Although the first remote-controlled cars arrived on shelves in the mid-1960s, early hobbyists started adding motors to small plastic models in the 1950s. Even though small nitromethane engines were available in the 1940s, and radio control technology was used in World War II, radio control was not truly commercially viable until the advent of the transistor. As transistors revolutionised electronics, smaller, more simple and less power-intensive radio control systems appeared. Shortly after this, hobbyists began making simple remote-controlled cars that could only run on roads, sidewalks or car parks. However, it was not long before companies started releasing models to the general public.
The Early Days
In 1966, an Italian company, Elettronica Giocattoli, produced the first remote-controlled car, a Ferrari 250LM. They followed it up with a Ferrari P4 two years later. These model cars were imported into British stores, and it was not long before UK companies got into the act. By the 1970s, British companies also produced remote-controlled cars.
The 1970s saw the rise of several U.S. remote-controlled car companies such as Associated Electrics, Wencon and Delta Systems. The technology also improved as more manufacturers jumped into the ring. Engines went from single to double-piston, and in 1974, the first purely electric remote-controlled cars reached the market. Possibly the most famous remote-controlled car manufacturer was the Japanese company Tamiya, which in 1974 released the electric Porsche 934 Turbo model.
As more people took up the hobby, organised races began to appear. In 1979, Geneva held the first 1/8th scale On-Road Gas World Championship. Tamiya also made waves in 1979 when it released the Sand Scorcher and Rough Rider, two dune buggy models that could go off road. When enthusiasts were no longer limited to paved roads, remote-controlled cars were poised to take off in the 1980s.
Remote-controlled cars exploded in the 1980s, and as more people bought them, the number of organised races increased. The 1/12 World Championship was held every two years, and it wasn't uncommon to see 400 entrants in a major race. Cars continued getting faster as the decade went on, and Tamiya developed the first four wheel drive remote-controlled car, the HotShot.
Remote-controlled cars maintained their popularity in the 1990s, but as cars became faster they required more advanced components, and the top-line cars became increasingly expensive. As a result, enthusiasts began going back to the informal car park races that arose in the previous decade. Cars also became smaller during this time, with sizes falling from 1/10 to 1/12 to 1/18.
Today, remote-controlled cars, while still popular, are starting to fade out. There are still organised races and new models hitting the shelves, but there are fewer entrants than in their heyday in the 1980s. The technology for such cars, however, continues to improve. Electric cars now feature brushless motors and lithium-ion batteries; electric motors are stronger, more reliable and quieter; and nitro-powered cars feature larger, more powerful engines. Despite the smaller number of large-scale organised races, you can still find enthusiasts on bike paths and in parks on the weekends, racing against each other informally and having fun with their remote-controlled cars.