The history of Scalextric in the US
How US slot car racing was born
People’s desire to replicate and study our world in miniature has produced exciting literature and a fascination with model ships, houses, railways and much more. It is no surprise then, that barely a decade after the invention of the car itself, the Lionel Train Company in the US started manufacture of what are now recognised as the first slot cars. They used a track with a wide slot and battery-powered, electrified train rail in the middle. Conductors fitted to two 1:24 scale cars powered the small motor in each one, which propelled them along. This might sound familiar, but independent speed control was an optional extra.
These very first cars were pitched as animated models to complement model railways rather than racing toys in their own right. With the outbreak of World War I, European sales of these cars were hit drastically, so in 1915 the Lionel Train Company reverted solely to toy train manufacture. However, it was not long before a combined passion for the motor car and animated models re-emerged. By the late 1930s, a number of individuals had started building and racing their own 1:16 and 1:18 scale slot car models. These were dedicated and skilled enthusiasts and their slot cars often used clockwork or tiny internal combustion engines. Without any dynamic speed control, the cars were literally set off and, to prevent them escaping, they were either tethered from the centre of a circular track or used a centre rail.
The birth of Scalextric: The brainchild of inventor Freddie Francis
Across the Atlantic, Bentram “Freddie” Francis started a tool-making company in 1939, running a 24-hour operation through the war years. After the war, he turned his attentions to the gentler world of toys and founded Minimodels Ltd, which produced tin plate Scalex and Startex clockwork cars. By the 1950s, other modellers in the UK had started building electric cars; first with hand-built motors but most often using engines taken from model trains. In fact, it was at a London toy fair where Freddie Francis spotted one of these displays with battery-powered cars, but it was still missing that crucial element: speed control. So, it is in 1957 that the Scalextric story really starts. Francis finally launched a car racing kit at the Harrogate Toy Fair. It was a conversion of the company’s clockwork Scalex 1:30 range of racers to electricity, thereby creating the famous Scalextric brand.
The metal-bodied Maserati 250F and the Ferrari 375 Grand Prix cars were among the first slot cars made by Scalextric. The Maserati 250F still forms part of today’s exciting range of models. In 1958, Francis sold the brand to Lines Bros, the makers of Tri-ang model railways, which first introduced new plastic bodies for mass production. Scalextric also manufactured versatile sectional track which was of a quality suitable for racing yet convenient for home use and storage. Here in the US, it was all about competition and commerce in the form of public, multiple-lane slot car raceways and large hobby shops to support the passion.
There were many different model scales during these early years often originating from the popular model railway sizes of ‘HO’ in the US and ‘OO’ in Europe.
US gripped by ‘slot car craze’
By the 1960s, Scalextric’s 1:32 cars and Aurora's ‘Model Motoring’ HO line had set off the ‘slot car craze’, which is considered by many as the golden era of slot racing. Slot car racing was so popular, live events were even televised nationally. According to an independent survey taken for AMF in 1968; there were more slot car racing facilities than bowling alleys at that time.
Scalextric enjoyed this boom period, right through to the early 1980s. The biggest challenges, of course, came in the shape of the games console and home computer, drawing children and adults alike into a virtual world for their entertainment.
Embracing modern technology and Scalextric digital
Scalextric took an important strategic decision at this critical time and countered this threat by outsourcing manufacture to China in 1998, reducing costs and improving their manufacturing flexibility. While there has been no halt to the growth and popularity of the gaming industry, Scalextric has fought back and, more importantly, embraced this new age of technology.
In 2004, Scalextric Digital was launched – arguably the most significant point in the company’s history. With accurate timing, lane changing, the ability to perform pit stops or set up ghost cars to race against, Scalextric became more dynamic than ever. Most importantly, where large halls were once needed for wide tracks to allow multiple competitors to race against one another, the digital slot car revolution means multiple drivers can now race on a standard two-lane track, with competitive lane-switching and overtaking being at the heart of the game.
Scalextric slot cars set for new golden era
One of the enduring appeals of Scalextric is certainly down to the physical aspect of the slot cars. Of course, the real-world vehicle dynamics can be experienced, honed and improved but on an elementary level, there is also something tactile about the cars. Not only do they hurtle round, they can be handled and admired. The manufacturing process has also developed over the life of Scalextric and modern computer aided design means the accuracy of the cars has increased immeasurably, along with the capacity to build more complex models and bring new products to market faster.
Use of modern plastics rather than die-cast shells also ensures the ability to build to fine tolerances, thereby bringing out the finest details. In fact, Scalextric specifically champions its High Detail range of cars which are only possible using the latest manufacturing techniques. Whether it is stock car racing at Daytona Beach, the fast oval at Indianapolis or huddled round a domestic slot car racing track, competitive spirit has always been at the fore of human nature. Scalextric embraces this aspect and fully caters for those who are keen on competitive slot car racing with tuneable and customisable models and accessories. Even the standard cars have varied positions for the magnets, affecting their basic cornering and straight line speed dynamics.
So, whether it is designing a challenging track, delighting in the accurate scale models, the raw aspect of analogue racing or the integration of tablets and smartphones, slot car racing in general – and Scalextric in particular – really does have something for everyone. That’s why Scalextric believe slot cars are entering a brand new golden era.