Model Electric Racing Cars make their First Appearance
Model racing cars have been around as long as there have been racing cars to model. Most were static models but for some early propulsion was provided by a wind-up clockwork mechanism. Some of the first commercial available slot cars or more accurately model electric racing cars operating under constant power were made by Lionel (USA) and appeared in their catalogue in 1912. The cars 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 which though expensive sold fairly well. For reasons unknown, Lionel discontinued their racing car set in 1915 after an estimated 12,000 sets were manufactured.
Sporadically over the next forty years, several other electrically or more often clockwork powered commercial racing car sets came and went from companies such as Marx and the Bachman Brothers in the United States as well as German model railroad and toy companies Marklin and Fleischmann in Europe.
Louis Marx and Company was an American toy manufacturer in business from 1919 to 1978. Its products were often imprinted with the slogan, "One of the many Marx toys, have you all of them?" In 1938 Marx was selling a single track set called the "Motorcycle Cop and Car Single Track Speedway". The set includes two tin litho clockwork vehicles, a Police Department Motorcycle with Sidecar and a torpedo shaped #2 Arrow Racer. The set comes with 12 interlocking speedway track sections (4 straight, 8 curved) which provided layout of 9ft. in length. Each track piece was litho-printed to look like a brick paved roadway with red and yellow stone walls on either side. The also includes two identical winding keys.
During the same period Marx also sold a more expensive electric speedway with a double streamline racing car track which included a humpback bridge. The set include a rheostat speed control for the cars but it is thought that this controlled the speed of both cars and not individually. Marx would return to the hobby in the 60s producing inexpensive slot car sets for the Sears Department stores which were targeted to the general public, Marx having no interest in serving the enthusiast market.
Marklin the pioneer German toy company produced from 1934 to 1938 a 20-Volt electric autorennbahn (highway) racing car system that included German Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring as one of its customers. The 20-Volt transformer replaced a 50-Volt transformer which was outlawed on safety grounds. Initially nearly all these clockwork or electric motorized 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. After 1938 the autorennbahn was dropped from their product line only to see Marklin return as slot car manufacturer during the sixties, Marklin being spurred after rival Carrera produced their first set.
Robert L. Mapson who along with Lee A. Woolley produced the Electricar for the Kokomo Stamped Metal Company which ran inside a fence. Originally the fence came rolled in two 10-foot lengths which was then assembled with wooden posts to form a continuous oval or corral. Electrical pickup was accomplished using a front bumper guide system that ran along the interior of the course. In 1930 the company was consolidated with the Kingston Products Corporation. Additional bodies included both a dump and ice truck, a fire truck and in 1931 you could even race a bus full of terrified passengers using a 6-wheel chassis extension.
Finally the country's continuing economic depression forced production of the Electricar to 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.
Tether cars powered by small gas engines are connected or tethered to a central post hitch by a steel cable and run around a circular track or 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. In order to allow for side by side racing the tether was replaced in some instance with lanes containing an individual rail for each lane on a board track.
These cars were powered by miniature internal combustion engines, which gained wider availability in 1931 with the introduction of the Brown Junior spark ignition motor in the USA. While the first of these were individually constructed by Bill Brown in his home workshop, by 1934 the 10 cc Brown Junior "B" was in full-scale production by Junior Motors of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their success was quickly challenged by a number of rival products, predominantly manufactured in the USA.
Without the support of the big toy companies and with the country still in the midst of the Great Depression it was left to the backyard hobbyist to keep the dream alive. In the United States the first rail racers were actually model airplane enthusiasts led by Tom Dooling in 1937. Writing later in the June, 1940 issue of "Model Craftsman" magazine, Tom Dooling noted that he and his brothers were sitting around the fire in the living room of their Southern California home, discussing the day's activities at the Los Angeles Model Airplane field located at Rosecrans and Western... at that time a barren field that was affectionately known to hobbyists as the Dust Bowl. In his article, Dooling described himself as: "an ardent model airplane fan, had a plane of my own, and like most amateurs in aero-dynamics, I managed to bring my plane home in pieces after each Sunday's flying escapade.
"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.
In November 1939, the B. B. Korn Specialty Manufacturing Company of Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, offered its first commercial race car product, the Meteor. It was one of the few cars with a sheet metal body. B. B. Korn's first Indy car was produced in 1940, The cars were cast aluminum with louvered sheet aluminum hoods and belly pan. These were top-of-the-line cars and so were their prices. Every Indianapolis car was personally assembled by hand by Barney Korn and an assistant. In 1949 a Dooling 61 engine was installed in a British tethered hydroplane with an immediate and quite controversial impact. During the early post-war period in the UK, importation of American engines by was impossible. During this period, the tethered hydroplane scene in Britain was the domain of the home-built two and four stroke motors. The outright hydroplane speed record had been continuously held by British home-built engines from 1936 onwards but when
George Stone installed the American engine in his "Lady Babs II" hydroplane he immediately extended the existing British outright speed record from 51.7 mph to 70.1 mph causing quite a backlash against imported US commercial engines, which were seen by many as representing unfair competition allowing racers to "buy" their way to success.
Around the World on Four Wheels and a Guide Shoe
During the 1960s when the slot car craze was in full swing the United States could rightfully be considered the center of the slot car universe. Fast forward 50 years and Italy along with Spain can be described as one of the centers of multi-polar slot car world, with flexi and retro racing centered in the United States, Eurosport in Eastern Europe, 1/32 and 1/24 Scale Racing in Italy and Spain with a strong push for composite chassied LMP racing in Germany and 1/32 racing in the United Kingdom.
The slot car scene is of course is more diverse than that with scale racing taking place in the Pacific Northwest and Flexi racing in Spain but each type of racing has a distinct center of gravity. In this article we will attempt to travel this multi-polar world stopping at various spots to discover the richness that makes up our hobby. READ MORE
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