Remote Control Cars (22nd February 2009)

Dad drove me to meet a nearby neighbour: an elderly dad and his son. The dad had bought a pair of remote control cars for his son but they needed more space to try them out. The facility where my dad works has several car parks, so that’s where he was driving us.

We chatted about this and that on the way. The guards opened the gate for us without and hassle since my dad is very well-known there.

Selecting a Location

Whilst driving to the first car park, I spotted a smooth and long stretch of tarmac outside one of the buildings. “How about there?” I asked. We cruised into it and had a look. I suggested we continue to check the others, then we could choose the best one.

The others had pine needs, leaves and twigs. The cars are rugged but letting them run on a smooth surface would be easier to control and we’d get higher speeds.

Start Your Engines!

We unloaded the cars and equipment. The electric just needed the battery plugged in and the controls trimmed. Then it was ready to go, so the son started getting used to how it drove.

The dad now set up the workmate ready to start the other car, which used a nitro mix. Apparently they usually hold the car on a brick then pull the start cord until it fires up but the brick had been forgotten. My dad and I found a concrete cuboid which was just narrow enough for the car to straddle it.

This was the first time I’d seen a model internal combustion engine up close and I was surpised how simple it was. Being air-cooled, self-lubricating and having an unpressured fuel system meant all the pumps, pipes and usual gubbins of a full-sized car engine were absent. It was basically a big cylinder, a plastic fuel tank and the transmission.

The dad primed the fuel system and let the son play with the electric car.

The Son Drives Electric

He got to grips with it fast, starting out at low speed to understand the range of turns which would fit in the available space.

The sun was shining but the wind was rather chilly cold. One of the first fine days of the year, though.

After several minutes he was easily at full throttle and reaching the top speed in straight lines.

My 1st Drive

The son had given me the controller to try driving. I cautiously accepted it and walked some way off, to a spot where various stains on the tarmac formed a complex pattern.

The first thing I noticed is the car pulled away in a curve to the left. We later realised the steering trim was a couple of notches out to the left. After correcting this it ran straight and true.

The turning circle was pretty narrow and the steering was pretty fast. The controller used a wheel and the servos only turned the steering as far as the wheel turned. This seems pretty standard; I remember a friend from secondary school had a similar system for the rudder of a boat. It works very well.

It had four wheel drive and front wheel steering (4×4×2). Even with unequal-length independent wishbones with coil-over-damper suspension all round, it had a fair amount of understeer. Still, the roadholding and direction changes were impressive. As was the acceleration…this thing really shifted!

After several minutes I started clipping the apex of turns and balancing the steering between high turn rates and scrubbing off speed. I set out an imaginary course by joining up distant dots on the tarmac.

I can see how this becomes a hobby. But as I told my dad afterwards, going to an RC club where a bunch of sad old men with their spouseless sons mess about with these toys seemed unproductive. When I go out I like to do interesting things with people. (And to people, for that matter!)

Petrol Pwnage

Once the fueled car had been started, the dad came over and asked I stop using the electric one. A collision would have been pretty lame, especially with both vehicles costing about £200!

To start with, the son didn’t understand how to steer because it used a stick rather than a wheel. (Although middle-aged, his mental age is lower due to problems at birth. He has the shyness and quietness of a kid, which is actualy quite sweet.)

After this was explained out, he began driving little circuits in the cautious way I had done with the electic car. He got the hang of it quickly and was soon blipping the throttle to check the acceleration.

Wow. You can tell it was running a nitrous blend! It literally screamed at the slightest hint of throttle, darting off like a missle. I can well believe the manufacturer’s claims of 40mph! Far too scary for me, especially as it wasn’t mine.

It was so fast that there was no way to turn 180° in the carpark without slowing down a lot first. Still, the car park was plenty long enough to experiment with the top speed down its length.

After quite some time, the fuel ran out. So they returned the car to the workmate, took the body off and let it cool for a while.

My 2nd Drive

The electric car still had some battery life, so they gave it to me for a bit. After a couple of minutes the dad came over and observed the speed was down. I hadn’t really noticed since it happens gradually. But, sure enough, it prompty slowed to a crawl.

It had been using their best rechargable battery, so they switched it over to the cheaper one. Apparently the good one was was the 2nd-best available and this was the 4th. The difference in price was 30 versus about 8.

Once fitted, there was some confusion since the car went backwards when using throttle. Eventually I figured out the throttle trim had been nudged while holding the controller, so the car was actually trying to reverse until the throttle was squeezed a long way down. Once re-trimmed it was all fine, as evidenced by it being silent when the throttle was in the neutral position.

Long Road

By this time the nitro car was ready to be used again so I went over to observe it being started. My dad also showed up. The car proved very difficult to restart but, eventually, they got it going.

As before, the dad didn’t want both cars running in the same area. So I offered to use the access road which ran alongside the carpark. He agreed and I started by walking its length, kicking the few stones and twigs into the gutters.

After a few runs up and down the road, I felt confident enough to run at full speed. It’s surpising how delicate one must be with the steering to avoid getting into a left-right slalom. So much easier in video games, where the best steering angle is partly worked out for you!

After several high-speed runs I started doing deliberate lane changes between alternate road markings. Being accurate and controlled was difficult but the road was plenty wide enough while I learned.

Sooner than I expected, the speed dramatically reduced. So I walked back to a junction and did some more precision work at lower speeds until the main motor would no longer turn.

The steering servo continued to function and I noticed the change in steering angle is exaggerated as the control wheel moves closer to its limits. This permits fine control for slight steering at high speed and fast direction changes at low speed. Very clever bit of kit!

Nitro Finale

Eventually the nitro car started and the son immediately picked up from where he stopped last time.

The dad had brought a digicam to film the events but his eyesight wasn’t quite up to the job. So, flattered by his invitation to let me film, I had a go. The chilly wind made my camerawork very shaky at the start but it gradually smoothed out.

I spent a long time trying to track the vehicle. This is much harder than you’d think! It’s given me a newfound appreciation for the professionalism of the motorsports camera operators on Eurosport.

I also filmed the son operating the vehicle, getting both the vehicle and the son in a few wide shots.

After shooting 3 scenes a couple of minutes long, I turned it off and claimed “That’s a wrap!”

The fuel in the car lasted several more minutes, so the dads and I chatted.

Packing Up

After everything was loaded back into dad’s truck, we headed back to our neck of the woods. This was the first social thing I’d done all year and it was cool to hang around with our neighbours.

Hopefully the video isn’t too wobbly!