There are numerous reasons why 1957 is considered a vintage year for Formula One. Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, two of the sport’s greatest ever drivers, battled for title honours, between them winning all seven of the points-scoring races. At the same time, Rob Walker’s privately-entered Cooper took the first F1 victory for a mid-engined car and, of course, there was Fangio’s amazing final win at the Nürburgring.
All things considered, it set the scene rather nicely for Bertram “Fred” Francis to launch a toy that is now celebrating its 60th anniversary, the premise of which was to allow mere mortals to experience the thrill of motor racing in their own homes.
He called it Scalextric, a name derived from adding electric (“tric”) power to his tin-plate Scalex clockwork-powered cars. The very first cars were modelled on the classic Maserati 250F Grand Prix car, with mismatched tyres so that they drifted around bends – just the kind of realistic touch that has won Scalextric millions of fans and inspired countless young racers.
Another is that like Lego or Hornby trains, Scalextric is a toy that matures as you do, with so many layers to its appeal that a grown adult can derive as much enjoyment from it as a wide-eyed four-year-old.
It’s no surprise that a whole community of slot-car racers and collectors soon emerged, the former hooked on the thrill of simply going as fast as possible (search for videos online and prepare to be amazed), while the latter cherish the cars almost as pieces of art.
One man who knows all about this is Jamie Buchanan, a veteran of Hornby Hobbies, the British company that took over the running of Scalextric in the Eighties. Buchanan’s initial assignments involved transforming real cars into 1:32-scale replicas that could house a small motor and be fitted with a guide blade.
“We would take countless measurements and photographs of every car in full size, which we would then plot in two-dimensional CAD [computer-aided design],” says Buchanan, who now heads the product development department at Hornby.
A model maker would then turn these measurements into plastic cross sections of the car, which were used as the basis for a wooden model from which a mould could be taken. Such was the time required to obtain licences, take measurements and make the mould tools that it would be two years before a model finally hit the shelves.
Come the mid-Nineties and that was about to change. Buchanan says: “We bought a piece of 3D CAD software called PTC Pro/Engineer. Rather than measuring the cars, we are now sent data by the manufacturers or race teams, which we plot into the computer.” While not as easy as simply scaling down the data to Scalextric size, the software has helped bring lead times down to around 10 months.
It was at around the same time that Hornby moved Scalextric production from the UK to China, allowing ever more detailed models without having to increase the price for customers. Not that the relocation didn’t come at a cost, as much of Hornby’s workforce lost their jobs. “It was a turbulent time,” admits Buchanan, whose father was one of those made redundant.
“There was also a lot of flak from our customers about selling off the business. But once they started to see the product and realise that for the same amount of money they were getting more than they used to, they could see the benefit.
“It’s the level of decoration that’s the big difference, which is all down to labour. As soon as you have to assemble or decorate it becomes hard to be competitive in the UK.”
It is this decoration and attention to detail as much as the thrill of racing that has always defined Scalextric. How many of us remember drawing the curtains on a sunny day to recreate night racing at the Le Mans 24 Hours, headlights ablaze as our cars darted under – and swiftly crashed into – the dining room table?
“In the late Eighties we also introduced Magnatraction,” says Buchanan, referring to a magnet that’s used to help “stick” the cars to the track’s metal guide rails. “At first, we were sourcing earth magnets and retro-fitting them under the cars. Later, we would injection mould our own magnets so that they fitted precisely.”
These days, the cars have much smaller neodymium magnets, which are powerful enough to allow faster racing, but not so strong that players can’t still drift around bends, echoing those early mini-Maseratis built by Fred Francis.
Such incremental developments are all part of the challenge of any traditional toy trying to remain relevant in the age of the computer game. It can also be seen in the launch of digital technology in 2004 that allows up to six Scalextric cars to race over two lanes; and in 2014 with an app through which you can record lap times and share race results via social media.
Ultimately, though, what’s so satisfying about Scalextric is that its core principles and fundamental appeal are not wildly different from what was first seen in 1957. It is a realistic representation of motorsport that anybody can enjoy, be it as a toy, a hobby or, 60 years later, a simple shortcut back to the innocent joys of childhood.
One for every decade: limited edition Scalextric cars
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