Driving games (pre-video)

Driving games (pre-video)

Retro Coin Op Synopsis

Too young to get behind the wheel legally? Or maybe you’ve got your driver’s license, but those pesky rules and regulations won’t let you experience the true thrill of the road? If you’re itching for super-fast speeds, heart-stopping skids and the freedom to crash into just about anything and walk away in perfect health…there’s a place for you. Bring the loose change and the Indy ambition to the arcade, where kids and former kids have been getting behind the wheel of simulated driving games since back in the early 1940’s.

International Mutoscope Company’s Drive Mobile was one of the first. A player sat down in front of a large cabinet, and suspended above his metal steering wheel was a small toy car that hung over a revolving landscape—images of road scenery and other vehicles. Mutoscope also produced the New Drive-Mobile later in the 40’s, a judgmental coin-op that rated a player’s speed skills with everything from “creeper” to “road hog” to “wizard.” So popular were these early models that two-player versions came next, and by that time, driving games were in arcades everywhere.

In the early 1950’s, Capital Projector developed Auto Test, which one-upped the old rotating picture drum with an actual 8mm movie projector, so that a player navigated through actual street footage. The sit-down cabinet here was more elaborate than any of its predecessors, giving drivers the feeling that they were sitting in an actual car—complete with gas and brake pedals, and two fuzzy dice dangling from the rear-view. Just kidding about the dice. No dice.

Regular, everyday driving skill was the focus of the 40’s and 50’s games, but the 1960’s raised the stakes, putting high-speed racing in the spotlight. Chicago Coin’s Speed King offered gearshift levers, an authentic (for its time) dashboard that featured speedometers and tachometers, and sound effects—tires skidded, horns blared and the engine roared louder as the car’s speed increased.

In this 60’s and 70’s electromagnetic realm, Chicago Coin’s 1975 Speedway was probably king. Here, a player drove on the moving track that was projected on the screen, trying to avoid other cars and guard rails. Each collision took seconds off the game clock, so the fewer the accidents, the higher the score and the longer the game. This wasn’t any leisurely Sunday drive…hone your reflexes, avoid obstacles and get thee to the head of the pack.

Bally’s Road Runner used small-scale model cars and fluorescent lighting in the 70’s to create an early 3-D type effect, which seemed to vary in size and layout as the game progressed. The driver raced against rival cars in this one, and if he bumped them properly, they flipped into the air and crashed back down onto the start strip. Now, competitive wheelin’ was nothing new for a driving game, but this was wheelin’ with an edge.

After the EM games of the 60’s and 70’s, it was time for video. Pioneers like Atari's Indy series, Sprint series and the first-person Night Driver helped get the video wheels rolling, and the ensuing decades brought such standouts as Turbo, Pole Position, Out Run, Hard Drivin', Virtua Racing and Daytona USA. Each upped the realism a notch more, adding new perspectives, force-feedback steering, multi-player capabilities and more, all designed to re-create the real experience of one-the-road (or off-the-road) racing.

The road of driving games’ development is a long and endless one. Out of the arcade and into your home, there are computer simulations galore nowadays, but each, in its own way, builds on premises that appeared in the arcade coin-ops of decades past.

Arcade Machine Release History

1957 - Motorama
1975 - Speedway

Arcade Game Sub Categories


Machine Manufacturer

Mutoscope, Capital Projector, Chicago Coin, Bally

Other Arcade Game Links