One of the many perks of being an international courier company is the chance to support some incredible small businesses throughout their journey. One of these remarkable cases is that of Phil Palmer’s Pinball Heaven, a unique homegrown pinball machine repairer and trader, who has been shipping with ParcelHero. We caught up with Phil and took a step back into a time when pubs and arcades across the land resonated to the clatter of the small silver ball.
On your website it says that you started in 1994. How did you get into pinball machine restoration? What led to you deciding to make a company out of it?
I started out with my first pinball at the age of 14! I was fascinated by their artwork, the lights and sounds and the game play, nothing like a computer game that all of my friends at the time were playing; pinball is physical, its destiny is not pre-determined by a line of computer code, it’s down to the shots you make or don’t make. It’s down to you, the player, to control the ball. That being said, I am not a great player!
I got more satisfaction out of repairing the games that arcades had stored away in their cellars and didn’t work, I loved finding out why they didn’t work and then making them work again when nobody else could. Those games were typically electromechanical (like really old telephone exchanges – relays and solenoids) and I could understand a circuit diagram so I managed to diagnose most faults myself, but I had to go to college to learn electronics for the more modern pinball machines.
At the time I really wanted to spend my time fixing pinball machines and didn’t like the sound of a “real” job, so I tried buying and selling a few plus a few repairs here and there. By the age of 17 I was turning over enough buying and selling pinball machines to be VAT registered, must have been the only person in college with a VAT registered business! As the business took off I left college before completing the course, but I felt I knew enough, I only needed to know a little of the electronics to be able to figure out the rest.
22 years later I just introduced my 8 year old son to his first pinball restoration during the summer holidays, I showed him how it was possible to fix something that most people couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to repair and the finished result, well, a fully working pinball machine that would have ended up in the tip!
What were your first customers like? How did you build the business from there?
In those days, arcades were the customers as pinball was an object which was really only found in amusement arcades and pubs, whereas now it’s found more in people’s homes than pubs, or “on location”. I placed a few adverts in the UK’s trade paper for the amusement industry, “Coin Slot” and from that my customer base grew and grew. Basically, no one could fix pinball machines because, unlike fruit machines, they were complicated beasts. So the early business was one which was dealing directly with pub chains and amusement arcades, repairing, buying & selling machines.
Pinball machines have been around for decades, presumably they come in all shapes and sizes, are there specific eras/models that you work on? Do you have a favourite style of pinball machine?
Yes, the first pinball machine with “flippers” (allowing the player to control the ball) was way back in 1947. Surprisingly there is little interest in these “antique” pinball machines, most people prefer the modern pinball machines, so 1990 onwards. The most common and desirable machines are those made by Bally/Williams in the 1990’s era; games such as The Addams Family, Twilight Zone, Medieval Madness, Attack from Mars & Monster Bash being very desirable machines indeed. Most people in their late 30’s or 40’s remember playing The Addams Family in pub’s in the early 90’s.
Can you tell us a bit about the different types of pinball machines available and how you’ve seen them develop/styles change over the years?
From when I started out with pinball the most obvious change is the display (where you score appears), back then typically pinball machines had alpha numeric displays, so only letters/numbers could be displayed showing basic score information and simple text, that all changed in 1991 with the introduction of the dot matrix display. A 32 x 128 array of dots which for the first time showed graphics and animations on the screen as well as the players score.
This really sparked a huge surge in popularity of pinball machines in the early 90’s and the same dot matrix display still lives on in modern pinball machines made by Stern Pinball, however, a new company, Jersey Jack Pinball were the first company to introduce a 27” HD LCD monitor into the pinball machine with their first game – Wizard of Oz, needless to say that offers far more potential for information to be passed to the player as to what he/she should aim for next…
What are the current popular pinball machines?
Classic games like Addams Family are still in demand, although now 23 years old it is somewhat “tired”. Modern pinball machines such as Wizard of Oz, Star Trek & rock based AC/DC have been very popular.
Is it possible to cheat when playing on some pinball machines?
No, you will be aware of the “tilt” feature so if you move it too much that’s it, end of your game! However, nudging without getting a “tilt” is another skill of pinball, you can control the ball by gentle movements of the game but if you are too rough, that’s it – TILT!
Are there features which many players don’t realise?
Yes, most games try and offer something for novice players, with easy to understand rules and easy rewards (like multiball – so 3 or 4, maybe more, balls in play at the same time) yet also they have to offer something more of a challenge for the skilled player to work up to. It’s a great machine which offers something for the novice and something challenging for the pro to achieve.
What are the biggest challenges in your industry?
Getting pinball back into arcades and pubs, because the nature of a pinball machine is a 80gram, 1 1/16” steel ball rolling around hitting plastic parts at high speed with lots of moving parts then things inevitably break, there is a lack of mechanical technicians these days to repair these machines “on location”. You know the old arcade technicians knew they had to fix stuff themselves and were able to do so, now, like most electronic devices, it’s a case of “post a circuit board” away for repair rather than figure out what is wrong with that circuit board and repair it yourself!
Pinball needs more of a hands on approach, something really simple can cause the game to not operate, that may take someone like myself 1 minute to diagnose, but if you don’t understand mechanics then it is rather a problem.
Who are your main customers now? Do you ever work with private collectors? Any interesting stories from jobs you’ve worked on?
My main customer base is now the home collector – that market really has taken over from the arcade customers that the business started off suppling many years ago. We have rented out pinball machines for TV ads, documentary programs and have many celebrity customers.
Where do you ship to? What’s the biggest order you’ve shipped and the furthest you’ve shipped to?
I have shipped all over the planet and most days we ship items out Internationally, we have shipped small sets of decals for machines to as far afield as Australia to full 40 foot containers of pinball machines to USA. Our typical order size would be the size of a small shoe box and be under £50 but we regularly import containers of brand new pinball machines from USA which can cost over £100,000.