Welcome to the mid-priced, Nikko power of the White Tiger Turbo Buggy…
As the 1980s drew to a close, R/C buggies had mostly evolved away from the realism of the “frame buggy” style, and toy makers seemed to think that all kids now wanted their cars to look like little spaceships with wheels.
While not everyone really wanted this (with the possible exception of children in Japan), the spaceship-on-wheels idea was still kind-of interesting for a while.
After all, what child doesn’t enjoy toy cars, sci-fi and space? And what if all those things were combined? Inspired by “the future”, R/C buggies were no longer depicted as mere desert machines with roll cages – they were now ready for the dust dunes of the Moon as well.
Practically every single R/C buggy maker – both toy and hobby-grade – went sci-fi in the late 1980s, releasing some kind of aerodynamic buggy. Hobby-grade brands such as Tamiya set the benchmark of course with models like the Avante, which looked like a work of modern industrial art (and had the engineering to match).
But for those who didn’t have $400+ to drop on an amazing model kit, companies such as Nikko were making incremental steps and improving their more affordable little vehicles, while also giving them the fashionable “aero” makeover. And the White Tiger Turbo Buggy was one such example.
Retailing for AU$129 at Australian Tandy stores for Christmas in 1989, it was another of those models I only dreamed of owning at the time (in today’s money, it was more like AU$240).
1989 was a big year for Tandy, with a large range of models to suit every budget, and the White Tiger Turbo was the 3rd most expensive buggy in the lineup. For a while, I was actually a bit obsessed with it.
Here it is in the 1989/90 Tandy annual catalogue…
Over in the USA, there was even a Radio Shack TV commercial in which it was featured (along with the bigger Golden Arrow, and a Ferrari)…
And 20 years later, I finally managed to source one of my own, in near new condition…
Good old Tandy box art rarely disappoints. It may not be up to Tamiya’s lofty standards, but it was always enough to inspire young minds. And apparently they wanted to make it clear that this buggy was packed with aggression and power – even if it looked slightly terrifying to small children.
The White Tiger Turbo is essentially a sleek 1/14 scale (approx) 2WD buggy manufactured by Nikko, whose most notable feature is actually the fact that it takes a 7.2volt battery pack – making it arguably the lowest-priced 7.2volt capable buggy of it’s day.
This suggested it could deliver some decent speed for a lot less money than buying say, Tandy’s top-line Golden Arrow, or a Tamiya or Kyosho kit. For here was a 7.2volt-capable buggy, with a radio included, for a little over $100.
Of course, the White Tiger Turbo is not at the performance level of those other cars. It does not have a 540 motor – instead I think it uses a 380. And it is not Digital Proportional.
But still, with a hefty 6-cell battery pack on board, it was sure to have some pace.
By the late 1980s, the “turbo” gimmick was also well-entrenched in R/C toys, and the included remote was Nikko’s decent little pistol-grip unit. Steering is direct and acceleration is all-or-nothing – plus an extra blast when you click it up to “Turbo”.
Compared to say, the Tyco Turbo Hopper of a few years before (but which was still probably available in 1989), the White Tiger Turbo is a little bigger and heavier, but also faster and has a few performance advantages over that famous toy, such as lower-profile tyres and a differential gearbox. And of course, 7.2volt power.
So how does it perform? Well the White Tiger Turbo moves pretty quickly. In fact, I have to say I find this buggy a blast to drive. Standard forward speed is actually quite quick by itself, while the ‘Turbo’ option actually feels a tiny bit explosive.
A test run using a fresh Tamiya 1400mah Ni-cd battery pack, on a large area with a smooth polished floorboard surface, was highly entertaining. At high speeds the car is, of course, a complete handful. I get the feeling it’s front ‘track’ (width) is a little narrow and this probably compounds the difficulty/fun. Whatever, the car is twitchy at top speed and the direct steering adds to that challenge. It’s also more than ready to power-slide through turns as it wrestles for grip.
The fact this buggy is packing hobby-grade battery power in a much more compact vehicle than usual, is also a factor – there’s less weight in this vehicle, and the 380 motor is plenty for it to handle. I guess it also goes without saying that the extremely aerodynamic body design won’t hurt it’s top speed either.
I would love to set up a proper racing circuit on a surface like this (polished floorboards), and have fun flinging the White Tiger Turbo through the turns. On dirt, you can be sure that the White Tiger will kick it’s fair share of dust, for a Nikko.
You also have to remember too that, as many vintage R/C collectors have discovered over the years, a car with perfect performance and handling is actually nowhere near as much fun to drive as one you have to fight with to make it do what you want. It’s the same reason I used to remove all the little magnets from the undersides of my slot cars as a kid – having the tail-end skid out through corners was so much more fun than just gliding around as if on rails.
The rear tyres of the White Tiger Turbo are like smaller copies of Tamiya’s “oval block” series (an alternating pin and block pattern). One problem I have noticed is that over time, the tyres can tend to start slipping on the rims – requiring glue (although this is a fairly common side effect of dust and dirt getting into the rim – even on hobby-grade models).
Also included is a two-speed gear switch, giving the buggy some extra torque in ‘Low’ gear and expanding the play options. Although there’s really no shortage of power in ‘High’ gear either.
Suspension is independent at the front (with short travel), and rigid axle at the rear (with better travel), with springs all round of course. It’s the standard setup for Nikkos of this type, offering plenty of bounce when it goes off road.
Due to their lower realism, sleek, spacey looking buggies from the late 1980s generally tend to be less popular among vintage R/C fans. And being a relatively lesser-known Nikko model, the White Tiger Turbo Buggy is usually fetches around the $20-$50 mark on eBay. Although this is also partly because the only ones out there are well-used and lacking boxes. New examples are pretty much impossible to find in my experience.
I have to say though, that despite it’s short sales run (just one year), I think I was right to have spent that summer in 1989 dreaming of owning a White Tiger Turbo. It’s a lot of fun, and certainly as fast as I’d hoped back in the day.
The sleek appearance of buggies like this also offers a certain retro-futurism appeal nowadays, because we can now say “this was what was considered radical and cool over 20 years ago!”. And ironically, you don’t really see anything quite like this in the toy shops anymore.
On this page: Tandy/Radio Shack White Tiger Turbo Buggy (1989)
|Motor||(to be confirmed)|
|Suspension||Yes (Front independent with coil springs, rear rigid axle with coil springs)|
|Batteries||1 x 7.2volt, 1 x 9volt (Car). 1 x 9volt (Transmitter).|