The RC cars and trucks that you see on TV and in toy stores offer a great way for young people to get involved in a rewarding hobby; however, there are few similarities between these toy-grade vehicles and those you’ll find at a hobby shop. For example, most hobby-grade R/C vehicles are available as an unassembled kit. You build the vehicle from the ground up, piece by piece, so you’ll know exactly how it works and how to fix it if something breaks. With few exceptions, you’ll be able to make repairs yourself without having to send it back to the manufacturer because you’ll know the vehicle inside and out.
Also, hobby-grade R/C vehicles are generally made of better materials than toygrade vehicles, so they can withstand the severe punishment of a backyard obstacle course or a high-speed cartwheel at the local parking lot. Hobby kits are designed to provide long life and superior performance.
THE MANY TYPES OF RC CARS AND TRUCKS
RC cars come in many shapes and sizes, from 1/24 scale models you can run on a tabletop to ? scale behemoths that are as big as a tabletop. Here’s a quick overview of the most popular RC categories:
1/10 scale Stadium trucks: Stadium trucks share much of their componentry with buggies, but are wider and can handle rougher terrain thanks to increased suspension travel. Most are two-wheel-drive (2WD), with top speeds of about 15-30 mph. For use on- or off-road.
1/10 scale Monster trucks: This popular category includes 2WD and 4WD trucks. The 2WD models are more affordable and use a single motor; the 4WD monsters use two motors for super torque and crushing power. Both have soft, long-travel suspension to soak up bumps. Top speed is about 15mph. For use on- or off-road.
1/10 scale Touring cars: These are probably the most realistic electric RC cars, with bodies just like those you see on the highway everyday. Tourers are 4WD, and can go as fast as 40mph with the right motor. For use on-road only.
1/10 scale Stadium trucks: Nitro stadium trucks appear identical to electric stadium trucks, but use a .12 cubic-inch displacement engine for power instead of an electric motor. They’re good for racing or play, and average about 30mph for top speed. For use on- or off-road.
1/10 scale Touring cars: nitro tourers may use .12 or .15 powerplants, and can be very fast indeed—up to 55mph. As with electric tourers, nitro tourers feature 4WD and realistic body lines. For on-road use only.
1/8 scale Monster trucks: These giants feature large .21 engines that make a lot of horsepower. As a result, nitro monsters are fast (about 40mph) and can plow over or through just about anything! For use on- or off-road. 1/8 scale Buggies: Like the other 1/8 scale machines, these vehicles are powered by .21 engines. Buggies can go just about anywhere, are very tough, and top out close to 60mph. For use on- or off-road.
1/8 scale On-road cars: The cutting edge of RC performance! Top speeds of the .21-powered cars approach 80mph, and shifting 2- or 3-speed transmissions are standard. Foam tires provide super grip, but wear quickly, and these machines are strictly for smooth road courses—not for the inexperienced.
ENGINE POWER OR ELECTRIC POWER? RC vehicles come in all shapes and sizes, but the most basic distinction between types of RC car models is their power source. All are either powered by an electric motor and battery, or an engine that runs on fuel. Which is better for a beginner? Faster? More fun? The answers may surprise you!
ELECTRIC VEHICLES have the advantage of clean, quiet operation. They expel no fumes, and don’t produce any significant noise. They can be operated indoors, cost less than similar engine-powered models, and are the easiest types of vehicles to get started in the hobby with. In terms of performance, electric models can have some disadvantages. Duration is limited by battery capacity, so you’ll have to stop every ten minutes or so to recharge the battery pack (or install a fresh pack, if you have a few charged and ready to go). In stock form, electric vehicles are generally not as fast as similar nitro-powered machines, but it’s easy to make an electric car faster with an aftermarket motor—although such a modification will also decrease battery life.
ENGINE POWERED MODELS, which are more commonly called “nitro” kits, because they run on nitro methane-based fuel (more on that later), have two primary advantages: higher speed and longer run time. It’s easy to make a “pit stop” for more fuel with a nitro-powered car, and keep driving with only a moment’s interruption. But remember, the on-board battery that powers the vital radio gear will eventually need a recharge, so don’t go too long without stopping! Nitro cars are generally faster than similar electrics, and the realism of authentic engine sound and exhaust smoke add a gee-whiz factor that electrics can’t match. But those can also be disadvantages, if you wish to operate the vehicle in an area where noise is an issue, or wish to run your car indoors—nitro-power is for the great outdoors only. Nitro cars also require more frequent maintenance, are more expensive than similar electric models, and tend to be a little messy, due to fuel and exhaust residue.
GETTING STARTED WITH ELECTRIC-POWERED MODELS
When you’ve settled on the type of kit you’d like to build, you’ll have to buy the other items you’ll need to get your project up and running. Here’s what’s required to build, control and run most electric-powered kits:
RADIO SYSTEM When you’ve built your dream car, you’ll need to control it somehow. Think of the radio as your link to the R/C vehicle gas pedal! A radio system consists of three major parts: the transmitter, receiver, and servos.
Transmitter: The unit that you hold in your hands is called the transmitter, and sends steering and throttle commands to the vehicle. The transmitter is usually configured as a pistol grip with a wheel on one side and a trigger in the traditional position. The trigger controls the throttle, and a wheel handles the steering.
Receiver: The second part of the system is called the receiver, and it’s mounted inside the R/C vehicle. The receiver’s job is to catch the signal from the transmitter and translate your commands into action, by sending the signals to the third part of the radio system: the servos.
Servos: These are also mounted inside the R/C vehicle, and are plugged into the receiver. Messages from the receiver tell the servo in which direction it should move and for how far. The servos move the steering and throttle linkages to control speed and direction, as you command with the transmitter. Electric cars may use a servo and a mechanical speed control for throttle control, or may substitute the assembly for an electronic speed control, better known as an ESC.
BATTERY PACK AND BATTERY CHARGER
The battery pack is an electric vehicle’s “gas tank”; when it’s empty, you’ll have to “re-fill” it by charging it with a battery charger. Battery packs are available with varying capacities, measured in milliamp hours. A “2000” pack has can store 2000milliamps of energy, and will allow a vehicle to operate for a longer duration than a “1500” pack with 1500 milliamps. But just as a full-size car does not go slower because there is less fuel in the tank, an electric vehicle does not go slower if the battery has reduced capacity (or faster if it has increased capacity).
BASIC HAND TOOLS
With few exceptions, electric-powered R/C kits can easily be put together using the simplest tools. In general, you’ll need a slotted screwdriver and a Phillips screwdriver, a sharp hobby knife and a pair of needle-nose pliers. Most manufacturers include various Allen-head wrenches and the lubricants needed to complete their kits..
Unlike electric-powered models, which use the on-board battery that powers the motor to also power the receiver and servos, a nitro-powered model requires a separate battery to power the on-board radio gear. Most radio systems include a holder for 4 “AA” batteries to do the job, but replacing batteries can get expensive. Most modelers use a rechargeable receiver battery instead, which requires a charger. Although more expensive up front, a rechargeable receiver pack and charger will save you money in the long run (even not-so-long run).
This heats the engine’s glow plug (the equivalent of a spark plug is a full-scale car) so that the fuel in the combustion chamber can ignite and cause the engine to run. Once running, the heat of combustion keeps the glow plug hot, and the glow-plug igniter is removed.
Most entry-level and “play” kits include pull-starters (just like a lawn mower), and do not require an electric starter. But for those that don’t have a pull-starter, you’ll need either a hand-held, 12V starter or an electric starter box. Both types of starter have spinning, rubber wheels that, when placed against the engine’s flywheel, cause the engine’s crankshaft to rotate and fire the engine into life.
Although often referred to as “gas powered”, nitro models DO NOT run on gasoline. RC fuel is a mixture of nitro methane and synthetic or castor oil lubricants. It is flammable and should be treated with care, but it is not nearly as volatile as gasoline. Never attempt to use gasoline in a nitro engine!
This is simply a small, squeezable bottle with a long neck that makes it easier to fill your models gas tank. Pouring fuel into a tiny tank opening from a full gallon jug of fuel invariably leads to mess and waste!
SPEED CONTROL BASICS
Many electric-powered kits come with mechanical speed controls. They’re simple, switching devices that are worked by a separate servo to provide a range of forward speeds (usually three), as well as a reverse function to allow you to back your car out of trouble. Mechanical speed controls perform well enough, and because they’re inexpensive and included with many entry-level kits, they allow beginners to get up and running with a smaller investment.
When you’ve gained some experience with your new R/C vehicle, you may wish to upgrade to an electronic speed control (ESC). This self-contained, electronic switching device replaces the mechanical unit and its additional servo. You’ll find that an ESC allows much more precise throttle control, requires no maintenance, operates more efficiently, and saves both weight and space on your car’s chassis. There are many ESCs available from expensive, full racing versions to economical ones that may have reverse. Whichever you consider, you should match your speed-control purchase to the type of RC activity in which you participate and the size of your budget.
Are you interested in RC, but the prospect of building the kit yourself has you concerned? Fear not! Many of the popular RC car manufacturers offer assembled versions of their nitro- and electric-powered kits that are completely ready to run (RTR), which substantially cuts down on the time it takes to go from box to track. You get the convenience of a “toy” RC car, with the quality and performance of a hobby-quality kit. With an RTR, you can be ready for wild RC action in an hour or less. If you buy an RTR, be sure to save the instruction manual, because it will be invaluable if you have to make repairs.