Backyard rockets

Backyard rockets

Hugely popular in the 1950s and 1960s, racing model cars with working combustion engines are still much loved by motorsport enthusiasts. All you need is an outdoor space and a pole for the cars to spin around at speeds of up to 300 km/h. One of the world’s greatest experts in this field tells us why there has been an upswing in interest in miniature models

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Establishing a world speed record while turning in a perfect circle is a pretty rare occurrence. If this record clocks in at around 300km/h and is achieved in a car driven by a 10cc internal-combustion engine, the whole thing becomes even more extraordinary. Or does it? Not in the world of model cars, a specialist area that has now evolved from a sporting realm to one increasingly popular with discerning collectors.
The cars are tied to a pole by a special cable and go round a circular track at extraordinary speeds. “These are products designed and built strictly for adult users and not for children,” writes L’Ingegner Achille Vitale in his book Il Giocattolo E Il Suo Tempo (The Toy And Its Time). “Also part of this class of product are three-phase engines, also known as an internal combustion engine, and the many vehicles powered by this type of engine, including aeroplanes, cars, motorboats, ships, etc… The first three-phase engines appeared in the first decades of the 20th century.” We were at the dawn of the modern age and the myth of speed was boundless. Soon, there was a move from individual experimentation to direct comparison of vehicles and, inevitably, the desire to race quickly began to be felt: “In the late 1920s, the first aeronautical races were organised using models that flew on a circular trajectory tied to a pole by a cable, while in the late 1930s, in the US and subsequently in Europe, races were also held using model cars, both with the system of the car tied to a pole with a cable (similar to that used for the planes) and with various models placed side by- side that went along a specially built track.”

“These are products designed and built strictly for adult users and not for children”

Vitale continues: “In that situation, the cars were connected to the track by means of special shoes to ensure that the vehicle did not leave the track or overturn. The track was made of wood or cement and surrounded by stands for the spectators. The models competed at constant power, as there were no remote controls for the engines at that time.
“However, the period of greatest success for this special sport was the 1950s, when some specialist companies produced cars that recreated the real ones of the time for this type of race, drawing inspiration from real models, including Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Cisitalia, Jaguar, BRM, Mercedes, Auto Union, Gordini and Bugatti.” Needless to say, Ferrari was a source of inspiration for the French company Vega and the Italian Movo in Milan, which produced several models. The latter, with the aid of the Mercury company, also created a Lancia D24 that could be motorised and had a body built using die-casting technique. Again in Italy, Domo of Bologna presented a Maserati with both a three-phase engine and electric motor. In France, Vega also put Jaguars, Mercedes, BRMs and Alfa Romeos on sale, in addition to other brands of racing cars. Again in France, MRA produced a Gordini and Cisitalia coupé and racing car. These were fitted with engines produced by Vega, or similar engines of other makes, mostly with cubic capacities between five and 10cc. Back in Italy, the engines most often used were the Super Tigre by Micromeccanica Saturno, due to their excellent power. These were air-cooled single-cylinder, single-spark ignition, 10cc, with power variable from 1.10 to 1.60hp.
“model cars with working combustion engines are still much loved by motorsport enthusiasts”

The European manufacturers were joined by US firms such as Ball, Dooling, who also made a 5cc version, and Hornet. The cubic capacities arrived at less than one cubic centimetre for a Ferrari 750 Monza by Vega with direct output on two shafts connected to the wheels, and 1.5, 2.5 and 3.5cc, as in the case of the splendid Ferrari 156 F1, built in Lyon and motorised by Italian company Pico. It is interesting to discover from Vitale that “the Communist countries, particularly Poland and Russia, distinguished themselves in the construction of excellent, highly complex three phase engines, such as the radial ones for models of aeroplanes, as well as numerous self-built motorcars of an amazing technical level. “Many technicians at military installations, being forced to stay for years in the installations themselves, spent all their leisure time designing and building genuine masterpieces of engines in miniature, which required a considerable amount of time to be built, as well as a profound knowledge of the principles of mechanics, engine fluid dynamics and metallurgy.” Today, these objects are all highly sought-after by collectors. Obviously creativity was not limited to this specific scenario: observing the beautiful BB Corn, on these pages, we see a supercharged Ross Twin two-cylinder engine with compressor, which reaches 1hp at a push, while the superb Bugatti Type 35 is fitted with a Hungarian engine with four cylinders in line. It is worth considering that these cars are as small as 50cm in length, even if much smaller ones, based on the same principles, exist. How were these models bought? Excluding the handmade ones (often one-off models which were not even considered by the collectors’ market at the time, but that are now increasingly sought after, especially those of a high quality), they were sold in kits, to be assembled by the buyer. There was a lot of work involved to make the model operational, with most models supplied without an engine, which had to be purchased separately. In the US, in addition to mass-produced road vehicles, several scale models were produced of cars that had competed at Indianapolis, with dimensions between 35cm and 55cm. The US produced the largest number of three-phase cars, both in small series and individual items, designed and built by enthusiasts, who modified them for each competition in order to improve their performance, something that also happened subsequently in Europe. Under these conditions, it was the very people who participated in the races who chose the type of three-phase engine to be used. On each occasion they made modifications to the chassis, suspension and air intakes, to cool the engine more effectively, depending on the type of car and the conditions of the race.

Variations to the cars mass-produced by the specialist companies were also made by the participants in races to improve the characteristics of the original product. Today these vehicles are defined as hybrids. For these cars the weight was key for stability when running, so chassis and body were always made of metal, with the use of metal sheets, die-cast aluminium or even magnesium. “It is not easy today to find models produced by known companies that are in good condition, especially the engine, which more often than not has seized up, or, as they say in racing jargon, is inchiodato (nailed) due to rust or the hardening of the oil,” Vitale continues. “Mostly the cars are missing one or more original parts, considering the use that was made of them, with accidents being very common, particularly overturning or coming off the track due to the snapping of the cable or the hooks. For this reason, in recent years, the prices of these models have significantly increased, causing the value of home-made models to increase too.”
The wonderful models shown here on these pages come from one of the most important private collections in existence, the AEV of Turin, and give a clear overview of the multi-faceted world that this passion, combining car, mechanics and talent, has created within the specific chapter of the immense history of the automobile. If anyone has one of these models at home, maybe lying around somewhere in the attic, let us know and send us a photograph: who knows, we might discover some hidden gem!

Da issue 23, Yearbook 2013

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  • Reb Ricci

    An observation or two… I used to race go-karts back in the 60′s (USA). Engines were McCullough, West Bend, Homelite, etc. After a few years, we started to see Euro engines on the scene that were very fast. Parilla and Saetta (Komet?) come to mind. The engines shown in the article look like miniature versions of the European kart engines I saw back then. Being so similar in appearance, I’m wondering if it’s possible that the design of 10cc model car racing engines of the 50′s, might possibly have been scaled up to ~100cc for karts in the 60′s? Seems like a logical progression.

    The engines shown are very interesting. Appears that they might be rotary valve.
    Robert K. Ricci