Little Engines That Could: A Brief History of Slot Cars

For many kids growing up in the 1960s, slot cars were a regular part of Saturday afternoons. Even those who grew up after the little cars’ heyday have fond memories of the whirring sound echoing off the walls of a friend’s basement. Here’s a look back at these miniature racers that have entertained generations of drivers, both young and old.

[Photo courtesy of jurvetson, used under Creative Commons license.]

The Starting Line

The first slot cars were introduced in 1912 by the Lionel Train Company as an accessory for model train sets. The toy worked on a similar concept as Lionel’s trains, running on a pair of raised platforms with an electrified train track in a small trench down the middle. The two, 1:24 scale cars, each about 8” long, had conductors on the bottom that fit into the slot, powering the small motor, and helping guide the cars around the track. While the toys sold well, World War I cut Lionel’s European sales in half, so the company halted production to focus their efforts on better-selling train sets.

Over the next few decades, various companies and amateur model builders throughout the U.S. and Europe built toy cars that ran on diesel, rubber bands, and even wind-up, clockwork mechanisms. But electric cars were a rarity until the 1950s, when British racers brought them back thanks to their clean, quiet, and sustainable mode of propulsion. As before, slot cars were reintroduced as a toy train accessory, which meant they conformed to the most popular train size, OO scale (1:76), making the new cars about 2” long. Like the 1912 Lionels, the cars ran in slots, and even had adjustable speeds thanks to a hand-held, push-button controller.

The Golden Years

In the late 1950s, the Kustom Kar Kulture was just getting its start in America. Everyone was modifying their old jalopies with new paint jobs, souped up engines, and aftermarket add-ons. Likewise, British slot cars could be modified with tires that gripped the track better, high-performance motors, magnets to help the car stay on the track, and replacement conductors for better control. If you were really ambitious, you could even build a car from scratch, doing all your own soldering and wiring. The two cultures seemed like a natural fit, but the Atlantic Ocean was keeping them apart.

Then in 1960, the British company Playcraft Model Motoring had a slot car display at a London toy show. Representatives from Aurora, an American company that specialized in scale model kits, snatched up the American marketing rights for Playcraft’s slots. Within five years, Aurora had sold 25 million slot cars to eager kids, becoming the most successful line of slot cars in history.

Between 1961 and 1966 – the golden age of slot cars – there were around 3,000 commercial slot tracks built in hobby shops and corner stores across the U.S., with an additional 200 in Europe. Kids could go to their local raceway and pay about $2.00 for an hour of racing on tracks that often filled the room with twists, turns, and as many as eight racing lanes. One company, American Model Car Raceways, even made a business traveling the country to build tracks. Their biggest, nicknamed “The Purple Mile,” was 220’ long.

But even The Purple Mile was dwarfed by “The Monster,” a 475’ long, 6-lane track at the East Meadow Miniature Racing Association (EMMRA) in Long Island, New York, considered the longest track in America at the time (pictured above, courtesy of EMMRA Slot Racing).

As with any fad, the downturn was on the horizon. By 1968, only about 250 commercial tracks were left in America; a year later there were fewer than 50. Many people blame the hobby itself for this drop-off, by not properly regulating competitions. Without racing classes, it became nearly impossible for a new driver with an off-the-shelf car to compete against a long-time driver with a custom-built racer. Discouragement set in and the hobby lost fans in droves. Regulatory leagues were created to help, but it was too little, too late.

Still, the hobby was booming business during its peak years, bringing in over $500 million in annuals sales from 1963 – 1966. In today’s money, it would be a $3.3 billion per year industry.

The Pros

Other than bragging rights at your local track, being a great slot car driver wouldn’t appear to be a very marketable skill. But in 1965, Russkit, a popular brand of car, built the first professional slot car racing crew, including Mike Morrissey, Rick Durkee, Ron Quintana, and Len Vucci, who were dubbed “Team Russkit.” The team traveled the country – in matching blazers no less – hitting 50 tracks in three weeks to show local racers what the Russkit cars could do. Other companies followed suit and soon kids too young to drive real cars were on the corporate payroll.

Perhaps the best-known of the pros was the duo known as The Gold Dust Twins – Howie Ursaner and his best friend, Sandy Gross. Both were in their early teens when they drove for Team Russkit East and Team Cobra. Gross was known as an expert technician who could modify cars for maximum performance. Ursaner was primarily a driver, whose skills helped him win numerous competitions and prizes, including a full-sized Corvette when he was only 14. (With no driver’s license and nowhere to store the car, he was forced to sell it.)

After their slot car days were over, the Gold Dust Twins’ careers followed fairly predictable paths. Gross went on to design award-winning speakers for Polk Audio, while Ursaner is a dealer and collector of – you guessed it – classic Corvettes.

Racing Into the Future

Of course slot car racing continues today with a niche – but dedicated – community of drivers. The most popular sets sold today are considered HO scale (1:87), with cars measuring between 2” and 3”. With very few commercial tracks left in the United States, the hobby primarily lives on in fans’ basements. But with track pieces sold separately, there are some pretty impressive homemade tracks that rival the ones built during the commercial track era.

For example, James Harlan built the White Lake Formula One, an incredibly detailed, 1:32 scale track that reaches 145?, complete with 20? straightaways and a total of 19 turns, in his 1,000 square foot basement. (Photo courtesy of White Lake Formula One Ring.)

If you’re thinking about getting back into slot cars, the good news is not much has changed in the last 40 years. The only big shift in technology has been the introduction of digital controls. With older, analog sets, each car had to be in its own racing lane so it could be operated by a single controller directly plugged into that lane’s electrical supply. Digital slots, though, have a computer chip on-board each car that can be synced to a single controller, allowing more than one car per lane. This introduces a whole new aspect to slot car racing – strategy. Players can press a button on the digital controller to have their car pass others at special cross-over sections of the track. Cars can also be supplied with a finite amount of “gas,” meaning drivers have to take into account pit stops during the race. In addition, you can get a lot of race information with digital controls, like lap time and scale speed ratings.

Of course if you just want to set up the track, grip the controller and go, analog sets are still quite popular and even preferred by some drivers.

Big Names, Little Cars

In an effort to bring in new fans over the years, many slot car companies have produced sets that are based on a popular television show or movie. Most have a signature vehicle that would lend itself well to slot cars, like the Dukes of Hazzard, Batman, Back to the Future, Speed Racer, Transformers, Knight Rider, The A-Team, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Some properties, though, like the X-Men, Spider-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Simpsons are a bit of a stretch. Although strange, The Simpsons‘ one is at least creative – it features Bart and Homer on skateboards.

Brooklands Revisited

The Brooklands was the world’s first venue specifically built for motorsports. Opening in 1907 in Surrey, England, it was a 2.75-mile concrete track that was home to many automotive firsts. It closed in 1939 when the airstrip on its infield was needed for operations in World War II. After damage from enemy bombing and roads built for military purposes that cut through the track, it was never used for racing again.

That is until 2009 when James May, co-host of the popular British TV show Top Gear, presented a series of specials for the BBC called Toy Stories. The premise behind the show was to use old toys on a full-scale level, like when they built an actual Lego house. One episode featured May using Scalextric, Britain’s most popular brand of slot cars, to recreate the entire Brooklands track. The monumental task required 400 volunteers and 20,000 pieces of track to complete the circuit. But that was only half the challenge – many areas that were once covered by the racetrack have since been rebuilt as houses, businesses, a street, and even a small pond (they used an inflatable platform to get across). By the time they were finished, it was the largest slot car track in the world, beating out a 2007 entry that was an impressive 1.59 miles long.
* * * * *
Did you have a slot car track when you were a kid? Are you a racer today?

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
iStock
iStock

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
iStock
iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios