Of the three major categories of R/C vehicles (cars, airplanes and boats), electric cars are the easiest to break into. Easy, and a whole lot of fun. Without a certain amount of previous R/C experience, however, it can be a bit complicated to understand.
First, lets discuss the major difference between what makes a radio controlled car a “toy” or a “hobby”. What are often referred to as “toy” cars are the ones that you might see at a department store like Target or Radio Shack. These R/C cars are pre-built, mass produced, self contained units that are not designed to be taken apart by the owner, or fixed in the event of an accident. Generally speaking, once you drive a toy car down the stairs it’s broken forever. Toy cars are the ones most commonly advertised on television, and probably have some sort of gimmick that appeals to little kids (the ability to flip over, claws that come out of the wheels, etc). When buying a toy car, you often have to beware of misleading advertising on the boxes. For instance, the term radio control most certainly refers to a car that relies on radio signals to control it. The term remote control can mean several things. It can mean that it’s either radio controlled, or it can mean that it’s attached by a long wire. Technically, a 12ft wire still allows you to control the car at a remote distance.
Hobby cars, even if pre-built from the manufacturer, are designed to be taken apart, rebuilt and upgraded. Hobby cars offer an almost endless level of customization. You’ll rarely see these cars advertised on television, most often only seeing them in hobby related magazines.
Now let’s look at what to expect when you’re ready to plunk some cash down and get into the hobby.
Cars come in two forms, pre-built and “kit”. Pre-built cars are just like they sound, assembled by the manufacturer, and pretty much ready to drive right out of the box. Some Pre-built cars include the radio transmitter that you’ll be holding in you hands. Pre-built cars make things a lot easier for the consumer, but limit the amount of customization that would otherwise be available. Often, the radio included with these cars are sub-par, to make the over all package cheaper.
Kit cars come as a whole lot of separate pieces, and will have to be assembled by the hobbiest. Entry level kit cars, will often include a basic speed-control (basically a throttle) and motor. Higher end, professional kits, will usually not include a motor or speed-control, because the manufacturer assumes the hobbiest will want to select these themselves. Even the most basic of kit cars are not intended for indoor use, and run at 20+ MPH.
For your first car, I highly recommend a kit car. They don’t take a high level of skill to put together, and it will make you much more self reliant when it comes time to upgrade or repair your car. Tamiya makes a wide variety of easy to assemble, off and on-road cars, all designed for the beginning hobbiest. Tamiya cars are probably the best selling, and they produce a selection of monster trucks that have high appeal for younger kids. Tamiya cars almost always include a manual speed control and motor.
The radio consists of two parts: the transmitter, which you’ll be holding in your hands, and the receiver, which will be in the car. Most radio controls will be 2-channel, which means that they can operate two different servo motors. These servos control forward, reverse, and steering. There are two common designs for the radio. One looks not unlike a video game controller, where you use your thumbs to manipulate control sticks. This form is often easier for kids to control, simply because they are already somewhat familiar with the layout from all the video games they play. Adult tend to prefer the “gun” style of controller, which looks somewhat like a futuristic weapon with a steering wheel on the side. This format is more intuitive to real car drivers.
Battery and Battery Charger
Most R/C car electric motors will operate off of a 6-cell, 7.2 volt battery. There is a variety of higher voltage and increased cell batteries, but these are generally intended for a more experienced hobbiest. Using a fast-charger, these batteries take about 20 minutes to charge, and will run for 7-8 minutes. Most people will purchase several batteries, and simply keep a queue of fully charged batteries at hand.
Battery chargers come in a variety of forms. You’ll definitely want to get a fast-charger, to limit the amount of waiting you do between battery charges. Cheaper fast-chargers run off a timer, and a little bit of guess work is required to set the right length of time to charge the battery. When using a timer based charger, it’s best to run the battery until it’s completely empty before charging. It’s also possible, though fairly difficult, to over charge your battery.
Peak-chargers automatically detect the level of juice in your battery, and stop charging when capacity is reached. More often then not, peak-chargers require nothing more then then the push of a button to perform their duty. Peak chargers are NOT faster then timer based chargers, but are easier to use and generally not too much more expensive.
When all is said and done, you should be able to get an entry level R/C car up and running for around $200. Mind you, that price tag is based around mail-order prices, but any reasonable hobby shop should be able to set you up for that price. If their aren’t any hobby shops in your area, try www.towerhobbies.com.