Fun With Pinball


The Restoration of a 1939 Bally Champion Pinball Machine

Bally Champion was introduced in August 1939.  It is one of three Bally games of the same name.  The other two were introduced in 1934 and 1949.

Champion announcementChampion announcementCourtesy of Rob Hawkins & Don Mueting Bally ChampionBally Champion Bally Champion adBally Champion adCourtesy of Rob Hawkins & Don Mueting

Bally Champion was released during a period of pinball experimentation and innovation.  Long before flippers or pop bumpers had been invented game designers experimented with other features and devices to attract players' attention.  Bally Champion featured "startling new action which we call the skill-wave scoring system.", and "the super-sensitive wafer-disc bumpers" which "are rubber-tire style-twice as bouncy as coil bumpers, and the new metallic-wafer contact discs respond to the slightest touch of the ball".

The Backglass

The backglass features swimmers and divers at a pool.  One of very few pinball machines to sport a swimming theme which is somewhat more common among bingo games.

1939 Bally Champion Backglass1939 Bally Champion Backglass 1939 Bally Champion Illuminated Backglass1939 Bally Champion Illuminated Backglass

The backglass artwork has more subtle coloring and style than more modern games.  It looks more like a painting with brush strokes and slight variations in color.  Hidden in the artwork are two divers that dive off platforms on either side of the glass into the pool at the bottom.  They advance down the glass as points are scored.

1939 Bally Champion Backglass Illuminated Detail Reverse1939 Bally Champion Backglass Illuminated Detail Reverse 1939 Bally Champion Backglass Illuminated Reverse1939 Bally Champion Backglass Illuminated Reverse 1939 Bally Champion Backglass Illuminated Detail1939 Bally Champion Backglass Illuminated Detail

Looking at the backglass from behind reveals the black mask layer that lets light pass through the backglass in only unmasked areas. 

The Playfield

The playfield on this example was in remarkably good condition when it was acquired although it needed a good cleaning.

1939 Ball Champion Playfield before cleaning1939 Ball Champion Playfield before cleaning 1939 Ball Champion Playfield before cleaning1939 Ball Champion Playfield before cleaning 1939 Ball Champion Playfield before cleaning1939 Ball Champion Playfield before cleaning

The bumper rings were heavily tarnished, there was dirt under everything and the metal parts were rusted in places.  Note that the spring on the right is mounted to what looks like a bolt since it has a slotted head.  Don't try to unscrew these!  The posts are actually fluted and won't twist at all.  They can however be pulled straight out.

Uncommon Bumpers

The key features of the playfield are the gorgeous marbleized plastic bumpers.  These are the "the super-sensitive wafer-disc bumpers" referred to in the ad above.  There are eighteen bumpers altogether in 6 different colors.

Colored BumpersColored Bumpers Colored BumpersColored Bumpers

Each color is grouped together and members of each color light up in turn as points are scored.  The effect is a color changing wave of light working its way from the top of the playfield to the bottom.  There's a game play video at the bottom of this page to show the effect.

Bumper closeupBumper closeup A hardened gooey rubber ring after removalA hardened gooey rubber ring after removal

Bumpers ready for cleaningBumpers ready for cleaning Bumper parts ready for cleaningBumper parts ready for cleaning

The bumpers too were pretty dirty.  The platters were badly tarnished and the rubber rings had melted into a hardened goo.  They all had to be removed, disassembled and cleaned.  The metal clip mounted to the back of some bumpers is to keep the ball from coming to rest at the top of the bumper I suspect.

Patent US2322091-APatent US2322091-A Bumper detailBumper detail
Bumper detailBumper detail

The bumper design was new at the time and proved to be short lived, after being used on only a small number of games.  The design is described in patent US2322091A.

Step 1: The bumper bodyStep 1: The bumper body Step 2: The upper conductorStep 2: The upper conductor Step 3: An insulating spacerStep 3: An insulating spacer Step 4: The conducting ringStep 4: The conducting ring
Step 5: The lower conductorStep 5: The lower conductor Step 6: A thin insulatorStep 6: A thin insulator Step 7: A thicker insulatorStep 7: A thicker insulator Step 8: Mounting spacers and nutsStep 8: Mounting spacers and nuts

Reassembling the cleaned parts gives you a better idea how the platter sits between two conducting rings that are held apart with a few spacers.  At rest the platter sits on the lower conducting ring.  When disturbed by a ball, the platter tilts and makes contact with the upper and lower conducting rings at the same time which closes the circuit and scores points.

There are a couple of factors that make these bumpers so sensitive to the ball.  The platter ring is cut from a very thin and stiff piece of copper plated steel which makes it very light and easily disturbed.  Also, the two conducting rings have a potential difference of about 180 volts AC which is dramatically more than the 25-50 volts AC that most manufacturers settled on later in the development of pinball.  The high voltage hazard may have one reason these bumpers were not used for very long.

The Missing Bumper

Missing BumperMissing Bumper

Unfortunately for me, one of the green bumpers was missing.  It had been completely removed at some point.  The prospect of finding another seemed grim.

Bumper as a Tilt switchBumper as a Tilt switch Bumper as a Tilt switchBumper as a Tilt switch

But I found this mounted to the bottom of the playfield.  Without a schematic diagram it took a while to figure out what it was, but it turned out to be a Tilt switch.  It makes sense that since the bumpers themselves were so sensitive that players might try to rack up points by pounding on the game to get the platters to move enough to connect the two rings and score points.  How better to defeat this than to mount a bumper below the playfield with the same mechanism as a Tilt switch?  Very clever, and very good luck for me.

Painting the replacement bumperPainting the replacement bumper Painting the replacement bumperPainting the replacement bumper

Painting the replacement bumperPainting the replacement bumper Painting the replacement bumperPainting the replacement bumper

I removed the Tilt mechanism from the game and painted it to better match the missing green bumper with some acrylic paints.  A friend found a bumper cap at a pinball show flea market to complete the job.

Painted bumperPainted bumper Painted bumperPainted bumper

The painted yellow Tilt mechanism with the flea market cap does a pretty good job masquerading as a green bumper.


The Step Units in this game are very similar to those in more modern games and they cleaned up nicely with some elbow grease.

Step UnitStep Unit Step UnitStep Units

Step Unit PlungersStep Unit Plungers Step Unit WiperStep Unit Wiper

One thing that is different however is that some of the Step Unit Plungers are spring loaded.  There is a compression spring that mounts between the plunger and the coil stop that returns the plunger to its rest position when the solenoid relaxes.

The Projection Unit

The Projection Unit is how the game keeps track of the number of credits you have earned and was a common feature in games from the late 1930s to the mid-late 1940s. 

Projection UnitProjection Unit Projection Unit DetailProjection Unit Detail Projection Unit DetailProjection Unit Detail

It has surprisingly heavy duty gears to move the brass plate forwards and backwards as the number of credits change.

Projection UnitProjection Unit Projection ScreenProjection Screen

Numbers 0 to 99 perforated around the edge of the brass plate represent the number of credits the player has earned.  An automotive light bulb shines a bright light through the plate and one of the numbers is focused by a lens, and then projected onto a translucent screen at the top of the playfield.  While not explicitly a gambling game, chances are that when enough credits were accumulated the proprietor might let you cash in your credits for merchandise.

The Credit Knock Off Switch

If the proprietor were to trade your credits he would want to remove them from the game.  This was done with a credit knock off switch hidden out of view on the bottom of the cabinet.

Credit Knock Off SwitchCredit Knock Off Switch Credit Knock Off SwitchCredit Knock Off Switch

Pressing the button under the cabinet would activate this switch which would subtract credits by resetting the Projection Unit one credit at a time.  This switch has a spring to give it a nice mechanical snap each time it is pressed in.

The Tilt Mechanism

As described earlier, one of the Tilt switches was used to replace a missing bumper but the game has two other tilt switches.

Tilt SwitchTilt Switch Tilt SwitchTilt Switch

The one on the left is very similar to more modern tilt switches but the one on the right is different.  When the game is jostled the spring shakes and the post at the end of the spring that extends through the contact ring will tilt the game if it touches the ring.  This same mechanism mounted vertically rather than horizontally was used in an earlier design of scoring bumper.  For more information about that bumper design see patent US2109678 A on the pinball Patents page.

The Final Result

After a good cleaning inside and out and some minor troubleshooting the game went back together pretty well. Note that the coin door on the front and the right side panel to access the relay board are from some other game. 

Bally Champion left sideBally Champion left side Bally Champion FrontBally Champion Front Bally Champion right sideBally Champion right side

The colors and art deco styling really make it pop. Even the shooter rod housing has style.

Shooter rodShooter rod

So How Does It Play?

Here's a short video of a complete game.

Bally Champion game play

Watch carefully as the third ball touches the single purple bumper in the middle of the playfield.  That returns a single ball back to the player by dropping it into the ball trough below the playfield.  That is an early form of extra ball!

2018 Texas Pinball Festival Best Antique pinball2018 Texas Pinball Festival Best Antique pinball

I took Champion to the 2018 Texas Pinball Festival to be part of the History of Pinball booth and the judges seemed to like it too, giving it a plaque for the Best Antique (pre-1960) pinball machine at the show.


Five years after acquiring and restoring this game the original, missing bumper turned up in a small cardboard box with "Champion" written on it. The game came from a collection that had been broken up and sold. Another collector ended up with most of the parts associated with the collection and found the box with the missing bumper.

Painted tilt mech on the left, original bumper on the rightPainted tilt mech on the left, original bumper on the right Painted tilt mech on the left, original bumper on the rightPainted tilt mech on the left, original bumper on the right

Shown here are the painted tilt mech with the mismatched cap on the left and the original bumper on the right.  Both bumpers have been returned to their original locations.

Thanks to Mike for returning the missing bumper.