The Ninco Track System - Three Years Later
OWH Product Review by Bob Ward
Digital photos by Paul Kassens and Kris Kassens
Race set courtesy of Fantasy World Toy and Hobby
When Ninco entered the race set and track market in 1998 it had some potential advantages over long-time market leader Scalextric. One of them was the ability to take all the time needed to study Scalextric’s product line, find all its strengths and devise ways to negate or work around them, even exploit them. This should have resulted in a better product, and in some respects it did. Hornby Hobbies, with its Scalextric line, had been in the 1/32 scale slot car business since 1957. By the mid-90s Hornby had pretty well cleared the field of major opposition, defeating or at least outlasting its competitors. When Ninco’s first race set has hit the US market, a full year after the company’s initial projected release date, we were favorably impressed with what we considered to be a quality product and gave it a rave review. Now, we’ve had three years of experience with Ninco and, while we still consider it a quality product, we are not quite so impressed. We’ve found that its virtues are not as significant as we thought upon first impression, and we’ve found some nagging problems that have become more annoying as time goes on.
In our initial review we praised Ninco’s race set packaging. Ninco’s race sets catch the eye with full-color box art. A large picture of the set’s two cars, a Mercedes CLK GTR and a Porsche 911 GT1in the #20105 GT set used for our test, is complemented by insets of the track, set up in a recommended layout, and smaller pictures of the cars. One end of the box shows all the set’s contents, giving the quantity and stock number of each included component. The other end shows an end view of a track section with the two cars sitting on it and gives the track’s overall width, 180 mm., distance between slot centers, 90 mm., and distance from slot to track edge, 45 mm.
This end of the box also gives the area required to set up the track as well as the lap length, and shows diagrams of the layout shown on the front and an alternate layout. Here we discovered an embarrassing little faux pas on the part of Ninco’s art department, or perhaps its ad agency. The #20105 GT set comes with 10 standard curve sections, just enough to build the figure-8 shown on the front of the box. The kinked oval, however, requires 12 sections. An error of this sort is certainly forgivable in a company just entering the race set market. Unfortunately, in the years since, Ninco hasn’t bothered to correct the error.
The box lid lifts off to reveal the contents packed in a shrink-wrapped styrofoam tray with carefully shaped pockets for everything. The ones for the cars are each molded to the shape of a specific car, even. On the bottom of the tray is a full-color sheet showing all the track sections and major accessories Ninco makes, including extension kits, similar to Scalextric’s, and how they expand each set layout into the next larger one. The back of the sheet shows diagrams of 16 different layouts with a list of the types and numbers of track sections needed for each. The packaging remains attractive, informative, and effective at protecting the contents.
We initially reported that Ninco track fits together more easily than Scalextric‘s. With experience, however, we’ve found that there really is little difference in this regard. We reported that on new Ninco track the tabs may require a fair amount of finger strength to make them snap into place and that children may need some adult help. We speculated that Ninco’s tabs would be easier to work after a few assemblies and disassemblies, but that has not really turned out to be the case. All the track sections on our initial review set were especially flat and free of warping. After many Ninco sets have been sold and considerable customer feedback received, we have found that this is not always the case, either. We have seen warped Ninco track, though no more than we see with Scalextric and never serious enough to make the track unusable.
The 14 volt, 800 milliamp wall-mount power pack connects to the terminal track section with a barrel plug. In the Ninco power system both the transformer and the rectifier are in the wall pack. This makes the Ninco power pack a potential replacement for dead power packs on all kinds of vintage race sets with just some adapter plugs to fit the old track. We made much of the fact that Ninco’s sets and controllers come wired for third-wire dynamic brakes. This is certainly a desirable feature, but we did not, at the time, appreciate that adding brakes to a race set is literally as simple as adding one wire to each lane.
We applauded Ninco for the fact that its terminal track, which Ninco refers to as a “connection straight”, has a polarity switch. We still find this a commendable feature, but we’ve found some less likable aspects of Ninco’s approach to terminal tracks. For one thing, the wiring in the Ninco connection straight is extremely marginal for the task it performs. We have found it to be somewhat susceptible to failure in the event of a short circuit, significantly more so than Scalextric’s power base track.
One item in the box that seriously underwhelmed us on first viewing and still does was the pair of cheesy printed cardboard overpass supports. They do an okay job of holding up the track, but they look cheap and just aren’t up to the standards of the rest of the set. The overpass, by the way, shares with almost every other race set overpass the problem of getting the required elevation change in the length of only four full straights without abrupt changes of grade between sections that cause the cars to get airborne going over the top and deslot. The use of a half straight on either side of the full straight section that spans the track below helps smooth the ride but not enough. For most owners, however, this problem will go away as soon as they expand the layout and either give themselves a longer straight to work with or dispense with the overpass entirely.
Ninco has won a reputation for producing solid, well-detailed, and smooth-running cars, and the two in our test set lived up to it. Both the Porsche and the Mercedes had NC-1 motors, Ninco’s standard brass rear axle bushings, and crisp tampo-stamped markings. Over time, we have had no complaints about the Ninco set cars, but a lot of people have reported failure of the crown gear on the NC-2 powered versions of these same cars. We reported initially that the cars in our test set ran well and reliably from the very start with little or no break-in and with no more preparation than a drop of oil in each of the appropriate places. Both cars got their share of crashes and survived with no problems. The only part of either car that was the least bit lacking in the durability department was the very fine “gunsight” hood ornament on the Mercedes.
After our initial test we were enthusiastic about Ninco’s track surface, which has a coarser surface texture than any of the others on the market. The cars’ molded rubber slicks got excellent traction on the track’s textured surface. Unfortunately, we didn’t test the system long enough to discover that the abrasive surface generates a lot more tire wear along with the traction. We have received numerous reports of Ninco track tearing up silicone tires and wearing out molded rubber tires more rapidly than other track systems. We have also heard of Ninco track losing traction over time as the surface texture gets clogged with rubber buildup. So, while the traction is certainly there, at least initially, it does appear that it comes at a price in higher tire wear and track maintenance.
In our original review we praised Ninco’s set controllers, with their built-in braking capability, as “the best standard set controllers we’ve tried yet”. We have to admit, however, that at the time we didn’t realize how mediocre all the manufacturers’ set controllers are. We reported that our only criticism of Ninco’s controllers was that there is no way to disconnect the brake, as we like to do for breaking in motors, among other things. Since then, we’ve discovered others, two of which are that the 70-ohm controllers, like everyone else’s race set controllers, have far too high a resistance value for most cars that ultimately will be run on the track and that there are no replacement parts available, making the controllers throwaways in the event something breaks or burns out. So, while we stand by our initial observation that Ninco’s set controllers are the best of the lot, they are still inadequate for strong-magnet cars, such as Flys, and experience has shown that many if not most Ninco set buyers move rapidly to Parma or other upgrade controllers, as do many buyers of Scalextric and SCX sets. Parma now makes controllers that come equipped with plugs for Ninco and Scalextric tracks, which makes controller upgrades plug-and-play.
Speaking of upgrade controllers, Ninco does make something better. Its Vario 16 programmable controller, (#NIN10402, $43.95 MSRP) does a good job of controlling a wide range of cars once the user spends enough time with it to master the programming and find the settings best suited to his particular cars and driving preferences. There is also a better terminal track, too. Ninco’s Independent Power Connection Straight (#NIN10401, $34.99 MSRP) makes a separate power installation a plug-and-play add-on and has not shown any of the standard connection straight’s excessive vulnerability to wiring failure. We think Ninco should make these components standard equipment, at least in the higher-end sets. While they are at it, they should make all their controllers and connection straights use the same plug sizes, relieving consumers of the necessity to use clumsy and sometimes confusing adapter plugs when combining standard and upgrade items in a track system.
After playing with the Ninco cars for a while we also tested other cars. We have tested many Fly cars on Scalextric tracks and have always found that one Scalextric transformer / power base combination is not adequate to run two Flys properly. There just aren’t enough amps to go around. When one car stops or deslots the other gets a blast of power and ends up in the wall. One Ninco transformer isn’t enough either, though it does come closer. With either Scalextric or Ninco it’s still necessary to have a transformer per lane to give Fly cars and other strong magnet cars enough amperage. Ninco’s advantage in transformer amperage, around 100 milliamps over Scalextric’s transformer, really comes into play only when running cars and motors beyond those for which plastic tracks were intended. We tested a race-prepared Parma Womp and a Cheetah-powered I-32 on the track. The Womp was a car powered by the standard 16-D, not the derated motor used in Womp home set cars. The Ninco transformer delivered enough power to run one 16-D or Cheetah at a time with no problem, something the Scalextric transformer can’t quite manage.
We were initially quite enthusiastic about Ninco’s standard connection straight coming with two transformer connections. We thought it would be possible to just plug another pack into the second socket and get double the amperage to play with. It also appeared that there was nothing to keep someone from having two packs feeding each lane, providing enough amperage to run just about anything. Unfortunately, the wiring in the connection straight proved completely unable to deal with the extra amperage. The first customer who tried this reported several connection straight failures for no apparent reason. When we got the failed connection straights back we found wiring fried in all of them. Further research revealed that with two transformers on each lane the wiring was so marginal that even the momentary short circuit that occurs when plugging in or unplugging a controller was enough to cause a wiring failure.
One feature we liked, and one that has stood the test of time, is that one can run a full-depth Jet Guide in Ninco’s deeper, wider slot with just a tiny bit of trimming on the blade. And, since Ninco’s slot doesn’t have the gaps in the bottom of it that Scalextric’s slot does, the guide can ride on the bottom of the slot with the car’s front wheels off the track.
The biggest problem with the Ninco track system, however, is one that no test of a single race set could reveal. We had to get into designing layouts with Ninco track to discover that it has serious deficiencies in the area of versatility and a less serious but still annoying lack of space efficiency. We had been used to creating large, complex layouts with Scalextric / SCX track, and had found with that system there was virtually no layout configuration we could imagine that we couldn’t build. The layout options, including modeling famous race circuits in miniature, were endless. No matter what bizarre combination of curves and straights we strung together it never took more than a minor modification to the track plan to make that all-important last track joint snap together perfectly. That isn’t the case with Ninco. When we tried building some of our favorite Scalextric layouts in Ninco track, we found that, section for section, many of them simply couldn’t be done. In our original review we said, “Keep in mind, however, that Ninco track is a little less versatile than Scalextric, because Ninco doesn’t yet offer half-standard curves or 1/5 straights. You may not be able to build a Ninco layout that includes some of the more imaginative combinations of curves and straights possible with Scalextric track”. Experience has shown, however, that Ninco’s track is not just a little less versatile, it’s a whole lot less versatile.
With Scalextric’s half-standard curve (22.5 degrees of arc) one can make 4-lane curves using standards and outers covering arcs of any multiple of 22.5 degrees, giving 16 choices of arc. Ninco, however, offers its standard curve only in 45 degree sections, limiting a standard / outer 4-lane combination to only 8 choices of arc. To get a turn of any number of degrees of arc that is not a multiple of 45 one must either make the turn entirely of outers and outer-outers, taking up much more space, or use an inelegant combination of radii resulting in an increasing or decreasing radius turn where one may not be wanted. In addition, Scalextric’s half-standard curve comes in very handy when jogging the track slightly to the left or right to get the last two sections to be connected to line up.
More serious is Ninco’s lack of a straight section that is not a multiple of its quarter straight. Very often when building a large or complex layout the builder finds he needs some portion of a straight other than a half, quarter, or full section to make up that last bit of distance. Since Ninco’s straights are all multiples of the quarter straight, any odd distance of less than 1/4 straight can’t be made up without stretching the track out of shape, which leads to misalignment, warping, and other problems. With enough of Scalextric’s “short” or 1/5 straight, in combination with quarter, half, and full straights, there is virtually no distance that can’t be made up while keeping the track completely flat, and it can be done simply, quickly, and compactly, without tedious trial-and-error redesign or expansion of major portions of the layout to find some combination of turns and straights of various lengths and angles that will connect up properly. We have designed many layouts in both Scalextric and Ninco, and even with track design software we find Scalextric vastly easier to work with on all but the simplest layouts.
Scalextric’s narrower track and more compact
curve radii, combined with its greater versatility, yield space efficiency
decisively superior to Ninco’s. A Scalextric 180-degree 4-lane turn
with outside borders, using standard and outer curve sections, fits neatly
into the 4-foot width of a standard sheet of plywood. With Ninco
there is room for the track but not the borders. Our experience has
been that borders are necessary for really good quality racing with any
of the track systems presently on the market, so dispensing with the borders
on a Ninco layout to fit the table width is not a satisfactory option.
Plan on building your Ninco layout on 4 1/2 to 5 foot-wide tables, and
be prepared for problems if you ever need to transport your tables in any
but the most spacious vehicles. We also found, over considerable
experience, that Ninco’s extra inch of width makes little difference in
the quality of racing with 1:32 scale cars. If ease and freedom of
design, limitless layout options and effective use of available space are
at all important to you, Ninco’s shortcomings are serious.
Product testing is such hard work... ;-)
In our original review we wrote, “For now, at least, we find that Ninco’s overall package offers quality and features that exceed Scalextric’s and blow away SCX and Carrera”. In the light of experience, the best we can now say is that Ninco’s track system offers some attractive features and advantages in some areas of comparison, but they are offset by significant disadvantages in other respects. Do we still consider it a quality product that will give satisfactory service? Yes. However, we no longer consider it superior to Scalextric / SCX and Carrera, viewing it now as merely one of three competing track systems that may or may not be the best choice, depending on the purchaser’s specific needs and preferences.
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