Maybe Petrolheads Aren’t an Endangered Species After All

by James Mills
8 February 2024 4 min read
Maybe Petrolheads Aren’t an Endangered Species After All
Photos courtesy James Mills

Do you remember what got you hooked on cars? For me it was two things: a Corgi model of a BMW M1 Procar in BASF livery, which took pride of place amongst the toy box car collection, and a Renault 5 Turbo II model (the brand long-since departed from my fading memory) that was given the full ‘rally treatment’ with scratches and dents to add an authentic, limping-to-the-finish-line look of a Monte Carlo veteran.

Hours and hours could be lost to staging races, rallies, car chases, and even battles against toy soldiers and tanks. For today’s children, those hours are mostly lost to gadgets, namely the PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch, which lure kids like sirens beckoning sailors toward the rocks.

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There were no such problems in my day. In the late ‘70s, our family’s first computer game was Pong, played on a Binatone console. It was fun for about five minutes, and then it wasn’t. The following decade, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K wowed us with its freedom to load up any game you bought on cassette – but, much to our frustration after waiting for 10 minutes for the loading to complete, you got an error message, usually because the portable tape player’s batteries were running out of juice and the motor had been driving too slowly.

tired eyes

Now, my 10-year-old son waits mere seconds for a PS5 to wake from its slumber, before diving into an immersive world of online gaming with friends that is powered by 16 gigabytes of random-access memory. The original Space Shuttle used just one megabyte.

Dragging him away from Fortnite is more challenging than navigating a smooth path along our pothole-strewn roads. That presents a dilemma: How do I entice him into the world of cars? Should I, even? Perhaps you’ve wrestled with this, too, be it with your children, nieces, nephews, or grandchildren? Or maybe you’ve read gloomy predictions of how petrolheads are a dying breed?

In the build-up to Christmas, I’d been pondering this dilemma, before a potential spark ignited my combustion chamber. What about building a Tamiya radio-controlled car together? When I still wore jeans sporting patches sewn over their knees (in corduroy, naturally, for maximum embarrassment factor), the Tamiya Grasshopper was the smash hit of the radio-controlled car scene. It was purposely designed to be more affordable, simpler to build, and easier to drive than any previous Tamiya kit, and it worked. To this day, says Tamiya, it remains a bestseller. Guess what Santa left under the tree for Henry?

Tamiya Grasshopper RC box

To my pleasant surprise, a Grasshopper and all the kit you’ll need for a turn-key driving experience is no more than £150. That includes the assembly kit, some rudimentary tools and grease, a gearbox, electric motor, battery pack and charger, radio receiver, and the radio controller. All you have to bring to the table is enthusiasm and, if you’re a 50-year-old bloke with eyesight that’s more halogen than xenon, a head torch.

Pleasingly, the Grasshopper passed the litmus test once Henry had demolished the wrapping and unboxed the Tamiya bundle. He brought enough enthusiasm for the pair of us, and no sooner had the Christmas guests departed Mills Towers than we set to work on figuring out how to build a Grasshopper – not quite so simple when the pair of you (well, I speak for myself) are mechanical numpties.

A quick spot of research suggested seasoned Tamiya builders recommend buying a set of steel ball bearings to replace the plastic items that come with the kit, as well as a Tamiya set of model-making tools designed to Japanese Industrial Standards. With an impatient 10-year-old at my side and the bank balance smarting from Christmas, these would have to wait for another time. And who needs a posh modelling mat when the breadboard will do just as well?

Experienced hands estimated it would take six to seven hours to have the kit built. We probably spread it out over 10 single-hour sittings, following as best we could the instruction manual that is likely clearer to Japanese users than it is to English speakers. And if we got stuck, we turned to YouTube, in particular FastFreddieRC.

Tackling things stage by stage, Henry had a go at everything, from wielding a Stanley knife to assembling and greasing a gearbox. Some gentle prompts about perseverance and patience were initially required, but the more the dune buggy–inspired model took shape, the more he wanted to take on the responsibility of completing every task himself.

Clearly, I’m not pretending this was an especially challenging kit to build, but why throw a 10-year-old into the deep end if they haven’t yet learnt to swim? They won’t come back for more. The only sticking points were the wiring of the speed controller and steering – because the instructions are in black and white and the wiring diagrams bore little resemblance to what was in front of us – and stretching the chunky back tyres onto the split-rim wheels. In the end, like manipulating a tyre onto a bicycle wheel, a fork handle gave the leverage that fingers lacked.

The first test drive threw up a quickly rectified problem – the wiring for the controller’s throttle and steering sticks was the wrong way round. Then it was off to the local forest …

Tamiya Grasshopper RC Henry Mills

Now, to you and I, 11mph may not seem quick, but to a young lad who’s just finished building his first radio-controlled car, it’s as fast as NASA’s Juno probe being flung toward Jupiter at 165,000mph. Soon he was absorbed by setting up Scandinavian flicks, doing donuts, and perfecting the skill of steering in the right direction as the car is driving toward you.

Now he wants to build a more powerful, four-wheel-drive Tamiya Porsche 911 RSR that’s been under my desk for a handful of years. I can’t wait to lend a hand and see where this all leads to. Perhaps petrolheads aren’t as endangered as they say.

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  • Chris Pollard says:

    Our union bar at University in London in the early ’70s had an arcade Pong, and we played it for hours, to the accompaniment of the world’s oldest and most scratched recording of Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla on the nearby, real, juke box. A simpler life. Happy memories.

  • James Mills says:

    I reckon a lot of people would be happy with that union bar setup today, Chris!

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