The Great Slot Car Menace

Every now and then, something enters the scene which just scares the daylights out of an industry.  Think about how movie theater owners felt about television in the early days of the technology.  As it turns out, they really had something to be scared about, sixty years later.

So, too, consider that many pest control companies in the early 1950’s got the Big Scare when DDT first entered the scene.  This new insecticide was so effective that many pest control operators changed their business models, moving over to lawn maintenance and cleaning swimming pools. They reacted because they viewed that their exterminating businesses would no longer be needed when all the insects were killed by DDT.  Of course, this did not turn out to be the case at all.

In the late 1950’s, what was viewed to be a sizable threat appeared on the model railroad scene, the slot car.  And, like any industry that considered itself to be under attack, the model railroad industry tried to react.

The technology itself was relatively simple. There were track pieces that had two slots (for guidance of the vehicles) and four electrical contacts (which delivered electricity to the vehicles). The track pieces were fitted together to form a loop, and the vehicles were typically operated with hand held controllers. There was an element of skill involved, since if the vehicle was traveling too fast, it would fly off of the track. But the general idea was to go as fast as possible, preferably faster than your opponent.

In comparison, model railroading looked boring, which it was.  While model railroading was largely a personal event, slot car tracks required two people in competition, a fundamental difference. The war was on.

By 1963, one of the major magazine publishers acknowledged what was called “Miniature Motoring”.  Which sounded a lot nicer than drive fast as all hell.

The Model Trains Yearbook was published for several years in the early 1960’s. It was one-stop shopping for beginners, with articles about model railroad techniques. It also had a comparison guide to H0 model train sets. Although there were other sizes of model trains, such as 0-Gauge and TT-Scale, H0 represented a large portion of the market.

The 1963 Yearbook barely mentions model motoring, with the prominent Model Trains logo saying, in smaller letters, “Including Miniature Motoring”. Inside were 14 different slot car sets inside from Atlas, Aurora and Lewis Marx.  The 1963 edition showed 101 train sets from Athearn, Fleischmann, Gilbert, Lionel, Mantua, Penn Line, Revell and Varney.  It should be noted that while Athearn and Mantua are still in operation today, the others are now history.

By 1964, the interface between model trains and model motoring was more defined. Illustrated were 20 slot car sets, from Atlas, Aurora, Faller, Lionel and Mantua. Likewise, 79 H0-Scale train sets were shown, from AHM (Rivarossi & Mehano), Athearn, Fleischmann, Gilbert, Lindbergh, Lionel, Mantua, Penn Line, Revell and Varney.

Apparently, the “Yearbook” appeared only in 1963 and 1964. Prior to that, Model Trains Magazine apparently published their December number with a special “Buyers Section”.  By 1964, Model Trains Magazine was closed, folded into Model Railroader Magazine, published by the same company.

Regardless, the 1964 Yearbook included a project railroad that merged model railroading and model motoring together.

In an article titled “A Meeting of Road and Rail”, three model railroaders explored a joint operation between model railroad and slot vehicles. This unnamed railroad was the work of Paul Allodl, Eugene Bishop and Bud Garcia.  It was likely commissioned by the magazine publisher, and the design contained some seminal ideas. 

Aurora slot car track was used, and the authors took advantage of the “turnouts” which Aurora offered. These allowed cars to pass each other on the track; the intent was likely to have created a racing car pit stop, but the authors went further with the idea.  They created track lanes which allowed vehicles to back into “sidings”, such as the coal ramp shown below:

Likewise, one “flaw” for motor motoring sets was that the slot cars could not go in reverse. So, our three authors created something which allowed for reverse operation. All that was missing were the tractor trailers and dump trucks.  Interestingly, these would come a few years later.

At that time, such a side track for trucks was strictly theoretical; there was nothing like it on the market.

In the meantime, many manufacturers were tripping over their shoelaces to get race sets into the market. It should be noted that the Model Trains Yearbooks only included brands which had paid for placement of their items.  There were numerous other manufacturers producing model race sets.  In many cases, American manufacturers such as Lionel used existing brands of slot cars and represented them as their own. Lionel apparently used the English brand Scalextric in this way. 

Prior to the Scalextric relationship, Lionel produced an embarrassingly lame attempt at a slot cat set. Consider the 15903 H0 Auto Raceway of 1961:

Lionel had introduced the self-propelled H0 0068 Executive Inspection Car in 1961, and in an attempt to get something into the race car market, the 15903 was born.  It used the 0068 inspection car in two different colors, H0 track, an H0 power pack and two on/off buttons for speed control. The general idea was to push the button long enough to get ahead of your competitor without pushing so long that the car sped up and flew off the track.  Needless to say, sales were low and, as a consequence, this is one of those truly rare collector’s items.

As the slot car mania grew, slot car tracks sprung up around the country.  These were organized businesses that offered access to a large slot car track for a fee. They were quite popular on most Saturdays in the mid-1960’s, but the idea was beginning to sputter. Sales flattened out and eventually began a slow decline.

In 1981, Tyco US1 Truck sets would be introduced which developed the concept explored in the 1960’s.  This would prove to be the culmination of the 1964 Model Trains Yearbook article.

For about 6 years, Tyco offered different trucking sets; these are detailed at a very nice web site, located here.  The Tyco US1 sets had trucks which could back up into sidings.  Once in the siding, the rearward motion of the truck wheels was used to turn a treadmill which operated accessories such as a crane which loaded pipes.  Once loaded, the pipes were then driven to another siding, where the truck then unloaded the pipe. 

I will admit to collecting some of these items and they are great toys, worthy of attention.  The US1 product line had several different operating sidings, including an airport with airplane There was even a fire house and truck: 

As with the slot cars overall, there proved to be a limited market for the US1 Trucking sets, although they come close to being a useful operating addition to the typical model railroad.

The slot car mania faded for a couple reasons. The competitive aspects of slot cars required two people, while the typical model railroader often worked alone. So, too, the typical slot car setup was simply track and cars, with little else.

To be fair, there are slot car displays that have well developed scenery, but it was not as common in the 1960’s as it is today.

As for the public slot car tracks, model railroad industry observer George Riley noted that one of the contributing factors for their ultimate demise was that it always seemed that two or three individual slot car racers would come to dominate the track.  The owners of the public tracks did not realize it at the time, but what came to happen was that these two or three slot car drivers would develop their skills and their cars to a point that nobody else had a chance.  Rather than create tiers of drivers, each according to their skill level, any person who might have been interested in the slot car hobby would be thrown into competition with the skilled drivers, eventually become discouraged and would leave the store, defeated.

I know this to be a fact because it happened to me.  There was a public track located in a retail space in Atlanta.  I was sixteen at the time and had seen the track from afar on several occasions.  I finally went into the track and tried my hand at slot car racing.  I was interested only in operating a car, but one of those dominant individual race car owners insisted that he should race against me.  After a few brief moments, he beat me handily and I quietly left the store and went back to model railroading.  Lucky me.

In the end, slot cars, model motoring, model racing, road racing, whatever you want to call it, never caught on like model railroading. There is still a niche there, with a lot of people collecting what was made. It should be also noted that slot car sets are still with us.  A check with the Wm. K. Walthers site shows that 38 different slot car sets are available for purchase.  These days, it is no longer “Miniature Motoring”, but the more realistic “Road Racing”. In contrast, over 300 train sets are available in a variety of scales.

Slot cars stirred the model railroad industry into fear, but, in the end, it was all for naught.  It would be Bernie Paul who put it best:

He talked about the times that the "experts" had declared that model railroading was a dead hobby. Television was going to kill it. Slot cars were going to kill it. Video games were going to kill it. And on.

But he noted that we as a business, and that we as a hobby, are still here. And, yeah, something might come along to finally do us in as a hobby, but why worry about that? He encouraged everybody just to get out there and do what we do best and things would take care of themselves.

Bernie was right.  Things would take care of themselves.

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