Here’s How Ridiculously Complicated It Was To Rebuild The Ultimate Car Pinball Machine

Highspeedpinball Top

Pinball is a strange hobby, one that devolves into obsession for many and, I gotta say, quickly sank its hooks into me. Pinball tables look simple enough on the outside, an impression reinforced by needing only two or three buttons to play them. But, spend some time getting to know a table, learning its various modes and special combinations, and you’ll quickly realize there’s a lot of nuance, practice, and skill required for true mastery. Even that, though, is nothing compared to what it takes to work on one. 

Lift the playfield on a pinball table and you’ll be greeted with a veritable rats nest of wiring and components that will make the most seasoned of electricians recoil with horror. All those wires tangle around and through hundreds of mechanical, electrical, and digital components, each and every one just waiting to fail at the next spin of a silver ball. Owning a vintage pinball table and keeping it running can feel like a Sisyphean task. 

Old Vs. New Playfields On Rotisseries

Restoring one? Forget about it.

And yet that’s the task my wife and I set for ourselves, taking a 1986 Williams “High Speed” table, stripping it down to its bare components, and then rebuilding it again around a shiny, new, reproduction playfield. This is the most comprehensive job that can be done on a pinball table and my wife and I, complete newbies, opted to dive right in. Would we succeed? And, more importantly, would our marriage survive? 

We would, and it did, and here’s how the pain-staking, 12-month restoration went. 

[Ed Note: Tim Stevens is a long-time automotive and tech journalist, editor, ice racer, and otherwise knowledgeable dude. I watched this whole saga play out on Instagram over a year and when I saw Tim on the greens at Pebble Beach I pleaded with him to let us publish the story. – MH]

High Speed

Pinballbrochures
High Speed brochures credit Williams Electronics

High Speed is widely considered to be one of the most iconic pinball tables of all time, a table that had a massive hand in saving the entire industry in the mid 1980s. The pinball market as a whole was dwindling. Videogames had rushed onto the scene through the ’70s and early ’80s, quickly claiming every free square foot of floor space at bowling alleys, pizza parlors, and of course arcades. 

And it wasn’t just that pinball was increasingly seen as a dated pursuit. The tables required so much maintenance that most operators were more than happy to ditch the damned things and switch to video game cabinets, which were infinitely simpler to maintain.

But then High Speed showed up, the first of a new generation of pinball tables from Chicago-based Williams Electronics. These tables, called System 11, ran three Motorola 6800-series CPUs, the same as used on many Williams arcade classics like Defender. One CPU was used to drive the game itself, with two more used to handle audio. 

BrokenplasticcloseupSystem 11 tables offered far more complex sound and music than before. Earlier Williams pinball games had featured limited digital voice samples, but in High Speed, players were treated to a full series of dialogue between a police officer and his dispatch. There was even a story here, the player taking the role of a speeder trying to escape from the pursuing Officer 504. Through the course of a game, the officer yells at the player, “Hey, pull over!” If the player is good, escaping the supposed chase, officer 504 reports his failure.

“Displatch, this is 504.”

“Copy, 504, go ahead.”

“He got away.”

“He what!?”

“He got away, over.”

Those voices were recorded by table designer Steve Ritchie and Larry DeMar, who did the software. According to Ritchie, the table itself was based on a true-life police encounter in his 1979 Porsche 928. “I was driving on I-5, making the Porsche go as fast as it could go on a clear, warm, very light-trafficked early morning through the incredibly flat Central Valley of CA,” Ritchie recalled in a 2008 discussion on the rec.games.pinball newsgroup

Ritchie claims he was going 146 mph when he spotted a police officer. He pondered trying to run, but he dutifully pulled over and was ticketed for Reckless Driving, which came with a 90 day suspended license and a $250 ticket. “This wasn’t in the big city like in the movies where you make a series of twists and turns down alleys and drive the wrong way on one-way streets,” Ritchie said. “I wouldn’t have ever done that anyway, I don’t want to kill people or be a criminal, or even irresponsible.”

He did, however, take inspiration from the moment. The flashing lights that signaled his doom in his Porsche became a key feature for his future pinball table. 

In High Speed, if the yelling dialogue wasn’t enough to win your quarters, it had another trick to draw curious players all the way from the other side of a crowded arcade. If you’re good enough to start the police chase in the game (achieved by hitting a number of targets and then sending the ball up the ramp to run the red light), a spinning red beacon on top of the table lights up and starts spinning. Police sirens wail and the chase is on.

 

Run the ramp again to escape from the police and you begin multiball, accompanied by a full song of blaring digitized guitars while the table’s lights flash in accompaniment. This, believe it or not, was the first complete song ever to feature in a pinball table, something earlier tables didn’t have the memory to do. 

The story, the voice, the music, and perhaps most of all the beacon captivated gamers like no pinball table had before. Thanks to that, Williams sold 17,080 High Speed tables. Compare that to 1984’s Space Shuttle, which sold 7,000 tables, and 1985’s Comet, which sold 8,100, and you can see just how successful High Speed really was. It’s been 36 years and it still ranks as #6 in the best-selling pinball tables of all time.

My Introduction

I grew up in southern Vermont, many miles from major civilization. I didn’t get to arcades too often, but a town about 30 minutes away had a little ice cream joint (a creamee stand, in Vermonter vernacular). There, next to the counter, was a High Speed pinball table. I was probably eight or nine when I first saw it and it pretty-well blew my mind. I don’t know that I ever even got to play it, but I remember the line of older kids waiting their turn, I remember the lamp spinning, and I remember being totally enchanted.

30-odd years later, a friend took me up to the mecca for all things arcade, Funspot in Laconia, NH. I had a bit of an epiphany playing High Speed for what very well may have been the first time. I was hooked. Not only was it a nostalgia overload, I surprised myself by really enjoying the way the game played, even more so than the flashier, modern pinball tables.

High Speed very much lives up to its name. It’s a pinball game that rewards keeping the ball moving. Unlike many modern games that require frustratingly precise shots, High Speed has few targets and ramps, rewarding players for hitting them in succession. This really encourages a flowing, fast style of play that I found to be completely addicting. 

Towing

Fast forward a couple more years and we’re overhauling my garage, adding drywall and insulation and turning it into a place where someone might actually want to spend some time – even if none of the cars require maintenance. Not quite my dream garage, but pretty damned close. Somewhere along the way, through the endless delays, I decided that putting a pinball table in there would be a great way to cap off the project – not to mention a great thing to have for blowing off steam when a project goes sideways

And, what better table than High Speed? 

Now, the table you see photographed here is actually the second High Speed table I bought. It’s kind of a long story, but the first one I purchased wound up beingva very rare, modified version of High Speed called La Retata. I had hoped to restore that one, but given its National Pinball Museum provenance, I was convinced that I’d better leave it be. 

So, my wife and I went out and got a second High Speed project, this one in pretty rough shape, with a playfield badly worn from decades of heavy use. The cabinet, too, was scuffed up, many of the plastic pieces on the playfield were broken, and the circuit boards needed a fair bit of attention.

The wooden cabinet, though, was solid, the backglass was in great shape, and it was an excellent candidate for restoration. We threw it on my Harbor Freight utility trailer and dragged it home. 

How Pinball Tables Work

FlippercoilPinball tables with flippers were introduced in 1947 and they were so entracing that they were illegal in many states until 1976. Today, pinball is seeing a renaissance, with companies like Stern and Chicago Gaming producing brand new machines, many with big-budget Hollywood licenses and price tags north of $10,000. 

Yes, that’s an insane amount of money for a single game. If you want to get into the hobby, an older table in rough shape is certainly a lot more affordable, but it’s important to get one from a generation that interests you. The earlier tables are what’s known as electromechanical, or EM, with little if any digital smarts, everything handled by solenoids and relays.

In the late ’70s the solid-state games came in, initially playing very similarly but ultimately evolving to become far more complex. Then, in the early ’90s, the dot-matrix display, or DMD games arrived, replacing or augmenting the early, multi-digit score counters with an increasingly complex display for showing simple animations. Today, modern games use large LCDs or OLEDs, replete with high-definition full-motion video. Some tables even share high scores on the internet.

1986’s High Speed is in the middle of the solid state era, which means it has relatively advanced circuitry but looks and plays a lot like an earlier table, offering only simple score displays and a straightforward playfield with one ramp.

RedoneplayfieldThe playfield itself is a plank of laminated wood, not unlike a giant, flat skate deck. Bulbs, components, and switches poke through numerous slots and holes. There are dozens of kinds of switches, like upright “target” switches that you need to hit with the ball or rollover switches that are pretty self-explanatory. Fundamentally they all do the same thing: Whether the ball hits a target or rolls over a bent piece of wire sticking out of the playfield, beneath the playfield two metal contacts are pressed together. This completes a circuit.

All the switches combine to form what’s called a switch matrix, a concept still used today for things like Arduino boards or the like. This design allows a lot of switches to share relatively few wires. In High Speed, there are 52 switches forming a matrix over 16 signal wires in an eight-by-eight array.

The main CPU for the game (an M6808) polls those switches every cycle, looking for what’s changed, and then acts according to whatever the game’s software says to do, software that’s loaded from a set of ROM chips. For a target switch, the code might say to give the player more points and to trigger a sound. Or, if the player has already achieved some earlier objectives, hitting that target might advance the game to another mode, like the police chase. Rollover switches usually trigger actions, too, but they’re mostly used for telling the CPU where the ball is. 

The next major component within pinball tables of this era are called coils, which are wound electromagnets that contain a ferrous rod within. When the coil is charged, the magnetic field ejects that rod, causing something to move in or on the table. When the charge is removed, a spring pulls the rod back. Flippers are a great example of this. High Speed has three flippers, each one powered by a coil connected to a linkage triggered by the switches connected to the buttons on either side of the cabinet. 

Finally, there are the lights. Many, many lights. High Speed features 139 individual bulbs of many different types. Some are more or less on all the time, providing background illumination, while others can be turned on and off individually by the CPU. These, too, are all interconnected on an eight-by-eight lamp matrix, meaning a simple wiring problem on a single bulb socket can cause a terrifying percentage of the table to go dim. 

AmandandtimworkingPerhaps the most important light in High Speed, though, is the beacon. That’s a single bulb mounted in a reflector spun by a small electric motor and a reduction gear set, all inside of a red-tinted plastic housing. Controlling all that? It’s an automotive relay, believe it or not, compatible with the 30-amp Bosch units used for endless applications, including fuel pumps on early ’80s SAABs and Volvos. 

Lightarraycloseup

Again, all that is connected by hundreds and hundreds of wires. The major coils have three wires each, for example, individual bulbs have two. All these wires are somewhat messily routed to their components, forming branching bundles that swell thicker and thicker as you get closer to the back. They then run up to the backbox, the vertical section on the pinball table, which is where the brains lie.

Each of the multiple bundles of cables that run up to the back have Molex connectors to make them easy to disconnect. However, on the other end, each wire is soldered directly to the component it controls. For a playfield swap, if you want to get that massive wiring harness out of the way to swap components over individually, you must manually desolder each and every wire — a process that, on High Speed, took us weeks. 

But that’s just one step.

The Steps

Workspace Prep

ExtractedwiringharnessSwapping a playfield is not something you want to do on half of a messy workbench. You’ll be dealing with hundreds of components and thousands of screws, many of them extremely tiny, each of which must go back in exactly the right place. You’ll need a clean, and fairly large space in which to work.

I designated multiple plastic bins to store parts, categorized based on quadrants of the playfield. We also custom-built two playfield rotisseries using miter saw stands, enabling us to have the old and new playfields side-by-side so that we could pull a component from the old playfield and immediately mount it on the new. 

This saved us a lot of time and stress, but it also required a lot of space. I’d say some sort of rotisserie is a must, but if you only have room for one, you’re going to have to be very good at labeling.

Cataloging

We used three main systems for cataloging. First, as I mentioned above, was the bins. We used these for larger components that were easily identifiable, putting the component in the bin that matched where it came out of the playfield, because it could be days, weeks, or even months between removing a component from one playfield and putting it on the next. 

LabelsexportSecond, we used labels. So. Many. Labels. I designed a simple template that I fed into my vinyl cutter to make white peel-and-stick labels that I could write on before attaching to wires. We’d write the switch designation, bulb number, or some other identifier and wrap a label around every wire or set of wires before desoldering. This made it relatively easy to know what went where – though thankfully the table’s comprehensive manual showed every wire color, too. Different color Sharpies designated different quadrants of the table. 

But, most importantly, we took photos. Photos upon photos upon photos. It started with general photos of where everything is. Then, as we took things off, we took photos of which screws came out where. We took photos of every wiring connection to every component, showing which wire soldered to which contact. And, when it came to breaking down complex assemblies like the pop bumpers, we took yet more photos to document how everything should go back together again.

Labelsclopseup

We’re both on Android, so we set up a shared Google Photos album and threw everything in there. Sometimes, Google Photos was good enough to identify my chicken scratch, which meant I could search for images based on the label identifier. However, in retrospect, I wish I’d simply designed the labels with their identifiers printed on there to enable better recognition.

Also, we used one album that quickly became a mess — 894 photos covering the entire process. In retrospect, we should have divided up the photos into different albums based on component type or even location on the playfield. 

Restore vs. Replace

SpinnerprerestoDespite the table’s age, I was amazed at how many reproduction and even NOS components were available. Even so, if you want everything super-fresh and new, you’re going to have to pay for it. 

Some components, like the plastic pieces that sit on the playfield, will likely need to be replaced as they take a real beating. Other components, however, can be made to look like new with a little effort. Take the spinners, for example, pieces of metal painted and stickered to look like highway signs. They were ugly and beaten after all those decades of abuse. New ones would have cost me hundreds, so instead I stripped the green paint off the old ones, gave them a few coats of John Deere Green (amazingly, a perfect match), and slapped on a fresh set of stickers that cost me $10. They looked like new. 

Spinnnnnersfixed

For the many screws and metal components, a tumbler is very nice. I used a Harbor Freight vibratory tumbler with walnut media. The unit gets awfully warm but works great. Most of the metal hardware that I threw in there came out looking like new after 24 hours. 

“Bulletproofing” Circuit Boards

CircutboardWhile it’s easy to visually tell that the playfield is worn out, components like capacitors on a pinball table’s various circuit boards are probably just as tired. If you really want to do it right, you’ll want to replace those, too. Thankfully this table is old enough that even components like transistors are big enough to be seen and relatively easily desoldered for replacement. 

It’s still a delicate job, though. In particular, too much heat applied to old components can easily cause contacts to pull away from the ancient particle board substrate, turning a quick chip swap into a nightmare. A desoldering gun, like a Hakko FR301, makes the process a lot easier.

I could write another couple-thousand words on which components to replace, but thankfully someone’s already done that for me.

Cabinet Refurbishment

I generally don’t enjoy woodworking much. Thankfully, my wife does, and so any repairs needed to the wooden cabinet of our table were largely taken care of by her. Our 36-year-old cabinet was in remarkably good shape, but many suffer from water damage or major gouges from being moved around so much. 

That old tub of Bondo that you keep hidden in the back of your garage for special occasions? It can be used here, too. If your table has significant gouges or damage, just slap some on, sand it down, and paint – just be aware that color matching is its own can of worms.

Living With It

Spinner Resto CoseupThis final step isn’t so much a step as it is a lifestyle. All pinball tables, even brand new ones, break. They break and they break a lot. The sheer act of playing a game is incredibly violent. (If you have a friend with a table, ask to play it with the glass off just once. You’ll be amazed at the ear-splitting racket.) 

Even though we completed our restoration just a few months ago we’ve already had to open our High Speed up multiple times for fixes and adjustments. Most recently, I shorted a switch on the playfield while trying to adjust it, blowing a transistor on the main circuit board. After I get done editing this I’ll be headed back out to the garage to pull the whole main processor board out and solder on a new chip.

Much like owning a classic Italian car – or even a modern one – maintenance and troubleshooting is part of the pinball ownership experience. Know that before you decide to throw a table in your den on a whim.

Wrap-Up

AmandandtimworkingThe entire restoration process took us 256 person-hours spread over nearly an entire calendar year of nights and weekends. Much of it went smoothly, some of it went painfully, but in the end it resulted in a beautiful-looking, perfect-playing table. To some of you that project probably sounds like a total nightmare, but for the two of us it was much more.

For one, it was a fun challenge, like a massive, two-player cooperative puzzle game. Figuring out how to take the table apart was easy. Getting it back together again, and working right, was really hard, but each error, blown fuse, and wonky switch was just another logic challenge that we needed to get our heads around. We weren’t in any hurry and we knew there would always be a solution. Eventually, we found them all.

Secondly, the whole process was refreshingly disconnected. Sure, we used our phones for photos, and we certainly spent a lot of time searching for solutions to problems (many thanks to the entire Pinside community, but for the majority of time it was just us, simple hand tools, and a soldering iron. Outside of pinball, the past year was an incredibly stressful one for us, as I’m sure it was for many of you. This project was a great way to disconnect from the macro world and get laser-focused on the micro.

Finally, though this was one big project, it was something that required many different skills. Sure, my soldering abilities were put to the strongest test, but if I got sick of that there was always some cabinetry work that needed doing, components that needed stripping or painting, or metal bits or bobs that needed refinishing. 

It took an age but it was never boring, and that’s why we now have four more broken, tired tables in the queue ready for refurbishing. These we hope to bring back to life then sell. Maybe along the way we’ll make a little money to fund our hobby, but this High Speed table I hope to keep forever. After spending that much time in and around it, it now feels like part of the family.

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36 Responses

    1. Id be thrilled with:
      Gorgar
      Party Animal
      Fireball
      Spring Break
      Playboy from 79 and 89
      ST either TOS or TNG
      Hollywood Heat
      Twilight Zone
      Haunted House
      FunHouse
      Addams Family.. will make its money hand over FIST for Y E A R S to come.
      F14 Tomcat…

      Almost any pinball from 77 to 93, from Williams or Data East.

      The 60s and or early 70s is decent.. but the difference in design and or game play is huge.
      Pins… are in my blood.

    2. I worked for a coin op company for about 8 years in my 20s. I mostly worked on the x86 computer based equipment, the first Gen digital jukeboxes, Megatouch machines. But I did love working on pinballs. My absolute favorite was Theatre of Magic.

      If I ever were able to come across one when I had the miney, I’d absolutely buy it.

  1. So nice to see someone else who loves my favorite pastimes – cars and pinball! High Speed is cool, but nothing compares to my memories of standing on a step stool so I was tall enough to see the table while playing Race Way. ❤️

      1. Never expected to see a Dari Joy or BF reference in the comment section!

        I grew up 1 house away from the Dari Joy & spent a lot of paper route money in their game room, but this would have have been a bit after my primary arcade game days.

  2. This is the best website on the internet for car related pinball content. Awesome read, learned some things, LOVE pinball. Actually a dude I went to school with is playing competitively on a national level. So weird and rad, lol

  3. As a teen, I will admit to spending way too many quarters on Time Warp, the one with the curved flippers. I know a lot of player hate the curved flippers but I got really good at using them. I wouldn’t mind a refurbished Time Warp in my mancave.

  4. My dad cycled through pinball machines when we were kids (it was the best). He’d keep them for a few months or so and dump them, he did the same with cars. I can still hear the voice from this machine (suspect ran a red light, over), at the time it sat next to a multi-tier dirtbike themed machine and an older one called Klondike.

    Great article, and good job keeping this alive. It’s easy to see how people get in over their heads on these. Truely impressive seeing them as a passion project. The worst we had for maintenance was either tales from the crypt or the famous star trek tng, but I don’t think we would’ve had any if they needed this kind of love.

  5. So great to see games being resurrected! Congratulations on a beautiful restoration, and welcome to the addiction. Cars are my hobby but pinball is a big part of my work life (stuff I did is in every Stern Pinball game made in the last decade). I can attest to the challenge of keeping them working. I have a Simpsons (the one from 1990, not Simpsons Pinball Party) and a Laser War and they both always need something.

  6. I have a High Speed machine, and while I didn’t do a complete playfield swap, I can confirm that working on pins can be both extremely rewarding and frustrating as hell. It’s a great game when it’s working; it’s fast and a lot of fun! Nothing better than outrunning the cops 😀

  7. I spent 20 years doing pinball repair as a full time career.

    Playfield swaps are complicated and a PITA no matter the machine. It’s a matter of not knowing what you’re doing will cost you.

    The final swap I did before health caused me to leave the industry was a Flash. Took me 40 hours of work. A full work week.

    When I was doing it full time, it would take me about 4 hours to do a basic shop out and repair on a High Speed while in a customers home; changing rubber, rebuilding flippers, rebuilding pop bumpers, rebuilding the beacon, and all the board repair.

    But, of course, with people following the sometimes horrible advice on forums was a blessing and curse. People stopped calling because “oh, I watched a YouTube video”, other got in over their heads.

    I for one am happy I don’t have to come home with migraines from horrendous LEDs installed on systems….or people who care more about flash than anything else.

    Good job for finishing it, but, if you ask me; it was not the way to learn.

  8. While I don’t have the skills, organizationally or otherwise to tackle that, that is an awesome project, Tim! Well done 🙂

    I would need a gaming vendor to service it, but my favorite of all time is “Party Zone”. I spent many an hour playing that one.

  9. I’ve been a pinball lover for many, many years. My father-in-law is currently working on a High Speed right now! I can confirm it’s a great one to play. I’ve tackled a few minor modifications to my Date East Star Wars game, but nothing of this magnitude. Installing under cabinet LED’s was a breeze, but unplugging and reconnecting brittle connectors was a bit nerve wracking. My father-in-law got me a new chip that unlocks features in the game’s code that designers left out, it also cranks up the difficulty a bit. After owning the game since the late 90’s it’s entirely new again!

    I can’t walk by a pinball machine and not pop a few quarters in.

    More content like this!

  10. That was one of the best pinball games of its era. I remember when I worked at an arcade and we had a few pinball machines. That was one that I begged the owner to keep there, just for hearing the siren go off and the speech. What a labor of love to fix it, since the repairs to a pinball machine make doing car repairs seem easy!

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