A while back, I decided that I had to stop buying model cars. A friend of mine had no such control, and was ending up with a house that was made more of plastic display cases than brick. It was supposed to be my salutary lesson, but of course all it did was justify not buying die-casts. Slot cars? Well, they’re completely different, I self-rationalised. You can have your favourite car on the shelf, but this way you could also physically drive it as well. That’s got to be okay, right?
So as I type this, I just have to look up to my left and a whole row of slot-car racers that line the top of the unit: Porsche, BMW and Mercedes Le Mans cars from across the generations, Bentley, TVR, Porsche and Ferrari GTs, old Group 5 cars, iconic sports prototypes and more; all piling up. It’s a disaster. It’s a passion. It’s just awesome fun. All this meant that my trip to Scalextric’s HQ was just as tantalising as being let into the workshops of a McLaren or a Ferrari. I’d find out how it chooses its cars, how it designs and produces them, and just why Scalextric is such an enduring, emotive brand.
It’s possible that in this global community of ours some of you might not have heard of Scalextric specifically in the context of slot-car racing. Well, unless you’re from the UK anyway, where not revering Scalextric is tantamount to treason. But like hoovers and sellotape are trademarked brands that have become the de facto terms for products (and therefore should technically be capitalised, with a big TM added), Scalextric is slot-car racing to the majority of people. A 1/32 scale car with a guide slot, plastic track presenting a myriad of opportunities for layouts, and a very, very steady trigger finger on the controller. That’s Scalextric; and according to the team who pour their hearts and souls into the range, it likely always will be.
I’ll talk about the arguments over magnets by pro racers another time…
Scalextric is a division of Hornby, which oversees an impossibly impressive line-up of classic British marques. Alongside the slot-car stalwarts are Hornby trains, Corgi cars, Airfix models and Humbrol paints. It’s like the definitive contents of a perfect upbringing. However, Scalextric definitely has an international appeal. Australia and the US both have strong histories with Scalextric stretching right back to the birth of the product in the 1960s; France, Spain, Germany and other European countries similar have a soft spot for the brand, standing as it does alongside each of those countries domestic equivalents. Its history is engrossing: I’ll be taking you through the Scalextric museum in a following story.
Slot-car racing seems to go in and out of fashion; it’s quite cyclical, and according to the team always has been. The console revolution definitely took its toll, and slot-car racing has never been about instant gratification. But that makes it the perfect antidote to the prevailing digital world that threatens to overwhelm us. You have to take time to decide what track to build. You have to physically put it together. You choose – and if you want, modify – your cars. You race them with the knowledge that crashing off the track means getting up and having to put the car back in the slot. You lose time – and you likely lose the race. There are actual consequences to actions.
To highjack a phrase, there are three kinds of people in the slot-car world. The casual players, the collectors and the racers. Scalextric works a balance between these three genres, creating its own self-designed cars at the budget end, right up to insanely detailed things like open-engine F1 cars of the ’60s and ’70s. It releases anything up to 20 new sets, a dozen new cars and sometimes well over 100 new liveries every year. It’s got the biggest range of any manufacturer – and it does it with a team of just seven people.
Looking at old school Scalextric cars, the bodies were sometimes quite heavyweight compared to today’s millimetre-perfect designs: a limitation of the manufacturing tech of the time, combined with a deliberate emphasis on survivability. They were definitely toys first and models second. But times have seriously changed. A raft of new companies started producing fine models in the late ’90s, moving slot-cars straight into the collector market with details that were on a par with die-casts, and Scalextric has never been one to be stuck in a rut.
Modern Scalextric cars are awesome pieces of work: super detailed and as likely to be seen on a collector’s shelf as carrying battle damage from righteous unleashing on the track of destiny in your living room. Making one? Easy, right? Make a 3D model, bang it out, slap some stickers on it and there you go? Think again…
The Scalextric team work on the same floor as all the other Hornby brands, surrounded by the other teams. As you’d expect, it’s a glorious place. Desks are strewn with models – not just slot-cars, but plenty of ‘reference’ die-casts and kits – prototypes everywhere (sadly removed for this shot!). Open a drawer and it’s full of more bits of car. This is a job, but it’s one hell of a cool job. Nobody with a soul can talk about slot-car racing without breaking into a smile. It’s the work of a moment to crack the professional veneer of the team and see the joy they have creating this stuff.
Making a car starts with probably the most challenging bit: choosing which cars to build. These are car guys we’re talking about, so I simply can’t believe that they’re dispassionate about their selections. There are things like films and other things in popular culture to tap into, but famous cars, drivers and race series of both today and yesteryear are the primary informers. However, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that there’s a Mini Challenge set that features the car that model selector Adrian drives in the real race series… It is one of the big sellers though! But the pride in having your car immortalised in plastic is beyond measure. Literally days after visiting Scalextric I was at specialist engineering firm MDV, and it had the slot version of its Mark I proudly displayed in reception. That’s a typical story.
A single model can have a lead time of a year from concept to delivery, with even the actual digital design process taking 6-8 weeks and the prototyping far longer; planning for Christmas 2016 releases is already underway. Adrian and Rob (their researcher) work with team leader Darren on the annual range list, deciding on the cars and then collating as much information as possible. The research involves more than just gathering raw data on the car; there’s history to consider, with particularly famous races or victories to concentrate on, and then multiple liveries that cars have run in.Licence To Skill
With the cars selected, two product designers, Luke and Oscar, fire into action. Although their main task is to work in CAD to create the model of the car, it also involves seeing them in the flesh whenever possible. For modern cars, CAD data is typically available and supplied, but for classic cars it’s a case of getting out the tape measure and firing off plenty of reference images at wherever the car is located.
British companies are perhaps unsurprisingly particularly welcoming to the Scalextric team: Luke and Oscar are often surprised that they’re the ones treated like visiting royalty, when they themselves are thinking how lucky they are to be let into the inner sanctum of a McLaren or Aston Martin!
Sorting out the nightmare of licensing is also a massive part of the process. Luckily Hornby’s central team oversee this, and things do seem to have got a little easier in modern times. Manufacturers and marketeers have become more savvy and realised that everyone wins if their car can be driven on track. Approval updates are also a time-consuming but necessary evil during the entire course of the task.
The two designers work up the CAD drawings using PTC Creo 3D modelling software, removing superfluous internal elements and paring down the extraneous details whilst retaining as much accuracy as possible. It’s absolutely not a case of banging the model in and pressing the ‘Make 1/32 Scale’ magic button…
Data is typically supplied as a half, creating the base of a symmetrical wireframe to use like tracing paper. Elements like windows and lights are cut away, and the main body shape is the initial priority. Surfaces have to be massaged to work with the way the cars are produced. The manufacturing process allow for very fine detail, working within tolerances of 0.1mm, but things like undercuts must be avoided and separated out into their own elements, plus there’s also the reality of making sure models can’t break easily.
The aim to make the car in as few parts as possible. The result is basically the same as a typical plastic model kit, and has to be designed to be easily assembled in the same way.
Once that primary CAD work is done, the team move on to physical prototyping. The first stage is to create a test model using stereo lithography, created off-site with individual parts built up from 0.05mm layers of material. When the components arrive back at the Scalextric HQ, they’re then assembled in Hornby’s skunkworks office (oh to work in there…) and the model checked for fit and finish. Even transparent windows can be made using this rapid prototyping method, giving a rough but ready finish.
Car okay? Time to contact the manufacturing company over in China. The cars are made by plastic injection, so bespoke tooling is created from the CAD data. That’s cut in steel, so not the work of an instant, and normally there’s more than a month before the first bags of test pieces are shipped back to the UK. What you get is exactly the same as a regular plastic kit: a load of parts on their sprues, that have to be cut off and assembled.
The individual parts are verified against the CAD data. Changes are sometimes needed because of compromise enforced by the tooling, but never to the detriment of the final result.
This isn’t just about aesthetics though. The cars often require an individual take on the core Scalextric chassis – the bit where the axles and motor are mounted. GTs and street cars have very different layouts to single seaters front and rear, and making a car that runs well on track is of paramount importance. In fact, talking to the team is just like talking to the race engineer of a real-life racing car. This is serious business: they want the cars to run well out of the box as well as being generically balanced no matter the model, which is no easy thing to achieve.
After all, the whole point of slot-car racing is that you could have, say a VW Camper against a modern F1 car – and have a chance of winning! The Camper won’t win though. It just won’t. They’ve tried, but it still drives like a Camper van, even in scale on a slot-track…
Chassis, motor position and magnet heights are all taken into account. The motors have recently been swapped from transverse to longitudinal to create more even balance down the centreline. This decision wasn’t taken lightly, as it’s meant having to use half-tub interiors rather than fully modelled cockpits, but even there it meant lighter weight, so a performance pro to outweigh the aesthetic con. More on the performance side later.
Next up is a small test run of complete cars, hand assembled with all the running gear, again shipped to the UK for a check of not just the completed look but also how they run on track. Gaps, noises, alignment – this is the final stage for the base model.Forward Through Technology
Once the prototyping is complete and signed off, graphic designers Tom and Dan come online, working in Adobe Illustrator to create the colour schemes and liveries. A base colour sample is the kick-off point, with test car shells painted in a swatch tone.
Then comes what can be the real hard work: creating the artwork from just references for a car like this, the Hatsune Miku BMW Z4 GT3 from Japanese Super GT. But that’s not to say that even flat colour cars are straightforward, especially with manufacturer approval factored in.
Not only are the cars hand-assembled, but even these complex liveries are manually applied using transfers – though sometimes tampo printing techniques are utilised. Box art and packaging is then completed for a final sign-off of what will be sold in the shops.
Time to kick back? Never. The team are in a constant cycle of design and production, and not just with cars. They also work on track parts, packaging and other elements like the new app-controlled ARC system that’s coming online. New agreements mean that sets are being developed around Le Mans, the World Endurance Championship, British Touring Cars, IMSA… Almost every conversation I had went off piste at some stage to talk about the actual championships Scalextric make cars of, or films like Spectre that they’ve just based a set on. Again, car guys. Always the same.
Those basic sets provide out-of-the-box fun; collector’s editions like the new Legends range tick the collector box. But what about hardcore slot-car racers? That scene is bigger than ever, and Scalextric completely goes with it. It aims to create models that are great as soon as you prise them out of the packaging, but understand that the mod community is massive. Rather than compete, it’s partnered. Slot.it is the go-to company for slot-car mods, and has a telephone directory of a catalogue. Scalextric has a close partnership with them, and even sell replacement chassis for new cars that are directly compatible with the Slot-it range. It’s just a really sensible approach, and great to see.
The level of performance tuning is insane. You can customise everything: tyres, motors, even down to grub screws. As already mentioned though, a lot of effort is put into base performance. Along with the motor position, following a review with Slot-it and feedback from racing clubs and retailers, a whole raft of changes were made to make the Scalextric cars better. Even screw position matters. A single central screw at the rear allows more consistent body roll depending on how tightly it’s screwed in. I love this kind of stuff.
So we’ve got cars, track and your finger, but is that enough in the digital age? A commitment to slot-car racing being about slots and cars hasn’t meant ignoring what’s going on in the wider world – quite the reverse. I’d known about Scalextric’s Digital range, with lap counters, lane changing and the like, but I wasn’t quite prepared for its new ARC system. It’s the sort of thing to send a racing nerd like me into overdrive.
Starting with a base set-up of track and cars, the new ARC device plugs into existing track and connects via Bluetooth to an app on your tablet or phone. The entry-level ARC One is already out, and the Air and Pro mid and high-end systems will be dropping next year. The app contains all the Scalextric cars and sets; you dial in your options and select from eight race modes (including things like endurance or drag racing or having a pace car be the hare).
What does ‘Options’ mean? More than just driver name and number of laps, you can fine-tune your cars with throttle response curves or power levels; you can add race incidents (tyre blow-outs cause the controller to vibrate, the cars slows up and can only limp back to the pits); pitstops are set for virtual replenishment of fuel and changing tyres… First off you calibrate the cars, which evens out any minute differences in their power levels, and then off you go.
In the name of serious journalism, the only way to properly understand the latest goodies was to have a race. In the spirit of true slot-car freedom, it was a WRC Polo against my Mk1 Escort – 30 laps, gloves off, fingers on triggers. It was far more difficult than I remembered – it had been a while since I’d practised… The Escort was flung at the scenery a couple of times, to be hurriedly retrieved and reset on the track; the gentlemanly slowing down at the beginning gave way to a no-mercy approach as a lead was eked out; pitstops leaked agonising seconds. But I came out victorious – thankfully, given that the honour of Speedhunters was at stake
The tech is available to control cars digitally, via your phone or whatever, but I do agree that it seems a step too far. The whole point of this is to enjoy slot-car racing’s tactile experience. To me it’s like the plethora of electronics on so many modern cars – they just detract from the purity and deliver a different thing. That said, through developments like ARC you can see that technology is being embraced, and this system appears to be just the first step. On-board cameras with first-person views is just one of the things being looked at; if it’s possible, the Scalextric team are likely looking at it.
I still have a big box of track in my attic which I’ve been itching to get out again, and of course there are those cars on my shelves staring forlornly at me. ‘Use me’, they say… I don’t want to be seen as a collector, never taking cars out of boxes. In my heart, I’m a racer. And slot-car racing is serious slice of racing.