History books trace the birth of Scalextric to the 1957 Harrogate Toy Fair, but a case could also be made for the role played by a certain circuit in West Sussex.
For it was Goodwood where a young inventor by the name of Bertram ‘Fred’ Francis had enjoyed watching the Maserati 250F and Ferrari 375 race throughout the 1950s - the same two cars, indeed, he would recreate in tinplate form for his latest product. This was based on the premise of adding an electric motor to his clockwork ‘Scalex’ cars, the ’tric’ element allowing the cars to be driven around a slotted rubber track via a pair of on/off buttons located on a separate terminal box.
Scalextric was an instant success and within a year had been purchased by toy-maker Tri-ang, which in the 1960s refined the concept with new thumb-operated ‘plungers’ that as a precursor to later trigger controllers allowed full control over the speed of the cars. Around the same time tinplate and rubber made way for plastic, plus a range of buildings was introduced based on - you guessed it - those at the Goodwood circuit.
Over the years there have also been special sections of track, such as the notoriously tricky Goodwood Chicane complete with hay bales, as well as limited-edition commemorative sets. One such featured a trio of GT40s built for the 2003 Festival of Speed to mark Ford’s 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans in 1966, while in 2018 Scalextric will launch a boxset containing a pair of Jaguar E-Type Lightweights modelled on those raced by Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori in the 1963 Sussex Trophy.
Despite an age gap of more than 50 years in places, all of these parts are fully compatible, so you can race a 2018 E-Type on a piece of track from the 1960s. This, explains Jamie Buchanan, who heads up product development at Hornby, is due to the way Scalextric has been built: “It’s a system toy so old cars will work on new track and vice versa. We’ve never said you need to scrap what you’ve got and buy a new version. You can just carry on building up what you’ve got.”
That is not to say there haven’t been improvements along the way of course. There was, for example, the first plastic-bodied car (a Lotus 16 in 1960), and the first with working lights (a Lister Jaguar in 1961), while the first cars with magnets underneath to grip the track’s metal rails arrived in 1988 under the banner of ‘Magnatraction’.
More recently the traditional analogue Scalextric range has been joined by a new digital version that allows up to six cars to run in one lane at a time. The company has also created an app that via a compatible ARC powerbase allows players to record lap times, set race types or weather conditions and requires pit stops for worn tyres and refuelling. At the end, race results can be shared via social media, giving Scalextric a foot in the door to an increasingly screen-obsessed audience.
Once people do get into slot car racing - and some really, really do - they tend to fall into a couple of distinct camps. “There are racers and there are collectors,” says Jamie. “In fact, there are people who don’t even have track, just lots of cars.”
Marvelling at how detailed some of the products are, it’s really not difficult to see why. Take, for example, the new seven-strong range of commemorative 60th-anniversary cars, featuring among others the Lancia Stratos, BMW E30 M3 and Aston Martin DBR9. “It’s not just the shape that’s important, but every inscription, every colour, every little detail has to be right, especially with these commemorative boxed cars,” says Jamie.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the countless old sets tucked away in lofts, the once celebrated track lying dormant until the day an entrepreneurial soul with a passion for motorsport breathes new life into it. Perhaps now, 60 years after Francis launched that Scalextric set inspired by a certain circuit in West Sussex, it is time to be inspired by Goodwood once again. Scalextric Revival anyone?
Sixty Years of Scalextric
With this year marking the 60th anniversary of Scalextric it seems apt to look back at a toy that has been responsible for introducing so many to the thrills of motor racing.
Scalextric was launched at the 1957 Harrogate International Toy Fair. Its inventor, Bertram ‘Fred’ Francis adapted his clockwork Scalex cars so that they could run on a slotted rubber track using an electric motor.
The early tinplate cars were replaced by plastic-bodied alternatives, including a go-kart and Typhoon motorcycle with sidecar. This was also the decade when what is arguably the most collectable Scalextric car of all was produced, a Bugatti Type 59 (product code C70).
The Seventies represented an experimental period for Scalextric. For example, there was You Steer, which introduced a not very intuitive element of steering via a wheel on the hand controller, and horse racing that used a complicated double-decker track arrangement. Neither caught on, adding to the woes of a brand struggling through the country’s economic difficulties.
Lights, magnets, pit stops, rev starts, digital lap counters - you name it, the 1980s had it. This was a golden era of innovation for Scalextric and produced some truly memorable sets including Mighty Metro, Le Mans and the four-lane World Championship.
With Scalextric now established as part of the Hornby Hobbies group, the products were becoming ever more detailed. This inevitably meant costs increased, which by the end of the decade would result in production being moved to China. All that remains of Hornby on its once vast and vibrant Margate site today is a small (but very interesting) visitor centre.
Scalextric took its biggest leap to date with the introduction of Digital technology in 2004. This allowed up to six cars to race on two lanes, as well as introducing a lane change function so you could overtake (or indeed block) opponents.
Remaining relevant when computers games have grown in popularity to such a degree has been arguably the primary challenge faced by Scalextric. The introduction of its own app and compatible powerbase, called ARC, allowed the product to move into the online world, with racers able share results via social media. In doing so it opens the thrill of nailing a perfect lap to a whole new audience.