The Turbo Panther was Nikko’s perfect little R/C buggy for 1986 – probably the peak year of the R/C buggy craze, when they were among the hottest toys in the world.
Looking like a smaller version of the more expensive 1/10 scale buggies, yet still quick for it’s 1/16 scale, it was a big seller both in Japan and abroad. It even had it’s own TV commercials and was a direct rival for Taiyo’s Jet Hopper, released the same year.
When hobby grade R/C companies first began releasing electric off-road buggies in the late 1970s, a “buggy” usually meant something that looked like a VW-based Meyer’s Manx style beach buggy. By the early 1980s however, the designs were following a more pipe-frame buggy look, such as those raced in the Baja 1000 and Mint 400 events in the USA.
By the mid-1980s, R/C car designers were beginning to break away from pure realism and add their own twist to their toy designs. This usually meant more body panelling and a rear spoiler, enabling the car to carry more decals, slogans, colours – and character.
These mid-1980s buggies still had a sense of real-world, practical application about them. You could imagine them being driven in real life, in the Baja 1000 or the Paris-Dakar Rally. Yet they were also quite individual and looked like they were designed to be toys, rather than to look like precise scale models.
This mid 1980s period – let’s call it 1984-1987 – was also when R/C buggies experienced their peak popularity.
Kids and adults alike took to R/C in droves. And most (not all, but most) of the popular buggy models that we remember were released during this time. Everything from The Hornet, the RC10, the Marui Hunter, the Taiyo Jet Hopper, the Tandy/Radio Shack Golden Arrow, Schumacher CAT, Yonezawa Land Dash and dozens more – all of these actually hail from a few years in the mid 1980s. And to the trained eye are easy to spot as belonging to the exact same period, even though they had very different performance levels.
Nikko’s first three buggies in the post-beach-buggy era were a series of 2WD cars inspired by the robust design of The Grasshopper, from Tamiya. They were called the Road Star, the Bison F10 (both 1/10 scale), and the Black Fox (1/14 scale).
Among these, the Bison F10 was particularly successful at stealing a few sales from market leader Tamiya in the 1/10 scale category, thanks to the fact it was a similar car – but required no assembly. It’s full-bodied, colourful design and animal-based name (a huge trend at the time thanks to Tamiya) also made it attractive.
But it was still over 40cm in length and 1/10 scale. And when I was a little kid, the first time I laid eyes on a 1/10 scale buggy, I thought it was enormous! Not everyone wanted (or could afford) something that large and fast. So there was certainly room in the market for more vehicles in smaller scales, to be sold in mainstream retailers.
So in 1986 Nikko released a miniature version of the Bison F10. On the box they even called it “Bison Jr Turbo Panther” to draw the connection.
Here’s an image from one of Nikko’s annual catalogues of the time…
There were also TV commercials, such as this one from Italy, complete with some shaky wire-work scenes of the cars flying off a cliff…
It took me quite a while to track a brand new one down, but here it is – a new in box original Nikko Turbo Panther Mk2…
Looking like a gorgeous, and perfectly proportioned little version of the Bison F10, this was a compact racing buggy for the backyard, complete with fat, spikey rubber tyres all round, some faux window netting, genuine sponsor logos and working suspension.
The Turbo Panther ticked all the right boxes – offering the looks and excitement of a 1/10 scale car, at a more affordable price and a more manageable size, particularly if you were new to R/C. And in a market that was still new, Nikko – by then already the top-selling ready-to-run R/C brand in most countries – were onto another big winner.
At this point I should probably explain a bit about the two variants of this model. The one you see featured on this page is a Turbo Panther Mk2 – the second type ever released. Notice the spikey front tyres.
The first Turbo Panthers originally came with different front tyres – a smooth type – giving them a look which was more similar to it’s bigger brother the Bison F10.
Both variants found their way outside Japan. I had earlier stated in this article that the spiked tyre version was the first, but I have since amended my description here.
More interesting than the variants though, is the question of the obvious rivalry between this car and Taiyo’s popular Jet Hopper. Since they both came out at the same time, which one was better?
Personally, I actually think the spikey tyre look is the better one. It suits the car’s proportions better. There’s also the benefit of better front-end grip.
I’ve written at length here in the past about the popularity of the Jet Hopper, but the reality is: Nikko probably sold just as many if not more Turbo Panthers.
Let’s take a look…
Can you believe this toy is now 30 years old?
It’s also funny to think about how well put-together it’s design is. Simple, but attractive. It seems “just right”, and not overdone. This car is really a perfect 1/16 scale version of the exciting 1/10 scale buggies of the mid-1980s – from every angle.
Of course, Nikko had already achieved all this in 1/14 scale with the Black Fox a year earlier. The Turbo Panther however, ditches the longer body lines and some of the chrome, and keeps things colourful, compact and it has to be said – cute. Smaller, and yet it still takes 8 x AA and delivers significant speed for it’s size.
If you’re wondering which came out first – the Jet Hopper or the Turbo Panther – well at the time of writing I still have no idea. Both were released in 1986, that’s all I know. And when comparing the two, there are certainly advantages and disadvantages on both sides.
I think it’s safe to say that Nikko invented the “Turbo” idea.
In 1985 they released several cars – both on and off road, including the Black Fox, that debuted with those shifting forward-reverse levers with “Turbo” mode, enabling kids to enjoy the idea of two levels of speed and the “option” to blast ahead of your rivals when necessary. Of course, we all just blasted our cars around in the Turbo mode non-stop.
I always loved how the transmitter looked, with the sideways-then-forward turbo lever. Sort of like a gear stick…
Despite it’s size, I also think the Turbo Panther looks quite rugged in design. At least, it looks that way.
The front bumper is quite huge and the 4 x spike tyres on this original model look like they are ready to go anywhere. They even make this car seem like a 4WD – but alas it’s not.
The proposition here is of course: a straight-up, robust, simple 2WD powertrain – with the option of High/Low gear selection via a switch positioned atop the rear gearbox…
The suspension is rolling-rigid rear axle, and independent suspension at the front. It works well for a car of this size. Sure it’s bouncy. But the springs are neither too soft, nor too hard – they’re about as good as they can be for the size and weight of this car.
If you were buying some sort of comparable R/C buggy from a toy shop today, the suspension might very well be entirely fake with fake plastic springs and arms. A lot of today’s R/C toys seem like they were made clueless cloners in a chinese slave factory – because they were.
Not so back in the 1980s. Nikko may have been the minnow of the R/C market in a “hobby-grade” sense, but they still did everything for real – from their tyre rubber, to their designs, to their catalogue photos.
The front of the Turbo Panther features that large, flexible front bumper as mentioned before, with “NIKKO” embossed in it…
Surprisingly, over the years this front bumper proved to have a flaw where it could break off under heavy impacts. And this brings me to probably the main flaw with the Turbo Panther – the fragility of the front, and rear wing areas, during impacts.
Truth is, the car went so well that it was fast enough to cause itself some damage, and there was no flexible lexan body to save it. Those exposed “frame” portions are commonly found broken today, on any cars that were driven hard and smacked into lots of kerbs and walls.
But every R/C car had a weak spot or three. And what the Turbo Panther lacked in one design area, it made up for in others.
For instance, unlike the Jet Hopper, the Turbo Panther had a working differential.
And while Jet Hoppers were great at doing burnouts because both rear wheels were always blasting at the same rate and trying to find traction, they were also great at destroying their tyres and wearing the knobs down to nothing. To this day, most surviving Turbo Panthers still have more tyre tread left than the average Jet Hopper, thanks to the simple fact that Nikko embraced differentials in their cars as early as possible, giving them a more sensible displacement of traction.
Nikko seemed to have an ongoing connection to Bridgestone, so it’s no surprise to me to see this brand on the tyres of this car. Fun fact: In 1989, Bridgestone provided at least one actual part (a drive belt) in the kit for Nikko’s 1/10 Dandy Dash buggy.
The tyres on the Turbo Panther are excellent quality, and it would be hard to distinguish the rubber from anything in the Tamiya stable from the same era.
Don’t you miss the days when even a small off-road R/C buggy you might find at a department store, came with decals like these?
The colour-band stripes were the typical look for the time, while the Pennzoil, KC Daylighter, Simpson and others, are all real brands. They were probably used without too much in the way of permission too. The times were a bit more relaxed back in those days.
The Turbo Panther Mk1 also came in two colours – red as shown here, or black.
With a noisy whine, “Turbo” mode will gladly take the Turbo Panther up to about 20Km/h – according to the official numbers. There’s more than enough power to scuttle along off-road trails or around a short racing track in your backyard. It was never meant to compete with the Tamiyas, Kyoshos, Maruis and other larger buggies with 540 motors. But it nearly did in some ways – consider for example, that the official top speed of a car like the Tandy/Radio Shack Golden Arrow was supposed to be about 22Km/h according to the Tandy catalogues of the time. You wouldn’t think the two would be quite so close, but apparently they were.
Taiyo’s official top speed for even the earliest Jet Hopper was 23km/h. While the Jet Hopper Mk3 received some tweaks that actually took it to a supposed 27Km/h – and these do admittedly blast along. I haven’t specifically compared the Turbo Panther in an outright drag race or a speed check yet with any of these cars yet, but one day I will – in an effort to settle the score once and for all.
At the very least, there is no doubt that the Turbo Panther offered legitimate off-road fun and could easily kick sand in your face.
The transmitter was quality gear too and offers good response for it’s simple functionality – albeit at the typical short range of cars of this price range.
Another great feature of the Turbo Panther was that the steering did not require the car to be moving in forward or reverse for it to operate – unlike the early variants of the Jet Hopper (though Taiyo later rectified this with the Jet Hopper Mk3 revision in 1987).
There’s no doubt that the Nikko Turbo Panther is one of the all-time classics. It was in some ways, the start of a hundred buggies Nikko released over the years, until they had all but saturated their own market. Nevertheless by being one of the first, and by being such a good looking and capable buggy, it was the starting point in R/C for literally thousands of people around the world. I would love to know how many were sold, because there’s a very real chance that the numbers are comparable to those of any popular R/C buggy you’d care to mention.
Today the Nikko Turbo Panther remains fairly plentiful on the used market, but as always, finding one in great condition with the original box is the challenge. Wrecks can cost as little as a few dollars, but mint/boxed examples will easily fetch hundreds – and you are likely to be fighting against lots of other people who want to relive their childhood memories.
If you’re a fan of mid-80s R/C buggies, and you appreciate that the ready-to-run models were something special back in those days, then you’ll already know that the Nikko Turbo Panther is must have. Another true legend in R/C toy history.
Nikko Turbo Panther (1986): At a glance
|Motor||(Can anyone confirm motor size?)|
|Suspension||Yes (Front independent with coil springs, rear rigid axle with coil springs)|
|Batteries||8 x AA (Car). 1 x 9volt (Transmitter)|