by Bob Ward
Scalextric’s 1971 TransAm Javelin has been controversial, to say the least, ever since the release of the first livery, the Penske Racing 1971 series champion. The principal issue is, of course, the switch from a sidewinder chassis layout to an inline. We here at VLH think that was, shall we say, an ill-advised decision. Before we get to that, however, let’s look at what Scalextric did right – and there are several real improvements.
The first, and it’s a big one, is making the front and rear valences part of the body, not the chassis. I’ve been campaigning for this for, literally, decades now. It makes giving the car body float much easier and more effective. It also simplifies chassis transplants -fortunately, as we will see.
Another is a sturdier inline motor mount that grips the endbell around the bushing housing rather than with two prongs engaging the notches for the can tabs on the sides of the endbell. This improvement is not really new; they have been doing it on all their inline cars lately, but it’s worthy of recognition. We’ve found the old mount to be the second most common failure point on Scalextric inline cars, after the guide socket, which is the most common chassis failure on all Scalextric cars. If they just have to make inline cars this, at least, is the way to design the motor mount. We do think, however, that the front (can end) mount should have been thicker.
The third step forward is the newly tooled Minilite wheels, a big improvement over the ones they have been using for the last 20 years or so. These wheels are supposed to be early examples of Scalextric’s new initiative to have all their wheels match the dimensions of commonly available aluminum wheels and thereby accept a variety of existing aftermarket tires.
We do have to say also that the OEM tires fitted to the Javelin, as well as other Scalextric cars over the past year, are a big improvement in grip over earlier OEM tires. They look like they were trued at the factory, though the company says that’s not the case.
The designers get an attaboy for all of these.
The wheel upgrade is not without its problems, however. One is that the rear wheels and tires are now significantly wider than those of the other TA cars, and that exacerbates the balance of performance problems created by the switch to an inline chassis. Another is that Scalextric stopped offering spare parts a while back, so these wheels are not readily available for updating the older cars. It also appears that these wheels and tires will not fit under the body on at least some, if not all of the other TA cars. Another complication is that there are aftermarket tires to fit these wheels that are even wider than the stock ones and still fit inside the body, further increasing the effect of the wider wheels.
One other change may be either an improvement or a step backwards, depending on your point of view. That’s the switch from a full-depth interior tub to a semi-flat tray interior. More about that will be coming, also.
And so, on to the big issue, the chassis layout.
Scalextric’s switch to inline chassis was hailed as a move to bring the performance of its cars closer to the level of higher-end cars such as Slot It. Their PR material said this change was made on the basis of expert advice.
Really? Here’s a quote from the Test Track section of the Scalextric web site from February 26, 2016: “While already present on a select few Scalextric cars, all new cars will have an inline motor fitted as standard. This configuration not only gives better weight distribution for the car but also means that both back wheels receive the power from the motor, with the gear on the rear axle.” (Emphasis mine.) Seriously? They can’t possibly think a sidewinder drives only one of the rear wheels, can they?
All right, maybe that was written by someone in the PR department who was neither a racer nor an engineer, but the company hasn’t corrected it in the over two years since it was published. As of April 25, 2018 it was still there for the whole world to see.
Here’s another quote from the same article: “More detailed feedback was sought from a number of different sources to get specific details on what racers would change to get a better slot racing car. The collectors and experts who offered their feedback were fantastic in guiding our Developers, confirming a number of their suspicions, but also raising new ideas. While not everything suggested was possible, there were a large number of changes that almost everyone agreed upon and so our Development team set about making the changes a reality.”
The key phrase here is “collectors and experts”. And that, in my view, is exactly the problem. I have no way of knowing who these collectors and experts were, but I strongly suspect that they were the last people the designers should be listening to. Why?
Well, to begin with, collectors mostly are just that. To be sure, some are also racers to one extent or another, but most of them are more concerned with how the cars look than how they perform. What collectors most often want is more and finer detail. Performance is a secondary consideration, if it’s one at all. And that’s fine – some of our best customers are collectors and we value their concerns and preferences. But how relevant is their input where performance issues are concerned?
But the real problem, I suspect, is with the “experts” the designers sought input from. The question here is what kind of experts? I think the car itself provides the answer. It looks to me very much like a car optimized for non-magnet wood track racing. Unfortunately, I’ve come to the conclusion, based on 20 years of slot car industry experience and a lifetime as a slot car racer, that in this present day around 95% of slot car racing worldwide is done on plastic track with magnets. This car is designed primarily for 5% or less of the people who actually race 1/32 scale slot cars.
The reason for that, I believe, is that the 95-plus percent have no voice with which to influence the manufacturers. Who are the 95 percent? They are the people who buy a race set for their kids or as a family activity. They are the less “serious” hobbyists who just want to race and have fun at reasonable cost and probably will never participate in organized competition beyond having a few friends (theirs or their children’s) from the neighborhood over to race. They just want cars they think are cool that are easy to make equal in performance so they can be raced with similar cars on an even basis. They want any performance upgrades they make to be simple and inexpensive, most often just tires – and magnets. For the 95% these two things represent all the “tuning” they will ever need or want to do. They will likely never run without magnets. And very few of them will ever build a wood track.
They will probably never read, much less post on, an online slot car forum or enter a proxy race or go to one of the big slot car swap meets or big race events. That makes them anonymous and unheard and their needs and preferences really never enter the thinking of the slot car designers who are aware, on some level, that they exist but just assume that whatever the 5% want will serve the 95% also. And that’s unfortunate because the 95% are the people Scalextric has to address to stay in business.
And that brings us to the inline vs. sidewinder issue and the related magnet vs. non-magnet issue as played out in the design of Scalextric TransAm cars. There are three main questions here:
- Is it true that whatever makes a good wood track/ on-magnet car will make a good plastic track/magnet car?
- Which chassis layout is better for the 95 percent?
- How does one anomalous car affect the balance of performance for organized racing? In other words, can the Javelin really fit in with the other Scalextric (and Pioneer, by the way) TA cars?
However, this article is getting up into the TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) range, so we’ll take up the answers to these questions as we go through our How They Should Have Made It car build in the next part of this article, coming soon. Here’s a sneak peek:
Next: The Javelin Car Build.
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