Step inside the wonderful hobby garage of slot cars

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classic slot cars Jake Hamm

I’ve always been a collector, going back to childhood. As a kid, I collected coins, stamps, and baseball cards. As a teen, it was Lionel trains. But in 1961, when I was 10 years old, my parents gave me my first Aurora HO-scale slot-car set, and that changed the course of my life.

The year before, the Aurora Plastics Corporation of West Hempstead, New York, introduced HO-scale slot cars to the U.S. market. The company thought the slot cars would complement its HO trains, but boys like me had other ideas. The cars sold by the millions, and American kids, it seemed, wanted to race them, not drive them through a model train layout. As a result, slot-car tracks, where anyone (mostly boys and men) could race cars from HO 1/87 scale to 1/24 scale, began opening up all over the country.

Such was their popularity that Aurora and the Ford Motor Company teamed up in 1962 to kick off the Ford/Aurora Grand National contest. Local hobby shops hosted the weekly races and crowned a store winner. That winner went on to race other store winners to become state champion, and regional champions raced on national television for a large trophy and the keys to a 1962 Ford Thunderbird. It was a huge success, with promotions across the U.S. in hobby stores and Ford dealerships. The finals took place on The Today Show on NBC in fall 1962.

Slot Cars
Jake Hamm
matchbox cars
Jake Hamm

On the heels of the inaugural race’s success, Ford and Aurora went all out the following year. The grand prize was a 1963 Ford Thunderbird sport roadster, and Aurora had a matching HO slot car for kids to purchase. The race format was largely unchanged, and that year’s winner, 13-year-old Ronnie Colerick of Rapid City, South Dakota, claimed his giant trophy on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson and the race’s grand marshal, Stirling Moss, presented him the keys to his prize Thunderbird.

Fast forward to 1987. I was at a party when a friend showed me a cigar box full of slot cars. I was 36 years old, married with two young kids, and living on Long Island, New York, where Aurora was based until the company folded in 1983. My friend and I reminisced all evening about those fun days racing cars as kids, and I left that party with the bug again. I started buying HO slot cars with a vengeance and bought nearly every car from all the hobby shops and mail-order outlets I could find. I also searched for and bought all the paperwork, catalogs, store displays, and documentation on the Aurora company and its slot-car production. I discovered, however, that there was very little out there on what had actually been produced, so I became a historian of sorts and in 2000 wrote The Complete Color Guide to Aurora HO Slot Cars.

Today I also own two of the grand-prize cars.

About 20 years ago, as part of my buying frenzy, I purchased all the trophies and race memorabilia that Ronnie Colerick won on his way to the 1963 finals, but I never knew the whereabouts of his Thunderbird.

hotwheel tires
Jake Hamm

One day in 2007, I got a call from a West Coast Thunderbird enthusiast. He’d bought a sport roadster in Seattle, and while restoring it, he researched its history through Ford and received the original documentation stating it was awarded as a prize in a contest. He located Colerick, confirmed the story, then called me to buy the trophies to put with his car. I told him I wanted the car to put with my trophies. A stalemate ensued for about four years, but my persistence finally won out.

I also tracked down and purchased the grand prize for 1965, a candy red 1966 Ford Mustang fastback. It had been presented to that year’s winner by the championship race’s grand marshal, land speed record holder Craig Breedlove, on The Mike Douglas Show. Aurora and Ford partnered on the races for five years from 1962 through 1966.

In 2011, I moved to eastern Connecticut. I’d always dreamed of building a garage large enough for my real cars and my Aurora collection, so I designed a 48-by-60-foot space that is secure and climate controlled. One half looks like a parking lot outside a vintage hobby store, and the other half is the store itself, which I call Cherry Valley Hobbies (after the road on which Aurora was located). The place is complete with my pair of fully restored Ford/Aurora championship cars, three parking meters, a brick sidewalk, a working traffic light, a telephone booth, a fire hydrant, and a coin-operated Batmobile ride from the ’60s.

Every time I step inside, I’m that 10-year-old boy again.

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