Race Cars in Your Living Room
January 1962 American Modeler Article
(or maybe not), electric slot car racing is still fairly popular
amongst kids. I say surprisingly because with radio control electric
cars being under $10 in some cases, it is a wonder that anyone these
days wants anything that confines a car to a specific course or
has to plug into the wall to work. Back in the 1950s and 1960s,
slot car racing was very popular. I can remember even into the 1970s
that some of the bigger hobby shops still had slot car tracks set
up where you could rent time on the track for a buck or so an hour.
If you didn't have your own car, you could rent one there. My good
friend, Jerry Flynn, was a slot car aficionado and would lend me
one of his spares. I think the hobby shop we went to was in either
Bethesda or Rockville, Maryland. It was quite a drive from our neighborhood
around Annapolis. While typing out these words I can remember the
smell of the electrical arcing of the motor brushes heating the
oil we put on the axels and motor bushings. Ah, those were the days...
Race Cars in Your Living Room
"Race Cars in Your Living Room" in the previous issue gave background
details on the rapidly expanding field of model electric cars. Now
let's examine more closely the cars themselves, the tracks and accessories.
The prospective buyer's first step is to consider what he wishes
to get from the car outfit. Is it to be added to an existing model
train layout? If this is the case, you can pick a make that closely
matches your train scale, no matter what the latter may be.
High excitement at Rich's Hobbytowne in Parsippany, N.J.,
for finals in 2-state competition. AM's Howard McEntee (A)
and Rich Palmer (B) observe. Aurora track and equipment.
As we've noted, "scale" is a tricky matter, and the car makers
aren't always in agreement on their terminology. Thus we find cars
supposed to match HO trains in scale size rated in various ways,
the most common being simply to HO scale. But the Aurora cars correctly
listed as "HO scale" measure only about 1 7/8" long. Minic Motorways
cars also said to be in HO scale are listed "1:80 scale," their
smallest cars measure 2 13/16" in length. The English Wrenn vehicles,
labeled 1/52 scale, are under 3" long. So you had better take your
ruler (for a good understanding of this scale matter see A. M. for
July, 1961, page 28) when you go shopping.
If you enjoy "customizing"
cars, the larger sizes may be of more interest; you can add details
to them more easily. Some of these come in kits, which the do-it-yourself
hobbyist may prefer. The two Strombecker lines (1/32 and 1/24 scale)
are in this category. So are the Hawk and Lindberg models - see
Should your preference run to competitive racing, you should consider
the space you have available to set up a track. To put together
a really extensive race track for the larger cars you will need
quite a lot of area. Just because they are tiny, don't think the
"HO scale" systems can't be used for real racing! We examined a
very comprehensive 4-track racing layout with four hair-pin turns,
six right angles and a long straightaway constructed on an area
less than that of a ping pong table top - and it is a raceway that
taxes the skill of the most accomplished driver. The track, set
up at Rich's Hobbytowne (Parsippany, N.J.), is used for a regular
schedule of races by a large and enthusiastic group of youngsters.
Typical ITC Model Craft layout is not for the faint hearted!
Scalextric course above demands steady hand on the tight
Strombecker car close-up shows how contact is made between
car and "hot" section of track.
Aurora's unique motor car is true
Some modelers make a real effort to keep the length of each
lane exactly the same, when they set up such a track. This insures
that each car will travel the same distance. Actually, this is not
quite as important as you might suspect; the cars on the "outside"
most of the time will have larger radius turns and can go through
the turns faster...and with less danger of "spinning out."
Some makes offer much more in the line of accessories than others,
and if you go for scenic effects, better check the catalogs to see
what is available.
To give an idea of sizes of tracks of
various makes, we include a sketch showing typical cross sections.
Note that one make of car usually cannot operate on another manufacturer's
track. Some can be switched about - it depends upon power system,
pickup strips and slot size. Your hobby dealer can help you in this.
Some makes offer facilities for adding more lanes to the basic
track. Most track sections carry two lanes; the larger ITC has one.
Scalextric makes sections so that you can assemble road-ways of
up to six lanes which allow six cars to make a genuine Le Mans start.
This outfit does not use a rigid plastic material for the track
- theirs is more flexible and rubbery; it should prove practically
Some lines include junctions (also called "turn-offs"...they
operate like switches on model railroads). A.C. Gilbert has a tricky
6-switch T-section, for example. While cross-overs are quite common,
most unusual one is a "scissors" from ITC, which can be adjusted
to vary the angular difference between the crossing tracks. Quite
a few makes have bridges of one sort or another; with these, you
can make a figure eight without a crossover, or add other hazards
or points of realism in your layout. Most bridges use normal straight
and flat track sections up and over the hump, so the car must be
slowed to negotiate the rather abrupt angular changes. Minic Motorways
has curved sections for bridges (as viewed from the side) so transition
from flat track up over the bridge and back down is smooth. While
it wouldn't do to put it in the midst of a racetrack, this same
line also has a "traffic circle" for inclusion in a model highway
You can get an automatic lap counter in one line
(Eldon) to reduce arguments as to "how many laps still to go." The
A.C. Gilbert track is unusual in that besides two standard current
pickup strips there is a third in the track guide slot; this makes
it possible to drive two cars on the same lane, each under independent
control. The Wrenn (English) line has sections which allow a car
to be shifted from one lane to another at will. These operate by
pressing a button on the special section, remote control may be
Most cars have a pair of pickup contact springs
on the underside, that press down against two matching metal strips
in the track. The springs must be strong enough to make good contact.
In some of the smallest cars these springs lift the front wheels
off the track so they never turn. Triang Minic cars have an unusual
pickup, a double sided metal wheel with insulation between the sides.
As the wheel rides in the track slot guiding the car, its metal
halves pick up power from strips mounted vertically on each side
of the slot. The pick-up wheel must revolve, of course, since the
front weight of the car rests on it, and it is also mounted to turn
sideways, so it can follow the slot in curves. The makers call the
mounting a "gimbal ring"; it was adapted and miniaturized from a
similar unit used on early Scalextric cars. The latter now has a
more conventional guide pin, plus a pair of sprung pickup shoes.
Speaking of guide pins - and all these cars must have a pin
or something to keep them in their track - Minic has a cute trick
in this line. Normally the guide pins (or the pick-up wheel, on
Minic cars) are at the front, and they swing the car around a turn
very neatly, as the car travels forward. But what happens if you
should want to back up - you would seldom wish reverse movement
with racers, but for city roadways you might? With that pin in the
slot at one end of the car and the drive wheels on the other end,
the car would soon be crossways, with no drive power. Minic cars
have a slot in the rear of the chassis for a Reversing Peg; snap
one in the chassis and you have guides at each end of the vehicle
- and it will go backward just as well as forward. Since Minic makes
several styles of busses, users would probably fit the peg to these
in any case, since you certainly wouldn't want your bus to "drift"
around a sharp bend!
The "expert" hobbyists haven't decided
among themselves whether a race car does better with full steerable
front wheels or not. Some home built cars are so fitted these days,
some aren't. Steerable front wheels add quite a bit of complication
- which means higher cost in manufactured cars - but there is no
doubt that they look more realistic in operation. In the makes examined
we find only two with this feature. The Gilbert cars have the front
wheels pivoted "buggy-style," they pivot as though they were on
a solid axle with a center pin. They do turn, though, and are controlled
by a double slot pin, so these cars actually steer through a turn
instead of skidding.
Only one make uses true Ackerman steering, such as you find on autos.
The larger Strombecker cars have it as an option, the assembly being
combined with a current pickup unit, these parts being used to convert
the non-operating 1/24th scale cars for running on Strombecker track.
Two motors have also been used in the Strombecker line, a light
duty 3 volt type and a more potent unit with carbon brushes that
works on higher voltage.
Speaking of motors, there is quite
a wide variety in use. A few makes use 5-pole armature model train-type
motors (Gilbert and Scalextric, for example). Most others use 3-pole
motors of various types. As you'll note from the Specifications
chart, several makes operate on low voltage - 1 1/2 to 3 volts -
but most run from 6 to 12 volts. Batteries can be used to run any
of these motors, but power packs generally are more practical if
a lot of running is to be done. Since practically all the motors
require DC (Aurora and Wrenn exceptions - they will run nicely on
either AC or DC) small model train power packs with built-in rectifiers
Chart provides rundown on most slot
car track types.
By now your hobby shop should be able to supply
All motors except the last two employ a conventional rotating
armature. Aurora and Wrenn use vibrator motors; they have a magnet
coil, adjacent to which is a vibrating armature that controls a
pair of contacts which are normally closed. When power is turned
on the armature is attracted to the magnet, this opens the circuit.
The armature thus vibrates like that on a door buzzer. Attached
near the free end is a flat spring that engages teeth on a ratchet
gear which is part of the rear axle. As the armature moves up and
down the ratchet gear turns the wheels.
The Marx cars will be driven by a jewel-like PM motor with carbon
brushes. Racing enthusiasts are waiting to try these against the
vibrator-motor Auroras, a contest that appears quite feasible, since
the slot size and power strip arrangements are almost identical
(track sections of the two lines won't mate due to different end
Representative slot car track sizes.
Before we leave cars, it should be emphasized
that there is a great variety of types. The majority are racers,
and that's all you find in some lines. But some concerns offer trucks,
buses, Go-Karts...you can even get an Allis-Chalmers farm tractor
Among the accessories are power packs
and controllers. Most of the packs have no speed control lever on
them (as you find on some model train packs) since you want to control
the operation of two or more cars individually on their separate
lanes. Various arrangements are offered for this; simplest are push
buttons - hold the button down and the car goes (wide open) let
it up and power is cut off. This is not as crude as it sounds, some
of the hottest drivers prefer such control; to send the car along
at less than full speed they "pulse" the button "on" and "off" rapidly.
Short on pulses give slower speeds, to increase it you lengthen
the on-time and shorten the off. Several makers offer variable control
units; that by Scalextric is held in the hand, and is normally off.
The harder you press a thumb slide, the faster the car goes. The
Gilbert controller to be fastened to the table top has a lever at
the side looking something like an accelerator pedal (you put it
back and forth with your hand). The Aurora controller, is also a
table-top deal, has a hand wheel to vary the car speed. Eldon offers
While we've said a lot about special types
of track, it shouldn't be overlooked that several makers offer cars
which don't need special track, a couple more don't use any track
at all. The first type run on standard HO train track. The Lionel
car is a double worm drive job (all four wheels driven). The Atlas
unit is moved at a fast clip by an air prop. For those who have
HO trains these allow one to try something much different for a
change (they can also be had in complete sets). The "no-track" car
is by Hawk - actually it does use a guide, a length of string. Hawk
cars come in kit form only, are fairly large size and thus good
for "customizing," carry batteries internally for power. Hawk has
worked out an arrangement whereby several of their cars may be started
simultaneously in a true drag race. The Lindberg cars which come
only as kits, use a length of plastic tubing as a guide. They carry
their power internally, are packed two in a set, with a 36' length
You must agree, there is a surprising variety
of model electric car equipment on the market. By the time you've
read this, we imagine there will be even more!
Posted January 17, 2014
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