The King is dead. Long live the King!

It occurs to me I’ve had a thing for Nissan D21 Hardbody pickups for nearly 30 years. They still catch my eye when I see them today. (There’s a dark gray one in my neighborhood right now.) Much as a part of me would love to scoop up a D21, slam it, and do the minitruck thing—I’m finding that playing with scale RC (toy) cars is more my speed (budget) these days.

My first truck was a 1976 Lesney Atlas. 

My first memory—of ALL—is dropping a 1976 Lesney Atlas Matchbox dump truck into my face while lying in bed in kindergarten. I was supposed to be sleeping, but I remember lying in bed, listening to Mom and Dad watching TV down the hall in the living room. I was flipping the Lesney back and forth by the dump bed when it slipped, fell, and busted my lip. 

I bought one on Etsy a couple years ago. 

My first real RC car was a Tyco Aero Turbo Hopper.

Growing up, I’d always been into RC cars. I quickly grew out of those lame, forward-or-turn-in-reverse jobbers. Full, two-channel machines were the hot setup. And the 9.6V “Turbo” Tycos were pure fire. They weren’t professional grade by any means, but they were close—and great for kids.

My little brother and I had matching Aero Turbo Hoppers—one in green-and-yellow, the other in red-and-orange. I can’t remember who had which, but I remember being hooked on the speed of these things. The 9.6V turbo feature really took off (and really took a toll on runtimes).

And then I got my first Nissan Hardbody.

After we’d run the Hoppers into the ground, I started seeing commercials for the 9.6V Turbo Bandit. The Bandit was a hard, ABS plastic-bodied Nissan D21. My brother and I would get them for Xmas. I feel like mine was the red-on-yellow version. It was my first Nissan truck. 

Then I got my Tamiya King Cab.

I was an eighth grader living in Heidelberg, Germany, in October 1989 when Tamiya released the King Cab. In April 1990, RC Car Action magazine published a feature on the King Cab. It was love at first sight. 

The article had a full-color, two-page spread. Instead of the classic Nissan livery, the author had a radical, mini truck-inspired design sprayed in bright yellow with a hot, neon orange stripe on the side and custom, billet aluminum wheels. I’ll never forget the 2-page spread that simultaneously introduced me to my first hobby grade RC and Jimi Hendrix; “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”

I got my first job the summer before my freshman year of high school. It was a simple, office assistant gig in a government public affairs office. (I didn’t speak German so I worked on base.) The first thing I bought with the first paycheck from my first job was a Tamiya King Cab. 

I remember standing in line to cash that colorful check from the US Treasury. It was just a little kiosk on the end of a building so the line ran out the door (because everyone on base had the same payday). A crowd was gathered around a bright red, Dodge Stealth R/T some dude bought to play on the autobahn when he got his orders. (Hello, Mitsubishi.)

Once inside, I cashed the check and immediately bought a money order for the King Cab, a 2-channel Futaba radio, basic 7.2V NiCd battery pack with 12V charger, shipping to APO/FPO, and a First Class stamp. I had the order form and envelope ready to go, and just like that, pretty much my entire paycheck went into a mailbox, destined for the other side of the planet. 

My first PROPER RC kit.

Two months later, there was a slip in the mailbox telling me an oversized package was waiting for me at the post office on base. It had been wrapped in plain, brown paper, with large FRAGILE decals all over it. Once home, it was all I could do to wait until after dinner and chores and homework to open it up and start building it on my bedroom floor. 

If the 3/S parked outside the bank was foreshadowing my future Mitsubishi fanboyism, the King Cab foreshadowed my off-road sensibilities. I built oil-filled shocks with user-selectable valving. I assembled a ball bearing differential. I learned to crimp and solder, installing a 100% electric drivetrain. And I learned to use an airbrush to paint the body. Not to say I was very good at any, much less all of it, but I proved reasonably competent.

The rest, as they say, is history. 

The King Cab did right by me, surviving my ham-fisted shenanigans for nearly two years in Germany. Not long after we moved back to the States in December 1992, I got a part time job. And domestic deliveries are much faster than international, if you get my drift. 

The King Cab got upgraded, aluminum steering knuckles after I broke one of the stock, plastic units on a curb at full speed. I ordered up a set of gold wheels and painted up a black, Dodge Ram body to replace the now well-worn stocker. I even fabbed up a basic front swaybar. Kinda. 

Slippery Slopes

It wasn’t long after that I decided I wanted a buggy, so I bought an Associated Electrics RC-10 Team Car. Where the King Cab was a proper RC kit, the RC-10 was my first top-of-the-line RC car. Aluminum chassis. Stealth transmission. Hard anodized, PTFE-coated, top-load shocks. It was a beast. 

And then I wanted a high end, AWD road car, too, so I bought a first generation HPI RS4, with the McLaren F1 body, of course. And then I couldn’t pass an offer to buy a ready-to-run (RTR) Tamiya Skyline for under $200 shipped. 

By the end of the 1990s, I had a collection of four very nice, 1/10 scale electric RC cars and trucks. They were running Tekin and Novak ESCs, Reedy Modified motors (my favorite was a “Mr. X” 10-turn quad), name brand NiCds, and a slick, Victor Engineering smart charger. 

The switch to REAL cars

By the end of the 1990s, though, I was driving REAL cars. I’d gone from sneaking test drives in Mom’s 1980 Audi 80 in Germany, to borrowing Mom’s 1990 Plymouth Sundance (aka: Dodge Shadow) during my Junior year, to the first and only GM product I’ll ever own—a 1988 Grand Prix—to the car that would prove the foundation for over 20 years of street tuned, Mitsubishi fan boy enthusiasm—”Daisy”, my 1997 Eagle Talon.

My love for RC never went away. And I know I’m not the only one who went through this, either. At least once a year, on at least one of the dozens of forums I was active on back in the days before Facebook came along and pulled a Walmart on the internet, someone would start a thread about RC cars. Those threads would blow up, as we all reminisced about the kits we had—and some of us STILL had. 

20 years later, I still had all of mine. I moved them to Phoenix in 2001. Not a single one has been driven in Arizona by my hand, but I started selling them off. The Skyline went to a local who got it running before discovering crawling and doing that for a number of years. The RC-10 followed suit, though I’ll be damned if I have any emails telling me when and to whom. 

The current collection

Today, only the RS4 and King Cab remain. Every single time I think of my old RCs, I think about what it would take to get them running again. No doubt they would STILL be a lot of fun. But old mindsets die hard. For the longest time, I let them sit because “hobby grade RC is expensive and I’d rather put my limited play money into REAL cars”, ya know? 

I made minimum wage at my first job. It was US$4.25/hour back in 1992. My King Cab order, with all the electrics required to make it run, set me back just over US$300. That’s pretty much US$600 in 2020 money. Given a choice between spending $600 on an old toy car or a DSM, the money went into the DSM.

RTR RC is AOK & EZ now

Longtime readers may recall I got a new RC truck for my birthday earlier this year. It’s more powerful, more efficient, and more robust than any RC kit I’ve ever owned—and it’s fully a white label, made-in-China jobber. That said, it was also only US$160 delivered to my door, ready to run (for an hour) right out of the box. 

My Redcat Everest-10 is a beast. I have been thoroughly impressed with its build quality and performance from the very first drive. But wait, people modify these things now? As George Takei would say, “Oh my!”

And that’s where things get really exciting. I started driving my Redcat up real, actual mountains. Nothing crazy, but bigger than what you’d call a hill. Damn thing held its own against name brand kits costing four times the price. Wow. 

I wasn’t planning on modifying it…

Next thing I know, I’m learning how to modify the suspension mounting points to extend the wheelbase and lower the center of gravity. I’m trimming steering bump stops for better cornering. I’m trimming tires for better bite on obstacles. And then things REALLY get crazy. 

A set of softer tires is $30. A set of 3-piece aluminum beadlock wheels is $30. A 2s LiPo battery (longer lasting and more powerful than the provided NiMH that came with the kit) is $15. So is a basic LiPo charger. Now I’m sticking lead tire weights on the chassis to adjust CoG and bolting up a hotter electric motor (about $40 together). The humble Redcat looks better than ever. 

If there’s one thing I don’t really care for about the Everest-10, it’s the generic body. But I don’t feel like dropping $50-80 or more on a really nice, clear body that I’ll have to revisit my painfully amateur airbrushing skills with if only I had another body to try out at home…

This is one of the neatest things I’ve ever made.

The literally irreplaceable, vintage Tamiya King Cab body looks AMAZING on my Redcat chassis. I did a little trimming. I drilled a couple new holes in the sides to mount it. And I even took it for a test drive, but alas, it’s not to be. Wheelbase is just too long for the body and forcing the issue would surely result in tears. 

But I’ll be damned if it didn’t end up being one of the neatest things I’ve ever made. 

If you’ve never played with RC cars, it might be your time to try.

There’s a kit for everyone these days, and most of the off-brand kits are surprisingly good. All it takes to get started is a little googling around to find the right one for your needs. This hobby has come a LONG way over the last 30 years—and MANY of the people playing speak the language of vehicle modification. 

If you like playing with real cars, I’m pretty sure you’ll like playing with RC cars, too. $150-$200 will get you hours upon hours of fun, zooming up and down the street, drifting in the driveway, jumping curbs, bashing around the back yard, or crawling up and over anything in its path—you can even get into RC boats and planes these days. It’s crazy.

A surprisingly affordable outlet for gearheads

Despite deciding to keep my projects closer to stock these days—for reliability and resale’s sake—I still have the gearhead itch to modify the living shit outta vehicles. Don’t think for a hot minute I wouldn’t want a twin-turbocharged 3.8L MIVEC and $10,000 in long travel suspension from Australia on my “overland” Montero—but it’s safe to bet that’s never—ever—going to happen. 

No, today I’m scratching my vehicular modifications itch with scale RC. I have a $150 truck with about $150 in upgrades installed. A single battery charge gives me an hour or more of simple pleasure, be it in my backyard or on the side of a mountain. It’s tempting to hand the Redcat over to P and treat myself something a little more scale—the scale stuff is legitimately awesome these days if you didn’t know—but that level of detail starts pushing the price north of $500 and I just can’t justify it yet. 

Maybe, once I get my garage remodel done this winter, I’ll do a video series where I painstakingly restore my King Cab from the ground up. I think I’d do a better job this time. And, well, you know me and Nissan D21s…

Are you into RC? Whatcha got?
Wanna get into it, but don’t know where to start? Ask away below!

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  1. The body of the Redcat Everest does not look promising but its performance makes up for it. As the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover. Seeing how you’ve progressed from buying to modifying your own, creates a kind of self-fulfillment that can only be achieved by doing something you love.

    • I agree, Nancy. RC tech has come so far in the 30 years since I last played with them in earnest. It’s almost comical how difficult it can be to find the right body.

      I remember back in 1995, getting 10 minutes runtime out of a 7.2V NiCd pack that took 20 minutes to charge on a $300 Victor Engineering charger connected to my car battery with alligator clips. And needing a third battery to get just a half hour of fun. Redcat Everest gave me at least an hour right out of the box before I even plugged the charger in.

      The Everest is currently sidelined pending a transmission rebuild, but I’ve got a 1/24 Tamiya Montero and have been eyeing Axial SCX24s…

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