My first visit to a motor race was the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone in 1956. This was won by Stirling Moss making a guest appearance in a Vanwall. I became a life-long Moss fan and also a fan of Vanwall.
When Scalextric (1/32 scale) appeared I was heavily into aeromodelling, particularly control-line flying and was a member of the West Bromwich Model Aeroplane Club. I used to cycle to West Brom from Aston, Birmingham. Thus I learned of the West Bromwich Model shop run by Norman Fletcher. Norman had a Scalextric track in the shop. This didn't really appeal to me until Norman came up with the idea of using the gymbal from the front of a Scalextric car to convert the Merit 1/24 scale plastic kits to race on the track. I immediately produced a Vanwall!
Around this time there appeared a competitor to Scalextric in the form of Victory Industries (VIP). I answered an advert in Model Maker by VIP for model makers and attended an interview. Part of this was a tour of the factory. Fascinating though this was it didn't really light any fires, which was just as well because I didn't get the job. I do remember that their racing sets (also 1/32 scale) consisted of MGAs and Healey 3000s.
Spurred on by an article in MM on converting small diecast cars I bought a Romford 'Terrier' motor but didn't really have much success with that route, although I did build a simple oval track from balsa with one lane. The current was carried by 'OO' scale railway rails of nickel silver, buried in the balsa each side of the slot. I later converted two of the early SMEC car kits (the Alfa-Romeo 158 and Mercedes W154) to run on this track. Although the kits provided a basic body outline of solid obeche I replaced this with balsa.
Back in 1949 I had met Stan Whitbread who was then running the West Birmingham Model Aeroplane Club under the guise of a nightschool class. I learned that Stan was now running an electric rail racing club, Oaklands Park (Stan lived in Oaklands Avenue, Quinton), so I contacted Stan and joined. Initially, the club met once a month on Sunday evenings (this being late in 1958), but this soon became weekly. Meetings alternated between GP and Sports.
The club was a fairly small group consisting chiefly of Stan, his wife Ve, their two children Tony and Anne, Colin Harris and his wife Ann, plus Pete Mells, myself and one or two others.
It must be pointed out here that I was very much an active aeromodeller and on my way to becoming a regular competition flyer. I used to attend events all over the country by that regular method of the time, the club coach. Thus, I would cycle from Aston to West Bromwich early in the morning with a model strapped to my back in order to catch the coach. At the end of the day, sometimes around midnight, I would cycle back to Aston. On one occasion, a policeman pointed his torch at me and inquired where I had been, "Manchester", I replied, and cycled off into the night.
My aeromodelling had more or less stopped during the time that I had the threat of National Service hanging over me. Instead I followed my interest in music and ended up playing clarinet and tenor sax in a rehearsal orchestra. I was in a reserve industry (drop forging) so my service was deferred while I served my apprenticeship. When this ended, the forces were becoming very fussy about who they accepted and I failed the medical. I immediately launched myself back into aeromodelling. At the time that I first became active in the Oaklands club (1959 - 60) I competed in World and European championships in Hungary and Belgium. Rail racing was thus my fifth or sixth hobby.
It should also be pointed out that, in the late 50's, things were so much more primitive than they are now. The only glues available were balsa cement and a hardwood glue called 'Durofix'. Epoxy and cyanoacrylate lay far in the future. Most items made abroad were simply not available. My first large Glowplug engine for a model plane came from Hong Kong who could accept British Postal Orders. You then had to pay import duty and purchase tax.
At that time, very few parts were available for rail cars. Basically, we had the wheels from the SMEC scale kits, some contrate gears from Eldi and a variety of motors and worm gears from 'OO' gauge model locomotives. Most people used the Triang motor because it was freely available and fairly cheap. This motor eventually found its way into the Hornby range and is still available today in a very similar form. The contrate gears were not very reliable and the steel contrate tended to slip on the brass hub. This was usually 'fixed' by soldering, but never lasted too long. The result of all this was that everyone involved was basically a modeller who liked cars and there was a remarkable cameraderie.
Car bodies tended to be made from balsa as it was a material we were all familiar with. The SMEC kits had obeche bodies which were hard to carve. I later adopted a system of laminating from obeche sheet of 1/8" thickness with each lamination cut to the side view of the car and some of the inner material removed by guesswork before laminating. This method was used to produce a Ferrari 'Breadvan' which won the Concours at the Aintree 200 in November 1963. By this time I had built enough bodies this way to get the hang of it but, to be truthful, this particular car was never a successful racer.
The Concours event was a feature of most meetings but was not very popular, drawing only a handful of entries. Most of these were won by Graham Barnes, of Sale, who produced some beautiful models. I'm tempted to think that my win at Aintree was prompted by sympathy, I can remember Graham saying, "About time too."
One of my early successful cars was an Aston Martin DBR1/300 with a balsa body, a Triang motor, Eldi gears and SMEC wheels. This was unusual for me at that time because it had steering. Most people maintained that it was unnecessary, but I thought otherwise. This had a pronounced 'shimmy' along the straights, but excellent handling. I took the easy way out from then on - and utilized the simpler fixed front axle.
Stan was a rep for AA Hales model distributors (later Bradshaws) and could get some items from the USA. Chief among these were Pitman motors (these too were model railway motors) which were available in several types. Most popular was the DC 60 which, from memory cost around £6/10/0 - a LOT of money in those days!
As this seemed to be the motor to have, I acquired one and fitted it to a Vanwall (surprise) with a GRP body made by Pete Mells.. At this point the construction of the Oaklands cars for these motors was fairly well established by Stan. The chassis members were 3/16" wide brass strip, about 1/32" thick. A piece of this was passed around the motor to support the back axle. The torque of Pitman motors was difficult to absorb and Stan hit upon the idea of allowing the entire motor and axle unit to pivot up and down in a secondary chassis with piano wire springing. This gave a form of rear suspension (technically it was virtually a 'de Dion' axle and I believe Stan referred to it as such). We soon learned that the best tyres for the Pitman were Walshaws. These were very soft and gave lots of grip at the expense of axle tramp - hence the sprung axle. It was some time later that we learned that the real problem was tyre growth and we learned to glue the tyres on (Evostik) and true them with sandpaper. Bearings for the back axle were the bronze bushes from the aforementioned Triang motors.
No steering was used. A tube carrying a solid front axle was simply soldered to the outer chassis. I remember that Colin Harris used to pivot this tube laterally, with springing, but none of the rest of us could make this work. The rail guide was simply a piece of brass, bent to form a tunnel and soldered to the middle of the front axle tube. Sledge pick-ups were used, the negative being quite wide and immediately behind the guide. The positive pick-up was level with the front wheels. Both were attached to brass wire arms which pivoted in brass tubes, with piano wire springing. 'Sledge' because they were a fairly thick piece of brass (they frequently wore through) curved to give a point contact with the rail.
Everyone used their own way of insulating the positive pick-up. My system was to solder a piece of brass sheet to the front axle and bolt a piece of 1/16" plywood to it projecting forwards. The front of this had another bolt which had the pick-up pivot tube soldered to it.
The wear on these pick-ups could be a decisive factor in a long race. At the British Championships meeting at Newport I was leading the Sports car final by a large margin and pulling away. The negative pick-up had already been repaired by oversoldering a piece of brass shim. Around half distance it wore through and the car slowed to a crawl. I tried bending the pick-up arm to present a fresh surface to the rail but this only worked for a short period. The car was a Ferrari 250 Berlinetta with a chassis virtually identical to my Vanwall. Ve Whitbread won the race. I can remember Stan's desperate attempt to keep a straight face when my car slowed. Stan, on more than one occasion, performed successful surgery on a pick-up during a race.
The Vanwall was quite successful, although very heavy. We never weighed the cars, it just seemed heavy! I still have a DC 195 powered 'E' type, with lights, also with a Pete Mells body, from a later period (alas converted to slot) which weighs 4 3/8 ounces.
Universal in the Oaklands club was the use of VIP controllers. These were simply a large push-button with a hefty flange around it. The button had a large travel, which gave three positions: on, off and halfspeed. The mid position was simply a fixed resistor mounted across the contacts. Some people tried fitting an external potentiometer, but this didn't really catch on. The idea was to coast into the corner on the mid position, so that the tail of the car was not unsettled by totally removing the power. Once into the corner, with the inner wheel against the rail, full power was applied and left on till the next corner was reached. One point of interest is that I am right-handed, yet I always drove rail (and later slot) cars with my left hand.
Having always been a competitor, I was anxious to attend some of the big meetings. I traveled with Stan and his family to both Southport and Aintree. Southport was the big meeting, but I rather liked Aintree. I think this was because of the two hour 'Le Mans' race run at Aintree on the Saturday evening, for teams of three cars, with 40 minutes in the dark. The presence of lights on the cars gave some braking effect and they were easier to drive in the dark. Experienced drivers started the race wearing sun glasses and took them off when the lights were slowly faded out. The interesting thing was the sudden spate of derailments when the lights went back on.
Both of these meetings featured long finals. I think both were 300 laps. This allowed the race to develop and I thought it more interesting. I do seem to remember that Aintree was rather friendlier than Southport, but their smaller, warmer, premises may have had something to do with that.
The big problem of these meetings was marshaling. The cry, "Put my bloody car on!" was common. The marshals were mainly provided by the home club, but it always became necessary to recruit some of the visitors. I remember one Aintree GP final where Bridget Russell got so fed up with the marshaling (not necessarily justified) that she picked up her car and stormed out halfway through. The fact that she was leading by several laps didn't seem to matter!
I knew Pete and Bridget some time before I got involved in rail racing and knew of them earlier than that as control-line flyers. Pete had the reputation from winning stunt contests, but I always thought that Bridget was the better flyer. She was certainly better at rail racing.
These meetings were attended for the first time before I produced the Pitman powered Vanwall and I was not very successful. However, the marshaling situation made an impression and led me to produce an answer. This took the form of two sideways extensions of the rail guide from the guide itself to just inside the front wheels. These were as close to the track surface as possible. The idea derived from my limited earlier slot car experience when it was much easier to replace a car on the track. In that situation you simply slid the car about sideways until it dropped in the slot. Rail cars were much more difficult because you had to raise the car above the rail and then locate it by eye before lowering it - hopefully in the right place.
My extensions meant that the car sat on top of the rail and - like a slot car - simply needed to be slid sideways until it dropped. An unexpected benefit of this was that the car would quite often rerail itself just as the marshall was reaching for it! Most people thought that this was a great idea but, to my knowledge, no-one ever copied it. There was one slight disadvantage. At some tracks, noticeably Newport, the positive rail was high enough to sometimes catch the guide and short the track. Where a common power supply was used, this meant that everybody slowed down because the short produced a voltage drop.
The Oaklands track got around this by floating the power supply with a hefty battery (actually a lorry battery) which meant that the cars didn't slow down, but there was some risk of melting something. This was taken car of by a car headlight bulb in series with each track. This not only reduced the maximum available current but indicated who the culprit was.
Getting my own transport in early 1961 led to me being able to attend all of the meetings and I was able to travel to Sale and Worksop. The Worksop track was run by the Russells, who dominated the proceedings. I do remember returning from there, with Pete Mells as a passenger, on three cylinders. This was due to a broken piston ring in my side-valve engined 100E Anglia. I have no real memory of the first Sale track, but I have vivid memories of their second. This had a very steep banked bend (at least 60 degrees) which could be learned after a few laps, but there was also a hidden corner which was a killer to the visitors. This track was located in the basement of Sale Town Hall.
The Newport track had not only the previously mentioned high positive rail, but a long downhill straight with quite a sharp bend at the bottom. Fortunately, the highest part of the rail was in this bend and my heavy Vanwall could coast through it at unreduced speed while everyone else struggled with the reduced power.
The number one driver of this period was Geoff Taylor (of Aintree) who had a Pitman DC 60 powered Auto-union which was very fast. I don't know whether the car was a handful or whether Geoff took a while to settle in, but we had several good battles where I led for the first third of the race, or so. Geoff would keep rushing past, only to come off at the next bend. Eventually he would get ahead and then pull away.
In the first such battle, at Southport in 1961, we were joined by Dave Seddon who eventually finished second, passing me late in the race. Dave was a very unpredictable driver. He could be very good or so-so depending on the day. He also complained a lot.
Newport was fairly close to home and I used to go to some of their club meetings, particularly just before a big meeting. A feature of their clubroom was a drag strip down one side. This was two lanes and ended with about 6 feet of sorbo rubber. There was no socket for a controller, just an on/off switch!
I used to make at least one trip to the Aintree track before their big meetings. It's an interesting reflection on the times that the M6 Motorway didn't exist, yet it was a practical proposition to travel from Birmingham to Aintree for an evenings racing after working in an office all day.
The Oaklands track was built on two main baseboards. For the first Open Oaklands meeting, an extension was built to go between the two and the track was erected in Four Dwellings School in Harborne in the very same classroom that had been used for the West Birmingham Model Aero Club meetings! I still marvel at the fact that this arrangement worked perfectly and the track gave no problems. On the Sunday night, at the close of the meeting, the track was transported to new premises at Langley Green in the loft above an old stable.
For this first meeting I had foolishly agreed (I hesitate to use the word 'volunteered') to update the lap counting equipment and to produce a proper control board. I shudder to think of this now! A motor and gearbox drove a set of rotary contacts that sounded a 30 second buzzer, then a 10 second buzzer, all while a red light showed. Finally, the light turned green and the track was energised. Also included were large dials operated by ex WD rotary actuators which indicated the number of laps completed on each lane.
When Oaklands started to hold open meetings, they copied the Aintree format and had a two hour relay race on the Saturday evening. This was instantly dubbed the 'Apolindianis Race'. There was no dark period, the format being a team of three drivers, each of whom had to do one stint with a sports car and one stint with a GP car. At the first of these, I was attending a SMAE (Society of Model Aeronautical Engineers) Council meeting in London on the Saturday afternoon and hurried back to find the race in progress and my team lying third, the other members being Pete Mells and Walkden Fisher. Walkden was worried that I might not make it but Pete kept reassuring him. My trusty Aston soon pulled us up into the lead and my Vanwall then ensured that we won the race.
The spirit of these big meetings was something that I enjoyed. There was always something to learn and most people were happy to show you their latest creation, successful or not. Walkden built some beautiful cars, but was not generally successful with them. His own club (ARA) never did hold an open meeting and the track was something of a mystery, apart from an article in Model Maker.
Laurie Cranshaw was a (founder?) member of both Southport and Aintree. He was a solicitor and for many years was chief RAC timekeeper. He was a very good racer and had a stable of good cars.
The demise of rail racing is something that isn't really clear to me to this day. It's easy to say that slot killed it off. However, early slot cars were really no easier to build than rail cars. The existence of commercially available slot cars doesn't really enter the picture because their performance was poor compared to the rail cars. VIP disappeared quite early on and Scalextric was severely handicapped by the track. There were some permanent tracks based on Scalextric, which helped, but they were hard work to maintain and race on.
I'm not really in a position to comment because I had a falling out with Oaklands and defected to the Birmingham club, who were a slot club. This was located in the Basement of Bearwood Models shop in Camp Hill, Birmingham. This was their second shop, the first being in Bearwood!
Thus, most of my rail cars were converted to slot around a year before rail died out. I have to admit that none of them worked too well, mainly because they were overgeared and difficult to drive. I also had to learn to drive with a speed controller and found it difficult to master.
All of this time, I was an active competition aeromodeller. My primary interest of Control-line flying had less and less appeal and I became involved in radio control flying. The spur for this was the advent of model air racing, where 4 models were flown together for ten laps around three pylons making a triangular quarter mile course, a two and a half mile race. This became known as Pylon Racing! I've never raced a pylon in my life.
This consumed my main aeromodelling life for some ten years with some success. I was to become directly responsible for getting the pylon racing event made up to world championship status. I also dabbled in radio control scale models.
In 1985 I attended the first Pylon Racing World Championships as a jury member. This took place immediately after the American National Aeromodelling Championships at the same venue. I was thus able to attend an event that I had always wanted to attend. During the course of this I was encouraged to compete in the Old Time Stunt Control-Line event with a borrowed model and came seventh.
Vintage Stunt, as it became known, was just getting started in the UK and I built a model of the design that I had started with some 35 years earlier and started winning again. The rest is irrelevant here.
The slot cars sat in a custom box (made for me by Pete Mells) for many years. In early 2003 I opened it up, fearful of what I might find. They were all in surprisingly good condition and have since gone to a good home (see below).