by Russ Jensen
(THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN "COIN SLOT" AUG/SEP 1983)
Many pinball collectors with which I have spoken are either completely unaware, or only vaguely aware, of one fascinating sidelight of the colorful history of pinball, namely the "conversion game." What is a "conversion?" Generally speaking, it is a game which has been some way converted into a different game utilizing anywhere from a few to many of the components of the original machine. Many people who have heard of conversions only know about those made during World War II ("Wartime Conversions"). This was the period during which most of these "conversions" were produced, mainly because the manufacture of all new amusement machines was prohibited during that period.
Conversions, of one another, have been around however since the earliest years of the pinball industry. The earliest form of a "conversion" was a "do it yourself" job. This was in the form of a so-called "replacement board." In this case a new playfield was used to replace the original one of a mechanical pingame, turning it into a new game with a different name, and play and scoring features. Famed pingame designer and manufacturer, Harry Williams, actually got started in game design by designing some of these "replacement boards."
Sometimes these boards were put out by game manufacturers as an added inducement to operators to buy their games. The manufacturer pointed out in his advertising that an operator could buy "two games for the price of one." Other "boards" were put out by small outfits hoping to cash in on the "pinball boom" that was occurring in the early thirties. These small companies created "boards" that would fit (or could be made to fit) one or more different machines which were made by other larger game manufacturers.
In June of 1932 an advertisement from "The Artists and Creators Guild" appeared in AUTOMATIC AGE concerning "replacement boards" put out by that outfit. One side of their ad indicated that they had five or six boards to be used with a game called VARIETY (probably the game of that name made by Atlas Indicator Works some months earlier). The four boards that were illustrated were titled PAR GOLF, JACKPOT, WORLD SERIES, and DERBY DAY, each having a different theme. In this same ad they offered a complete game called KRAZY COMICS (presumably of their manufacture) and implied these same boards were available as replacements for it. Incident- ally, the price of this complete game was $12.50, with $3.00 each being charged for these "replacement boards."
At about this same time the Exhibit Supply Company (manufacturer of arcade and counter top games, and soon to become one of the significant pingame manufacturers of the thirties and forties) advertised a new pingame called PLAYBALL. The ad indicated that the playfield could be bought as a "replacement board" for other games with approximately the same cabinet dimensions. Their price for this b oard was $4.50, but this also included a "scoring device" (whatever that was), underneath fibre board, and ten colored marbles.
A few years later (after the introduction of "electric action" to pinball by Harry Williams with his game CONTACT) at least one company offered "replacement boards" converting strictly mechanical games into "electric action" ones. In December 1934 the Globe Manufacturing Co. of Chicago advertised a "replacement board" called "66" which could be used on Rockola's WORLD SERIES or JIGSAW or Mills' OFFICIAL. While this was not electrical, that company's next offering was. In March 1935 Globe offered a board called WEST- BOUND for use with these same three games. This board boasted two "electric kickers" which the ad said "transformed your obsolete games into clever electrical action games."
As a sidelight to the story of "replacement boards" I would like to mention a game I personally own. The name on the playfield is BIG CHIEF but the cabinet appears identical to the first Bally game, BALLYHOO (except for a different style of coin mechanism). I have a strong suspicion that this was somebody's "replacement board" for BALLYHOO, but as yet I have not been able to either prove or disprove this.
One of the early examples of a more extensive "conversion" occurred in late 1937 when a Philadelphia outfit, known as the Glickman Company, put an ad in the trade publication AUTOMATIC AGE which began "OPERATORS! Let Us Convert Your Bumper Games Into a Game Called POKO-LITE." This ad invited operators to send them their Bally BUMPERs, and for $16.50 (not including shipping) they would "convert" them to a "new" game. This "conversion" consisted of a new backglass, a new cabinet paint job, and a score projector which displayed different five card "poker hands" each time a bumper was struck by a ball (instead of the advancing score numbers used on the original Bally BUMPER unit). The ad further boasted "you and your customers won't recognize the game, it is so converted." I don't know how many "takers" they had but this idea certainly paralleled the "wartime conversions" to be discussed shortly.
About six months later, this same company advertised an even more extensive conversion. This time they offered to convert Bally's SKIPPER (the payout version of BUMPER) into a game called TREASURE. In addition to a new backglass and cabinet paint job, they stated that "the playing field (is) completely changed" and they also boasted of a "new award idea." The ad did not describe the changes to the playing field but the award idea was described. Every fourth coin deposited would increase a payout "kitty" by "one point" (presumably five cents). This "kitty" started out at $1.00 and had a maximum of $3.25. The amount of this "jackpot" was displayed on the backglass using a number "projector." A player attaining a high score over 380 points during a game would receive this "jackpot" which then would start over at $1.00. This concept is the "Reserve" idea which was used by many of the later payout pingames, including Bally's RESERVE of 1938.
Speaking of Bally's RESERVE, a few years ago a pinball collector ran across a game that was called DAILY DOZEN. He noticed that his game looked almost identical to RESERVE but had no manufacturer's name on the backglass. Stamped on the underside of the cabinet he saw the name of the Mike Munvez Co. of New York< /PRE> City, one of the large game distributors of that city. He speculated that this was possibly a "conversion" of Bally RESERVE done by that outfit but was never able to find out so it still remains a mystery.
THE WAR YEARS
As I stated at the beginning of this article, when most people think of "pingame conversions" they think of those produced during World War II. This is when a large majority of "conversions" were produced due to the fact that pingames were considered "non- essential" and their manufacture banned "for the duration." This was because the electrical and metallic components utilized materials vital to the war effort.
Probably the largest concern producing ''wartime conversions" was the United Manufacturing Co. of Chicago. This outfit was founded by pinball pioneer Harry Williams and his friend and fellow game designer Lyndon ("Lyn") Durant. These two had been working for Exhibit Supply Co. when the war broke out and decided to form their own company to repair games, hoping also to get defense related sub-contracts.
Harry and Lyn decided to try converting old games to new ones without using additional electrical or mechanical parts which could not even be obtained for non-war essential purposes. The United conversions utilized the electrical and mechanical parts, and the wooden cabinets, of the old games. New playfields and backglasses were made. In addition, they contracted with Advertising Posters Co. (the major game "artwork" company in Chicago from the thirties to the present time) to provide "decals" to be used to add new artwork to the sides of the old cabinets. The results were remarkable, a "new" game from an obsolete one without using any war critical materials.
In less than a year Harry Williams had sold his share of United to Lyn Durant and went on to form a new company, Williams Manufacturing. United continued building conversions, producing around a dozen different models during the war. At war's end, United began manufacturing new pingames (and later shuffle alleys, "bingos," and other games) up into the fifties.
Harry's new Williams Manufacturing (forerunner of the current Williams Electronics) began producing game conversions of its own. The first Williams conversion (although not a pingame) was an arcade "fortune telling" machine called SUPERSCOPE. This was followed by an "upright" pingame type machine called ZINGO, an example of which currently resides in the Fred Roth collection in Thousand Oaks California. Williams also produced two standard pingame conversions, FLAT TOP and LAURA, during the latter part of the war. They began to manufacture new pingames (starting with SUSPENSE) after the war ended. During the war Williams Manufacturing, like many other manufacturers of that time, was also engaged in producing defense related products.
Conversions like those made by United and Williams are what I refer to as "major conversions" in that new playfields were fabricated (including a new arrangement of bumpers and other scoring devices) as well as new backglasses. Another type of conversion was also made during the war, which I call "mini conversions." One of the producers of this type of conversion was an outfit calling itself "Victory Games." Their idea was simple and inexpe nsive for the operator. An operator would ship Victory an old game and they would install a new backglass (with a new name), new bumper caps and instruction cards, and return the game to the operator as a "new game." No other changes were made to the original game. This was done for a cost of about $13.00 per game (shipping not included).
Amusement pinballs were not the only ones "converted" during the war. Another popular type of pingame that was often converted was the "one-ball' horserace machine." Several outfits such as Bell Products, Westerhaus, etc., "revamped" those popular games. Although at this time I have no definite information, one way or the other, I tend to believe that many (if not all) of these one-ball conversions were of the "mini" type described above.
Another outfit that went into business during the war making conversions, and then made a few new pingames after the war, was the Marvel Manufacturing Company of Chicago. They produced several conversion models during the war of the "amusement type."
Many of the conversions made during the war (such as the "mini" conversion) required a particular model of an old game to produce a given "new" game. Other conversions could be made from any of several different machines since primarily only electrical components were used from the old game. The advertisements for these "conversions" in the trade publications usually specified the "old" game or games from which each conversion could be made. As was stated earlier, in some cases an operator would provide his old game to a conversion company to be converted into a "new" game for him. In other cases the conversion companies would buy old games from operators, convert them (or use their parts), and sell the new conversion to other operators.
To give some idea of the number of "conversions" done during the World War II era, a list "Revamps" appeared in January 13, 1947 issue of CASHBOX magazine. This listed approximately 80 "amusement" pinball conversions and 11 "one-ball horserace" conversions. Although a few of the games listed were produced after the wars' end, most of them were made during the war.
After the war ended the production of new pinballs was not all that immediate. It took some time for a large quantity of new parts to become available and for plants to "tool up" to return to full scale production, especially the smaller manufacturers. The large companies, Bally, Gottlieb and Williams put out their first new games not long after the war ended. Other smaller manufacturers, such as Marvel, took a little longer and still did a few conversions in 1946. Victory Games continued with their "mini" conversions for a short time after the war ended but then faded from the scene.
Then, in December 1947, came that revolutionary change in pingame design, the invention and introduction of the "flipper!" This resulted in another type of postwar conversion, the "flipper conversion."
The introduction of the flipper made such a radical change to the game of pinball that the older "pre-flipper" games became obsolete almost overnight. Soon enterprizing outfits, such as Chicago's large "parts house," WICO, began producing "flipper conversion kits." These "do-it-yourself" items would allow an operator to convert one of his "obsolete" games into the latest rage, the "flipper game." The biggest problem with this was that operators were not game designers and the locations on the playfield which they would choose to place flippers were usually not the most desirable taking the overall game play strategy into account. But nevertheless, many "pre-flipper" games were quickly "flipperized" by operators hoping to keep their game investments (prices for post war games were at least double that of their pre-war predecessors) paying off at least a little bit longer.
Within the next several years, several smaller outfits, such as Nate Schneller, Inc. (also known as NASCO) began converting pre- flipper games into flipper games. The games chosen to convert from were good post-war models, especially Uniteds, and the placement of the flippers was more carefully chosen than in the "do-it-yourself" models. In addition, new backglasses, score cards, etc., were provided giving the appearance to players that these were "brand new" games. There was at least one instance of a flipper game itself being "converted" into a "new game." Some outfit, the identity of which I have not yet been able to track down, took the first flipper game (HUMPTY DUMPTY, the game that started it all) and converted it to "CROWN JEWEL," which I suspect was a "mini" conversion as previously described.
There was also instances of post-war conversions of "one-ball horserace machines." A West Coast collector recently turned up a game called THOROBRED with no manufacturer's name indicated on it. The game appeared to be a conversion of Bally's 1949 one-ball hit, CITATION. This conversion probably was of the "mini" type. without any changes to the "innards" of the machine.
A more extensive one-ball "conversion" was performed in late 1951 (at the end of the "one-ball era"). An advertisement appeared in the December 15, 1951 issue of BILLBOARD magazine for a game called OLD HILLTOP. It was not actually stated who "manufactured" this game, but two outfits were listed as distributors, Empire Coin Machine Exchange of Chicago, and General Vending Sales Corp. of Baltimore. This game was apparently a conversion of the popular one-ball game of 1950, Universal's WINNER. The ad stated "OLD HILLTOP combines all the famous features of Universal's WINNER with new exciting action getting thrillers!" The ad then proceeded to declare "OLD HILLTOP is not a 'conversion.' All new factory parts, factory assembled, factory engineered. All new wiring color-coded to existing circuits." Finally they indicated a "brand new 15-color backglass in beautiful striking design was also provided.
It would appear from this ad that they took a WINNER, added some changes to it, using new parts and wiring where necessary, and added a new backglass. What they apparently meant by it "not being a conversion" was that new (rather than used) parts were used to implement the new added features. How many of these machines were actually produced is a matter of conjecture, but being offered at such a late date (the Johnson Act had all but outlawed "one-balls" in this country by that time) one would think that their market was rather limited.
The early fifties appeared to be the end of the "conversion era." During the later fifties, sixties, and seventies no pingame conversions were produced to my knowledge. In the early eighties the conversion idea infiltrated the "new kid on the block," the "video game." Some of these "video conversions" were 'illegal' infringements of game copyrights, but many were legitimate, some even being produced by the game manufacturers themselves. But enough about videos! What about new pingame conversions? Well, a few years ago I heard a rumor that manufacturers of solid-state pinballs were going to start producing replacement playfields and backglasses (plus electronic 'chip' replacements), allowing operators to "convert" an old game into a new one without paying for a new cabinet or the majority of the electronic circuitry. This appeared to be only a rumor since no such "conversions" were subsequently produced, until now that is.
Recently Gottlieb announced two new solid state pinballs. These games, SUPER ORBIT and ROYAL FLUSH DELUXE, were interesting in two respects. First, they were modern versions of two earlier Gottlieb electro-mechanical pinballs: ORBIT (of 1972) and ROYAL FLUSH (of 1976). This "going back to the good old days," was further emphasized by the games being produced in "narrow body" cabinets instead of the wider cabinets used by most pins today. Gottlieb alluded to this in their ad for ROYAL FLUSH DELUXE by stating "nothing beats Gottlieb's Royal Flush Deluxe for good, old fashioned fun - pinball style."
The most interesting thing about these new Gottlieb offerings was announced in a "bulletin" recently sent out by that company. The announcement was headed "Pinball Conversions as easy as 1, 2, 3." This announcement stated "Starting with SUPER ORBIT, all future Gottlieb narrow-body pinballs will be designed to convert to any new game in 15 minutes or less. Right on location!" It declared that the conversion would consist of: 1) A complete new playfield (which exchanges with the old one and plugs into the existing wiring harness), 2) New game and sound proms (electronic chips) to be inserted into existing control and sound boards, and 3) New backglass, to be installed in place of the original one.
So with this announcement it looks like we have come "full circle." From pingame "replacement boards" in pinballs first years in the early thirties, to "conversions, eighties style," replacing the playfields, and what ever else is necessary to convert an "old game" into a "new one." Will this trend continue? Will Bally start coming out with pingame "conversions?" Only time will tell. As Gottlieb pointed out in their conversion announcement "in order to be competitive in today's marketplace, an operator needs an effective alternative to extend the profitable lifetime of his equipment." It looks like pinball and video conversions may be the answer. Who knows? Anyway, game conversions have always served a purpose during their fascinating history, sometimes to give operators a cost effective way to utilize the equipment they purchase, and other times to produce games when there were no parts available.
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