Some of my earliest memories are of playing with remote controlled cars in the driveway. I was your stereotypical only child with an overabundance of toys, and almost all of them were automotive in nature. If you don’t know me, it would be easy to think my parents—both car people themselves—systematically brainwashed me to lead a life centered around cars. In reality though, my toys weren’t propaganda; they were simply the only things I chose to play with.
I never understood the point of action figures, especially if they were too big to use as crash test dummies in a scale model. Games like Hungry, Hungry Hippos and Chutes and Ladders provided zero intellectual stimulation. Cars were where my imagination lived, and I didn’t know it at the time, but the car toys of my formative years truly trained me for life as a car guy later on. They were my building blocks. Give me something with four wheels, and I’d figure out some way to be entertained, even from my earliest days.
My LEGO kit was extensive, but don’t think for one second that’s not a car toy. I had streets galore that were perfect for Hot Wheels to drive around on. I built houses, sure, but they were just the oversized garages so many of us wish we owned in adulthood. I had LEGO motors and gears, and I guess I was supposed to build pulley systems or use them to power an oversized space vehicle or some such imaginative build. I used the motorized gears to try to grind paint off my Hot Wheels, which is when I learned that you need the right tools to do the job. While most kids played house, I played paint shop.
I had a bunch of 1:18 scale model Ferraris: a 250 GTO; both a 250 Testarossa and a then-new Testarossa; and a 288 GTO were my toys of choice for years. I could pull the tires off and do a pit stop, pretend I was making the drive of my life on any track I could dream up on the carpet, and they’re also the models that taught me the most basic functions of a steering column. Not all whimsy and imagination then, this was my foray into the mechanical world too. I even once took my dad’s chamois, cut it, and wrapped it around the same LEGO gear (that absolutely doesn’t strip paint), and made my own preschool-aged buffer. I still think back to those days whenever I’m spending an afternoon in my garage now, “playing” with my random orbital.
Also in the enduring memory bank is that one time that my mom caught me playing with her nail polish. What a mistake that was: I completely ruined the finish on that poor 250 GTO when I tried to give it a clear coat. Not even my LEGO-chamois buffer could undo my blunder.
By the time I was old enough to crawl up on the kitchen counter, I had a whole new range of scenarios to subject my cars to. I learned so much just by sending Hot Wheels flying down my laminate drag strip. Some would go further than others, some would spin, and others just turned, usually right off the seaside cliff, a role played dutifully by our countertop. It didn’t stop there though, as I soon discovered dish soap was the great equalizer, and my new challenge became how far I could get the cars to go in a straight line before they’d spin or Thelma & Louise themselves to the floor. I didn’t realize it then, and it would be well over another decade before I could even put the lessons to use, but I was teaching myself the basics of countersteering (quite literally).
My favorite toys though, by far, were my TYCO slot cars. Long after I stopped playing with it, I measured my kit, and found that I had over a quarter mile of track—a real quarter mile, not scale. I had a ridiculously cool start-finish straight that featured a “tachometer” and a fuel gauge that measured the current and actually deducted “fuel” from your “tank.” If it ran out, your car stopped. Otherwise known as the basics of pit strategy.
That’s not why I loved my TYCO, though. Playing with those slot cars is how I transitioned from car guy (kid), to a full-grown and full-bore gear head. I was probably five or six years old, maybe seven, when I first sprayed part of the track with Armor All to make it slick. I wanted to do a burnout. I eventually figured out that it really did work, but happened so quickly as to not even be remotely satisfying.
So, I began souping the cars up without knowing what that meant. After hours spent lapping, I noticed that some were faster than others, so I started swapping parts back and forth. Eventually, I figured out that some had softer tires (though that barely mattered), others had motors that spun more freely, or stronger magnets that better kept the car glued to the track. I mixed and matched until I had the best of everything on a single car. I even learned that if I slid the little drive gear out just a little, it would spin the rear wheels more easily. Too far, though, and it would slip. Remove the body entirely, and it would be an order of magnitude quicker. I had never heard of Colin Chapman back then, but I’d just learned the “simplify, and add lightness” lesson all on my own, in my miniaturized automotive world.
I had no idea, obviously, that I’d grow up to spend my free time doing much the same thing with 1:1 scale cars. In many regards, the toys of my childhood are exactly the same as the toys of my adulthood. They prepared me for life as a grownup car guy, even if I’ve never fully grown up.
Vintage ads courtesy of Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Bburago, Corgi, LEGO, slot car photo by