Meet The Adults Who Build Miniature Worlds So Their Meticulously-Crafted Toy Cars Will Look Real. I’m One Of Them.

Smallwonders

Do you remember when you fell in love with cars? If you’re anything like me, it happened long before you ever got near the driver’s seat of a real car. And, like me, the first objects of your affection were brightly-colored toy cars made from die-cast metal or injection-molded plastic, or — on that one Christmas morning — stamped steel, probably painted bright yellow. You opened the box, emblazoned with a logo from Tonka or Buddy-L or Ertl, and pulled out a thousand daydreams. You took it out to the sandbox and filled the bed with sand and then dumped it out again, over and over. You dug valleys and built hills and “drove” that little truck up and down again. It got scratched up and left out in the rain and started to rust around the edges, but that didn’t matter. You still loved it.

Most people leave behind the toy trucks when “real life” kicks in. We forget all those playground fantasies, the worlds we built in our heads. We lose track of the simple joys of childhood; it all gets pushed aside into a corner and beaten down by the responsibilities and stress of adulthood. But does it have to? Can’t we take just a little time, when we need a break, to just go play with a toy truck?

I certainly like to think so. And I’m not alone. An entire hobby-within-a-hobby has sprung up around highly scale-accurate radio controlled 4WD trucks, and backyard playgrounds in which to drive them. It’s toy trucks in a sandbox all over again, except that the trucks are hyper-realistic and self-propelled, and the sandboxes have to be seen to be believed.

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Photo credit: Richard Lutz

 

You Can’t Buy These At Wal-Mart

Scale RC trucks, or “scalers” as they’re often called, are about as far from the New Bright toys sold at big box stores as Paul Hollywood’s signature bread recipes are from Wonder Bread. You can buy ready-to-run trucks, or complete kits that need to be assembled, but they’re just a starting point. A whole cottage industry of companies offering parts and components for scale trucks exists: axles, transmissions, frames, wheels and tires, and body shells end up getting mixed and matched into exactly the truck you want. And the results can be stunning.

Anatomy of a scale RC truck

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Photo credit: me

 

If you’re familiar with RC model cars, this will all look familiar, but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick primer: A hand-held transmitter sends signals to a receiver mounted in the car. That signal is split into two (minimum) channels. One channel sends signals to a servo motor that works the steering, and the other sends signals to an electronic speed controller that controls the motor. One large battery powers the whole thing; these days it’s usually a two or three cell lithium-polymer battery. Everything is standardized and all works together across various manufacturers.

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Photo credit: me

Underneath is where it starts to look like a real truck: two solid axles, a four-link suspension system held up by coil-over shock absorbers, and a drag link for the steering coming down from the chassis. The vast majority of these trucks are full-time 4WD and have “spools” in the axles (no differentials) so all four wheels receive power at all times. These don’t need to turn corners on pavement, so diffs aren’t needed.

The truck shown above is a basic standard off-the-shelf kit, in this case a Carisma SCA-1E Coyote. But if you want to get more complicated, you certainly can:

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Photo credit: me
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Photo credit: me

This is Tamiya’s legendary Bruiser, or more accurately, the 2012 re-issue of it. Tamiya first introduced this chassis in 1981, with either a Toyota Hilux or a Chevrolet Blazer body. It is a near-perfect scale representation of a real 4WD truck chassis, with leaf springs on both cast-aluminum axles and an absolute gem of a gearbox. It’s a 3 speed manual, shiftable from the transmitter. First gear is 4WD, while second and third disconnect the front axle for RWD only. It’s fun to get this truck stuck, shift into 4WD, and watch it pull itself out.

Tamiya being a world-famous plastic model company also means that the top side of the Bruiser is just as realistic as the underside.

Bruiser Stairs
Photo credit: me. And no, it’s not finshed yet.

Of course, if you really want to take things to the next level, you need to build the body of the truck from scratch. Lots of different materials can be used for this: styrene or PVC plastic sheet is common, as is wood, carved into shape using a Dremel tool, then smoothed out, sealed, and painted. My own only successful scratch-build to date, the Series III Land Rover shown here, is aluminum, formed over wooden bucks that I carved into shape. The results aren’t bad, but I am at best a rank amateur at this.

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Photo credit: me. You’re looking at a few hundred hours of work spread out over five years. Editor’s note: Holy Crap.

Richard Lutz, known as “pardonmyn00b” in various places around the internet, called this “RC dollhouse” Toyota Chinook RV shown below  “the most pointless thing I ever built,” but to me, this truck, and that statement, captures everything that’s wonderful about this hobby. Spending countless hours at a workbench painstakingly recreating a vehicle down to the smallest details wouldn’t be considered productive by most people, but doing something difficult for the sheer joy of being able to sit back and admire it and think, “I did that,” is not pointless at all. It’s art for art’s sake, and it is its own point, and its own reward.

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Photo credit: Richard Lutz

 

Making A Tiny World For Tiny Trucks

Of course, unlike most art, scale RC trucks aren’t static. You can actually drive them, so you need a place to drive them. A highly-detailed scale truck, taken out of context, is a cool toy, but a scale truck driving along a scale gravel road, and pulling up in front of a scale gas station or garage, takes the experience to a whole new level.

Rocky River Farms

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Photo credit: Ron Crowder

 

“It’s a lot like model railroading,” says Ron Crowder, known as “2Beers” on the forums. His backyard course is a terraced, meandering series of dirt roads that wind through a 1/10 scale mining ghost town that he calls “Rocky River Farms.” Ron moved 40 yards of rocks and soil by hand, using only a shovel and a wheelbarrow, to create the terraces for the park, and he’s not done yet. Interspersed throughout the levels are several barns, shacks, garages, and a garage/service station, complete with its own fully-functional RC Model T Ford, all hand-made.

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Photo credit: Ron Crowder
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Photo credit: Ron Crowder
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Photo credit: Ron Crowder. The building on the left is about 2 feet tall, for reference.

 

Ron is an absolute master of scale building, particularly the difficult art of “weathering” — making things look old by careful application of paint finishes. Everywhere you look, there is some new detail, some added little bit of texture, just waiting to delight, all with picture-perfect patina.

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Photo credit: Ron Crowder. I swear he’s invented a shrink-ray or something.

Smiggin’s Folly

When Richard Lutz started building his backyard playground, known as “Smiggin’s Folly,” he was faced with the flat, featureless reality of suburbia, and had to build everything from the ground up. Dirt, rocks, concrete and chicken wire, dwarf trees and shrubs, and a massive amount of talent and commitment all add up to an absolutely delightful self-contained oasis of pure imagination that you would never expect in an Ohio back yard.

 

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Photo credit: Richard Lutz. The start of something amazing.

 

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Photo credit: Richard Lutz

 

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Photo credit: Richard Lutz. How do you make a scale-accurate forest? Dwarf trees.

 

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Photo credit: Richard Lutz
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Photo credit: Richard Lutz

Smiggin’s Folly is also a cinematographer’s dream, as you can see:

For reference, because there isn’t much to go by, that Jeep in the video is about 16 inches long.

My Miniature World

Both of these parks are many years in the making, but they, and many others, have inspired me to start working on my own little playground. My wife and I have been gradually re-landscaping the front of our house over the last couple of years, and I’ve been able to set aside a small area dedicated solely to scale RC trucks. All I have so far is a suspension bridge and a couple piles of rocks, but more details and obstacles are coming, and there’s still plenty of yard left to go.

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Photo credit: me

 

Garden walkways become gravel roads through the jungle, photographed at the right angle and seen through the lens of imagination.

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Photo credit: me

[Editor’s Note: You may have seen videos of scale models on YouTube that looked exactly like the real thing. Obviously, having incredibly-accurate vehicles and meticulously building a miniature world is part of it, but there’s also some trickery behind how the vehicles are shot, as small rocks/sticks/leaves tend to move differently than bigger ones with more inertia.

I asked Mark about that, and — after reaching out to Richard Lutz — he replied: “Shot at double frame rate and then displayed at half speed. Apparently most people started doing it that way a while ago and I didn’t realize it. I rarely shoot video of my own trucks, so I’m not up on all the tricks.” Not everyone does it, of course, but it can help make miniature worlds look like the full-sized one.

Hit up YouTube to find videos like the one above; sometimes it’s legitimately hard to tell that these are scale models!

-DT]

You Can Play, Too!

Of course, you don’t have to go this far to join in on the fun. There are plenty of good off-the-shelf options for trucks, either ready-to-run or in kit form, to get you started, and drive over whatever terrain you happen to have already. Or take it with you when you hike, or camp. These trucks aren’t fast – they typically top out at a brisk jogging pace – so you don’t need to worry about throwing dirt and gravel around or damaging plants when driving. And the challenge of learning how to drive one of these trucks well is rewarding. Take it easy, pick your line, keep it “shiny side up,” just like real 4WD trucks.

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Photo credit: me

 

If you get bitten by the bug, and want to really dive in, there are plenty of resources to help. The Scale Builder’s Guild and RCCrawler forums are chock-full of inspiration, information, tutorials, tips and tricks, and resources for building your perfect beast. Facebook groups can connect you with local clubs you can drive with. And if you want to get really serious, there are competitions at local, regional, national, and even international levels. (But you won’t see me there. Too many rules. I just want to build stuff and drive it around.)

The new frontier in the scale truck world is 3D printing. Everything from chassis parts to scale details to whole body shells are being designed in 3D CAD programs and emerging from spools of plastic filament. I myself just got a 3D printer last year, and haven’t had much time to work with it, but what i have done is encouraging. I’m not sure I prefer it to making things by hand, but it adds another dimension to the hobby. And because 3D printing is so open-source and community-based, it’s not hard to find files that are ready-to-print that someone else has already designed. 3D printing a part that someone else laid out lends a sense of community to a hobby that is often solitary.

3dp Shovel
Photo credit: me

 

I’ve just shown the tip of a very large iceberg here. The possibilities are staggering: multi-speed transmissions with selectable 2WD/4WD, remote-lockable diffs, and portal axles are all available, and trucks can range in size from teeny-tiny to gigantic, though most hover around 1:8-1:10 scale, approximately 18 inches long.

It’s a crazy, mixed-up, fast-paced world. Sometimes it helps to scale things down a bit, literally, and focus on a simple joy, like driving a toy truck around a miniature landscape. It’s important to make a little space to play.

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72 Responses

  1. This article, these comments; that’s why I’m here.

    As a kid, I was always disappointed in how RC cars flew around the room at a million miles an hour, and I just wanted something like my scale models (MPC, Monogram, AMT) that drove at scale speeds. I was so happy to discover crawlers a few years ago. I have an Axial SCX24, but I haven’t committed to it just yet… this has motivated me a bit.

  2. The whole concept of ‘weathering’ or ‘dirtying down’ is fascinating. I’m a big fan of the Gerry Anderson puppet series: ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Captain Scarlet’, ‘Stingray’, and the rest. His effects shop did pioneering work in miniature effects and the staff moved on to live action effects after the puppet shows finished. The head of the department was Derek Meddings and he won an Academy Award for the special effects in ‘Superman’. The last movie he worked on was ‘Goldeneye’. The helicopter and the MiG fighter jets in that movie were all miniatures; the MiGs were RC flying models about two feet long.

  3. Wow!! That was amazing, Mark! Thanks for sharing – I had no idea this miniature world existed. I love model trains, although I’ve never had the space, time or dedication to take up that wonderful hobby, but now I’ve got a new miniature world to get lost in, at least in YouTube videos.

    This is the sentence that amazed me the most, though: “Everything is standardized and all works together across various manufacturers.”
    Sigh – if only the real-world electric car manufacturers would take a lesson from this…

      1. I’ve found most adapters to be hot garbage. Unless I make it myself. But soldering on my preferred connector is the same or less work. And it’s one less failure point, along with one less thing to forget in the field box. For high amp draw applications like a 3D plane or a 4WD basher in grass adapters are an absolute no in my book.

        JST needs to go away and be replaced with XT30. Unless it’s a low amp thing with space limitations.

  4. The sheer amount of *work* that goes into stuff like this amazes me. You’d have to love doing it probably more than the actual finished product, because surely you’re going to spend a lot more time (and effort, and money) building your perfect scratch-made scale reproduction RC truck than you will actually driving it. Also, few other people are likely to appreciate the results as much as you are, so you’re really doing it for yourself, right? It’s all about the process of creation.

    Personally I could never do it. I’d hate it—not just what to me would feel like tedious minutia, but also the glacial pace, and the frustration of getting something not quite *exactly* right and then having to either live with it or go back several steps and try again. I’m not cut out for that sort of thing.

    Takes all kinds to make a world, though. Model building is a great hobby, even if to me my only reaction is just, “Hey, that’s neat, I bet someone put a lot of work into that,” and then moving on with my day. I respect the craftsmanship, I’m happy that there are people who love doing it, but I just can never quite get my head around the idea of pouring countless hours into something like this. But hey, we gotta occupy our time on this Earth somehow, and there are certainly worse ways!

  5. This is wonderful!!! 8yo me did the outdoor thing but with Matchbox/Hot Wheels cars. Being in the late 70s I didn’t have a smart phone to record. But a lot of M80s and Black Cat firecrackers were used and several Barbie’s destroyed. Ahh, the joy of decapitating a Barbie and gluing, said head on top of my 1974 Ford Ranger Matchbox brings on the feels.

    1. Long ago I and some other kids spent the icy part of a Michigan winter building a model fleet. Everything from an aircraft carrier down to PT boats. After the thaw, we took them to a pool at a gravel pit and absolutely destroyed the entire fleet. Cherry Bombs with a nut taped to them make great depth charges! Bottle rockets & M-80s are a lotta fun, but Roman Candles are awesome. I can’t believe they let a bunch of 8 to 11yo kids buy all that-but sure was fun.

      Only human blood drawn was when I hit a typical Michigan pothole on the way home & my knee caught the nut holding my ( way cool! ) ‘ape-hanger’ handlebars on when the bike stopped dead & I flipped over the front. Still have the scar; WAY worth it

  6. All I can think of is “wouldn’t David’s neighbors, and city code enforcement, love it if he took up these jeeps instead of the full size thing?”

    I love the craftsmanship, but I’d rather spend the time on something I can drive

  7. I started out riding my Tonka trucks down the hill near my house, playing with matchbox/hot wheels in the dirt, building models and eventually working on cars. It’s all fun. I recently got my son an RC Drift car that is 1:10 scale and very detailed. He’s a pro at drifting it already. We’ve had fullsize projects that always needed too much time and money to make right. This fills that void a bit. Thanks for a great article.

  8. R/C cars are cheaper than real cars but not by much. I think I’m in the $500 ballpark for my 1/10 scale drift car and it realistically still needs a new servo before I can focus on improving my skills and not just fighting the car. I haven’t made the plunge into 1/10 scale crawlers yet but the urge is always there, especially after I found out that they make a 4 door first gen Tacoma body. That was my first car and I’d love to make a crawler replica of it.

    For anyone that wants to mess around with crawlers but doesn’t want to spend the money for 1/10 scale or doesn’t have the room for it, 1/24 scale crawlers are getting more popular too. You can get an SCX24 for around $100-$150 that works well out of the box and has tons of aftermarket support. If you want more scale accuracy, there’s the Mini-Z crawler for around $200. I picked up the Mini-Z first gen 4-Runner right when they came out and the detail and build quality of the body is incredible. It’s a bit smaller than an SCX24 and isn’t quite as capable as one stock for stock but they’re still a lot of fun, especially when you get a bit more aggressive tire on there.

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  10. I’ve built a couple of Tamiya kits and I have a Traxxas Slash 4×4. The Slash is setup to run 65 mph, but you need 1000-2000 feet of empty street to get up to that speed. My Tamiya CR-01 rock crawler with an FJ-40 body is my favorite. It has lockable front and rear differentials, pushrod suspension, and it can be setup for 4 wheel steering. Those Tamiya kits aren’t for the faint of heart, it’s about as time consuming as a 5000 piece Lego technic set. Each took me more than 40 hours to finish. The number of aftermarket parts is astonishing, I’ve seen a machined aluminum complete chassis for a Traxxas Slash.

  11. While some scenes looked totally fake,i’m stunned at how good the best ones are! Well done guys.
    And the filmed-at-double-speed trick works quite well.

    Now someone add real 4×4 noises to these ! If done well – as in a real 4×4 doing a scaled up identical climb- the effect would be amazing !!!

  12. Instagram – @cheng.hank (Hank Cheng builds dioramas, not RC, not certain how to link to his stuff)

    I build wargaming models and terrain, so the miniature building side of these RC cars is impressive. I found inspiration from Hank’s detail work, and at such a tiny scale, to add small details to add more ‘daily life’ detritus to my builds. I imagine a map on a dash or passenger seat, weathering or rust at a rocker panel, etc. would fit in well.

    I bought a 1:10 scale Traxxas years ago to play with, maybe that can be my next one-off canvas….

  13. Years ago, when my son was 2 or 3, we fell down the YouTube rabbit hole of these sorts of super realistic scale RC builds, specifically the guys who do scale crawling, with gearing that lets them achieve very low wheel speeds.

    I loved seeing the closeups of some of their builds. I think there was a guy who had an RC Hilux that was identical to his real-life truck, not only in paint color, but all the way down to having tiny little versions of the same toolboxes, coolers, and tie-down straps in the bed.

    It is one of those hobbies that appeals to me as an artist with a high tolerance for tedium, but I avoid it out of fear that I might get too into it.

  14. I bought myself a drifting RC car recently and it’s fun but the speed of it scares me because man it’s easy to trash something in a collision. Since we moved to the country though I’ve been wanting something like these but I didn’t realize they got so realistic.. hmmm…

  15. I had an RC10 and Losi JRX2 back in the late 80’s. I bought a new RC10 RTR probably close to a decade ago now. The battery life improvements were amazing. In the 80’s I could get 8 minutes maybe per run. The LIPO batteries would go 40 minutes easy.

    As to the backyard miniatures, I would be afraid heavy rain, snow, wind, or animal would damage them. A stray tree branch falling and Rocky River Farms looks like a scene from a 70’s disaster movie.

    Your Land Rover appears to have better build quality than the real one…

    1. He does leave the buildings out year-round. Check out the link I posted to his build thread; there are some wonderful photos with an inch or two of snow on the buildings (which of course looks like a foot or two).

      As for the Land Rover, when I was building it, I was lamenting the fact that I couldn’t get some panel gaps to line up, and someone on the forum who owned a real Series III just said, “Pfft, that just makes it more scale.”

  16. If you want to dip a toe into these waters, a 1:24 scale vehicle like an Axial SCX24 comes ready to run for about $150. It’s nowhere near as detailed as Mark’s builds. The bodies are licensed and decently realistic for the price point. Out of the box they’re surprisingly capable. With a few mods to lower the CoG they get even more so. Just a lot of fun for the money, especially when it’s nasty outside.

    1. Yep, and you can fit plastic model kit bodies to them with a little work. 1/24 scale models are usually a little too small, but the Lindberg/AMT 1/20 truck bodies fit like a glove. I don’t have one yet, but I expect that will change soon.

  17. The video skills shown in these clips are impressive in their own right. Shooting at scale, there’s such a fine line between *damn that looks real* and *Sir Topham Hatt says I’m Really Useful*. I’m glad David asked his follow-up!

      1. Easy for me to tell you to put in those hours, but, maybe, you could write about it as you build? I’d absolutely read those articles.

        Also, as someone who was listed as a sheet metal mechanic until about a year ago, kudos on the Series III: that’s incredibly well done.

  18. These layouts remind me of G scale railroads. My Father in-law had his backyard landscaped with an entire logging railroad including a scratch built bridge 5′ long several shorter trestles and a water feature.
    This hobby can also escape the backyard since I once encountered an RC truck club doing a trail run along the Deschutes River while I was mountain biking.

  19. Man I love seeing scale photography that looks just like the full scale thing. I have done some stuff with my 1:64 scale vehicles but obviously you can’t shoot those like they’re full scale – no matter how detailed they are, something will look off. (Not that I haven’t tried, anyway, and fooled a few people at first glance.) All of this 1:10 scale stuff is absolutely amazing.

  20. Cool stuff!

    If I ever picked up the hobby, I think I’d go with a post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian theme. Could also double as a place to take photos for backgrounds on a sprite-based role playing game. Creator of the Final Fantasy series Hironobu Sakagucki used dioramas for his recent game Fantasian and what is being done in this article would be excellent source material for a similar project.

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