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 Formula 1 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.
From France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and the United Kingdom competitors converged upon London. Each competitor, already a National Champion, had raced the various preliminary heats in his own country and had been flown by Scalextric to London for the Grand Prix at the Tri-and showrooms in Haymarket. Over 20 laps of the tricky and exciting circuit in the final there was literally nothing in it, first Jakober and then (Andre) Plumier. Jakober at the first bend then Plumier at the second, Jakober over the fly-over and neck and neck down the straight, with the Porsche and Lotus miniatures reaching scale speeds of over 150 m.p.h.
Around the same time as Scalextric came out with their racing set another company called Victory Industrial Products produced their own set that was in some ways superior to that of Scalextric but due to better marketing VIP is no longer well known except to those that had the privilege of owning a VIP model raceway in their youth. A very small company that began it's life during the second world war to manufacture small electrical components for the Ministry of Supply.
The new 1:32 VIP Raceways system first appeared at the London toy fair in February 1961. With stunning set-top artwork by the then relatively unknown artist Michael Turner, the new R1 sets were given a very warm reception by the trade press. The sets were available between 1961 and 1965. These sets generally included one R60 Cooper and one R61 Lotus but were also sold with two Coopers or two Lotus throughout their production life.
Within a short space of time, other British companies such as, 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. One of MRRC's most important introductions was their famous blue thumb operated variable speed hand controller replaced the common (and unsatisfactory) “push-button” finger operated “on or off” power control of the cars. Variable speed added a completely new dimension to slot car racing, resulting in a much improved car steering and more realistic driving experience.
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, Eldon and Revell produced cars and racing sets while in Continental Europe, manufacturers included Miniamil, Circuit 24 and Jouef in France, and Faller, Fleischmann and Carrera in Germany. The slot cars of Jouef were marketed in England by the makers of Corgi Toys and made under license in Germany as Egger Silberpfeil. Of the Continental European companies. only Carrera continues to produce slot cars. Carrera would later be joined by a number of new companies from Spain and Italy.
In America, Strombeck-Becker from Moline, Illinois, started by Swedish immigrants as a recycler of scrap wood, started to produce wooden toys in 1922. Dowst Bros., in 1961 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 from the company now called 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.
Up to that time Pittman supplied open-frame motors to the model train hobby for upgrading the stock underpowered motors that came with locomotives. These motors such as the DC60 series were derivatives of motors used my the US Navy during WWII had built a reputation for quality and proved popular as a motor to propel model kits for the new slot car hobby. This had caught the attention of the company and after seeking feedback from pioneer slot car racers like Alan Swartz decided to produce motors for the new hobby. Pittman produced the DC 704 motor in 1962. Pittman actually called these motors "Motor & Axle Units", because the geared output shaft extended out both sides of the motor was intended to be used as the rear axle of the car. But, the DC-704 still had train motor windings, and its output shaft (axle) was still in the middle of the motor, a situation most racers did not want. In 1963 Pittman released their legendary DC196 in 1963.
The DC-196 had two significant design improvements over its predecessor the DC-195. The first was incorporating an integral formed sheet brass axle bracket, and the second was replacing the five pole armature with a three pole. These two improvements, plus slightly heavier windings on the armature, made the DC-196 an immediate and lasting hit with builders and drivers alike. Pittman's improved DC704A and DC85A motors would power many a race winning dragster. Both Ram and Strombecker with their popular Scuttlers would produce successful copies of Pittman motors.
The Birth of HO
Aurora Plastics Corporation was founded in March 1950 by engineer Joseph E. Giammarino, his cousin Gennaro, Abe Shikes and John Cuomo as a contract manufacturer of injection molded plastics. In 1952 the company began the manufacture of its own line of plastic model kits. In 1960 Aurora went slot car racing basing their Aurora Model Motoring HO or "half O or OO gauge as it was called in England on the work of English inventor, Derek Brand who first developed a small motorized car to be used with model railroads. His company, Playcraft Model Motoring system was on display at an English toy fair and Aurora promptly acquired the marketing rights to the Model Motoring product line for sale in the U.S. Market.
The cars had what was called a vibrator motor developed by Brand. The motor used a miniature push rod that would supply and then cut electrical power to a coil that would become magnetized and demagnetized. This caused an actuator reed to vibrate up and down and in so doing turn the drive gear.
After numerous complaints the cars were replaced by the legendary Thunderjet 500slot 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.
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