1960’s Rare Thingies Revisited

July 10th, 2008 · 7 Comments

Larry Shinoda was a senior designer for General Motors under Bill Mitchell, then for the Ford Motor Company. In his vast portfolio are the designs of the Corvette Sting Ray, the Mustang “Boss” and the cast-alloy multi-spoke wheel that was later outrageously copied by the German wheel manufacturer BBS.

Shinoda, an American-born citizen of Japanese origins, was also a fan of slot cars in the classic period, and designed a series of fantastic slot car bodies. Through an arrangement with a cottage-industry manufacturer, aptly named “Thingies”, these bodies were produced in confidential quantities in 1967. Run at famous raceways such as “The Groove” in Chicago, and Tom Thumb in Detroit, they were fitted over home-built inline component chassis often using a Dynamic motor mount. Most of the motors used were local-production units, basically Mabuchi FT16 and FT26 motors rewound by Dyna-Rewind and fitted with better magnets and brass sleeves over the end bells spring posts.

What made these bizarre slot cars so famous for the vintage enthusiasts are two stories published in Model Car Science and Model Car Racing. In the MC&S issue was told the story of the second “Summer Tour” by the famous Team Russkit. Mike Morrissey and Ron Quintana toured about 30 raceways in 2 weeks, and encountered serious opposition from these low-slung bugs. Indeed, the almost-scale Lotus 40’s of the team were beaten by the thingies. Nothing really amazing there, as the locals creamed the western cars with a clear advantage in the handling department and what appeared to be at least equal power to that of the Russkit rockets. A bit humiliating, but the MC&S story was politically correct and never mentioned the actual result…

Are these the only surviving body tags? More are needed to figure all the bodies names…

An array of Shinoda designed “Thingies” bodies with some of their original tags.

The “Arrow”. There were several versions of these, narrower, wider and with different details.

The “Big Bus” is really impressing by its huge size.

The “Small Bus” in unpainted form, showing the rather crude molding and details. The quality was very poor, and most bodies found nowadays show cracks and defects…

The “Bullet” showing its poor forming quality.

A narrower variation of the “Bullet”.

Lampray was one of the most used bodies, seen in many period pictures.

Larry Shinoda, right, and Philippe de Lespinay on front of Philippe’s wheel company booth at the 1993 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Larry died of a heart attack a mere five years later.

The MDC “Bat” has a clouded history. Indeed, there was an injected body, supposed to be mounted over a ladder magnesium chassis. Stay tuned for more on this mysterious car…

The Detail Models “Tarantula” is blow-molded. It is one of the most bizarre “thingies” ever produced.

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John Cukras Most Famous Car

July 10th, 2008 · 2 Comments

American slot car racing legend John Cukras (pronounce “Soo-Krees”) did much to glorify pro-racing when this car won the first Car Model magazine series race in 1967. A story in Rod Custom, illustrated by the famous Tom Daniel who designed many of the Monogram plastic kits, opened the eyes of thousands of young Americans on slot car racing. A subsequent story by celebrated writer, the late Leon Mandel, made John Cukras’s name a household commodity at the time.

Race report with a young John Cukras flanked by his Riggen team mate, Bryan Warmack:

custom slot car by John Cukras

This is the actual car:

custom slot car by John Cukras

And the really nice drawing by Tom Daniel:
user posted image

Amazingly for a car that had serious racing use, it survived! Found in the stockpile of the late Ron Granlee, the actual car that won the 5th Car Model Series race in late 1966. The mysterious coupe body has long disappeared so we are now fitting the closest thing we could find, the Testor Ferrari P4 Spyder replica, but set as a coupe. Interestingly, we restored a similar car for John Cukras just a few years back, but it was not the actual race car. This one was found to be in the ownership of the late Ron Granlee, owner of the famous “Speed & Sport” raceway in Lynwood, California. It is now in the Marconi Museum for Kids in Tustin, CA.

Here are the pics I took of the real thing. Unfortunately, the mysterious coupe body carved by Jack Garcia has long disappeared so we are now fitting the closest thing we could find, the Testor Ferrari P4 Spyder replica, but set as a coupe.

Former Riggen team captain Bryan Warmack inspecting the old team car in his shop. Notice renewed fire in eyes.

Note; Tom Daniel’s drawing fails to show details that are present on the real car: 1/ 4 jam nuts behind wheels. 2/ 1/16″ rear axle spacers, 3/16″ front axle spacers.

Also I tried to fit 5/8″ rears with no spacers or nuts, and it comes too wide at 3-1/16′, so I can absolutely say that this car had the 1/2″ rears at all times.

Note that the Mura motor modified by Frank Taber is now fitted with a CW arm, so the Weldun crown gear changed side. Otherwise the car is exactly as it left the stage after John won the Car Model thing.

The body will be painted to match the original but we have plans for actually making a new pattern for the vanished coupe, which John told me was carved by Jack Garcia. Apparently it was never marketed because I have never seen one even in bad shape in the past 35 years…

Completing the Cukras 1967 Car Model Race Winner

This car is the one used by famous racer John Cukras to win the big Car Model magazine race in Los Angeles in 1967. I had begun the restoration of this car a long time ago, but never completed it in hope that I would find the correct body for it. Unfortunately, it looks more and more that this will never happen as not a single example of the special model carved by Jack Garcia and used by several pro racer in 1966 appears to have survived. So I used the closest thing to that, a Pactra Ferrari P4 Spyder molding made into a coupe. The basic body was trimmed and mounted, then sent to Jairus Watson for a delicate coat of dark red and a couple of details. I scanned and created the decals on Photoshop and applied them to the relevant spaces, found and painted a correct interior, fashioned the front spoiler and finsihed the car. It took forever to get all the decals made but I think the car looks pretty good considering. What do you think?

The original chassis, complete with motor, was donated a long time ago by the late Ron Granlee. I also previously restored a similar car for John Cukras himself.

The paper sticker on the front spoiler had to be recreated from scratch.

So was the small oval stickers over the engine cover.

The chassis had already been restored and needed no attention. One more in the Museum’s vault. Next!

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John Cukras Winning Machine…

July 10th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Or the story of some serious detective work about a
1967 multi-race winner.

John Cukras is one of the all-time great drivers-builders in the history of the hobby, and certainly one of the best-known heroes of slot racing’s “Classic Era”. Few of his cars are known to have survived, and this is the story of one that did.

1966 is the year John really made his mark, winning the first East-West confrontation in Memphis, TN, with the help of another
ace-driver, Mike Steube. John built the chassis and told Mike to “stay away from it”, while Bill Steube Sr. of the famous Checkpoint raceway built the motor for the Pactra bodied Ferrari 3-liter V12 F1 car. They effectively defeated all what the East, Midwest and South could throw at them after Howie Ursaner ran into trouble with his own car.

In 1967, things became much more serious with the production by Champion of the 517 motors, offering the pro racers a much better base on which to build serious power plants to win races. Indeed the Mabuchi FT16D had some considerable drawbacks, the worst being its low-temp end bell that hardly sustained a serious armature wind.

Cukras signed up as a Team Champion member and in quick succession finished second in the last Car Model championship race in Los Angeles, then flew to Atlanta and with the same car, won the ARCO Nationals in the open-wheel class.

A few years ago, I found this used car that was somewhat familiar. After studying the published pictures in the old magazines, I came to the conclusion that this old car was indeed the very one with which Cukras starred in both races, and decided to restore it to its former glory.

Below are the published records from the April 1968 issue of Car model magazine, showing that very car in BOTH races:

The last race of the SoCal Car Model series allowed Terry Schmid to win the championship for the second year in a row. This was helped in a great way by the fact that mike Steube could not compete after his car 9and not only his motor) was stolen before qualifications. The car was retrieved, but the motor was gone, and a loaner motor was just not fast enough to allow him to get into the race. Cukras had no such problem and battled all the way, finishing second feet from winner Doug Henline.

John’s car is shown in the top picture after qualifying for the race. The dark green Honda body was one of the few Russkit bodies in that race, as most favored the Dynamic Ferrari 3-liter or Eagle-Weslake V12. As usual, most of the bodies in that race were painted by “Bob” Kovacs in his Von Dutch style.

In this Car Model race, Cukras had the team Champion Honda bearing some added “Champion of Chamblee” stickers on its flanks. Note the lead-wire retaining steel wire soldered behind the front axle, as well as the 3/32″ brass tubing forming the floating body mounting system, just ahead of the motor. The Cox guide and Weldun 32T crown gear are listed as “Champion” in the tech sheet, and it is correct since Champion indeed marketed both! Another surprise is that the Champion “517” motor built by Pete Zimmerman sports a standard Mabuchi end bell, just like the motor that came from this car. The main reason was that the Champion end bell used a larger bearing, and it required a modification of the Russkit chassis bracket that few builders were willing to do…

Note that this car ran in the same race as a car we recently restored, that one built and driven by Mike Steube.

John’s car is illustrated on top of this page, shown upside down. Note the soldering details on the chassis as well as the gearbox molded with the body, both surviving on the model below. Indeed the car was never raced again and sat neglected but complete for 35 years until I found it. The motor is still the same but its position was reversed between the two races which were run a short month apart.

The surviving chassis and body after dis-assembly. Close observation decidedly shows that this car is indeed, the one pictured above. The body is the worse for wear and its nose was broken off and taped, the result of a serious collision while racing in Atlanta.

Compare this view to the picture of the car above. The “Champion” sticker has been replaced or was covering the small “STP” decal on its flank, while the larger ones on each side of the nose have been replaced by a simple “pro” decal from a Russkit sheet. Close observation shows that all the painted details are indeed identical to the body shown above. The driver is also the same, but its (Cox) head has been pushed down by some apparently harsh racing.

The nose was carefully re-glued together and the adhesive tape removed. The body has also been cleaned from track debris. Detail of the well-worn driver shows the usual mustache painted by John Cukras on many of its subjects. Russkit plated injection molded intake stacks are glued on the sides of the engine cam covers. The exhaust system has been detailed with white and black paint.

The bare chassis, still sporting the lead-wire retaining wire. The ball bearings have been removed for cleaning as well as axles, guide, motor and gears. The lead weight on the drop arm will not be removed during the restoration process.

This Champion 517 motor is not the original one, but was installed here for the picture. Note the Mabuchi end bell used for the same reasons as originally: the Russkit bracket hole is too small to fit the Champion end bell.

The front end shows some brass corrosion that will be polished off. Note the 38-year old solder joints, still holding and strong as ever.

The motor cage shows the reinforced Russkit mount. Steel wire is used instead of brass, making the rear end quite strong. Note that the steel wires across the brass rails are NOT used as body mounts! The 1/8′ ball bearings have been removed for restoration.

The restoration process will now proceed so as to keep the car as original as possible. See it soon in this pages!

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A Beautiful Thing…

July 10th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Time to time, something very special shows up at
auction, and keeping his nose on the ground, my buddy Jack picked up this
gorgeous hand built, original-engineering car. It dates from 1969 and virtually
everything is hand made!

The body is a Lancer McLaren M8A, superbly painted and decorated.

Mirrors and roll bar have been expertly added.

The injectors are spun aluminum…

Detailed exhausts and taillights.

This is something else: a gorgeous hand-cut brass chassis with unique
engineering features, and it looks hardly ever used. Also check this motor out:
looks like a Mura “B” can, but not like any I have ever seen!

Beautiful finish inside and out…
How do you replace anything like this, it is pure automotive art!
Its story is also interesting, as the man who made it is not your ordinary
slap-and-solder person. Indeed he is a careful craftsman, and probably had a
tough time to sell something in which he placed so much effort.

Let’s hear its story by the gentleman himself:

“You asked about my McLaren slot car and, possibly, a brief history of me might
help.

I was fortunate to have a father who was the most knowledgeable and best all
around craftsman I’ve ever known. He was very active in tether car racing in the
Detroit area back in the 1940’s. He always designed and built his own cars (and
even engines), and had good success with them including holding the world record
on several occasions. I hung out in his workshop and learned a great deal about
building things. I also inherited the modeling gene. As a kid I designed and
built airplanes, boats and cars. My Dad built a beautiful O-gauge train for a
Christmas gift for me and later we built a layout in our basement together.

I received an HO scale slot car set for Christmas in 1962 and was immediately
hooked. A slot car raceway named Tiny Tim’s, near my home outside Detroit, had
an HO track and I started competing there weekly. My business was electric motor
sales and service, which involved rewinding motors so, naturally, I had to try
rewinding my HO scale slot car motors. The increase in performance was amazing!
Talk about an unfair advantage! The one fact I remember is that the Aurora
motors had 475 turns of very fine wire on each pole.

I then switched to 1/32 scale and raced AMT and Atlas cars that I rewound, and
then started designing and building my own cars to try to be more competitive. I
also rewound, balanced and otherwise modified my motors for better performance.
The first car of my own design was a two motor 4-wheel drive chassis that I
built to fit a Monogram Ferrari body that I had painted and decorated. My racing
buddies told me that two motors wouldn’t work because the motors would fight
each other, but I rewound them exactly the same, and the car turned out to be
very competitive. My next design was a 4 wheel drive white Cobra roadster that
had a motor for which I made a longer shaft so that the motor could drive both
axles. I rewound and balanced the motor and installed stronger magnets. I also
balanced the gears. This car was VERY competitive. The acceleration and braking
were outstanding and I found that I could even race with most 1/24 scale cars.
It was obvious to me that the serious racers were running 1/24 scale so I
switched to that. By this time, I had begun picking up some ribbons and an
occasional trophy.

I had also built a three-lane track in my basement to run cars for testing and
to practice my driving, which was my weak point. This track had routed slots and
banked turns like the pro tracks and had a 75-foot lap length. With friends, who
were also full-scale midget race fans, I built and raced some rewound 1/24 scale
Monogram Midgets on that track and had a ball.

The next car that I built to race was a 4 wheel-drive 1/24 scale Ferrari with an
aluminum plate chassis and some modified commercial chassis parts that had
suspension.

I machined a special coupler so that I could drive a ball bearing mounted
extension shaft to the front axle. I rewound and balanced the motor and added
high strength magnets. I also balanced the gears. I had some success with this
car but thought I could do better, so I built another 4 wheel-drive car, this
time building a piano-wire and brass-plate chassis for a Ford Honker body. This
car had a similar motor and I used precision ball bearings on the axles and
front drive shaft and also balanced the gears and rear wheels. This car was
better and I won a few ribbons and a couple of second or third place trophies,
but decided to abandon 4-wheel drive.

I had begun racing at a track called the Groove Raceway also, where the areas
best drivers raced. I ran there for a while with mixed results until I built the
next car.

My next project was to try to design a 2-wheel drive car that would be capable
of winning consistently. This car was a blue and black McLaren. All of the cars
at that time were built with 1/16th brass rod. I got the idea that a 1/32” brass
plate chassis would lower the CG just that little bit, so that’s where I
started.

I also decided to use the new angle-winder motor mount design to put more weight
on the drive wheels.

I built the car so that there was a little bit of movement in all three axis for
the body and the outer chassis plates. This seemed to help the handling. I had
also been thinking a lot about electric motor design. The magnets in the motors
were a significant amount longer that the armature iron, which was wasted energy
and extra weight above the CG, so I asked a friend of mine who had a diamond saw
to trim the new high strength magnets to just a hair longer than the iron.

Then I rewound the armature with aluminum wire of an appropriate gage and number
of turns for high torque rather than highest rpm. I also used an aftermarket
high temp end frame with high silver content brushes with heavy gage shunts. I
shimmed the magnets to minimize the air gap.

The lighter armature resulted in two things: a lower CG, and quicker
acceleration and braking. I also pressed the commutator a little bit closer to
the iron and with shorter magnets, could trim a bit off of the motor case making
the motor lighter yet. As usual, I mounted the rear axle in precision ball
bearings and balanced the gear and wheels.

Another thing I did was to run triple wires from the wiper pickups to the brush
holders to minimize voltage loss.

The result of all of this was a car that won the feature races most of the time
and won most of the six week series that the Groove Raceway had while I raced
this particular car. The car gave up just a bit on the long straight but was
better everywhere else.

The Groove also ran an open wheel class, so the next car I designed and built
was a Lotus Turbine Indy car painted yellow and black. I used basically the same
design and motor as the McLaren and had the same degree of success with it. This
car was the only car that I built for open wheel.

The next and last car that I designed and built was a red Lola. In this car, I
attempted to build as light as possible to try to gain an advantage. I had the
minimum amount of structure and had two brass strips that could slide sideways
for weight transfer.

The motor was different in that I removed some of the iron laminations to make
the armature shorter. I again used aluminum wire and trimmed the magnets and
case. This resulted in a very light motor that still had good power. I also
mounted the motor with the brush end forward, which put more weight on the rear.
This car handled about the same as the angle-winder. I had success with this
car, but it wasn’t as good overall as the McLaren.

Another important point to mention that helped in the successes that I had was
that I always went completely over my cars prior to each race to eliminate any
mechanical failures that might have prevented finishing a race.

And then, after about 5 years of racing, I just quit. I tore apart the
racetrack, re-arranged the tables, and starting building an HO scale model
railroad. That layout disappeared in 1970 when I moved. I’ve been building and
flying RC airplanes off and on since the mid 1970’s and have designed my own for
the last few years. I also designed and started a new HO scale model railroad a
few years ago.”

Signed: DM

A true craftsman, with original ideas. My kind of person! I am very happy that
this beautiful car will be in a place where others will be able to appreciate
its beautiful and well thought-out engineering. That it was also successful does
not hurt a bit.

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