Pinball is undergoing a major resurgence right now – a silverball renaissance, if you will. While manufacturers like Stern and Chicago Gaming Company are releasing new titles based on major franchises like The Mandalorian or Toy Story, vintage machines are seeing their values go through the roof. It wasn’t that long ago that unloved pinball tables were relegated to dark corners in bowling alleys or laundromats. Now, they’re standing front and center in trendy bars and clubs around the globe.
Looking back over pinball’s 80-year history, some of the most significant tables of all time have had automotive themes. Major marques and models like Mustang, Corvette, and Harley-Davidson have all had bespoke machines, while NASCAR, Formula 1, and IndyCar have each been honored with at least one table.
Here, I’m going to pick a top five spanning from the 1970s through to today. How did I choose? Some of this is based on sales figures, some on player rankings on sites like Pinside and the Internet Pinball Database – and frankly I’d be lying if I said I didn’t inject a bit of personal preference in here, too.
I must begin by clarifying: No, not that Williams. Williams Manufacturing Company, which in 1974 became Williams Electronics and later WMS Industries, was one of the leading pinball producers in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Unrelated to Frank Williams’ eponymous racing team, Williams Electronics also released some of the most iconic video games of the 1980s, including Defender, Joust, and Robotron: 2084.
Before all that there was Grand Prix. Released in 1976, Grand Prix was perfectly timed to capitalize on the boom that followed the end of the pinball prohibition. (Fun fact: Pinball was illegal in much of the USA from the early ‘40s up until 1976. Yes, despite all the myriad problems facing our nation in those times, politicians decided to go after pinball.)
As far as Grand Prix’s layout goes, it’s pretty unremarkable. In fact, it’s almost a carbon copy of another Williams table, Liberty Bell, which shipped just one month prior. However, Grand Prix sold more than three times as many tables, over 10,000 worldwide.
Why the success? Part of it has to come down to the gorgeous artwork. The game’s backglass shows a string of big-wheeled, little-winged cars racing along the Monte Carlo harbor, a stylized Monaco looming in the background. The playfield itself is similarly bright and colorful, with criss-crossing cars and checkered flags too funky to be black and white.
By today’s standards gameplay is simplistic at best, but still it’s a perfect ode to the golden age of Formula One produced in the golden age of pinball.
10 years later, Williams had another home run, releasing one of the most significant pinball tables of all time. In the mid 1980s, pinball was facing extinction. Video games were taking over arcades and nobody cared for the dated silverball machines that had been all the rage a few years earlier.
High Speed changed all that. With its flashing dome light and engaging voice samples (Pull over!), it captivated gamers like no table had done before. And the numbers showed it. Williams sold 17,080 High Speed tables during its production run. To this day it ranks as the number-six best-selling pinball machine of all time.
It also rates at number 50 on IPDB’s Top 300 pinball machine list, and number 87 on Pinside’s Top 100. Most importantly, it ranks as my number one pinball table of all time. Not only is the theme fun and engaging, the table itself is a real joy to play, with a fast, flowing design that really encourages you to keep the ball moving.
I’m not alone in my love for High Speed. Pinball great Pat Lawlor, designer of Bally’s 1992 table The Addams Family (considered by many to be the greatest pinball machine of all time), says that High Speed is also his personal favorite.
Moving into the early ‘90s, few tables made a bigger impression than The Getaway. This is actually a sequel to High Speed, and if you look at the playfield there are strong echoes of the original’s design, with highways crossing through trees and a traffic light to run. However, The Getaway added one major new gimmick that made it irresistible.
Yes, I’m talking about the iconic “Supercharger.” Shoot the left ramp at the correct time and your ball enters into a brushed metal loop, spinning under a stylized, plastic supercharger fronted by three red lights. As the ball spins it picks up speed and momentum before launching back onto the playfield. (Fun fact: the Supercharger is actually three electromagnets in sequence, which yank the ball through and accelerate it like a simple, non-lethal railgun.)
Williams sold 13,259 of these tables. It ranks at number 24 on the IPDB list and number 59 in Pinside’s Top 100.
For Indy 500 fans of a certain age, the voices of Paul Page and Bobby Unser are synonymous with the great race. Likewise, just about every living Indy fan will know the voice of Tom Carnegie, who called races at the track from 1946 to 2006. All three of them provided custom voicework for use in Bally’s 1994 tribute to the race.
The Borg-Warner trophy sits front and center between the flippers, surrounded by countless cars, flags, and other highlights from the track. Players must run various ramps with labels like “PEDAL TO THE METAL” and “NEVER LIFT” to progress gameplay modes, including Go for the Pole, which scores you 10 million points if you run four ramps in 20 seconds.
As you progress through modes and scores, your position in a virtual race improves, as you’re regaled all the while by the sound of screaming engines. It’s a really fun table for fans of what many would consider the series’ peak era, just two years before the fateful IndyCar/CART split. Though Bally only sold 2,249 tables, Indianapolis 500 sits at number 67 on the IPDB list and 90 on Pinside’s Top 100.
I wanted to include a modern table in this list, and the choice here was easy. American Pinball is a relatively new entrant into the ranks, launching its first table in 2017. Hot Wheels is its third table and it features five actual Hot Wheels cars scattered around the playfield, including a Bone Shaker hot rod literally mounted on a rod, where it just spins and spins and spins.
Interconnecting orange tracks are key to the real-world Hot Wheels experience and, sure enough, there are plenty in the game, too. Given how similar those tracks are to pinball ramps it’s shocking to me that we haven’t had a Hot Wheels pinball machine before. (A table called “Hot Wheels” was released in 1977, but it didn’t have anything to do with the toys). This table references the Hot Wheels City YouTube series, with clips from the videos playing on the table’s integrated LCD.
It’s too early to count sales figures as the table is still in production, but it has already earned a legion of fans, placing it at number 77 on Pinside’s Top 100.
Those are my five picks, but there are plenty more to choose from, like Stern’s 2014 Mustang Pinball. This machine highlighted every era of Mustang leading up to the then-current fifth generation, its playfield punctuated with more prancing ponies and blue ovals than I could possibly count.
Sega’s 1998 Viper Night Drivin’ is notable for featuring an integrated blacklight and a day-glo pinball, plus voice samples from Mancow. I’m not sure which of those ideas was worse.
And then there’s Bally’s 1994 Corvette, paying homage to the great American sports car. This table is notable for the two model cars that drag race up the right side of the playfield, plus a plastic LT5 integrated into the top left. Launch a ball through the intake for a jackpot — and probably some bent valves, too.