Playing Around with Chuck Miller
Hot Rods in Miniature Collecting Vintage Slot Cars

Aurora’s “Model Motoring” kits allowed racers to build a multi-lane race track, complete with straightaways, hairpin turns and chicanes. This model from 1963 features independent speed controllers for four different drivers, a set of race cars, decals, and
Aurora’s “Model Motoring” kits allowed racers to build a multi-lane race track, complete with straightaways, hairpin turns and chicanes. This model from 1963 features independent speed controllers for four different drivers, a set of race cars, decals, and four lanes of track, and can sell for $50-$75 depending on condition.

It doesn’t matter which type of racing fan you are – NASCAR, Formula 1, IndyCar – you love to watch the races, and you love to pretend that you're the top driver in that cockpit, bump-drafting Jeff Gordon out of the way at Talladega, or going wheel-to-wheel with Marco Andretti or Danica Patrick at the Indy 500.

Short of investing about $20 million to buy a car and enter a race, for most people the next best way to experience a race first-hand is to purchase one of several video game racing simulators. Yes, from the comfort and safety of your Barcalounger, you can navigate your own digitally replicated Monte Carlo around the high banks of Daytona or the winding curves of Infineon – and if some car bumps you in the back and puts you into the wall, the only injury you will have is to your pride.

But what did racing fans do before the advent of video games? They built their own miniature tracks and raced electrically charged cars in hot-rod high-bank duels.

Welcome to the world of “slot car” racing. It’s a hobby that still draws motor-savvy collectors and tech-heads together, to a time when hundreds of public slotcar racing tracks appeared in the 1960s and 1970s for fans of this high-speed genre, and to an era where going too fast around a turn meant your car went flying into the next room.

This Aurora AFX from the mid-1970s is modeled after the Plymouth Roadrunner that took Richard Petty to Victory Lane throughout the decade. Slotcars in the late 1980s and early 1990s added the famous “STP” oil logo to the hood of the car; this one simply has the famous “Richard Petty Blue” paint scheme and the distinctive “43” on the door panels. This car, in near-mint condition, can sell for $20.
This Aurora AFX from the mid-1970s is modeled after the Plymouth Roadrunner that took Richard Petty to Victory Lane throughout the decade. Slotcars in the late 1980s and early 1990s added the famous “STP” oil logo to the hood of the car; this one simply has the famous “Richard Petty Blue” paint scheme and the distinctive “43” on the door panels. This car, in near-mint condition, can sell for $20.

“We’ve had a great many people in their 40s, 50s and even their 60s, buying vintage race sets to play with their kids or their grandkids,” said Bob Molta, a slotcar collector, dealer and owner of slotcarcentral.com. “In fact, I was recently contacted by Richard Petty’s company, Petty Enterprises. They wanted a couple of slot cars for one of their nephews – back in the 1970s, Richard Petty, Mario Andretti and Al Unser were very big spokespeople for slot cars.”

Motorized slot cars were first manufactured in England in the mid-1950s, as inventor Derek Brand created a slotted car and track that would coexist with model railroads.

The original slotcars, manufactured by the British company Playcraft, were supposed to run in the same layouts as model trains, and could even be powered by the same electrical transformer. Tracks were designed with normal driving functionality in mind – straight track had a white dashed center line to indicate “passing,” while curved track had a double yellow line to indicate “no passing.” Of course, there really was no “passing” at all, it was just an aesthetic touch; and the cars actually moved with the aid of a vibrating reed, which turned a gear in the rear axle.

Of course, it didn’t take long for slotcars to evolve into slotcar racers, and in 1960 the Aurora Plastics Company purchased the rights to manufacture the Playcraft slotcars for the American market. By 1963, Aurora had redesigned the slotcars with their new “Thunderjet 500” series, and produced such models as the Jaguar XKE, the Corvette Stingray, the Ford Mustang and the Ford Cobra. Aurora continued to manufacture sedans and “passenger” cars for the model railroad hobbyists who wanted vehicles to run alongside their miniature villages, but the bulk of the company’s sales now turned to the racing market. Thunderjets were extremely popular, and before long other toy companies, such as TYCO and Atlas, built miniature slotcars of their own.

Dodge Chargers are hotly desired by slotcar collectors and racers who are always looking for new and unique original color variations.  This circa 1972 green Charger, with Aurora chassis #1407, sold for $305 on eBay in January 2007.
Dodge Chargers are hotly desired by slotcar collectors and racers who are always looking for new and unique original color variations. This circa 1972 green Charger, with Aurora chassis #1407, sold for $305 on eBay in January 2007.

“Throughout the 1960s, you had a great many companies enter the slotcar industry,” said Molta. “The major players were Aurora, which later became AFX, and what was then Mantua Trains, which later became Tyco Toys of Morristown, N.J. By the late 1960s, you had a deep penetration in slotcar sales from model railroad companies like Bachmann, Lionel and Gilbert. Companies borrowed ideas and designs from each other, there was a lot of commingling between the companies in terms of finished product. Some companies never should have entered the hobby – Lionel, they should have stuck with trains. Bachmann came into it from the train end, thinking it was a perfect tie-in to their train sets.”

By the 1970s, Aurora figured out that with the application of small magnets on the base of the car, positioned just above the track rails, cars would stay on the tracks while embanking on faster and sharper turns. There were also advances in track design throughout the 1970s – the original Aurora “lock and joiner” tracks of the 1960s required tight connections between each piece, and one interrupted electrical connection could make your 500 mph miniature roadster screech to a halt as if it was being chased by a slotcar black and white Ford Crown Victoria cop car.

“The Aurora Lock and Joiner is dear to the hearts of many traditional slotcar racers,” said Molta. “It had dotted center lines, railroad crossings and functioning four-way traffic lights. But the system relied on every 1/16 inch piece of metal tab directly contacting with every other 1/16 inch metal tab, to conduct electricity effectively. With four tabs on each track, and eight tabs to make one connection of track, the chance for non-optimal electric connections was probable. Add humidity, rust and the change of seasons, getting an older track to run is truly a labor of love. By the 1970s, Aurora released the AF/X Quick-Loc System, which had a deep grooved track and plastic connection tabs – those tabs broke all the time, and Aurora always gave the customer free track repair clips with nearly every set they sold.”

Because slotcars are considered “toys” by the U.S. Government, they can't have any alcohol or tobacco trademarks on them. Confederate flags, however, are another story. This Aurora Charger, with Aurora chassis #1773, contains the old “stars and bars” on the hood, and eventually sold for $265 in a recent auction.
Because slotcars are considered “toys” by the U.S. Government, they can't have any alcohol or tobacco trademarks on them. Confederate flags, however, are another story. This Aurora Charger, with Aurora chassis #1773, contains the old “stars and bars” on the hood, and eventually sold for $265 in a recent auction.

If you didn’t want to build your own race track, there were hundreds of tracks you could take your racecars to. Most of these tracks were located at hobby stores, and featured all sorts of curves, chicanes and figure eight layouts. To encourage racing, these tracks had more than the store-bought two lanes of action.

“In 1962, Aurora released a 5 foot by 10 foot one-piece coin-powered fiberglass race track. It was six lanes and it became known a tub track, and Aurora leased the track to the hobby shops for $19.95 a month. Aurora would send the stores a power pack, the cars and the parts. People would buy parts and soup up their cars to try to go a little faster on these competition tracks. But it just came down to who had the fastest trigger.”

The slotcar hobby almost died in the late 1970s, as an entire generation of slotcar enthusiasts essentially grew up, went to college, and put their tracks and slotcars in the attic. Some companies tried to redesign slotcars to bring the market back, including several attempts at a “slotless” slotcar – essentially one that could shift lanes and pass opponents on the track. The slotless cars actually were more difficult to operate, as they tended to stall as they were switching lanes. Those attempts, plus an aborted attempt to build 18-wheeler miniature truck-shaped slotcars, nearly killed the hobby off.

But with baby boomers going back into their attics and finding the old tracks and cars, the hobby has undergone a resurgence. For them, the slotcars now bring back memories of driving fast cars on high banked tracks. If you couldn’t get your hands on a real Corvette Stingray, at least you could race a miniature model in your bedroom – or in your basement work area, where once again you’re the king of the superspeedways.

While having the original car in near-mint condition after 30+ years is a nice thing, it’s always a plus if you still have the original store box in which the car was sold. This red Aurora Thunderjet Ford Torino, complete with its original box, sold for $168.50 online. Torino slotars also draw attention from TV memorabilia collectors, because the cops in Starsky  and Hutch drove a Ford Torino.
While having the original car in near-mint condition after 30+ years is a nice thing, it’s always a plus if you still have the original store box in which the car was sold. This red Aurora Thunderjet Ford Torino, complete with its original box, sold for $168.50 online. Torino slotars also draw attention from TV memorabilia collectors, because the cops in Starsky and Hutch drove a Ford Torino.

The two most popular types of slotcars among collectors today are slotcars that resemble popular muscle cars and hot rods of the 1960s (think Mustang, Thunderbird, Jaguar, Cougar, GTO, Corvette) and slotcars that resemble stock car racers (think Petty, Allison, Pearson, Yarborough.) In fact, many NASCAR motorsports organizations have licensed the images of their racing cars to the slotcar world, so that you can have Jeff Burton’s #31 Cingular Monte Carlo battling it out with Kevin Harvick’s #29 GM Goodwrench Chevy. In fact, one of the popular slotcar companies of the 1970s, TYCO, created a set based around the 1975 NASCAR Grand National series, featuring replicas of one of the greatest racing rivalries of the 1970s, Richard Petty’s #43 Plymouth Roadrunner and Bobby Allison's #12 Coca-Cola Chevy Chevelle.

As with virtually any toy on the market, slot cars in their original unopened boxes or blister packs are the most collectible. Keep an eye out for authentic body styles and paint colorings. There are collectors that will actively search for any variation in chassis or body styling, while other collectors look for as close to the regular-size muscle car as possible. Black cars are extremely rare; companies avoided making cars in body colors that matched the color of the track.

Also be aware that some forgeries and “fantasy” slotcars exist. “A buddy of mine is a sick collector of muscle cars,” said Molta. “He was down at the Carlisle car show a dozen years ago, and a guy who collects slotcars offered him two slotcars still on the card (in their original sealed packs). One of them was a lime green Dodge Charger on the card, and the other was a black Dodge Charger. Nobody had ever seen a black Dodge Charger still on the card. He wanted $1,000 for the two cars. My friend bought it, he showed it to about 200 people, they all said that was a black Charger and looked authentic. One guy offered him $7,500 for the car - he took it off the card and determined that the car was a fantasy piece and wasn’t original. So … buyer beware.”

While most manufacturers chose not to produce black slotcars, as black cars would blend in with the black track, there were exceptions made - besides, who would ever want a turquoise Batmobile? This Aurora Model Motoring Batmobile sold for $100 last month in an Internet auction
While most manufacturers chose not to produce black slotcars, as black cars would blend in with the black track, there were exceptions made - besides, who would ever want a turquoise Batmobile? This Aurora Model Motoring Batmobile sold for $100 last month in an Internet auction

And although different companies manufactured slotcars, the technology between companies is so similar that with a single adjustment here and there, an Aurora car can run on TYCO tracks, or vice versa. “Most cars work with most tracks,” said Molta. “Slotcars are as backward and forward capable as anything I’ve ever seen. I do tend to tell a lot of people, especially fathers that are getting into slotcars to race them with their kids, that slotcars can teach lessons in physics, mechanics, engineering, even chemistry. It’s a great wealth of education opportunities for kids. The smells from the 1960s and 1970s are the same today, and the sounds the cars make when they’re going full throttle is still amazing.”

For more information on the history of slot cars and their collectability, visit these websites:
www.slotcarcentral.com
members.aol.com/hifisapien/slotcars.htm
www.hoslotcarracing.com

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