04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Scalextric
Scalextric: Best of British
Just as the term ‘Airfix’ is often used to describe a military plastic kit or ‘Dinky’ would be used by parents when talking about their child’s little diecast cars, ‘Scalextric’ is a phrase that is invariably implied to any slot car racing. Such is the brand’s dominance of the market that Scalextric has become a household name – arguably one of the best known ‘toys’ in the UK, if not the world.
Like so many young boys, my first experience of Scalextric was on a Christmas morning many moons ago. I eagerly tore open the packaging before building the track and then watching in amazement as the cars shot off the circuit and under the Christmas tree. It’s due to lasting memories like these that Scalextric has remained in the public consciousness for so long… almost everyone has their own experience of the slot car giant.
The story of Scalextric dates back to the 1940s when keen racing enthusiast and engineer Fred Francis set up Minimodels Ltd in 1947. Based in London, Minimodels launched the Scalex series of toy racing cars, which featured a clockwork motor that could be operated using the car’s steering wheel. These charming replica motors were a huge success (with more than 7,000 being produced weekly in the early ‘50s) but by 1956 sales had started to slide so Francis needed to come up with something new.
His ambition was to give the player more control over the car, rather than just winding it up and then watching as it zipped across the floor. As a result he started to look at alternative ways of propulsion and with the rise in electric powered model railways, he naturally turned his attentions to electricity. Originally he just popped an electric motor into the existing Scalex cars and experimented with running them on railway track.
Not happy with this method, his next solution was to make a rubber slotted track and use a ‘gimbal’ wheel (a pivoted support that allows rotation around a single axis) that could pick up the electrical current that ran through a conductor in the centre of the track. Meanwhile, the ‘driver’ could control the car with an on-off button to help it safely travel around the track.
Francis launched Scalextric at the Harrogate International Toy Fair in January 1957 and it was met with immediate acclaim. The name of the new toy was a simple combination of Francis’ established brand name of Scalex and ‘electric’. The first set launched to the public included a figure eight of track and a pair of Maseratis, the following year they were joined by a Ferrari and Austin Healey.
However, Scalextric was a victim of its own success and Minimodels simply could not keep up with the huge demand. As a result in 1958 Francis sold the business to Lines Brothers and went off to pursue his interests in motoring and aviation. At the time Lines was operating both Tri-ang and Rovex, the latter of which specialised in creating plastic toys, so it quickly began developing new Scalextric cars that were made from plastic, rather than tinplate, as the originals had been.
In 1960 Tri-ang published the first ever Scalextric catalogue. It was, admittedly, a fairly simple affair, clocking in at a measly four pages. However, within this tiny catalogue Tri-ang showcased some exciting products for the eager Scalextric fan, including two Vanwall cars, along with a Lister Jaguar and Aston Martin on the cover, plus accessories like the battery operated control tower. However, despite the size, the glorified leaflet must have certainly done the trick because the following year the catalogue had grown to a whopping 24 pages! How’s that for progress?
These catalogues really helped to kick off a golden age of Scalextric in the 1960s, which saw numerous innovations for the slot car toy. Take, for example, 1962 when Tri-ang decided that cars weren’t enough and boys would probably like to race motorcycles (complete with sidecars) too. Also that year the first trackside light accessories were released – although Tri-ang had added lights to the cars the previous year and the Lister Jaguar now came with working headlights.
Other innovations quickly followed, like the Go-Karts in 1963 – the same year as a vinyl record that simulated the sounds of a furious race (what an ingenious idea). In 1964 Scalextric launched the first four-car race tracks, which invariably ended in huge pile ups and the following year added the iconic Mini to its line-up (originally they were front wheel drive before being changed to rear wheel in 1966). In 1967 Scalextric really upped its game with the fantastic James Bond set, complete with an Aston Martin featuring the all-important ejector seat and bullet proof screen that popped up when bumped by another car.
However, not all of Scalextric’s innovations were a hit and in 1970 it launched the ill-fated ‘You Steer’ gimmick. Now the controllers came with a small wheel that could turn the cars left and right to avoid obstacles but the problem was they had to slow down to a crawl to make the turns. The idea was quickly abandoned in 1972. Another equally unusual idea was the Jump Jockey set that featured horses, rather than cars.
The 1970s also brought an end to the Lines Bros/Tri-ang era of Scalextric, as the company was struggling with sales of its numerous other brands, which also included Meccano, Hornby, Spot-On and Wrenn Railways. As a result the company called in the receivers in 1971 and the firm was sold to the UK wing of the American giant Marx Toys (known as Dunbee-Combex-Marx). Sadly compared to the golden era of innovation and spectacular accessories in the 1960s, Marx didn’t invest a great deal of time or money into Scalextric during the 1970s; cutting the range down to 18 cars and stopping production of all the buildings.
Still, the brand survived this turbulent time, although Dunbee-Combex-Marx didn’t and closed its doors in 1980, resulting in another buy out (this time by the newly formed Hornby Hobbies). The Scalextric name is still going strong and Hornby Hobbies is still innovating, ensuring that almost 60 years on since the toy’s creation, young boys are still being delighted by Scalextric sets under the Christmas tree.