Monday, September 29, 2008

A scaelextric set, still boxed, found in the attic

More oddities turned up whilst scrabbling around in the further reaches of hard drive looking for something completely different - here's a feature I wrote for a very peculiar cars'n'fashion magazine called Intersection in 2003. Good god. I've just checked, and it still appears to be in business. And Bradford and Bingley's gone down the pan. Recessions really don't make sense, do they?

They didn't pay me. This led to a full and frank exchange of opinions, and you may not be surprised to know I didn't write for them again.

I think it's worth re-visting merely for the fact that it's probably the only time the phrase "Brobdingnagian pairs of Hi-Tecs" has ever been used in the English language.

The bar of the Farnham Conservative Club is quiet tonight. The real action is going on upstairs, far above the pewter tankards, bitter lemon and talk of how it all went wrong after Maggie. Up here patterned carpeting gives way to threadbare tiles, chairs are strictly stackable and the function rooms bear the name of local councillors who have long since gone to that great town hall in the sky. And here, in the sweaty heat of a late July afternoon, nine grown men are getting ready to play.

The subs have been totted up and safely stashed away in their ice-cream container, the covers pulled back from the arena in the centre of the room, and the brief pleasantries and enquiries about the health of “the wife” got out of the way. Now these men have one thing, and one thing only on their minds: they are here to win. The first rule of Scalextric club is, you don’t talk about Scalextric club. The second rule of Scalextric club is, last person out please switch off the lights and leave the Mike Hawthorn room in the condition you would expect to find it.

Actually, the members of the Farnham Scalextric Association are quite happy to talk about their hobby: as far as they’re concerned, the more members, the merrier. “We don’t have any women or children in the group, but they’d be very welcome – we’re not at all exclusive,” says Rob Smith, a software consultant who can be found here most Wednesday evenings. “There are some very good girl racers, though. But really they’ve always been modelled as boy’s toys, and I suppose collecting is really a boy thing.”

So it is a testosterone-only affair tonight, as the competitors hunker down on the starting grid. The accepted stance is to hold your controller two-handed at crotch level: only those racing for the first time, of whom there are two tonight, practise the “ray-gun” grip favoured by little boys whose toys had to multi-task.

It’s the first heat of the second class of the evening: 60s Sport – though the four models on the double-width track all date from the early 70s. A Ferrari 330 and a Ford Mirage face off with a pair of Javelins, two of the more weird and wonderful inventions of then owners the Tri-ang toy company in the days before Scalextric were strictly modelled on existing vehicles. Mechanically, each of the four cars are identical. Each one is fitted with magnets which hold it to its groove in the track, a rare occurrence at the club’s meetings. “They put magnets on them so as they’ll sell better to kids, who get bored quickly if the car just flies off at the first corner,” explains Smith. “But Scalextric managed for thirty-odd years without magnets, and we often run them without, just to even the playing field. As long as you’ve got like against like, that’s the main thing.” To that end, tonight will feature a further eight rounds – Ninco F1, SRS2 LM, Hot Hatch, Ninco GTR, Spanish F1, LMP Open and GTO. By the time each of the nine men in the room have had a go in each class – each is assigned a “Slot Jockey” number, and they shuffle around the wall patiently keeping their place in the line – hours will have passed. More to the point, it will be nearly closing time.

“Gentlemen, start your engines,” intones a youngish chap with a ponytail in a Hong Kong Phooey T-shirt. “3-2-1 Go”.

And they are off, screaming round the circuit like four-inch long, plastic-moulded bats out of hell. The newcomers, who arrived without cars and have been kitted out from the club’s own extensive collection in a locked wall cupboard – are the first to spin from their slots and come to a halt on the black polythene. The old-timers, some of whom have been racing this gargantuan room-sized layout since it was clipped together a decade ago – manage one, sometimes even two laps. It seems to be rare for more than one car to make it to the finish line. “It’s crash and burn here – we don’t have a marshal to put you back on like some clubs do”, says Smith. Nevertheless, each time a car leaves its moorings, several Brobdingnagian pairs of Hi-Tecs delicately land in the gaps in the track in the scramble to salvage it before a pile-up occurs on the next lap.

The Farnham Scalextric Association is just one of a number of such clubs around the country, and indeed around the world: The National Slot Car Club (, on whose committee Smith sits, boasts more than twelve hundred members as far afield as New Zealand and India. Some of them have been racing since the Minimodels company unveiled its first range of electric slot-cars at the Harrogate Toy Fair in 1957, others joined much later in the day. Few have a collection as big as Smith’s.

An unassuming chap whose ginger beard is clipped as neatly as the lawn of his immaculate Surrey home, Smith has always been passionate about cars, both big and small. In his garage you will find a 1935 Bentley and an Aston Martin V8 Advantage, both of them in mint condition - “I was fortunate enough to be able to cash in my company BMW a few years ago, and it struck me that if I got a Golf for everday use, I could have the Aston Martin I always wanted.” But the real fleet can be found upstairs: one entire room of his immaculate house is devoted to his Scalextric collection, which numbers more than 1500 cars. Samples from every period of the toy’s 45-year history are stacked in glass-fronted display cabinets which reach from floor to ceiling, blocking all natural light from the room. A walk-in cupboard houses some box sets, examples of tracks from different periods (the materials used have changed three times, though a strict policy of backward compatibility and some nifty adapters mean you can quite happily race a 2003 C2392 Mercedes CLKDTM on a rubber track from the 1950s), and track-side furniture based on the real-life layout at Goodwood. Big plastic buckets contain tyres and engine parts salvaged from wrecked cars to be used in repair jobs, while a filing cabinet holds his collection of catalogues, dating back “some forty-odd years. Well actually, it’s forty-four.” A specially-bought PC in the corner is hooked up to an electronic test-bed which he uses to tune his motors, while a significant part of his loft is taken up by his collection of boxed sets, ranging from a legendary 1967 James Bond Aston Martin set, complete with ejector seat and original artwork by Michael Turner, to a GT Pursuit set which only arrived in Toys’R’Us a few days ago, promptly to be snapped up by Smith. “It happens quite often that Hornby produce special sets for the big retailers which are not publicised, and someone will give me a call and say ‘did you know about this?’, and I’m straight down there to pick one up.”

The collection is stored strictly by make of car: thus the Batmobile (a tie-in with Tim Burton’s 1989 movie) is kept on the opposite side of the room from the Joker’s pink monstrosity, which is based on a Porsche moulding. Smith regards both of these with distaste (though he is proud of the unique translucent resin prototype Batmobile shell he acquired directly from the factory), though not with quite the contempt he reserves for the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on skateboards or the Power Rangers motorbikes and sidecars, “aberrations” Scalextric produced during a rough patch in the 1980s. “They were hit hard by the introduction of computer games, and fewer sales meant less money went into production, so you ended up with what was basically little plastic blobs, plus they went off in a few strange directions before they got back on track when people started to want more interactive, touchy-feely toys in the 1990s.” More pleasing is his collection of 1960s Formula Juniors, Porsches and Ferraris, some of which date back to his own childhood and some of which, as he puts it, “are the ones I got because I couldn’t afford them as a kid.” Many of his cars were acquired at toy fairs and NSCC swap meets, to which his wife accompanies him “as a sort of mobile banker – ‘you’ve now spent this much.’” Others have turned up at car boot sales or auctions for just a few quid (“you develop a good poker face”), but he admits that “Ebay has changed the face of collecting. I used to bring back a carload of stuff every weekend from junk sales, but now it’s mostly online. Plus the things that I’m looking for now are rarer and harder to find.”

The one thing you won’t find anywhere in Smith’s home is a track you can actually play on. “The racing side doesn’t really interest me, to be honest,” he confesses. “I like the sociability of meetings in Farnham, but racing isn’t really my cup of tea. Besides, it’s no fun on your own.”

2 comments: said...

Great scalextric piece :)

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