wheels are mounted on a pivoting truck.
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.
Early Developments in England
In England due to its dodgy weather indoor rail racing grew from necessity. Adding to this environment is the strong tradition of model engineering in the UK brought about by a limited market for manufactured hobby supplies and the generally lower living standard at that time. In addition import restrictions in England at the end of the war meant that modelers were left to their own abilities to manufacture their toys if they sought a certain level of sophistication. In 1940s British inventor/modelers Wing Commander Kenneth Horatio Wallis and later Charles Woodland created what are currently considered the first hand-built 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 Organized by Percival Marshall Ltd., publishers of The Model Engineer magazine. This would prove to be a seminal event in the history of slot cars and slot car racing, as the diesel racecars, billed as miniature grand prix racing cars speeding along the large figure-eight was the hit of the show and many shows to follow.
Rail Racing up to this point while exciting to watch was a noisy, smelly affair, unsuitable for home use. To solve this dilemma Baigent developed a smaller scale electric system using a slotted or walled track and a large wiper fitted under each car to provide electrical contact. Model Maker, a highly influential hobby magazine did a write-up for their December 1955 issue. The track included an ingenious lap counter, which unfortunately could only count to four. Each 1/24 scale resin-bodied car was fitted with Ackerman steering to better negotiate the corners. Power for each lane was supplied by individual user-driven generators requiring the operator to wind a handle providing for a rather stimulating racing experience.
As a master model engineer / inventor Henri Baigent had few equals but as a businessman he fell victim to sharper minds, chief among them 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 create Model Road Racing Cars Ltd, (MRRC) along with Bert Walshaw and Baigent at Boscombe Hants, England. Eventually Adams bought out his partners and 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.
Rail to Slot
Model Maker magazine revealed how electric rail car enthusiasts at the pioneering Southport Model & engineering club had settled on 1/32 scale as a standard for their track. The Southport club adopted this scale for a variety of reasons chief among them being that 1/32 scale offered a good compromise between cars that were big enough to avoid over-sophisticated engineering (i.e. existing motors would fit without extensive modifications) and tracks that were small enough to be manageable. Electric rail cars did suffer from a basic failing. Because the cars had to ride a fixed rail above the surface of the track, the cars had to be designed to run with a relatively high ground clearance placing many restrictions on motors and gearing. Various systems were tried including one by Victory Industries's whose experience with the electrified track at the British Industries Fair (B.I.F.) meant that a clear solution to these problems was self-evident, or at least to them. Simply split a conductive road surface into two separately insulated halves and guide the car by an insulated peg between the two. Not only was this simpler to mass-produce, it also avoided the problem of the raised rail which proved to be an unnecessary throw back to gas-powered rail cars. Other systems such as Baigent's wall system also got rid of the central rail but it was the slot that finally killed off rail racing.
Early Commercial Tracks
In May of 1932 the British Autocar magazine published an article regarding a new miniature racing game produced by none other than the famous British racing driver Tim Birkin at the engineering works Birkin and Cooper LTD, Welwyn Garden City. The cars are electric powered by an 8-volt battery and transmitted to each lane via the metal rail which the car straddles. Invented by Patrick Kennedy in England it has come to be called the "Kennedy System" by some noted historians. Each car was controlled by a simple on-off switch. Tragically Birkin would die prematurely a year later possibly due to a combination of septic shock and malaria. His racing game seems to have died along with him.
Prior to forming MRRC, Alban Adams had operated a 1/12 scale diesel car racing track in Blackpool, England. In 1954 Adams opened a new indoor circuit for diesel rail cars at Boscombe. Adams a born self-promoter did not skip any detail and had a team build 40 diesel
rail cars representing just about every full size
racing car from Ferraris and BRMs to Cooper 500s.
This must have been at that time one of the largest
groups of diesel rail cars ever built by one company
(MRRC) in one place, and fortunately many of these
cars still exist. The 120 ft long track was housed in a fairly large building and was configured in a more or less figure-8 shape. Extractor fans in the form of hairdryers were used
to suck away excess fumes when cars
were at the start and most importantly an automatic
lap-scorer recorded positions.
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...
The story to be continued ... In writing The history of slot cars and slot car racing. there is a lot of misinformation on the web and often different individuals were creating racing systems oblivious to what was happening elsewhere. The period between the wars is especially murky. If you have comments about this article or just wish to provide additional insight please do not hesitate to contact me: Dennis David