A tale of two buggies…

Owning, maintaining and running vintage R/C cars shouldn’t be seen as a chore, nor be about performance alone. Just like the owners of full scale classic automobiles who preserve, maintain and still drive them spiritedly in original specification – vintage R/C cars are essentially “historics” that just need a little patience and the right perspective.

A few months ago, a friend of mine decided to buy an R/C car. He had actually owned a Tamiya Audi Quattro Rally (now a highly collectible classic) in his childhood, and had very fond memories of it. And while chatting to me, he became a little nostalgic to relive those memories once again. The R/C bug it seemed, had returned.

At first, we talked at length about vintage Tamiya models. He was interested to hear what I had, and he even seemed keen to buy something vintage himself. At the very least, he seemed to want something that “looked vintage” even it wasn’t an original, such as one of the Tamiya remakes. And among the models he was considering, were such illustrious 80s names as The Grasshopper, The Hornet, the Hotshot and The Frog.

Thinking I had resurrected another Tamiya fan, I sent him plenty of links and ideas – even researching prices for him. But as the weeks went by and he spent a lot of time watching R/C videos on Youtube, it wasn’t to be. He still went ahead and purchased an R/C car. But market forces, and the range of choices he found when he began looking online, meant he chose something entirely different.

The general conversation between us had been that, once he’d bought an R/C car, we might meet up and take some cars to a nearby R/C track. And since I tend to spend more time collecting,  restoring (and writing), and not nearly as much running as I should, this got me to thinking about exactly which “runner” cars I should prep for the occasion. It wasn’t intended to be a race, just a bit of fun for an hour or two. And my friend was keen to see some genuine classics in action.

And so, I began working on a vintage Tamiya Hotshot build.

Now, being a purist about vintage Tamiya, any car I work on has to always be 100% vintage 😀 No doubt you’ve heard me say that 100 times before. But right down to the last screw, the oil in the shock absorbers, and the grease in the gears, I just find it the most nostalgic fun to do everything according to the original 1980s Tamiya manuals. This keeps everything period-correct. And I can always look with certainty at any car I have and say “it’s 100% vintage”. Just like those who restore full-scale classic cars.

Of course, I realize this adherence to vintage parts also makes it a more expensive hobby. But with time, and patience, it is possible to squirrel away all the vintage items you’d need for a project like this. And keep in mind, my collecting and squirreling has been going on steadily for nearly two thirds of my life. I’ve never been rich. Only patient.

In the case of the Hotshot, this is a model I have built and restored many times. And I realized that I had enough vintage spare parts (used or new) to produce another restoration/runner Hotshot. So I figured this would be a fun project. Plus, my friend had told me he was a big fan of the Hotshot, but had never actually seen one running.

Of course, I had originally thought he would purchase an R/C car which was “somewhat” like a Tamiya – with a standard 540 motor. And even if it wasn’t genuinely vintage, then at least something in a similar “spirit” with modest performance.

Alas, when he finally pulled the trigger… he opted to buy one of these instead…

It’s called an HSP XSTR. And this jumble of consonants means it is a fairly typical modern Chinese 1/10 scale R/C buggy, sold online by dozens of retailers. It comes with a brushless motor, electronic speed control, battery, radio, and everything you need for a rock bottom price of about AU$240.

So my friend was joining the ranks of those viewing R/C enjoyment as being primarily about maximum speed, minimum cost, and newer equipment – like LiPo batteries. Suddenly, my vintage Hotshot project was starting to seem rather… lame. At least on the performance front. On the looks front, I felt the HSP XSTR was a car you’d only remember to forget. And for a guy who writes a website called “R/C Toy Memories” I wondered… would anyone remember the XSTR in 30 years? Perhaps there would be a website called “XSTR Memories“. And how do you pronounce XSTR anyway? Is it an acronym? Does anyone care?

But for a while thereafter, I actually considered abandoning the Hotshot project. If all we were doing was showing off top speed for cheap thrills, maybe I’d be better off with something similar? Something fast, bashable, disposable. Perhaps when it came to running cars with friends these days, it was stupid to worry about details and realism, authenticity, quality… As my friend said, he “didn’t really care” if he broke the XSTR. Parts were “so cheap!” from China.

If we took both cars to the track, mine would look ridiculously slow compared to his. So for a while, I looked around online at various other options. Scrolling through many modern buggies. Until they all blurred into one. Which was extremely easy for them to do.

Tiring of this, I then briefly considered adding some upgrades to the Hotshot. Perhaps a few period correct hop-ups to speed it up would at least lessen the blow of driving such an ancient, detailed Japanese scale model, beside a faster vehicle which was 34 years younger. Perhaps I should tart up the Hotshot with a few hot mods…

Despite my friend’s nostalgia for the legendary Tamiya Audi Quattro Rally, and his respect for vintage Tamiya scale models in general, it was becoming clear that when it came to actually running a car he was only interested in speed. He seemed more thrilled to be buying any generic object with 4 wheels, so long as it was capable of 60km/h. He didn’t even have to build it – the XSTR car came Ready-To-Run of course. All he had to do was charge the included Chinese LiPo battery without setting his house on fire, and he would soon be outrunning terriers at the local public park.

Meanwhile, back at my Tamiya cave… I was spending hours sorting through vintage spare parts, before commencing assembly. With my typically crazy attention to detail.

And pretty soon, I became absorbed in painting and detailing the driver figure…

(Never the greatest model painter. But I do give it everything I’ve got.)

And as mentioned, I always follow the manual, with additional reference to the official Tamiya catalogue photo (in this case, the 1985 Tamiya Guide Book with it’s glorious, large photos of the Hotshot). Right down to painting the eyeballs on the driver figure.

I suppose the contrast couldn’t have been more different – me with my multi-weekend, purist/nerd ground-up rebuild of a historic R/C model. And my friend who took his buggy to the park and blasted off in every direction, sending me videos of it, and promptly cracking one wheel rim faster than you can say “Guangdong province”.

But as I worked on the Hotshot, all thoughts about abandoning it for cheap thrills, or doing loads of upgrades… melted away. The sheer joy of building it the way I liked to build (as per manual and official catalogue photo) caused me to forget about everything.

This type of work even gets the imagination going.

I have always loved the idea of my workshop being a sort of quasi “miniature garage” for “official” Tamiya spec vehicles, built exactly the way Tamiya intended. As a child, that’s how I wanted to know and compare all the cars in Tamiya’s range. No upgrades, no modifications. They were all incredible to me just as they were, out of the box. So which one was faster? Could a Frog beat a Hornet? Was a Boomerang better than a Wild One? Perhaps I would never know. But each design was so unique for it’s time, so detailed, so colourful… it was as if Tamiya had intended each one to represent (at least in my imagination) it’s own little racing team. I guess that’s why the words “<car name> Racing Team” even appeared on some of the decals of various cars. While the Hotshot even carries a “coat of arms” style symbol on the bonnet between the two headlights. Tamiya infused it with almost a sense of clan royalty

And so, as you can see, my hobby room bench became the workshop of the Tamiya Hotshot Racing Team – with not one, but two restored buggies being built exactly to standard, original specification.

Each was built to spec, right down to the way the wires were tied, the length of the tie rods, the screws, the decals, the driver colour, decal positions, the rubber bag that covers the 540 motor… Every conceivable detail, every part, and every dab of grease or drop of oil I used, was 100% vintage Tamiya, and to the book. And yes, maybe this is all OCD… but this is what I love to do 🙂 And it’s been this way with me ever since I was a kid, dreaming about all the cars in Tamiya’s line. Besides, if being a kid again isn’t part of the fun you’re having… maybe you’re doing it wrong?

My work bench became a nice little utopia of rare vintage stuff… including any vintage Hotshot spare parts I needed, and a new in box vintage Hotshot kit which I used for reference purposes.

By the time I finished the build, I had already seen my friend’s car in action. I had even driven it. With it’s basic brushless motor, it was still incredibly fast in a straight line. Probably three or four times faster than any of my cars. But I had yet to see it running along any sort of proper dirt track. It’s one thing to look like you know what you’re doing on open grassland, where you can head in any direction without error… but what about sticking the turns, on a racing track?

If being a kid again isn’t part of the fun you’re having… maybe you’re doing it wrong?

At last, “race day” came.

And in addition to the Hotshot, I brought along a vintage restored Tamiya Bearhawk (1991) as the second car.

(Pictured from this point onwards, are both cars – with post-race dust!)

The Bearhawk too of course, had been built exactly to spec, down to every last detail – including painted driver figure.

Both cars had nice vintage AM radio sets – the Hotshot a JR Propo Beat 2 AM radio (circa 1985), and the Bearhawk a nice Futaba Attack AM radio. Since my friend’s XSTR (and anyone else who might be at the track) would be using 2.4Ghz modern radio gear, my frequency crystals were of no consequence.

On top of it all, I just want to point out that the internals of both my cars were as per the kit – including brand new mechanical speed control sets. And on the outside, brand new, original vintage tyre sets.

And so we began running the cars. And before long, two things became apparent:

  1. Any bystanders who happened to be hanging around (or driving other cars), were a bit curious as to what I was driving.
  2. The HSP XSTR was going to spend much of it’s time cartwheeling vertically across the circuit at high speed, rather than going around it.

The track in question, was the Castle Hill Off Road R/C circuit. With it’s lengthy, twisty configuration, and fairly rough surface. It is, in effect, every bit as 1980s as my cars were. Indeed, it opened in 1985 – the very same year the Hotshot was released.

And so, complete with some outdated NiCd 2400Mah batteries (Tamiya brand, of course), I set off… lapping steadily and trying to come to grips with a couple of jumps that were best handled by undulating carefully across them, rather than attempting any real “air time”. On at least one occasion, both of my cars came unstuck on those jumps… before I let sanity prevail, easing off the throttle over these sections, and realizing that my ancient cars were the tortoises to the hare on this day. Which, just as in the old fable, wasn’t such a bad thing…

My friend’s XSTR was proving quite a handful. He had actually driven at the track before, in anticipation of this day. But despite the XSTR’s 4WD and ESC, his technique of lining up a target (a corner, a jump, a straight)… and then flooring the throttle, was leading to some spectacular crashes. Across the circuit’s largest jump, he claimed at one point to have stuck a landing. I didn’t actually see it. But I know it was preceded by some monumental stacks, during which bits came flying off the car.

A couple of bystanders were hanging around too, watching the cars, along with a third driver – clearly a competition pro, and driving a modern Team Associated buggy. He knew the track better than anyone, and overtook my Hotshot swiftly and repeatedly. Like a backmarker in a crowded Formula One race, I tried to stay off the racing line and give him clearance to pass whenever he came up behind.

Avoiding the XSTR though, would have required the help of Air Traffic Control – it was more likely to collide with me from above. Clearly fast enough to mix rubber in a straight line with the Team Associated vehicle, my friend had yet to discover the joy of slowing down for corners. And was already chattering about the replacement spare parts he intended to buy.

I don’t have any action photos from the day. We were all too busy concentrating – me on not crashing, my friend on not staying on the track. But the more I lapped, the more I… lapped. Growing more used to the track, and steadily completing it without error or incident.

The Bearhawk (2WD) was quicker in a straight line than the Hotshot (4WD). And stretching it’s legs along a straight has always been a joy. Never insanely fast, but always fast enough to be noticed. Even my friend raised an eyebrow when he saw it, and couldn’t quite keep the XSTR focused enough to overtake the Bearhawk on the main straight. Once through turn 1, some familiarity from many years of running the ‘hawk along on my own home-grown R/C track decades ago, began to return also.

And so the cars were having a steady run, and the mistakes were getting fewer. One bystander crouched down on the far side of the track to watch the Hotshot each time it came through turn 3. Perhaps to enjoy the realism at eye-level? Another came over to the podium to ask me a few questions. “Is that vintage?”, he asked. “Oh wow, you’re even using the old AM Radios?”. Here I was, some random guy still using the ancient gear. No doubt, some who probably frequent the track might even view these old cars as pretty rubbish. But on this day, the few who watched on were very polite.

After an hour or so of running (in which time I had used up 3 or 4 vintage 7.2v NiCd Tamiya battery packs, while my friend had used his two Chinese LiPos), I tried to estimate how things had fared overall.

By my reckoning, the Hotshot had done around 20 laps of the circuit with only a couple of incidents – mostly in the first few laps. Once I’d sorted out the danger points, it was steady, stable laps all the way. The Bearhawk, which I ran second, was quicker. And did maybe another 15 laps, before my batteries had called it a day.

The XSTR’s performance was harder to gauge. Had it completed a lap without crashing? Whenever it was within my field of view, it was either blasting past me or heading for the fences.

“I think it’s fair to say you kicked my butt.”, said my friend later.

But that was never the goal, of course. It was all down to a bit more experience with the throttle. Or maybe I was just more conscious of not destroying valuable vintage cars that I had toiled over myself.

Back at the Tamiya Racing Team workshop later that day, the cars were assessed for wear. Both had held up pretty well. The Hotshot had developed a small leak in the front mono-shock. And so began the fun of pulling that apart, to check the internal components and see if I needed to use some new (not used) rubber seals and the like. Genuine Tamiya vintage parts of course…

I fully expected there to be some battle scars and wear on these cars, and certainly if I run them more often there will be more. But that’s all part of the fun.

Approaching them like 1:1 classic automobiles, these beautiful vintage R/C buggies should not be seen as an inconvenience. They hail from a simpler time, yet have far more charm, interesting engineering, and good looks than the modern stuff. If you can save your pennies to keep a few vintage spares on hand, you can both keep them vintage and enjoy a run now and then. Plus, think of “service time” back at the garage, as being part of the fun…

Driving such historic cars alongside more modern buggies… simply left me with a smile on my face. Whether they got lapped or not, or were only 25% as fast down the main straight, it didn’t matter. They just looked cool – and realistic – scrabbling for grip and swinging around the corners.

And to me, that’s what miniature, working R/C model cars are all about.

Thanks for reading, and as always – happy collecting.

And don’t forget to sign into the new discussion forum area, and feel free to share your memories, comments and anything else about vintage R/C cars.

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Jeremiah Munoz
Jeremiah Munoz

I coudln’t agree with you more. The older models have history, distinctive looks, realism, etc. The list of positive attributes can go on and on. And this goes to all RC manufacturers, I just happened to be an Associated fan since that is most of what Ive owned for hobby grade models. (I currently own a RC10 classic re-release and a Trophy Rat, 2wd short course truck) The offerings from Tamiya has always had the best scale appearance/realism factor. Racing a vintage car vs a modern one would be quite a challenge for the vintage driver to be as competitive… Read more »


Great story! And I’m glad to see you do get them dirty once in a while… and it goes back to the old “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast” thing that Mini owners are always talking about. There’s a track near me that I just recently found out about, an indoor carpet off-road track that sounds like a fun place to run some of the oldies (no dirt to clean up afterwards!). I haven’t had a chance to get over there yet, but I’m thinking that my nice old “spare parts” RC10, equipped with a period-correct forward-only… Read more »