The R/C toys of the 1980s are memorable because they were original, fun, and mostly very well made. But are the R/C toys of today so bad?
Well yes, many of them are.
But perhaps not all. So join me as I analyze a tiny sample, then make lots of sweeping generalizations.
A lot of the time I spend writing on this blog is devoted to gushing about how great the toys of my childhood were. Which implies that most of today’s R/C toys are pretty inferior in some way. But what way? And what, specifically, were the characteristics that made 1980s R/C toys so great?
Well, this is just my opinion. But here’s a quick breakdown of why I think 1980s R/C toys were so much fun. It’s because they usually carried all four of the following attributes:
- Originality – The 1980s was arguably the most original era of R/C toy design, simply because the hobby was still so young.
- Realism – Most 1980s R/C cars had at least a moderate, if not high level of realism.
- Fun – Most 1980s R/C cars were designed for fun, as much as anything else. Catchy names, bright colours, versatility etc.
- Quality – Most 1980s R/C cars, even among toy-grade cars, were made in Japan, Singapore, Germany etc, using good quality plastics and rubber. They were usually built to last.
There are still some R/C cars around today that exhibit these qualities.
But there are also many others that are familiar, unrealistic, boring and quite possibly made from recycled ice cream buckets.
What’s wrong with a lot of R/C cars today?
In my opinion, the biggest problem with R/C cars today is that too many of them look the same. And when you don’t stand out in the crowd, nobody remembers you. Case in point, there are hundreds of sleek, hobby-grade trucks (either electric or nitro) with lexan bodies and wheels set out wide from the body, and they’re all a blur to me. Like the random stadium truck pictured here.
For all I know, this might be a fabulous truck, and I’m truly sorry to anyone who loves it. But it looks like so many others to me, that I am never going to remember it in years to come.
Likewise, the “sleek buggy” category has been done to death since the early 1990s, yet even the old masters Tamiya still feel obliged to trot out a few sleek, dull, modern buggies in their line-up every year. Something like the Tamiya Durga might be amazing to drive. And it will undoubtedly be great quality, since it’s Tamiya. But I can feel myself starting to nod off just looking at it.
The real reason these types of vehicles exist at all, is R/C racing – a sport where intricate body detail and realism are incompatible with winning races. Ironically, a featureless lexan blob with a few stickers thrown on it, set on top of a high-tech chassis, is essentially what’s needed to win. The fact that a lot of R/C cars are still called “cars” is something of an echo from the past, and of where the hobby began. And I suppose “R/C blob racing” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Meanwhile, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there are still many toy-grade R/C cars around today (of course), and while these do usually have detail, they still lack realism and individuality. Many are just boring trucks with the same looks, like the Carrera Raptor picture here, i.e:
- 1) A tiny body (not realistic even for a monster truck);
- 2) Huge, over-sized wheels;
- 3) Thin, plasticky tyres.
So common are these, that it’s not unusual to walk into a store and see a toy aisle filled with them. They’re simple, able to climb over things, but cheaply made and so very boring to look at. Very few stand out from the rest and I honestly don’t know why anyone buys them, other than because there’s simply nothing else to choose from at Toys R Us?
Interesting & Fun…
But there are exceptions. I’m not going to go into them all, but here’s one example to illustrate what I mean…
While their sleek buggies are mostly a snooze, Tamiya still stock a wide variety of different cars across different categories – and their line-up still looks far more eclectic than virtually any other R/C brand on the market.
Sadly a lot of Tamiya’s famous creativity is currently being wasted on too many reissues of their popular models from the 1980s, with Tamiya cashing in on the past instead of creating enough new classics for future generations to remember. But on the bright side, there have been a few original efforts by Tamiya to create toys that are actually new and different, while still reviving the fun feel of the 1980s. One example is the Farm King – a wheelie-capable off road tractor that uniquely combines the popularity of agriculture toys with a caricatured action vehicle (in much the same way that their Wild Willy combined a military vehicle with action in the 1980s). I am pretty sure it’s just based on a Wild Willy II chassis. But I believe this is still the first time anyone has released a hobby-grade R/C cartoon tractor, and the vehicle is such a cute (yet oddly realistic) design that the mere sight of it just makes me want to race one through a muddy puddle somewhere…
As I said at the beginning – Originality, Realism, Fun and Quality. That’s how I remember the 80s. And Tamiya still get it right sometimes.
Any “80s spirit” still left among toy-grade R/C models?
I actually wanted to focus this article mainly on the cheaper, toy-grade end of the market, because this is something few people talk about: What are today’s toy grade R/C models like? How do they compare to the toys of the 1980s? Can you walk into a toy store today and buy something the equivalent of what was around in the 1980s?
Recently, I purchased 3 cheap, ready-to-run R/C toys from a store, on the simple basis that I liked the look of them. All had some characteristics that reminded me of R/C toys in the 1980s.
If you walk into a popular department store like K-Mart or Target today, these are some of the toy cars you might see. They’re a bit like today’s equivalent of the first R/C car you probably had when you were young – something at an affordable price, that was bought from a mainstream retailer.
So how bad are they? Well I was both surprised and amused by what I learned, so I decided to write a mini-review of each one…
1. Kidztech Jet Panther
Right now, there are a lot of these little tiny R/C buggies in Australian stores. They’re 1/24 scale and made by a brand called Kidztech. Of course, like everything these days, they’re made in China. But Kidztech appears to be based out of Hong Kong, and seems to be making an effort to create reasonable toys.
The first thing that surprised me, apart from the tiny size, was the price – this buggy was $20. Of course, it is tiny. But when the box also says “Working suspension” and “Digital Proportional”, you start to wonder how anything that looks OK can actually be manufactured, distributed and sold for $20. If we translate this $20 price back to 1985, and account for inflation, this buggy would have retailed for $6 back then. And I certainly can’t remember seeing any $6 R/C cars in the 1980s. The cheapest full-function car you could buy in those days was about $50. So this gives us some idea of how cheap things are now being made.
But what about the quality?
After unpacking the buggy, I found it to be of OK build quality – for something so small and cheap. But despite the promising look of those little yellow suspension springs, they only operate at the rear. There are no articulated suspension arms at the front. They actually put in some other tiny little springs to offer suspension, while the larger springs do nothing.
The Jet Panther’s transmitter is larger than the car – and it’s a trigger-style unit that feels OK for a toy. The buggy takes 3 x AAA batteries, and once I got the car running, it was quick for it’s tiny scale. The Digital Proportional control only applies to forward/reverse movement, while steering is a simple electro-magnet system that locks the wheels left or right.
So for $20, the Jet Panther is a working R/C buggy. The tyres are a plasticky rubber, there’s no differential, and it’s also a bit of a handful to control. The tiny steering mechanisms are flimsy and don’t self-correct to the centre very well after a turn. So the buggy may smack into an object when you least expect it – not good when there’s no front bumper either.
On a smooth floor, it offers neat-looking R/C buggy amusement, at a tiny scale. Buy two on different frequencies, and you can crash into each other. All this for the cost of a family meal at McDonalds.
- Price: $20
- Pros: Looks a little retro. Nice colours/design. Made from OK plastics/rubber. Unbelievably cheap. Even has a little “Digital Proportional” functionality. Good radio reception.
- Cons: A handful to drive. Suspension arms are mostly fake. Will inevitably break if it hits objects.
- Verdict: The cheapest R/C buggy fun imaginable. And it’s not entirely rubbish.
2. New Bright Baja Buggy “Ravager”
When I first saw the New Bright Ravager on the store shelf, my thoughts were “This actually looks pretty good”. And New Bright are a toy company that has been around for a while, and they first made a few respectable R/C models as long ago as the late 80s/early 90s.
The Ravager is 1/14 scale, cost $45 and comes in a nice window box. It was only when I picked up the box that I started to wonder what was going on – it was so light.
After unpacking the car, I realized what it means to produce a 1/14 scale R/C buggy for $45 in 2014. And let’s not forget that $45 today would have been about the equivalent of $30 in the 1980s (a Jet Hopper was closer to $90 in those days).
Nevertheless, this buggy is made out of the lightest, flimsiest plastic you can find. It’s the lightest R/C toy of it’s size that I have ever seen. But that’s because it’s pretty much made from crap. Flexible crap though, so that if the buggy hits an object, it might not break as readily as you’d expect. But I certainly wouldn’t push my luck.
The body design is quite decent – they even tried to mock up some window netting. The body itself is a flexible, thin piece of plastic (not polycarbonate of course), and the decals are rather poor and paper-like, and don’t fully adhere anywhere on the car.
The tyres look nice, and they do grip, but they’re plasticky. Meanwhile, the motor amazed me – it’s a slot car motor! The light weight of the car has apparently allowed New Bright to install the tiniest motor possible, as if cost-cutting opportunities multiplied as they were seized.
The transmitter is tiny also, and both units come with clear antenna straws.
After filling it with AA batteries, I had no idea what to expect – but for a $45 toy the performance was actually OK. The Ravager whizzes around on a smooth surface at a steady pace. It’s easy to control, thanks to excellent radio reception with not the slightest twitch or shudder.
Once again, the suspension is fake – even more so than the Kidztech Jet Panther, because all of the Ravager’s “springs” are non-functional as there are no suspension pivots. And of course, there’s no differential, gear selection, or anything else to speak of.
- Price: $45
- Pros: Looks nice. Pretty cheap. Easy to drive. Excellent radio reception.
- Cons: Cheap, light and flimsy. Tiny motor. Too gutless for off-road.
- Verdict: A pleasure to drive – buy 2 and you can race them around the house at an easy pace. Compare it to a 1980s Nikko or Taiyo however, and the build quality is an absolute joke that you have to see to believe.
3. Kidztech Range Rover Evoque
If we’re going to applaud scale model realism, then obviously there are hobby-grade R/C cars still available today from Tamiya and a few others that are really the pinnacle of R/C realism.
But as far as cheaper toy-grade models go, this Range Rover Evoque by Kidztech actually impressed me.
For a mere $35, Kidztech have produced a pretty incredible and life-like 1/16 scale R/C model of the sporty SUV by Land Rover – right down to the tiny Land Rover badges on the bonnet and tail. There are a few little flaws here and there, but the model is really so good that it was worth taking some quality photos…
This Range Rover even has working lights – bright LEDs that look a bit like the halogen globes of the real vehicle. The headlights come on when you’re going forward, with the tail lights activating during reverse.
From the realistic tyre tread to the detailed interior, right down to the dashboard console, this may not be an off-road R/C model designed for outdoor fun (it won’t run on anything but smooth floor), but it’s a truly charming example of attention to detail…
The transmitter is a decent, simple two-stick unit. And the vehicle moves at a steady pace with good radio reception. There’s nothing special about its 2WD based performance – it’s a capable, straightforward little car to drive around on a smooth surface. Pretty quick for its size, and also pretty quiet. The gearbox even has a differential, and there’s a steering trim adjuster underneath the car too – neither of which I was expecting for the price.
All that realism comes at a cost though – and that cost is fragility. With side-mirrors and lots of chrome-plated bits, you won’t want to slam it into any objects. But this is not a buggy to be raced between the chair legs in your kitchen – it’s a toy worthy of a display shelf, but which also happens to work.
If I saw it for sale at a more expensive store, for twice the price, I wouldn’t question it. From a 1980s perspective, this is one cool little working scale model that deserves a lot of credit. I did some googling, and Kidztech even made a larger R/C Evoque at one point, and they still make a variety of realistic R/C cars – hopefully all to a similar standard.
- Price: $35
- Pros: Looks incredible – realism levels far beyond the price. Good performance, features and material quality.
- Cons: The odd tiny production flaw? For the price, there’s basically nothing negative worth mentioning.
- Verdict: Mind-boggling realism, and simple but effective R/C performance. A winner, not to mention a must-have for owners of the real thing.
So there you have it, just a quick selection of some R/C toys I found.
If you have any thoughts of your own about the quality of today’s R/C models vs those of the golden era in the 1980s, feel free to add them below.
Edit – 04/07/2020
Since originally writing this article, I would just like to mention that I no longer have any interest in purchasing or testing modern R/C toys that are made in China. Most R/C toys these days are made in China. And I would prefer to support R/C manufacturing from democratic countries, such as from Tamiya (Japan/Philippines) and Kyosho (Japan/Taiwan). All of the cars I featured in this article have since either been given away, or recycled.