Tyco Turbo Hopper (1986)
The Tyco Turbo Hopper was a game-changing R/C toy buggy in the mid 1980s that sold in truly phenomenal quantities.
Between 1979 and 1985, the Tamiya plastic model company of Japan had shown that when it came to electric R/C vehicles there was a huge worldwide market for cars capable of running off-road. As each year went by, these models became more and more popular as Tamiya released numerous attractive, highly agile off-road buggies. And with an explosion in the popularity of organised racing, off-road electric R/C cars were a huge market supported by many brands.
But at the cheaper, toy end of the market, most vehicles were still either on-road racing cars or vehicles with light off-road ability and minimal (if any) suspension.
Enter Taiyo, a company that had been producing quite small but often nice-quality R/C toys since 1975.
By copying the template of a basic but successful Tamiya buggy and pinching the use of the word “Hopper” (which Tamiya had first invented for use on their massively popular, insect-inspired “Grasshopper” 1/10 scale R/C buggy) but making everything smaller and cheaper (1/16 scale), and without the need for hours of assembly… Taiyo landed on one of the true hit toys of the decade.
Here was an R/C buggy that looked the part, would gladly tear across the lawn or over mum’s garden, yet could be enjoyed straight out of the box.
And what a great looking box it was, too. This red one is brand new…
Sold by Tyco in the USA as the Tyco Turbo Hopper (the first ever R/C model under the Tyco brand), it was also sold in other markets in a different box under purely the “Taiyo” brand, or as the “Metro Jet Hopper” in a similar window-box in Australia. (Since my example is the American version, I’m going to stick with “Turbo Hopper” for this article).
With the backing of a large American toy company like Tyco, the buggy was featured in some great TV commercials too, like this one…
Aside from it’s off-road ability, one of the big draw-cards was clearly the “Turbo” function – found by pushing the forward/reverse lever on the transmitter past a little notch and all the way up for maximum speed. I can’t recall any other R/C vehicle using this gimmick prior to the Turbo Hopper. And to just about any boy growing up in the 1980s, it was simply genius. “Turbo” was one of the biggest buzz-words in full scale motorsport and sports cars during the decade, and the notion of having your own little turbo function in a toy car meant this was a sure-winner for so many kids.
All of this appeal added up to enormous sales – in Australia alone, 130,000 units were sold in 1986 and a further 150,000 were sold in 1987. Just imagine what the sales figures were like in much bigger markets like the USA.
The huge success spawned numerous spin-off models over many years – such as a smaller version called the “Mini Hopper”, an even smaller one called the “Micro Hopper”, and a slot car set called “Racin’ Hoppers“. Later there were even more models in the “Hopper” series.
But looking back to where it all began, the first version is by far the best looking of the series in my opinion…
Having been released in 1986 means there was a great attention to detail and realism in this model. The hobby grade R/C market (lead by Tamiya, Kyosho, Marui, Associated etc) was still turning out amazing, realistic-looking R/C buggies at this time, complete with roll-cages and window-netting. And so the toy market naturally copied what was popular.
Some of the great aspects for me are the real spare rubber wheel/tyre on the roof, the window cage/netting, and the real sponsor logos, plus things like the “Hella” and “Daylighter” headlights.
There were actually two colours available – red and black. Each one operated on a different frequency, so that you could buy both and race them.
The flag on the aerial was probably an idea they copied from the Tamiya Frog (some of the decals are also Frog-inspired). While those excellent fat rear tyres are like perfect miniature replicas of the rear tyres found on the Tamiya Super Champ, Tamiya Frog and Tamiya Hornet.
The rear tyres are important to note actually – because only the very original release of the Turbo Hopper (which is pictured here) had these fat ones. Sometime in 1986 the car was actually changed and looked identical EXCEPT for having low-profile rear tyres on much larger white rims. So if you’re wondering if you have a truly original Turbo Hopper, just look at those rear tyres.
Another design change that occurred was the switch to “9.6volt” power. The original release model simply required 8 x AA batteries in the car. But Tyco must have wanted to profit from battery sales so they introduced their own proprietary “battery pack” (just 8 x AA rechargeable batteries joined together and sealed inside plastic) with a special plug on the end that only worked with a Tyco battery charger. And later models of the Turbo Hopper (and other cars) all use this 9.6volt pack system.
Suspension was simple and bouncy – just coil springs all round. But this was still enough to be better than pretty much any other toy R/C car on the market at the time. And together with some OK ground clearance it was enough for the ‘Hopper to scoot over most simple obstacles.
There was also a two-speed gearbox for some extra torque when you needed it. However, it had a fixed drivetrain with no differential – making it great for skids and burnouts on a dirt surface, but probably causing some gearbox wear over time. It also lacked the Digital Proportional control that some other toys had.
As for other weaknesses – the headlights on the body are often missing on used models due to the car being quick enough to roll over, particularly when turning sharply at high speed on hard/grippy surfaces. While the steering arms and little plastic “connectors” were a particularly thin and vulnerable part during collisions – so much so that spares of these were made available.
Yes, believe it or not, spare parts were readily available for this car – even at the supermarkets and toy stores where it was often sold. Tyres, bodies and other breakable parts were all sold separately. Which was another great aspect that helped elevate it above most of the other R/C toys on the market. In fact, I even found some of these spare parts among old hobby shop stock as recently as just a couple of years ago.
The box itself even came with a spare set of those steering connector things and a spare body clip, along with some really great little orange corner pylons – a nice bonus to help expand the play options.
A few other interesting notes about the Turbo Hopper…
- It appears that the Taiyo brand no longer exists and/or has recently merged with another company – sadly after more than 30 years of producing R/C toys. The official Taiyo website is no longer online.
- Some of the information on this page comes from an interesting document I found online – an old legal document outlining a case between Taiyo and Playcorp. Search the document here for the word “Hopper” to jump to the interesting bits.
Living in Australia, I remember seeing a lot of Jet Hoppers around when I was a kid, and even seeing them for sale at K-Mart.
Performance-wise, the car was quick enough to be quite exciting and spray a little dirt as it went, so there’s no doubt it became a quintessential 1980s R/C toy that a lot of kids either had – or wished they had.
These days, due to being such a famous R/C toy and the fact that most surviving examples are broken or show lots of wear, Turbo Hoppers can be quite valuable.
Due to increasing levels of interest in Turbo Hoppers, lately I’ve seen prices soar considerably higher than my earlier assessment on this article. Used, excellent condition examples can now fetch $300+. One new in box example sold for over $1000 in early 2013. Even poor condition examples can reach $100+, provided they have some redeemable qualities like being able to power up so that they can be restored or used for parts. Happy hunting!
|At a glance…|
|Digital Proportional: No|
|Batteries: 8 x AA (Car). 1 x 9volt (Transmitter)|
|Original price in Australia back in 1986: About AU$90|
|What this would equate to, in 2012 money: AU$212 (calculated using this)|
|Top Speed (measured so far): TBA|