My Vac-form Bodied Cars
by Bob Ward
I started racing slot cars in 1962 and in the years since I’ve built and raced just about every kind of slot car there is. Until the Scalextric-Ninco-Fly revival began in the late 1990s almost all of my cars had scratchbuilt or modified brass and steel chassis. I would spend hours and hours at my workbench working with a Moto-tool, soldering iron, pliers, nibbler, drill press, torch, and more to turn out an endless procession of chassis for many different racing classes and body types, both hardbody and vac-form. Unfortunately, I no longer have most of them, but I do have a few, along with photos of some of the others.
Thumper Sunoco Camaro
This is one I do still have, mainly because it was built more for show than racing, though it was a fully competitive car in the Womp/Thumper races I competed in for the better part of 20 years as a member of a 1/32 racing club in the Seattle/Tacoma area where I have lived almost all my life. In addition to this car I have four Womps awaiting restoration.
The body is a Rhino Lexan TransAm Camaro. The original maker of Rhino bodies is long out of business but the bodies, including this one, are still available. This is a pretty good likeness of an 80s TransAm car. That makes it one of my favorites.
I always enjoyed painting clear bodies. You have to mask them in a particular order so that the first color painted is the darkest one. That way you don’t have a darker color affecting the lighter ones. Sometimes it’s not practical to do that so you spray the light color and then put a coat of white behind it to ensure the brightness of the color and follow up the white with a coat of silver, which makes the painted areas completely opaque so the subsequent colors don’t show through. But normally you start with the darkest one. After you paint the first color you unmask the next darkest one, then the next, until you have done the lightest one. Then you unmask the windows and other clear areas and you have a finished paint job. The decals are peel-and-stick ones applied to the outside of the body.
Thumper and Womp chassis are as basic as slot car chassis come. They are intended for beginners to race right out of the box, but we had a list of allowable modifications to make the cars sturdier and better handling. In the photo above you can see the front axle tube, pin tubes for body mounting, and the steel wire brace connecting the top of the motor bracket with the rear axle bushings. The brace made the rear of the chassis a lot stiffer, preventing it from bending in crashes and ensuring a good gear mesh. This car originally had a 16-D motor in it, but when the FK130 motors appeared we began using them for their lighter weight. That allowed the cars to have proper weight distribution with less lead ballast. Lap times dropped considerably. This car still has all the lead for the 16-D installation, which likely means it was never raced with the Plafit Cheetah in it. I think the motor in this car is from the first batch of Cheetahs imported into the US. One of these days I’m going to put a plastic-track guide and silicone rear tires on this car and see how it runs on my Scalextric track. Everything needed to build this car is still being produced, so you could build one like it.
We had a class in our club called, amazingly enough, Club Sports. This was for scratchbuilt 1/32 scale sports-racing cars, including everything from CanAm to Group C and GTP. All used Lexan bodies from manufacturers that included Parma, Rhino, and Betta. These cars had a maximum width of 2.5” and a minimum clearance of .063”. Cobalt magnets were not allowed, minimum tire widths (front) and diameters were specified, and non-scale air dams and spoilers were banned. And those were all the rules there were. Chassis design was unrestricted and you could use whatever you wanted for a motor as long as it would run on the track’s power supply. As it happened, not entirely by chance, all the tracks had power supplies that would handle Group 20 motors but not much beyond that. As time went by we actually gravitated toward less powerful motors to make the cars more drivable and therefore faster over an entire lap. Near the end we were actually running FK130s in some of these cars.
My Lola T600 had a Group 15 armature inside a Mura C-can. However, it had a unique feature, at least for our club, in having the gears inside the length of the can. This was only possible because I had come across what was, apparently, a one-of-a-kind ultra-short stack Group 15 armature of unknown origin. It was short enough to allow the pinion gear to be inside the can. That allowed the entire motor, including the pinion gear, to be shorter than any other one in the club. And that, in turn, let me run wider tires than anybody else.
One other feature helped make the entire motor installation more compact. As on all my later cars the motor can was a stressed member of the chassis. The front of the can was soldered to the chassis center section and the rear axle tube was soldered to the back of the can. That meant there were no frame rails running around either end of the motor. If I had to change the motor I removed all the innards by unscrewing the endbell and pulling the endbell and armature out as a unit. Of course, on my more conventional cars I had to remove the pinion gear to take out the armature. On this one, the pinion gear came right out along with it.
The motor’s magnets also had to be shorter than standard. I took a pair of Blue Dots to a rock shop that had a rock saw. This saw could cut rocks and, I thought, magnets under a continuing bath of cooling and lubricating fluid that would keep the magnets from getting hot and needing to be remagnetized. It worked like a charm.
One of the members of the club had built a copy of Robert Schleicher’s famous Paramount Ranch track. The main straightaway ended with a curve of just over 180 degrees. The Holy Grail of racing on his track was to be able to take that curve flat out. Some of us had been flirting with pulling it off, but we still needed a slight blip of the throttle. But not with this car. I just held the trigger all the way back and the car went around the turn flat out, lap after lap.
But that was in a private test session I was able to arrange. Nobody but me knew about this car. I already had the fastest cars in the club and won most of the Club Sport races, but this was sheer overkill. Since there seemed to be no other ultra-short Group 15 armatures available I was pretty sure I would only get one chance to race it before the whole club voted to ban it. So, I decided to save it for some day when I really needed it, like the last race of a season with the championship at stake. But that day never came. The Lola sat in a plastic bag in the bottom of my race case, out of sight, for several seasons. I tested it regularly to be sure it was always race-ready, but it never raced. That’s why the Lola body, the one and only body that was ever on the car, still looks like new. This article is the first time anybody but me has ever seen or heard of this car. Slot car technology has long since surpassed my Lola’s performance, but at the time, in our club, it was my secret weapon, my Nuclear Option.
Lola T333 CanAm
This is one of my earlier integral-can cars that raced for a few seasons and then was rebodied and retired to show car status. The paint scheme is quite a bit more elaborate than those I usually put on active race cars. Race bodies were considered essentially expendable and were not expected to last long enough to put all that work into. The chassis remains in as-raced condition, someday to be restored to shiny-new appearance.
The chassis is about as simple as they come with the can soldered directly to the slab of brass that formed the center section. This made the chassis really stiff, actually too stiff, though the car was a winner in its time. Compare it with the chassis of the Lola T600 which offered more flex, contributing to its cornering prowess. As time went on we added more and more flex at critical points, finally arriving at centerline pivots not unlike those still used on 1/32 scale laser-cut Eurosport chassis. The bulky mount for the rear wing was a one-off, done more for appearance than anything else. It allowed a free-standing wing as on the 1:1 scale car, but I never devised a suitably robust way of attaching the wing to the uprights, so this kind of wing mounting was something I never repeated.
You can see in the photos of both Lolas that back in the day the rear tire rubber we used was orange in color. To make the cars look more realistic on the track we colored the sidewalls black with a permanent marker. Occasionally we even put white sidewall lettering on the tires, but it would be destroyed by the end of the race so it was only for special occasions. The front wheels were rear wheels cut down narrower and fitted with slices of small-diameter black automotive hose. Both fronts and rears were turned down to the proper diameter on a modeler’s lathe. Those of us who raced both 1/24 and 1/32 scale cars got double value out of our rear tires. When we wore down our 1/24 scale tires to where the car wouldn’t pass tech they still had enough rubber on them that we could turn them down into tires for our 1/32 scale cars. I used to go around after the 1/24 scale races and buy used tires from the other racers. I took them home, turned them down, and sold them to other 1/32 scale racers for a tidy profit.
Back in those days we did everything ourselves. We built our own chassis and motors, painted our own bodies, cut our own tires, and put everything together into what we hoped was a winning package. Some racers even wound their own armatures. I never did because I found that there were plenty of racer/manufacturers who sold, at reasonable prices, better armatures than I would ever be able to wind myself. It was very much a do-it-yourself hobby. There wasn’t much available in the way of RTR cars for any but the most basic classes of racing.
Womp ASA Camaro
Here’s another Camaro built for our club’s Womp/Thumper class. This one, like the Sunoco Camaro above, also has a Rhino body but this one is an ASA short-track oval car body. This was actually a better body than the TransAm Camaro for racing because the sloped nose was better for plowing through pileups.
The chassis, a brass Womp, was built with most of the same features as the Sunoco car’s Thumper. The club members generally preferred brass chassis over steel ones in this class. They seemed to handle just slightly better, though nobody could ever provide a conclusive answer as to why.
In this photo you can see a better view of the motor bracket-to-rear-bushings brace added to all of these cars. Not only did it stabilize the gear mesh and improve handling but it also prevented the chassis from eventually developing stress cracks from repeated bending in crashes and being bent back.
For many of the club members modifying a Womp or Thumper to the limit of the class rules was their introduction to basic chassis building. The rules specified exactly what could and could not be done and we made sure everybody learned how to do the allowed mods properly. This made for closely fought races in which even relative beginners could become competitive in a short time. Note that this car has a 16-D motor, predating the general switch to Cheetahs and other FK130s.
Womp TransAm Mustang
This is one of a long series of Womps and Thumpers I built for sale to club members who lacked the time or tools to build their own. For a while I was turning these out on almost an assembly-line basis.
I didn’t paint the body on this one, but it’s yet another Rhino body. The Rhino bodies were popular because, at 2.5” wide, they were much more scale-appearing than Womp/Thumper bodies from Parma, Champion, and Outisite, most of which were around 3” wide. Rhino also had a 2.5” wide Intrepid GTP body that looked really cool on a Womp and even turned up on some of the Club Sport cars.
The interesting feature on this particular Womp is the modified front axle installation. After several years of running these cars we began to allow builders to cut off the upright portions of the chassis through which the front axles passed and mount the axle tube with pieces of steel wire. This was done not for any noticeable performance gain but to permit the use of smaller-diameter, more scale-appearing front wheels that made the cars look much better than the cone-shaped wheels that were standard equipment on Womps and Thumpers for decades. This one is a very late version because it has both the front axle mod and a Falcon FK130 motor.
I have several more of my old brass-chassis Lexan-bodied 1/32 scale sports cars that are complete but badly in need of restoration. I have new period-correct bodies for them and everything else needed to rebuild them as new, exactly as raced as far back as the 70s. Watch for another article featuring these cars…someday.
Next – Part 2 – My Hardbody Cars