Slot Cars Posts

Designer Notes: The 1960s French Slot Car Racing Scene

Lincoln Futura Philippe de LespinayPhilippe 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.


We recently looked at one of the large scale slot cars that Philippe de Lespinay designed for Cox in the 1970s. As he was beginning his career as a professional model designer, he was also a member of a growing community of slot car racers in France who actually raced for money in the 1960s. Here are some recollections and his cars and the French racing scene…


In the 1960s, slot car racing hit France in a big way. I was caught in the fad and spent much of my time on this new hobby that I loved. I’ve never stopped since, save for an interruption of 21 years between 1973 and 1994.

I began as a simple amateur in Paris, first using Revell cars since, working for the Heller plastic kit manufacturer, I had access to some samples they were thinking about importing. Quickly I found that they were not up to the job and began making my own. 

vintage mirage slot car 1960s philip de lespinay

There were two main raceways in the city, one by the Opera, one in Neuilly, a chic suburb near the Etoile plaza. That one was my “home raceway” and was located on Erlanger Street, and was simply called by the fans, “Erlanger.” The raceway had four huge Revell tracks, the largest having over-and-under passes that made the car invisible to the driver for what seemed like an eternity. The raceway was extremely clean, well appointed and run by Raymond Ami, a person who later became Honda France’s racing manager. Every evening, the Erlanger center had “money races” where the racers would pay a 10-Franc (like 2 bucks) entry fee and the winner collected actual cash in the amount of 30 to 45 Francs ($6.00 to $9.00) depending on the number of entrants.

Those races, run on the “smaller” tracks, were my favorite hunting ground… many evenings for a period of a little over two years, I would show up with a contraption built from Dynamic bits and a Russkit Lotus 40 body, later a highly-chopped Lancer Ferrari 350 Can-Am body. The early cars had an inline motor, generally built from a Mabuchi or Hemi can, an armature rewound by Yours Truly with Mura silver wire, epoxied and tied with very strong fiberglass thread, and a Tradeship commutator. Later cars had sidewinder-mounted Mabuchi FT26 motors de-wound by Hot Slot.


This well-used Ferrari was one of those evening prowlers that kept me cash-rich to purchase the parts needed to build more of them as well as a good dinner at the raceway’s cafe and the gas to go home in my Peugeot 404 wagon.

vintage ferarri slot car 1960s philip de lespinay

The chassis was standard Dynamic fare with hinged brass tongue, my own body mount, and my own version of a Hemi can, fitted with one of my arms (generally a double 27 wind) and Mura Magnum 88 magnets. The endbell was from a Cox TTX150 motor. The pretty front mag wheels were from a Dynamic Super Bandit, while the rears were Cox aluminum screw-on with Classic gray sponge tires (now fossilized!)

vintage ferarri slot car 1960s philip de lespinay


vintage hand made slot car motors

My later cars used hand-built wire frames with brass-plate drop arms and Dynamic guides. This Ferrari 350 has Riggen wheels, a rewound FT26 motor using a Champion 601 can and endbell and one of my rewound arms. The chassis uses pillow blocks with large ball bearings, and is not soldered but… brazed with bronze welding rod. With a Mirage body, it finished in third place at the 1000KM of Paris in 1967, and was pictured in the French magazine “Champion” reporting the race.

My motors were assembled as best as I could with the limited means and technology available to us then, but these have survived quite well. One has a Champion “507R” endbell, I must have been a millionaire that day!  Right: Some of the surviving armatures. All are double or triple wound on Hemi blanks, epoxied, tied, and statically balanced (there were no dynamic balancers available in France)

pdl-1967-armatures


This car, another 350, has quite an interesting story: it won the 1000KM race in Bad Godesberg, Germany, in 1967. A team of six French drivers and this machine defeated nine other teams from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the UK and Sweden on a 10-lane speed-bowl in that city.

vintage hand made 350 slot car motors

The track was a huge 10-lane elongated figure 8, not the least challenging, and it was a true speed bowl. Most of the foreign teams quickly gave up on their own cars and did like the locals, purchasing new Fleicshmann Lotus 40 kits as they ruled the track. Well, we (the French team) stuck to our guns, and while slower, we gained on reliability and inflicted a huge defeat to the other teams.

vintage hand made 350 slot car motors

The car had a built-up wire frame, (See photo at the top of this article) a Swiss-built Buhler can with a genuine Mura silver-wire #26 arm (we used two to win the race, that lasted 53 hours!), and multiple sets of homemade rear tires on home-machined extra-wide hubs. The rubber used was by Classic and was doubled to get enough width.


As time passed, brass became the material of choice and brass rod and tubing became more available, so I built this Lancer-bodied Chaparral that was quite an effective car.

vintage hand made lancer slot car motors

The fenders on the Lancer body were flared using the American pro-racing technique taught to us in the few slot car racing magazines we were getting from the USA by our idols, Morrissey, Steube, and cohorts. We used to devour those publications as soon as they arrived, then we would rush home and copy the latest chassis design, or rewind our motors following the latest specs… We were totally addicted. Those were the days!

vintage hand made lancer slot car motors


vintage hand made russkit slot car motors

This one, I remember well and it was inspired by the early Team Russkit cars. The main difference with the American cars is that I used a can-side drive for the motor to get more weight onto the rear wheels and could not understand why the Americans were using the endbell-side drive system… all that was to change in early 1968 when we heard of the angle-winders.

vintage hand made russkit slot car motors


 Somehow, some of my old cars survived all these years and were acquired a few ago by Scott Bader for his museum in Los Angeles.

Designer Notes: Cox Can-Am Manta Slot Car

Lincoln Futura Philippe de LespinayPhilippe 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 Can-Am Manta Slot Car

Cox Can Am Manta slot car design sketch

In 1973, I was by Cox Toysthe famous Santa Ana based toy maker. They had read my little “exploits” on the period magazines, building neat pro-racing slot cars and winning big events with them, so they contacted me and I accepted their offer. They needed someone knowledgeable to sort out the mess they inherited from Leisure Dynamics Inc, the parent company that had dumped the old Eldon slot car program upon them.

This was one of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had, basically being in a toy shop designing the toys and generally having a ball. LeRoy Cox was no longer the company owner but he still owned the large building on Warner Ave., and he would visit time to time, and this is when I met him. A delightful man who gave me a Cox Chaparral 2E toy, that I still have, and had it signed by Phil Hill 2 years before his untimely death.

First, I revised the Eldon track, designed new smaller cars featuring the first traction magnets ever placed on a slot car to enhance down force. Eight models were produced, all using the same basic chassis.

Cox Can Am Manta slot car

The new chassis was patterned after the professional slot cars I had built and raced in 1971-1972, using a two-piece chassis design with a floating, zinc plated steel pan. There were no flexible lead wires, I used instead some brass ribbons that applied contact to the motor when this was snapped into place.

Two of the new bodies cars were of my own design, Can-Am models inspired by the vacuum formed bodies I devised for pro racing. The original graphic design is seen at left. The traction magnet was fitted in a pocket under the rear axle. The body was mounted on the chassis using side clips, allowing prompt removal for  mechanical maintenance.

“Borrowed” Details Can Lead to Interesting Errors

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Every now and then, you look at a model car and notice a detail that just doesn’t look quite right. You start to wonder if the model is based on the actual car, or if perhaps the measurements and details came from somewhere else. In many cases, a model company will “borrow” part of a casting and modify it to their own purposes, not realizing there were some incorrect features in the original. Or they may use an existing model for research, unaware that a certain detail should not be copied.

Here at hobbyDB, we love learning about diecast oddities like these, so we made sure to include features that allow users to link copies to their originals and vice versa. One of our favorites is the YatMing Porsche 911. You probably remember YatMing, a respectable company that made a large range of original castings, mostly in 1/24 and 1/18 scale.

Before that, however, they borrowed quite a few castings for their small-scale range. In the early 70’s, Corgi Toys created a nice, detailed original mold for their Porsche 911 Targa Police car in 1/43 scale, including an opening engine cover and doors. It also included an emergency light on the left side roof pillar… A couple years later, YatMing released a similar model. Even though the new model was much smaller (1/64 scale) and the detail was a bit fuzzier, and the engine bay and doors were sealed, there was a curious but familiar detail. The YatMing Porsche had an extra “opera” window in the left side roof pillar. Turns out that was where the police light was mounted on the larger original and nobody at YatMing realized that hole should have been filled in.

Corgi first offered this Porsche 911 casting in the late 1970s.

Corgi first offered this Porsche 911 casting in the late 1970s.

YatMing offered their own version of the Corgi 911 but forgot to plug the hole where the police light attaches.

YatMing offered their own version of the Corgi 911 but forgot to plug the hole where the police light attaches, turning it into an extra opera window.

 

Here’s another case… Husky was Corgi’s first attempt to steal a slice of the small scale action from Matchbox in the early 1960’s with cars like a 1959 Buick Electra coupe. Around 40 years later, a company called MEV created a slot car of a ’59 Buick Electra that looked an awful lot like the Husky model. Even though the body was shorter to fit the running chassis, some odd details such as a crooked driver side door panel line made it into the later version. Yep, MEV started with the Husky car and modified it to their needs. Completely different model in some ways, and yet so similar. MEV also made a station wagon version of this car, and while carving the lines for the extra doors, they still left the crooked line in place. Models of 1959 Buicks are hard to find in any scale, and these revised castings are otherwise even cleaner than the original, so no one seems to be complaining.

The original Husky 1959 Buick model (left) is a bit longer than the MEV slot car.

The original Husky 1959 Buick model (left) is a bit longer than the MEV slot car.

Can you think of any other instances where one company surreptitiously borrowed the molds or designs from another company? Post them below, and better yet, add them to the hobbyDB catalog!