What might the earliest model vehicles have looked like?     

 There is a replica of one of the earliest at the University of Groningen museum in the Netherlands.  Again there are claims of earlier electric powered vehicles but information on them is at best sketchy.  Sibrandus Stratingh (1785-1841), a professor at the University of Groningen  produced electric powered vehicle in about 1835.  Apparently it weighed about 3 kg, its motor has the armature shaft vertical driving the wheels through a contrait gear.   It was powered by an onboard battery and could run for about 15 minutes on a fresh battery.  Two driving wheels and a  third steerable wheel is not quite what we think of as a car today, but it was the layout of Karl Benz’s  first road going full size car which is often cited as the word’s first petrol engined car (about half a century after Stratingh ‘s electric vehicle)

Thomas Davenport (1802-1851) is  said to have produced a model size car powered by an electric motor which ran on a track as early as 1833 .   There doesn't appear to be any detail of the car and track, it is entirely possible this was a railway type track  and it was a car in the sense of a railroad car.   Davenport was the first to patent an electric motor in the USA, his US patent dated 25 February 1837 shows a dc electric motor with a commutator and 4 poles, although the patent covers any number of poles.    One source says he made small model car powered by an electric motor, and operated it on circular electrified track. Another source says a model train using a Davenport motor was demonstrated in London in August 1838, it is said to have travelled at 3 mph.  Yet another source says  the electricity was conducted from the battery to the train via the rails.  This is contemporary with the first full size electric railway locomotive, an invention whose  time hadn’t yet come, not least because  the only available source of electricity at the time was  non-rechargeable batteries.

Davenport’s 1837  electric motor patent

The Oldest Slot Car and its 19th Century Predecessors

What was the first  slot car?   There are surviving electric powered model cars from 1912, but what about the earlier inventions that led up to it.     We’ll start by looking at the earliest of electric motors, then the earliest electric powered  “model size”  vehicles before moving on to the earliest vehicles  we might recognise as slot cars.  This is a story about electric powered vehicles, maybe there is a story to tell about slot cars powered by clockwork, steam engines or whatever, but this isn’t it!

Where should the story start?   Before an electric powered car can be built, somebody has to invent an electric motor.   The principle of electric motors was first demonstrated in 1821 by Michael Faraday.  Once the principle was established, various scientists/ inventors followed on by producing motors with rotating wound armatures and commentators to switch the current in the coils.   There are conflicting claims about who made the first electric motor with a commutator, it’s entirely possible such a motor was invented independently  several times.  An early examples of electric motors with armature, commutator and stator were demonstrated in 1827/1828 by Hungarian scientist Ányos Jedlik and a motor capable of turning machinery was developed by British scientist William Sturgeon in 1832.   These have most of the main feature of  the motors used in almost all slot cars today.     

Earliest electric powered  “model size” vehicles

So when did a “car” powered by one of these early motors first appear?    We are going back to a time when  road vehicles were the normally horse drawn, the latest the latest high tech was steam powered railway locos and only a very few inventors had experimented with steam powered carriages on the roads.     Inventions are often first demonstrated on a small scale before a full size one is built.   It should be no surprise if  the principle of electric powered cars was first proven with “model size” vehicles before the anything large enough to carry people was built.   Putting the then newly invented electric motor in a wheeled vehicle is obvious enough to have been undependably invented many times, and it’s reasonable to expect the designs would owe something to  horse drawn vehicles or railway locos.

Earliest Raceway?

The earliest electric model car racing system is claimed to have been at Chateau de la Source, (later called Chateau du Donjon ) in Le Pecq / St Germain, France.  The  Chateau  was run as a Spa between 1903 and 1914  and the model car racing was introduced as an additional attraction sometime during this period .    


A contemporary illustration showing the electric car racing system, at Chateau de la Source.     

The cars were said to be electric, but no other detail of how the cars worked is given in the sources I've seen.  We may never know how these cars worked, but there are several possibilities.  There are claims they were an early sort of slot car.   It is possible the cars had their own  electric motors, or  perhaps they were pulled round by a string in the bottom of a slot (as in some arcade games in the period).   They could have been free running battery powered cars.    Around the turn of the century, model railway locomotives with electric motors became  available from German and US manufacturers.  They could perhaps have been model cars running on model railway track .  Märklin produced some  electric powered model cars in this period, these were not slot cars but simply railway locomotive chassis running on  model railway track with a model of a car body replacing the steam locomotive body.  

So was this system slot racing and did it pre date the Lionel cars that were on the market in 1912?  In the absence of further evidence one could reasonably be  sceptical about the claims that this was the first slot car but of course it is always possible more evidence will come to light.

Earliest Slot Car?

In 1912  Lionel put electric racing car sets on the market, about 1200 were produced by 1916. A number of these sets survive.    

Are these the oldest known slot cars in existence?    YES if you accept they are slot cars, but the track was somewhat different to modern slot cars .  Here’s a more detailed description of the Lionel cars.

Link to more details of the Lionel cars and track

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This includes some monochrome illustrations no longer in copyright



gear drive > to axle

Stratingh’s electric powered vehicle