Racing model cars around a miniature electrically-powered track is an idea that dates back to the 1930s, when Le Mans winner and ‘Bentley Boy’ Sir Henry Birkin first came up with a system that he tried to sell – but was rather too large and unwieldy for most households to manage.
It was Fred B. F. Francis who really got the ball rolling. He founded a company called Minimodels Ltd. in 1947 and made static tinplate models until 1952 when Scalex was revealed: a range of toy racing cars with a clockwork motor which was activated by pulling out the steering wheel.
In 1956, Francis relocated from London to Havant in Hampshire, where the next generation of Scalex was put into production, putting small electric motors into Scalex cars and running them on model railway track. Power was supplied by batteries hidden in a little cardboard hut, with players having their own on-off button to control their cars.
Scalex became Scalex-electric… then a clever marketing person renamed it Scalextric, which was launched upon an eager public in 1957 at a moment when Britain was winning virtually all that there was to win in international motor sport. Children of all ages were eager to recreate the exploits of Moss, Hawthorn and Hill, driving Jaguars, Coopers and Lotuses. Through Scalextric, they could do exactly that… and even the real drivers joined in the fun.
At its peak in the late 1960s, slot car racing was worth an estimated $500 million annually. Huge commercial tracks opened up across Britain, the USA, Australia and elsewhere. Diversity mirrored that of real-life motor sport, while home sets were sold and the army of model makers and miniature railway engineers found an outlet in building scenic layouts.
Slot car racing began to face stiff competition in the 1970s from radio control models, skateboards and other passing fancies. It was only in the era of the portable games console and PlayStation that the hobby was revived, perhaps as a means for older racers to rediscover past pleasures and also to drag the youth of today away from its pixellated never-land back towards taking part in something in the real world.
Slot car racing gives people of all ages and abilities the chance to take part in real motor racing with people who are in the same room as you are, who you can chat with and share a laugh. Success comes not from cheat codes but from preparing and maintaining your cars, learning and improving your race craft and gaining experience – it’s real motor racing. In miniature.