British Fairground Rides
Timeframe: 1920s to present
Timeframe: 1920s to present
In theory it is possible to plot the progress of fairground ride development through the 19th century until, roughly, 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. During this period it was all essentially swings and roundabouts.
The advent of electical power and the innovative technology that came with it changed all this and rides became more varied, with more and more manufacturers (both at home and abroad) entering the market as the leisure industry expanded.
Trying to plot this explosion of creativity is an impossible job, so – apart from some major rides described elsewhere – this page explores some of the more significant machines that have come and gone since the demise of the Scenic Railway in the 1920s. The images here will jog a few memories and this page is for those who have stood and stared, yet forgotten it all before getting home.
The opportunity of having car crash after car crash without any risk of being killed or maimed is difficult to resist and the Dodgem idea was an instant winner. Originally an American idea European manufacturers didn’t take long to catch on.
Like The Whip, Dodgems were (and still are) are a “flat ride” upon which several small electrically powered cars (drawing current from an overhead mesh) drive around at random “bumping” into eachother, although the idea is to “dodge” other cars. The ride is controlled by an operator supplying electric current (or not) to the mesh. Dodgems run on a coated metal floor. A rubber bumper surrounds each car. The controls are usually an accelerator and a steering wheel.
The Pleasure Beach at Blackpool had a ‘Dodgem type’ machine in 1913 called the Witching Waves whereby motion was provided by a complex arrangement of tilting floor panels.
The Dodgems are based on ideas expressed in a number of similar rides that all involved devices crashing into eachother while under the control of “drivers”, or riders.
The Dodgem had been in existence for a number of years abroad, but their popularity in Britain was soon established, with a number of British firms, including Orton and Spooner, Lakins and Lang Wheels building tracks.
The Skid, or Swirl, was introduced into the UK from Germany in the late 1920s. It became an immediate success and a British version was devised by Robert Lakin in association with Showman John Thurston.
The Swirl or Skid was a variant of the famous Whip, although it was circular as opposed to elliptical.
A covered machine, with a centre pay box, the Skid had cars similar to a Waltzer, but smaller with a flat steel surface. The cars were free to pivot like those on a Waltzer, although each came with a brake pedal that controlled the degree of swing. The machine had a noisy clattering sound, but the introduction of nylon wheels quickly reduced this.
A large number of Skids was produced by the Lakin Company with a compact version, or Swoosh, being offered during the 1950s.The Fairground Heritage Trust has a fully build up Skid on display in the museum.
The last ride built by perhaps the greatest builder of them all, Savage, was a Dodgem track.
During the 1930s a whole series of new, faster, thrill rides appeared on British fairgrounds.
The Mont Blanc (also known as Airways or the Glider) was of French origin and named after the highest mountain in Western Europe; Mont Blanc in the French Alps.
The Mont Blanc was a circular ride similar in appearance to an Ark or Moonrocket of the same period. It was introduced to the public at London’s Olympia in 1932. The idea was that riders sat in suspended “cars” that swung outwards as the ride revolved.
The Lakin company obtained the rights to build these machines in Britain and in conjunction with Maxwell’s of Muselborough produced a number of examples over a five year period.
Although considered attractive machines by the public they were substantially built, requiring a large number of men to build them up. This didn’t make them popular with showfolk.
There can be no more inappropriate name for a fairground ride than the Waltzer! The sedate dance movements of the waltz bear no resemblance to the wildly spinning, nausea inducing motion of a Waltzer car when spun by an over-enthusiastic ride attendant.
The Waltzer is a circular platform ride, similar in appearance to a Noah’s Ark. The platform revolves around an undulating track, with a number of hills and dips. It sits on a number of small wheels. The riders sit in tub-shaped cars and the large rounding boards give an ample canvas for the artist to create themes or dramatic speed lines.
For extra excitement the cars spin on their axis around a lubricated slew ring. This means they move gently back and forth on their own when the ride is in motion. However, if a car is held by an attendant until it reaches the top of a hill — and is then spun – it rotates wildly in one direction.
At best this can be disorientating as the centrifugal force presses the rider against the seat. In a lot of cases, however, alarming nausea may be induced. On the positive side ride durations are quite brief and the effects are none too harmful.
The ride first appeared in 1933 and like the Dodgem has become our most enduring and iconic fairground attraction. The Waltzer at night becomes a dance culture venue, with sound and lightning systems to rival many clubs.
The Loch Ness Monster Alleged sightings of a monster in Loch Ness caused a huge amount of press hysteria in the 1930s and ride builder, Robert Lakin, was keen to capitalise on this.
The Lakin company was renowned for its Noah’s Ark machines, and their elaborate offspring featuring spectacular painted scenes of chariot races. Applying this to the Loch Ness idea produced a “monster” ride that had more in common with the old Scenic Railway than anything else. The resulting machine was a platform ride 48-feet in diameter, similar to the three-hill Arks of old, featuring cars reminiscent of the old Orton and Spooner Scenic Dragons and Dolphins.
A number of these machines were also made by Lang Wheels in 1939. Unfortunately for all concerned this fairground representation of the Loch Ness Monster didn’t prove popular with the public. With seats facing outwards the ride was, according to those that rode it, uncomfortable and far from smooth.
A similar ride to the hugely successful Dodgem, the Brooklands Speedway track (sometimes called a Rally Track) was introduced in the late 1930s – aspiring to the famous Surrey race track of the same name.
It was pitched at young male patrons with gag cards stating, “Drive your own sports car!” The cars were driven in one direction, along a slightly banked track and the idea was that riders to raced eachother.
It was a faster ride than the Dodgem, but lacked the excitement generated by one car crashing into another. Unlike the Dodgem, Speedway cars took their power from the floor and not the ceiling nets as with a Dodgem track.
Orton Sons &Spooner, who had produced many Dodgems, produced just two Brooklands devices. One was commissioned by R.Edwards & Sons of Swindon and this track survives as part of the Fairground Heritage Trust collection.
Ordered in 1938 (measuring 80 by 40 feet) it originally had a fleet of ten cars made by Rytecraft. These were later replaced by Supercar models. When built up the paybox sits in the large island centre of the track. With a capacity to carry only 20 patrons, the Brooklands was a lot less profitable than the Dodgem, making it less popular with showfolk.
Described as the Thrill Ride of the 1930s, the Moonrocket was a huge circular machine. As originally conceived, a circle of Rocket shaped cars were driven, at some speed around an inclined circular track (actually an ellipse). Developed from a German design, it was patented in the UK by Charles Openshaw.
These massive structures were a sensation when first introduced and offered a fast and exhilarating ride. Moonrockets were 52-feet in diameter, had a four-wheel centre and 25 hp motor which drove the centre “dome”. Passengers sat in the rocket shaped cars, which were in two sections, seating four people in two compartments.
The cars revolved clockwise at about 12 rpm, while the centre dome revolved anti clockwise at about six rpm, creating an illusory speed of a dizzy 18rpm. Subsequent modifications included the substitution of freely pivoted, or swing out cars. A carved Popeye figure sat astride a rocket model mounted on the dome.
The huge front and high back of the Moonrocket gave fairground artists such as Edwin Hall an opportunity to display their talents – cartoons depicting space travel being obvious themes.
On the down side, the height of the trestles and the restraint necessary against centrifugal force involved a considerable weight of framing. As a consequence, Moonrockets were hugely costly in terms of both labour and transport and by the early 1960s their popularity was waning.
Moonrockets were built by the R.J Lakin company in conjunction with the Scottish manufacturer George Maxwell. A superb example exists in preservation and is owned by Howard Madden.
The Octopus Patented in the USA in 1936 by Lee Ulric Eyerly the ride was given its name simply because of its 8 radial arms, each with a two-seater spinning car attached to each end.
Many such machines were produced by American firm Lusse. The Octopus was manufactured under licence in the UK by Hayes Fabrication during the late 1950s and early 60s. The Octopus is a fast exciting ride that not only gives a see-saw motion, as the arm rises and fall, but a wildly spinning sensation as the car rotates quickly. It waned in popularity during the late 1970s, although a few are still travelled. Juvenile versions were also produced.
Another American invention patented by Eyerly in 1938, the Dive Bomber is a development of the earlier Loop-o-Plane. The first UK Dive Bomber appeared at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1939.
Twin cars mounted on a vertical rotating arm, spinning on their own axis, give the sensation of diving and looping. During the immediate post war years a quantity of Dive Bombers were made at Blackpool under licence from the American firm, Lussee. The ride enjoyed the peak of its popularity during the 1950s and early 1960s. The Dive Bomber is a compact ride that had the advantage of being easily built up and transported.
A descendent of the earlier Cyclodrome or Velocipede, in which riders pedalled bicycles around circular track.
It may also be seen as a rationalisation of the Motor Car Scenic (or Circular Switchback Railway) in which riders sat in dummy cars mounted on steel swifts (or rods) that also act as axles. The whole was contained within a static enclosure.
The Autodrome was introduced during the late1930’s by the Lang Wheels company of Hillingdon Heath. It was compact and stripped of much ornamentation, with flat rounding boards, some chromium plate and a very stark centre. The 1960 film, Saturday night Sunday morning, starring Albert Finney, features a long sequence of an Autodrome in motion at Nottingham Goose Fair.
A fast ride simulating flight, with the hiss of pneumatics evocative of jet engine noise. Originally a German design the angle of inclination of each of the 12 cars can be controlled by the riders.
Both Maxwell’s and Lang Wheels produced a number of these devices during the 1950s under licence from the German patentees. Mounted on a centre truck, compressed air cylinders and pistons are used to lift individual arms. Hurricane Jets were very popular during the early 1950s when jet flight was a novelty, although many showmen found them troublesome to operate. A notable example of this type of ride was travelled by Carter’s Royal Berkshire Steam Fair for some years and remains in working order. Now almost extinct on the grounds.
An American device introduced in 1952 – colloquially known as “the cage”. It is a simple machine based on the principle of centrifugal force.
It was introduced to cash in on the age of space travel and was often compared to the type of devices astronauts were trained on to enable them to cope with extreme speeds when blasting off. Its popularity peaked in the late 1970s.
Roundups consist of a giant wheel with cage-like compartments at the rim, in which the riders stand. Once set in motion the axis is inclined until this wheel is near vertical. Strips of coloured lights emphasising the structure and delineating a 6-pointed star give a spectacular effect night.
Many such machines in the UK (with a few notable exceptions) are quite plain and utilitarian looking, while on the continent many are lavishly themed and decorated. Roundups were built by number of British and continental makers.
Another American innovation and a development of the wheels within wheels concept.
Known in the UK as The American Twist, or Cyclone Twist, it is an open-top machine with an elevated 4-arm spider frame. Revolving shafts are suspended from each arm carrying smaller spider frames, each mounted with four cars.
Introduced into the UK in the early 1960s, the Butlin’s Amusement Parks were among the first to operate these rides. Known to Butlin’s holiday makers by the quaint sounding name of the Merry Mixer, they were soon being produced by a wide variety of British manufacturers. A further development of the Twist was the Sizzler, or Twister.
Fairground showfolk found these to be both profitable and easy to transport and many show families have since specialised in travelling these machines. Although an enduring and popular ride, found on almost every fairground, it seems that the first decade of the 21st century has signalled a waning in its popularity.
This fast ride enjoyed great popularity during the 1980s and many were made by the Bennett company in the UK. The Paratrooper is essentially a wheel revolving at an oblique angle supporting freely pivoting 2-seater cars. There are two versions of this fairly simple ride: an upright version and a lifting version. The latter revolves around a fixed pole, the former is raised and lowered by a hydraulic arm. A parasol is suspended above each car that faintly resembles a parachute – hence the name.
Introduced in the 1960s, this was an open-top machine based on the “wheels within wheels” concept. Clusters of 4 saucer-shaped cars, with protective parasols, pivoted about the arms of a spider frame, which is itself rotating over a gently undulating track. Few of these rides were built for travelling as they were more suitable to permanent Amusement Parks.
A 1960s device comprising a circular track with a “step hump” and fast moving cars driven around it by a spider frame.
Considerable momentum, combined with the sudden obstacle (the hump), propels the cars upwards into “space” and the gravitational descent is softened only slightly by a pneumatic tyre under the cars. Originally built by Lang Wheels, alternative models were made by Pollards. In Germany the Mack company produced a number of machines. Now a rarity on the grounds.
Also known as a Trabant (German for Satellite) or Hully Gully.
Invented by Chance Rides of America the first devices were introduced to the UK in 1965 where they were made popular in Butlin’s Holiday Camps under the name “Mexican Hat”. Satellites were the first fairground devices to use hydraulics and relied on the clever motion of an off centre counter rotating base. The ring of seats tilts drastically and then dives and climbs in a seemingly erratic fashion.
British Manufacturer Ivan Bennett produced around 24 under licence from Chance. Popular throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s a few remain in Amusement Parks.
In 1976 a new ride appeared at Margate’s Dreamland Amusement Park that was to change the shape of fairground technology.
Orbiters (first created by engineer Richard Wools) use hydraulics to create a very fast and unnerving sensation. The ride has a number of cars, each carrying two people, that are suspended on hydraulic arms. The arms are attached to a centre column that lifts and pivots the arms outwards. Both the centre column and the arms rotate quickly. Orbiters remain popular and are constantly being improved both technologically and aesthetically.
The Superbob/ Matterhorn Characterised by alpine décor, no continental fair would have been complete without one of these. Superbobs were introduced to the UK by Belgian manufacturer Sobena.
Usually open-topped the Superbob is an updated version of the Switchback and is a roundabout that uses a hills and a valleys. Based on the Mont Blanc idea of the 1930s the cars swing out on an axle, with the swinging motion boosted by the hills (of which there were two) and valleys. Its later development, the Matterhorn, was a faster machine.
The Miami Trip The most important fairground ride development for many years, the Miami Trip has evolved from the Teppich, or Magic Carpet, ride developed in Holland by the Kroon show family.
The Miami became the most popular ride since the introduction of the Twist in the early 1960s. These days hardly any fairground or Amusement Park is without one and large numbers have been produced by British manufacturers.
The idea is simple: a bench holding typically 18 seats is swung aloft by two arms operated hydraulically. The operator determines the rise and fall of the bench using a joystick control. The backlash presents showman and airbrush artists with many opportunities for themes.