- Some of the model kits and RC cars in my collection

Time capsules and time machines

Old model car kits, and old RC cars, keep me grounded and sane

39w ago

Gearheads, I'm convinced, aren't made; they're born. I don't remember becoming a "car guy," I just always was, and I've heard many other people say the same thing. I don't know what we would have been into, had we been born in a different era; clocks, maybe. Or chariots. Or whatever sort of ion-drive space buggies we'll all be orbiting Titan in one day. But our lives coincide with the time when humans travel around the planet in four-wheeled vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines, and for whatever reason, we love them.

The upshot of being born a gearhead is that, for about a decade and a half, you have to make do with small-scale representations of the objects of your affection before they'll turn you loose with the real thing. And boy, do we ever love those small-scale representations. Some are pocket-sized and diecast metal, some have a pin on the bottom that fits into a groove so we can make them fly around (and off) a black plastic racetrack, but my favorites were always the ones that came disassembled, in a colorful cardboard box.

I built dozens of models when I was a kid. Maybe more. The majority were cars, but there were quite a few airplanes in there as well, some movie robots, and at least one Space Shuttle. I started out with the little 1/32 scale snap-together car models that were $1.99 at the drug store; I'd open the box in the car on the way home and have the wheels and tires put together before we hit the driveway. (I always started by putting the tires on the wheels; I don't know why. But I still do the same thing with RC models today.) Eventually I graduated to glue models, and acquired a shelf full of little square Testors paint bottles.

Then, as now, I was pretty omnivorous and equal-opportunity in my choices of vehicle. I'd build a '55 Chevy drag racer, and then a Datsun 280Z, and then an old Mercedes 540K. There was never really any rhyme or reason to it; I bought and built what I liked. But that was the great thing: I could choose whatever I liked, because a Ferrari and a Mustang were the same price, in 1/24 scale.

But there were always those other boxes at the hobby shop, the big ones on the shelf behind the counter, with pictures of futuristic-looking dune buggies on the front and unbelievably cool names: Hornet, Pegasus, Hunter, Fox. And these, I was told, you actually could play with: they were radio-controlled. I had to have one. But I was told in no uncertain terms that, if I wanted one, I had to buy it myself. So I spent the entire summer of 1986 behind a lawn mower, or holding on to a dog leash, or with a bucket and a paint brush, doing odd jobs around the house and neighborhood. By August I had saved up enough to buy the cheapest RC model there was: the legendary Tamiya Grasshopper.

Image: tamiyabase.com

Image: tamiyabase.com

And from then on, the static model kits weren't enough. I've been involved in the RC car hobby in some capacity ever since.

There were times I almost left; after I got my first "real" car (a VW Scirocco) I didn't spend much time or money on RC models. And in college, I was too busy learning to play guitar to impress girls to mess around with toy cars much. But in the mid-1990s, I actually raced competitively at a club, on an indoor carpet track, and I still own the car I used to race: an Associated Electrics RC10LSS.

That's it hanging on a hook on the wall. Bought new by me in 1995, raced for years, and now enjoying retirement.

That's it hanging on a hook on the wall. Bought new by me in 1995, raced for years, and now enjoying retirement.

But competition has never suited me well. I either don't care at all, or I care too much and get too competitive and angry. So I quit racing, and my interest in RC cars dipped again.

What brought me back, ironically, was the Grasshopper again. In 2004, Tamiya began a campaign of re-issuing their older models from the 1980s, and the Grasshopper and its sister model the Hornet were amog the first to come back, 20 years after they were first introduced. For our first Christmas together, my then-fiance-now-wife bought me a re-issue Grasshopper kit, and it all came back. The excitement of watching one of these mechanical marvels come together in your hands. The simple joy of seeing it zip around the yard. I was 13 again, in the best way possible.

And with that I dove deeply back into the hobby, and haven't come up since. I've bought and restored 20 or 30 original '80s RC cars, and sold most of them, some even for a profit. I've bought a few more re-issues from Tamiya, and a couple from Kyosho, who has now also joined in the fun.

More of the RC fleet

More of the RC fleet

Then a few years ago, my wife and I discovered the joys of antique malls. But while it's fun to wander around looking at stuff, it's even better if you are actually looking FOR something, so she started collecting antique cobalt-blue glassware. I, naturally, started looking for old model car kits. And I've found more of them than I expected.

Most of these were antique store finds over the past 5 years or so

Most of these were antique store finds over the past 5 years or so

I have to be careful, because a lot of these, too, have been re-issued. The re-issues are OK, but if I'm going to collect something old, I want to make sure it's actually something old, so I seek out originals. The oldest kit I have is from the mid-1960s, and the newest one that I consider a "keeper" (as opposed to a "builder") is from 1990. And it's actually not hard to tell; just look for a web address. If there's a URL on the box, it's a re-issue.

Don't get me wrong; I still love "big" cars, and my MGB GT and my ex-Forest Service pickup truck aren't wanting for attention because of the models. But these don't need insurance, or registration, and I can't get hurt if I get a little too exuberant and spin out or flip it over. And better, they take me back to a time when the hobby aisle at Toys R Us was my personal Mecca, when nothing mattered more than the latest MPC annual kits or the new issue of RC Car Action magazine. It's nice to be able to come down to my study in the basement and re-visit those days sometimes.

I plan to post some more about these models, if there's interest in reading about them. Build chronicles, "road tests" of vintage RC cars, and history lessons are all in the works. The die-cast enthusiasts seem to have a big presence on here, but why should they have all the fun?

Stay tuned for more model and RC car goodness in weeks to come.

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Comments (2)

  • We had a Blackfoot, a frog, and a grasshopper. Like you said, a lot of enjoyment putting them together and holey moley we couldn't believe how fast they were! Probably slow by today's standard but we had a lot of fun with them. Especially when we had enough money to get second batteries. Man I hated waiting for them to charge up...but then..we found girls...same story... thanks for the write up. Nice work.

      9 months ago
  • Very cool. I love reading about peoples passions... thanks!

      9 months ago