Model car racing using tethers, rails and slots had been around for years, but the dream of the driver being able to steer the car remotely needed the new technology of radio control. And specifically, the technology of ‘proportional’ steering and speed control was needed to race cars remotely. How did that dream become reality? What is the true history?
As the years go by, history becomes faded. Since I was deeply involved with starting, in 1970, the first ever wide area championship – The Midwest Series – for the new hobby of Radio Controlled (RC) model car racing, I have decided to gather first hand information from back in the day. ‘Car Model’ (CM) magazine was one excellent source. CM covered all aspects of model cars – building plastic kits, collecting die cast models, racing slot cars in various scales and, when various remotely controlled cars appeared on the scene, they were very involved in reporting about the various types, primarily cars being controlled remotely by radio. I have compiled an index of articles from ‘Car Model’ , ‘Model Car Science’ and other magazines from back in the day. You can see that index HERE. Two of the early pioneers from those articles are discussed below.
1966 Electric RC Car Pioneers
It is interesting to note that, although 1:8 scale internal combustion ‘gas’ cars (more recently called ‘nitro’ cars – a methanol fuel with nitromethane added for more power) were dominant in early racing, electric RC race cars in 1:16 and 1:18 scale were also being developed. In the March, 1967 issue of ‘Car Model’ magazine on page 27, Tom Dion wrote an article about ‘Radio Control….the newest craze in model racing!’
The entire article is reproduced HERE.
The Mysterious Italian ‘First RC Car’
As the 50th Anniversary of the Midwest Series approached, I began, in 2017, researching early RC car history around the world. Many internet references had a ‘cut and paste’ version of this story:
‘Several early commercially viable RC cars were available by mid-1966, produced by the Italian company El-Gi (Elettronica Giocattoli) from Reggio Emilia. Their first model, a 1:12 Ferrari 250LM was available in the UK in December 1966, through importers Motor Books and Accessories, St. Martins, London, and early in 1967 through Atkinson’s model shop in Swansea.’
I have finally found pictures variously claimed to be the 1:12 scale Ferrari 250LM RC car by Elettronica Giocattoli. More research was needed to identify dates and details.
spento = turned off — acceso = switched on
sinstra = left — destra – right
fermo = stationary — avanti = forward
trasmettitore = transmitter
El-Gi P4 transmitter to compare to 250LM trans
June 19, 2018 – I spotted a new picture of the ElGi 250LM on Facebook a couple of days ago but no explanation accompanied it. Then today this:
Tamiyadan has just replied to a thread you have subscribed to entitled – The very first RC car? – in the Vintage Forum of R/C Tech Forums. He noted that one was for sale on eBay – it turned out to be in like new condition!
So the mystery ‘First R/C Car’ does exist but, without a verification of the release date, the ‘First’ claim is just speculation. If anyone has dated information from back in the day, I would be interested in seeing it. And, of course, since technology was making Radio Controlled cars more feasible, many people were working on the concept at the same time (see the note about Tom Dion above) so we will never be sure who was ‘First’.
March 30, 2019 – As the research continues, we are getting closer to a verified date for the release of the ElGi 250LM. The picture below is from page 36 of the New Products section of the January 1967 issue of ‘Car Model’ magazine. Clearly the 250LM had to be released in Italy in 1966 to be in this magazine. So, it certainly had to be among the first commercial RC cars.
The Date Verified
Opening a discussion on the Ferrari Chat Forum https://www.ferrarichat.com/
in the Models sections got me to a June 1966 issue of the Italian magazine ‘Quattroruote’. On page 195 was an article about the mysterious Radio Controlled 250LM. Since it was a fully functional model with working, if somewhat simple, non-proportional, electronics and with a highly tooled plastic body, it must have been in development since 1965. From my research, that is certainly a very early production radio controlled car.
The Article in Italian
The Article in Google English with My Editing
Will the “miniatures” circulate with the “big ones” on the streets?
No wonder, one day or another, in the midst of the chaotic traffic of our cities, we saw a red Ferrari 250 Le Mans, about thirty centimeters long, traveling alone, slipping between one wheel and another of normal cars, stopping and restart at a traffic light. We said ‘30 centimeters about’, something that is little more than a car radio. In our world so full of technical prodigies, it would not be surprising for this. In fact, that mysterious object could be the model that an Italian factory – the El-Gi – has launched it recently to the delight of fans of moving models. This is precisely the Ferrari ‘250 Le Mans’, a rather unusual construction, not so much because it moves by itself, but because its movements are radio-controlled. No wires, no guides, therefore, but only an impertinent machine that goes for a walk far and wide, obeying only the impulses that come to it via radio.
A tiny prismatic box, with a telescopic antenna and transmitter, and the brain of the building. There are four keys: the first, at the top (Off-On), functions as a simple switch to start the transmitter; the other three are operational: the one immediately below (Stop-Forward) controls the movement of the car, the other two keys (Left) – (Right) allow you to steer the car, left or right.
The model is therefore equipped with three radio channels.
We come to the technical data of the Ferrari El-Gi. Its speed, with charged batteries, is about 60 meters per minute, which means 3.6 kilometers per hour! … Two 9 V batteries are needed for the power supply for the receiver-transmitter system and 6 1.5V batteries for the powertrain, that is, the two electric motors trimmed on board: one for traction, the other for power steering. The transmitter has a maximum range of 20 meters: beyond this range, the model evades the radio control and continues its march without being able to obey the commands, in the direction established by the last radio pulse. Constituted in 1/12 scale, the Ferrari El-Gi has a plastic bodywork, unbreakable and particularly impact resistant, which is held together by life and can be dismantled in various parts, so as to make every organ of the car accessible. The front hood can be opened. Cost, with remote control and without batteries, 28,000 lire, and is accompanied by a guarantee coupon. To operate it, just supply it with batteries, which can be found in stores of electric-collectible items: after which the model is ready for use.
Driving the Ferrari El-Gi is not difficult, and it is quite fun: you need to do a little hand to get the maximum performance and driving satisfaction. The right and left curves are obtained, as we said, by pressing on the respective buttons. Their effect is to move the front wheels proportionally to the time that these buttons are pressed: therefore, to obtain slight movements one has to act with small strokes; for tight curves, on the other hand, it is necessary to press fully and longer. With the wheels fully steered, a special circuit provides for the stop: it is therefore not necessary to insist on pressing to keep the maximum slack. So here is a miniature car that lends itself very well for skills competitions and small-scale gymkhana.
Its speed (3.6 km / h), which translated into real measurements would correspond to 43.2 kilometers per hour, is certainly not worthy of a Ferrari ‘250’: It is necessary, however: to note that a truer speed, that is higher (easily obtainable by upgrading the traction motor) would jeopardize the precious model and compromise its driving, which, all things considered, is the fun it can offer.
The aesthetics of the model is discreet: the line is good, not very pleasant but the color is mixed and the finishes are not very accurate. However, these are details to which an enthusiast can remedy by means of some retouching. Of the same model, El-Gi also put on the market an assembly box with all the parts for the construction, excluding the transceiver apparatus. This version without radio control, specially made for collectors, costs 6,950 lire.
Something wrong? No, little Ferrari just needs to “fill up” on batteries!
That is the story as I have found it. I am interested in any comments or corrections, particularly from our Italian friends!