Matchbox Powertrack

Introduction

In mid 1976, there was a “palace revolution” at Tyco. The result was that a large group of emplyees left Tyco, seeing that the direction that the President was going was not where we wanted to go. What was left unsaid is that nearly the entire management – including engineering,  toolmakers, production supervisors and model shop resigned from Tyco Hong Kong.  This HK group setup three new companies, under the direction of Richard Cheng – the ex-VP of operations of Tyco which were named:
Cheong Tak Engineering Co Ltd (engineering and tooling)
Cheong Tak Manufacturing (the manufacturing Division)
August Trading (Sales Division).

The main designer was Pat Dennis. Pat actively designing and developing the road race products for them. When a presentation sample was ready; with tooling and manufacturing costs developed, a meeting was held with Lesney Products – Matchbox US. With their support and approval, Lesney Products & Co, Ltd (the parent company) was approached in London. They approved the project and it was to be piloted in the N. American Market for the 1977 season. Subsequently, Pat was hired as the Product Manager of the newly formed Electric Powered Toy division.
Card

Development

Pat was the designer & developer of this system. The design concept was to
offer a lower cost real racing set – as opposed to the ever increasing
prices and diversion from racing into toys that the other brands were
offering.

Pat decided that we could start with a “clean sheet of paper” for the track
and eliminate many existing problems – modern wide tires being upset by
running across the standard spacing of the conductors (a hold-over from
HO train track rail spacing). So they brought the conductors closer to the
slot.
Additionally, as Tyco had better spacing between the cars (1.5” spacing
vs 1.375” for Aurora) for the current wider cars, but less outside room
to “hang the tail out” (.750” vs .8125 for Aurora) all fitting in a
3” wide track. So we took the best of both worlds and used 1.5 between
the slots and .8125 on the outer edges and arrived at a 3.3” wide track. To
keep the costs down, we tested a 6volt Mabuchi motor and determined that
they could have a reliable system on the 6 volts and, for low end sets have
the customer supply 4 “D” cell batteries – this was how Scalextric got
started. Larger sets were supplied with 6 power packs.

The idea was to gain a market foothold on price and later offer an
“upgraded system” operating on 12 volts. The concept started well and they
did fairly well with initial sell-in. However, management just would not
go the next step with the 12v system.

The UK operation did make the move and was increasing their market share
until severe financial problems arose and the company was sold – ending
the Speedtrack product line in USA and the Powertrack in UK & Europe

Race n Chase

They were developing the lane-change system “RPS” and were testing the
double clutch setup for the rear axle which they installed into a standard
Speedtrack chassis. They had the proto controllers with the polarity switch on
top and were just going along hitting the polarity switch at random to see
if the changeover was seamless. Were they kept pushing the speeds up, the car
finally spun out – swapping ends. The car just kept running down the track
in the opposite direction as the clutches engaged the unintended polarity
reversal. Hummm. Let’s try just overrunning the corner again – same
result.

Then they tried a standard Speedtrack car, stopping in mid-corner and hitting
the polarity switch – worked again. Now they could pull a U-turn at will by
only adding the controller with the polarity swich.

Now they had a concept, but how to make it an exciting set. Pat distinctly
remember driving home that night, mentally going through concepts and came up
with a “tilting bridge with live rails” This could either be jumped
without tipping the bridge or, going more slowly, tip it and “close the
door” on a pursuing car. This bridge, incorporated into an extended figure
“8” , and track side aprons made a set with real play value. This was
probably the most fun product that Pat have ever had for demonstration at Toy
Fair.

The “Copter Chase” set was an entirely different story. The matchbox president
called Pat into his office and announced that he had obtained the license for
the Hulk & Spiderman, and Pat was to develop sets to use them. Pat was not a huge
fan of licensing – especially if it did not enhance – or even fit a
product. But, wanting to get paid regularly, Pat did the best he could and the
“Copter” was the result. They used the lane-change chassis, converting the
rack & pinion steering system to raise & lower a very lightweight ‘copter
on demand. These “Super Hero” sets were not particularly successful –
primarily due to financial constraints on the TV adverting budget. Therefore
the buy-in by major customers was quite limited, further reducing the ad
budget.

Regarding the tooling for the 6 & 12 volt systems, Pat knew where it was for
many years – a HK company that I had been doing business with for years. Pat had
lost track of the owners and his latest attempt to search out this
company have been unsuccessful. They very probably closed shop and the
tooling scrapped. They had developed and produced the Scalextric
HO system for some time.

Regarding the various track sections developed for the 12 volt system, the UK
operation ordered much of this as they kept the Powertrack brand going in
both UK and Europe for several years afterwards.

Cars

Pat decided which cars were to be produced, but later Matchbox UK made selections and Pat was only involved with them. After Pat left Matchbox, they continued the line with cars of their choice. Pat mentions that larger countries had very strong markets and requested cars that were for their market only. Germany was probably the largest, followed by Japan, Canada, and so on. This explains why there are cars with special color schemes and markings.

Advertising

They developed a advertising program for the Hobby Show in Jan & the NY Toy Fair which is held in February. We were able to obtain Mario Andretti and son, Michael to be the spokesperson for our new system. Mario had just returned from the Japanese GP with a win for Lotus in the early prototype of the ground effects cars. As Pat was (and still is) a huge Lotus fan, all he could tell me was “watch next season, we really have something terrific”.
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That’s Pat with Mario and “little” Michael. Note the “headshot”
 of Mario behind him – he signed it as a gift to Pat.
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On the set.
Hobby Show was in St. Louis that year – They had a huge display, including a new acquisition AMT kits.
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Midnight and still have not completed setup.
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Speedtrack section, ready to go.
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Pat and his area of responsibility, ready for the crowds.
Pat was “requested” to develop product for the Spiderman and Hulk characters for Speedtrack. Following are several shots from the Toy Fair that year.
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Briefing the Sales Team
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Don’t play with the toys! (Rare Copter case)
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I don’t think he knows how it works!
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Showtime!