Built for the road test, Majorette's Supers (1996 Mustang Convertible) come with cones.

The Little Cars We Love to Test Drive
Story by Wood Smythe
Images by Doug Breithaupt

Do you remember the first time you opened up a newly purchased 1/60-scale vehicle and playfully rolled it across the hard, wooden floor? Perhaps it was to check if the wheels turned properly - or simply to test the type of suspension that the manufacturer had installed as "standard" equipment? Well, if you are like me, the emotional aspect of driving different cars (I rent frequently) compares favorably to that first experience.

It all started when this one particular grade-school friend and I used to hang out where the Taconic State Parkway exit ramps spilled out onto Route 55 in the Town of LaGrange (NY). Blistering summer heat had caused much of the flat pavement to buckle in and around the many potholes and created a veritable highway hazard for about thirty yards. From our shaded vantage point, we would watch in amazement for hours as cars navigated the bumps. Tires bounding up and down would thrust lightweight vehicles to and fro. We, however, were more fascinated at the sight of heavier car bodies hovering relatively steady as their tires pulsated vigorously underneath - thump putta rhump, thump putta rhump.

Back at home and unlike most of my childhood friends, I was not one to test straight-ahead rolling per se of my toy cars because it risked chipping the paint. Instead, I would assemble "test tracks" on which to analyze a vehicle's smoothness or its ability to maneuver around corners. So, put your hands firmly on the steering wheel - er, roof - and let's go on a test drive.

I can remember the first cars I owned that incorporated "active" suspensions. Only the Majorette-brand vehicles floated over our rugged flagstone patio much like a boat glides over water. What fun! Cars without suspensions never performed with any dignity. From that moment on all my scaled vehicles would have to emulate the lofty Majorette standard. Few did.

At the time, some major 1/60-scale toy car-makers (and most today) made no attempt to provide suspensions on their products. What a shame. Hot Wheels, among others, usually had its flexible wire axles act as the suspension system. Apart from being quite sturdy, that primitive mechanism never really satisfied me, the thrill-seeking "driver."

More effective was the type utilizing a single, flat metal (or plastic) spring, which spanned both axles and allowed only their upward movement. Used by Matchbox, Tomica, Yatming, and others, some early examples of this innovation were "weak and meek," producing very poor test results. For instance, I used to garage my Matchbox Lincoln Continental (#31-C1) upside-down for fear the suspension would cave in from the mere weight of the vehicle itself.

Almost all toy cars marketed by Tomica under the name "Pocket Cars" in the late seventies and eighties sported a reasonable suspension. However, for a long time its Honda Civic GL (#63) was the only one of any brand to compete favorably with the Majorettes in my pothole tests.

My test track consisted of a 24-inch by 6-inch piece of Bainbridge cardboard, which had a natural roughness to its surface. I cut out several one inch by one-quarter inch rectangles to act as potholes. Then, I pasted the cutout pieces onto the surface to act as bumps. Voila! By alternating these hazards on the board, my contrived surface simulated a road (much like Route 55) in need of repair and similarly taxed the tiny suspension systems.

By placing a small plastic item on the roof or hood of the vehicle and keeping the timing of the push from Point "A" to Point "B" on the track much the same for each swipe, I could test the effectiveness of each suspension. Of course, slant of the roof and amount of live load (okay, pressure with my fingers on the roof) applied during the test would alter the data. So, I did trial after trial and accumulated average test statistics. Move over Tom Cahill.

Then came my new Ferrari Testarossa by Road Champs which readily outscored all others. Sometimes the plastic test piece did not vibrate off its roof at all through an entire swipe of the test track! (A feat equaled only years later by Buby's Fuego Coupe (#1240.) Strange that a sporty car would ride that much smoother than a Rolls Royce, but such is the world at 1/60-scale.

Another test I performed regularly consisted of a serpentine slalom (without cones) for judging emergency handling. It was simply a piece of cardboard shaped like a snake. One version had its curves banked, but I never had time to perfect it after it broke to pieces during rigorous testing. Anyway, tests done on the flat track returned sufficiently honest results.

Apparently, varying the pressure significantly modified the outcome through the slalom. Yatming's Datsun 280Z-T (#1062) would handle best when lightly loaded but deteriorated considerably as more "passengers and baggage" (yeah, okay, thumb pressure) were added. Surprisingly, Matchbox made an outstanding "Superfast" 1968 Mercury Police Car (which shared the same chassis with the Mercury station wagon, # 55 and 73). It's still fun to put through its paces because mine is engineered with just the right spring calibration.

Majorette cars exhibited some very different maneuvering capabilities altogether. If you put pressure to, say, the left side during a right turn, the wheels steered into the turn, in effect, making the negotiation easier. Moreover, both front and rear axles would cant slightly to help articulate the turn. For some cars it worked by applying the pressure to the opposite side, hence, over- and under-steer!

This dynamic on some Majorette cars was helpful in making them champions of both the slalom and the pothole trials. To varying degrees, the following displayed proficient characteristics: Ford Thunderbird (#217), Peugeot 604 (#238), Porsche 924 (#247), Saab Turbo (#284), Mustang S.V.O. (#220), and BMW 733 (#256). Majorette's brilliant Citroen CX (#265) benefited the most from this enhanced maneuverability and is considered a classic of that type in my collection.

Subsequent feedback from customers like myself or, perhaps, from their own R&D team may have induced Majorette to offer the "steering" chassis (with suspension) on its "Supers" cars of the 1990's. In this chassis, the front axle pivots from its center connection and there are extended cutouts at both ends to allow the wheels to swing freely.

Majorette "Supers" include Renault Clio (# 207/08), Ferrari 456 GT (# 209/10), Fiat Coupe (# 201/02), Ford Mondeo (# 211/12), Peugeot 406 (# 218/222SE) and others not in my collection. They can be tremendously fun to drive. Their distinctive behaviors are such that the Renault Clio far out-maneuvers the Ferrari. Sorry, Enzo, but who could foretell?

Earlier versions of steerable cars existed from Lone Star and Matchbox. However, Lone Star Road-Master Impy Super Cars, such as the Chrysler Imperial Southampton coupe and Mercedes-Benz 220 SE (#17), were not fun to drive through either test. Predating that, Matchbox's only steerable car, 1965 Ford Mustang (#8-E1) performed competently only on the slalom.

I still have a few tattered test tracks lying around. Nowadays, when I am under pressure from any given workday project, I just open the garage door to one of my "superhandlers" and go for a spin on the open road - uh - open desk. Thump putta rhump, thump putta rhump.

Avoid the pot holes at all costs!
Matchbox Lincoln Continental (#31-C1)

This Tomica triumphs over pot hole tests.
Tomica's Honda Civic GL (#63)

Amazing suspension, great little car too!
Road Champs' Ferrari Testarossa

A light load is best.
Yatming's Datsun 280Z-T (#1062)

Must be that heavy-duty suspension option.
Matchbox Mercury Fire Chief #73

Handles like a Porsche.
Majorette's Porsche 924 (#247)

Mais oui, world-famous Citroen suspension.
Majorette's Citroen CX (#265)

Supers - Push down on the nose and turn.
Majorette's Fiat Coupe (# 201/02)

Great looks and handling, what a package!
Impy's Imperial Southampton Coupe

Mercedes offered fins for added stability.
Impy's Mercedes-Benz 220 SE (#17)

Hang a louie or a rosco.
Matchbox Ford Mustang (#8-E1)