Slot Cars Posts

Be Thankful For Slot Cars This Week

slot cars

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

There are no finer traditions for Thanksgiving than turkey with stuffing, binge watching football on TV all day, and trying to avoid politics around the dinner table. In our family, there’s one more important ritual: Setting up the slot car track in the basement. With our daughter Lillian out of school the entire week, and cold weather setting in (but optimal ski conditions still at least a month away), we need a good indoor activity for the whole family. So, I’ll be writing about all slot cars all week.

slot cars

The 2016 Thanksgiving slot car roller coaster.

slot cars

Full speed required here.

As you can see from the photos, we don’t take track design lightly. For 2016, we chose to design a layout on our air hockey table, which is about 6 by 3 feet. Gracefully crammed into that space is about 45 feet of track including multiple flyovers, lane changes, and a wicked multi-level loop-de-loop. “Dad, that’s not a race track,” said Lillian. “That’s a roller coaster!” In honor of that observation, she started making tiny passengers out of post-it note paper and sticking them to the cars to see if they could survive the ride. Results were mixed but pretty funny.

Our average time to design and set up the track is about five or six hours, plus a couple hours of fine tuning the layout before actual racing can take place. Sure, the layout might look finished, but upon testing, we usually discover dead spots, rough transitions, poorly banked curves, low clearances and other such technicalities that must be fixed. It’s a lot like civil engineering would be if they built the roads first and then drove different vehicles on them to see if they were safe. In this particular case, the course was initially set up to start in a clockwise direction, but after some test runs, it was determined that the cars could handle some of the curves, and especially the transitions in and out of the loop more effectively in the opposite direction.

slot cars

Lillian rigorously tests our 2016 course.

Our setup is consists of mostly Aurora AFX track, although there are some special bits from other brands, namely Tyco and Life-Like. The available cars are a mixture of vintage Aurora ThunderJets, Aurora AFX cars, Life-Like cars, and Tyco cars. Each brand has vastly different handling characteristics. The T-Jets are slow and not magnetized to stick to the track, so they’re best suited for flat, simple layouts. The Life-Like cars are our fastest overall. They can be adjusted to either run really fast but less sticky, or a bit slower but with more adhesion to the track (Unfortunately, all of our Life-Like cars wear NASCAR bodies, and the long overhangs front and back get caught in the transitions in the loop). The AFX cars are super sticky and don’t respond well to subtle speed adjustments.

slot cars

Various slot cars from Aurora, AFX, Life-Like and other companies await test runs.

slot cars

The winners this year are Hot Wheels racers from Mattel Racing.

While the other cars waited in the paddock, it turned out that the cars from Mattel Racing (based on Tyco chassis) were the best combination of performance factors for this year. Two in particular, designed after the Hot Wheels ’40 Ford Pickup dragster and the Twin Mill, work flawlessly.

slot cars

Our set up from 2008. Life was simpler then.

slot cars

Nigel waits for his prey to come around.

Above is a shot of our course from a few years ago. In years past, the track had been set up on the basement floor, which led to our dogs chasing the cars and damaging the track. With the hockey table now taking up some of that space, we decided to move to the higher altitude. As you can see, our cat is very curious about the very speedy mouse-sized projectiles whizzing around. He’s surprisingly gentle on the track itself, thankfully.

Below is a video of Lillian performing a successful lap with the blue Ford pickup. Most of the track is designed to handle best at moderate speeds. Our controllers are modified with a piece of foam under the trigger to keep from squeezing too hard unless necessary. If you watch closely, you will see that the loop, with its extra vertical straightaway requires a sudden burst of full throttle, quickly followed by a very light touch into the unbanked exit curve.

Six hours to engineer, ten seconds to circumnavigate, a lifetime of memories. So much to be thankful for.


Designer Notes: Professional Slot Car Racing

Lincoln Futura Philippe de Lespinay

NOTE: THIS IS THE FINAL INSTALLMENT IN THIS SERIES. We want to thank Mr. de Lespinay for sharing his archives with us and hope you enjoyed reading these posts! You can see an index of previous entries here.

Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

1970s slot car racing

Professional Slot Car Racing in the early 1970s

In 1970, I decided that it was time to leave Old Europe and go where opportunity appeared to smile to entrepreneurs. I packed my bags, took a one-way flight and landed in Maine. It was cold and damp, so I moved to California. After 6 months, I was right back racing slot cars, this time with the very heroes of the magazines…

I did OK, quickly thinking outside the envelope, designing my own stuff and eventually emerging on top by 1972, when I won the USRA Championship. By that time, my cars had become quite sophisticated and very fast, having set some world records in both speed and distance. Fortunately, I am a pack-rat so some examples survived, while I was able to find some that had gone away. Most have been now restored and are on display in an enthusiast museum in Los Angeles.

By 1972, pro-racing slot cars looked less and less like real cars and more like slot machines, strictly designed to go fast. But I always wanted my cars to look good too, as a form of respect for others as well as myself. So I had the bodies painted by expert earl Campbell, himself a world-record holder, and I painted the racing numbers and lettered them.

I am especially fond of this one, the 1972 car that won me my first of two “Western States Championships” that was restored with a replica body in 2006. The driver survived in another car and is now back in a replica of the original body painted by artist Jairus Watson in Oregon. The chassis and motor were restored, and new-old-stock parts were used throughout if missing.

1970s slot car racing

I built it in the spring of 1972 and used it in a couple of USRA warm-up races in the very competitive Southern California pro-racing scene, then apparently gave it to Team Mura’s Earl Campbell. I had already built him a sister car for the race set at “Speed & Sport” in Lynwood, California. He set fastest qualifying time and finished in second place in that race, the largest one that year in the United States. He used a very good motor built for him by Mura’s Bob Green, as well as one of the new M.A.C. Ferrari 612 bodies. With a nearly identical sister car fitted with a Team Checkpoint 24-1/2 single, I won that race and all the marbles by a mere lap. This is how I restored this grand old lady of a car, with the help of my friends Mike Steube, Bryan Warmack and Jairus Watson.

1970s slot car racing

1970s slot car racing

I had given a car to my friend Bryan Warmack in a trade, but it had the wrong bits, so I took it back from him and restored it as it originally was, the back-up car for the WS winning machine. The restored chassis is shown above. I made a nice little presentation display for Bryan from a Carrera slot car box and color copies of period documents.

Ron Granlee, then owner of the famed Speed & Sport raceway in Lynwood, CA, had used the car shown below in 1972. Ron was paralyzed and in a wheelchair, barely able to move one finger and slightly turn his head. Ron had asked me to build him a car for an important USRA race and I built two. Famed slot car artist Keiji Kanegawa painted the bodies, Bill Steube Sr. donated the motors, and I put the cars together. Ron qualified and did quite well, setting a new amateur record at 4.26″.

1970s slot car racing

Unfortunately the car was quite damaged during the attempt, so Ron raced the other car in the actual main event. I retained one of the cars, while Ron kept the other and eventually my friend Dennis Hill ended up with it. I asked another friend, Barry Obler to paint a replica of the body and he did a great job. I simply had to add some lettering and black body lines, and paint the rear view mirror and its shadow as per the Keiji original. The chassis needed a lot of repair work and was somewhat rusty but I managed to save most of it. Fortunately and thanks to the few who have donated material to our museum, we had a correct S25 Steube armature and I built a motor from a used Mura C-can, in the style of how Bill would have done it then.

1970s slot car racing

The car was then assembled, tested (it runs GREAT), and placed in a little showcase with a Photoshop compilation of a picture of the car taken in 1972, part of the very article Ron wrote for Miniature Auto Racing where he describes his qualifying, and a picture of Ron from “The Scale Competitor”, a rare one-issue newspaper published in 1973. We kept all this from Dennis Hill of course, so it was quite a surprise for him when I gave him the finished product, and he was crying like the proverbial water tap, which in fact was the intent. See, we LIKE to see Dennis being emotional because that is when he is at his best.

Designer Notes: The First Magnet Traction Slot Cars

Lincoln Futura Philippe de Lespinay

Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

Cox 1973 1/43 SuperScale Cars

cox magnet traction slot car

The diminutive car had an injected plastic Lancer McLaren chassis and guide similar to that of a TycoPro car, and a rubber magnet had been glued to the back of the chassis so as to allow for drifting. The body was mounted on a hinged mount and much lead weight was used to keep the nose down.

The Cox SuperScale cars were the the world’s First Magnet Traction Slot Cars available to purchase. About 300000 of them were produced and marketed mostly in racing sets from 1973 to 1977, and there were a total of 8 different bodies. The bodies were ultra-light styrene moldings, factory painted in correct colors. The original patterns were crafted by ex-Lancer and M.A.C. mold wizard Lloyd Asbury. The chassis was molded in glass-filled nylon and had a snap-in separated front end suspension, flat brass contact rails replacing conventional lead wires and an inline diode allowing either car to run on either lane of a two-lane track. A snap-in motor with automatic gear mesh, aluminum wheels with soft vinyl tires and a fixed pin-style guide blade were the other notable and unusual features. The guide retainer also locked the zinc plated floating steel pan in place. This pan was not used on the two Eagle and McLaren Indy cars.

Besides the Indy cars, there were a Bob Sharp Racing Datsun 240Z, a Brumos Porsche 911RSR and NASCAR K&K Insurance Chevelle and Penske Racing AMC Matador, plus a pair of Can-Am “fantasy” cars, a “Manta” and a “Torero” designed somewhat after the M.A.C. Porsche “917-30” favored by pro racers in 1973.

Cox Magnet Traction slot car

The Manta and its sister car, the Torero, used a novel chassis design with an added magnet set behind the rear axle, creating down force, the first production slot car in the world such equipped. Other features were a snap-in motor contacting stamped sheet brass lead wires and fixed gear mesh and a pin guide. The chassis material allowed the use of itself as bearing material for the rear axle while a floating front end was fitted with push-on independently rotating wheels.

The story began in May 1970 when Philippe de Lespinay, a young Spanish-born immigrant raised in France and other European countries landed a job at Innova Inc. a consulting company based in Playa del Rey, California. There, he was put in charge of a new program for the then-ailing Matchbox Company, to design a new HO scale racing set to compete with Aurora and Tyco. Beset by poor traction from the available rubber compound and inspired by the suction caused by motorized fans in the Chaparral 2J Can-Am car, he devised the idea of using a magnet to create down force over the tiny cars. While magnet traction had been used in model trains before (and full-size trains as early as the 1890’s), it was through direct contact of motorized steel wheels, not through ground effect, making this concept quite different in its function and purpose.

It worked splendidly and the program was sold to Matchbox, which promptly filed for bankruptcy and re-organization. Prototypes of this idler-gear, sidewinder car survived to this day.

After the demise of Matchbox, Philippe attempted to sell this new concept to several companies. First to Al Riggen for whom Philippe designed the well-known Riggen inline HO car, then to Hiram Johnson of Dynamic for which he penned an angle-winder HO car. Both these gentlemen refused to accept the idea, outraged by what they considered would “kill the hobby”.

In 1971, a picture of one of the prototypes was shown in Miniature Auto Racing, and in 1972, an article in Car Model showed a new application of magnet traction invented by Tom Bowman and fitted on a Bachmann HO car. This used “refrigerator” magnets. Tom and Philippe were apparently unaware of each other’s work, and Tom succeeded in selling his idea to Auto World, which marketed the concept and product as an add-on item beginning in 1973.

Meanwhile, Philippe had spent two years into establishing himself as a respected professional slot car racer, and had helped advancing the technology of both slot cars and controllers to the point where many controllers sold to this day still sport a frame he designed for Parma in 1972.

Cox Magnet Traction slot car

A spread from the 1974 Cox slot car catalog showing the full range of Magnet Traction cars

 In early 1973, Philippe was hired by the Cox Hobbies Company to salvage the Eldon slot car program inherited from the Leisure Dynamics holding company. He did not waste much time in convincing Bruce Paton, then manager of the R&D department, to adopt the magnetic traction system for the updated vehicles. Thus, Cox introduced the world’s first production slot car with a separate traction magnet.

Aurora followed suit in 1975 with their “Magna-Traction” cars using the pancake motor’s own magnets, then issued the Super-G in 1976 with metal plates increasing the potency of the magnets to create greater down force. Today, most competitive HO-scale cars follow this principle.

cox magnet traction slot cars

Interestingly, more recent TSR cars also designed by de Lespinay take a lot of their inspiration from these 38-year old cars, while adding improvements especially in the impact strength department, and reverting to a scale more acceptable to the average hobbyist. As in the TSR, the SuperScale uses a fixed gear mesh, taking the equation out of the hands of the occasionally clumsy hobbyist. This mesh was and still is today, the smoothest ever seen on any production slot car of any scale.

These cars were marketed in the USA and Canada but were issued at a time when the whole hobby was at an all-time low, and after about 150000 sets were produced over 4 years, Leisure Dynamics, then owners of the COX company, pulled the plug on the program as sales were no longer sufficient to justify continuing production.

It took much longer for the Euro designed 1/32 scale home-racing cars to adopt magnet traction. the earliest examples dating from the late 1970’s. Their design first followed that of the Cox Superscale bar magnet, but later, the Spanish designers discovered neodymium computer magnets and fitted the available small circular units in their models. However, this was quite inadequate and caused erratic handling as the magnets were too narrow and failed to offer the promised benefit as soon as the cars were pushed harder into corners. Over the last 10 years, most 1/32 and 1/24 production slot cars evolved and are now using magnet design and location closer and closer to the basic design of the bar magnet introduced by the Cox SuperScale car in 1973, and lately, several have also adopted the front magnet devised by Philippe for a car built for his wife and entered in a proxy race in October 2000.

Cox Magnet Traction slot car

The M.A.C. Porsche 917-30 body is still used in retro racing today. At right, the Cox SuperScale bodies were the thinnest and lightest injected slot car bodies ever produced, lighter in fact than most HO shells! A “lay-down” driver was pushed in place on two small tabs molded into the body. A separate wing and engine dynamic scoop were fitted. In fact, the patterns for both were created by the same pattern maker, Lloyd Asbury, from designs by Philippe de Lespinay.

Designer Notes: Balsa Wood Cox Alfa Romeo 33 Slot Car

 Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

Balsa Wood Alfa Romeo 33: A Major Mistake (but what fun it was!)

balsa wood alfa romeo 33 slot car

In search of the ultimate lightweight, I built this crazy car in 1968 using a Dynamic Alfa Romeo “33” body over a balsa-wood cum light-gauge piano wire chassis, that for unknown reasons, survived for the last 41 years and counting.

balsa wood alfa romeo 33 slot car

The original body was French blue, I will have to paint this replacement some day, or maybe not because it clearly shows the intricacies of my engineering heresy! 

The original was powered by a Champion “Bob Cozine Signature” motor, and that thing was fast, but the noise was incredible as the chassis resonated like a violin!

balsa wood alfa romeo 33 slot car

Shelby American Collection Showcases Much More Than Cars

Shelby American Collection museum

Just a few of the GT-40, Mustang, and Cobra cars at the Shelby American Collection in Boulder

If you were to list all the automotive meccas in the United States, you wouldn’t immediately think of Boulder, Colorado. But it’s the home of the Shelby American Collection, a museum of anything and everything related to Shelby cars and the man behind them. The actual cars on display can vary from month to month, so frequent visits are worthwhile. Several cars are on loan from their owners, and the museum buys and occasionally sells items from their collection to keep things fresh.

The museum has been working with hobbyDB to create an online archive of these items (there are literally thousands of pieces, so it’s a long-term project). We’re also their partner via their official online store, selling limited edition posters, books, and other collectibles.

Besides the cars, there is a treasure trove of other pieces of great interest. There are models of various Shelby-related race cars… miniature GT-40s, Mustangs, and Cobras abound. But many other bits of memorabilia are on display as well.

Shelby America Collection AMT slot car Cobra

This 1/25 scale Cobra slot car kit is based on the non-motorized AMT model.

The marketing for street versions of the GT-40 was very much open to the public in those days. If you walked into a Ford dealer in the mid-60s, you might find a salesman wearing this button. They might have even let you take home a brochure with all the specs. As indicated by the sales literature, however, you weren’t likely to find the actual car for sale on the lot, but instead had to be measured for it (and probably put down a hefty deposit.)

We’re not sure what Carrol Shelby’s Pit Stop Deodorant smells like, but gasoline and burning rubber are probable ingredients. Either way, it was marketed as “A real man’s deodorant,” and who could argue with that?

Shelby American Collection pin hood badge doedorant

Shelby’s own brand of deodorant, a dealer button, and a badge from the first year Cobras.

Another fun piece in the collection is an LP record of the sounds of Le Mans. This recording featured the sounds of the crowd and the cars, as well as commentary from legendary participants including Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill and Mr. Shelby himself. For extra bonus points, this copy is signed by Dan Gurney.

There are some very rare parts on display including several complete engines, spare body panels, nameplates and badges.

Shelby American Collection press release record brochure

Press release announcing the Cobra racing team, the sounds of 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race (in case you weren’t there in person), showroom brochure, and California Manufacturer plate.

The museum also includes pieces that most of the general public never would have seen, such as press release materials and company documents. There are also many volumes of racing programs, tickets and pit passes from events where these cars competed.

Shelby American Collection slot car AC Cobra

Here’s an Aurora AC slot car…

Shelby American Collection Tycopro slot car

… and a Tycopro Cobra slot car.

See that license plate above? Sure, California black plates are special, but this one is really exotic. It’s a special plate for automobile manufacturers, with “013” designating the Shelby garage. The museum reported shelled out around $30,000 for it. And you thought tags were expensive in your state!

If you’ve never had a chance to see the Shelby American Collection, it’s as good an excuse as any to plan a trip to Boulder. The collection is usually only open to the public on Saturdays, so plan accordingly! In the meantime, you can visit the ever-growing archives on hobbyDB.