|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.
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
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
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
A Pitman DC60 in the remains of a
sports car chassis.
The motor and back axle pivotted on the side screws with the piano wire
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
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
The underside of the 'E Type', alas
converted to slot.
One of the exhaust pipes pivotted sideways to switch on the lights.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
“Many people give their used cars a 2nd chance through a
car donation so they can also go to a good home.”