Building a Retro RC Racer: The Kyosho Optima

By Terry Dunn

You don't have to scour thrift stores or eBay to own a retro RC racer. Several companies have re-opened the production lines for a selection of 80s-era kits.

It's a little funny to think that there are such things as "classic" RC cars, but it's true. Off-road RC racing really blossomed during the 1980s. Many of the popular designs from that era are now sought after by collectors. These enthusiasts restore their machines with the same attention to detail that one might dote on a numbers-matching 1969 Charger Daytona.

You don't have to scour thrift stores or eBay to own a retro RC racer. Several companies have re-opened the production lines for a selection of 80s-era kits. You can find classics from Tamiya, Associated Electrics, Schumacher, and others. Kyosho has actually reintroduced several of their legacy off-roaders. There is the Scorpion, Turbo Scorpion, Tomahawk, Beetle, and the low-slung model you see here: the Optima. I always wanted an Optima as a kid. It just took me a few decades to get my hands on one!

About the Optima

The Optima was introduced in 1985. At the time, it was a revolutionary design for 4-wheel-drive racing. It spawned a long line of descendants that remained popular and competitive for many years.

Kyosho's re-release of the Optima ($300) is not a carbon copy of the original. It's mostly the same, but a few concessions have been made to reflect modern RC norms. For instance, ball bearings were an upgrade on the original Optima, but they now come as standard equipment.

The Kyosho Optima represented cutting-edge racing technology when it was first introduced in 1985. The modern re-release has only a few minor changes.

There were certainly powerful motors back in the day, but modern systems kick the horsepower potential up a few notches. Kyosho implemented a couple of changes to accommodate monster set-ups. The transmission now includes a slipper clutch that protects the driveline from heavy power surges. The clutch also helps to improve traction. Additionally, the kit includes both the original chain drive system and an upgraded belt drive.

There are no factory-assembled components here. The Optima is packaged today just as it was 30+ years ago. You get a box full of aluminum and nylon components that you put together piece by piece. It also comes with a clear Lexan body that must be painted. Don't look at the assembly process as a chore. Take your time and enjoy the experience. It's all part of the fun.

Building the Optima

If you've never built an RC car before, the Optima is a good place to start. The 40-page manual includes a very useful parts index. Everything is easy to identify. All of the hardware is organized into specific bags, blister packs, or parts trees. It's almost as if Kyosho has knolled everything for you.

Most of the tools that you will need are provided. This includes some specialty tools that proved very useful. Consumables such as shock oil, grease, and thread-locker are also in the box. The only things I used from my workshop were basic hand tools and thin CA adhesive for the tires.

This wrench is among the included custom tools that simplify assembly and maintenance.

The manual breaks down everything into manageable bite-size chunks. It is illustrated with clear line drawings are easy to understand. Some of the written instructions are translated poorly, but they're superfluous anyway. There were some instances where I either overlooked part of a step or installed something incorrectly. In all cases, my error was soon obvious. So I backtracked and did things the correct way.

You'll have a few choices to make as you progress through the build. I like the nostalgia of the chain-drive system, so I went with that instead of the belt drive. There are also large and small bumpers. I originally went with the small piece, but later decided that I liked the extra protection of the larger unit. Some of the most important choices you'll have to make revolve around the radio and power system. No electronics are included, so you can go in any direction you like.

The Optima's assembly manual is methodical and well-illustrated. This would be a good kit for first-time builders.

I covered most of my electronic needs with Kyosho's 4WD starter pack ($100). It includes a 2-channel 2.4GHz pistol-grip radio system with a mini receiver. There is also a KS4081-06W waterproof steering servo and 45-amp ESC for brushed motors. The final element of the starter pack is a 20-turn brushed motor. If I ever decide to upgrade to a brushless system, I'll only need to replace the motor and ESC.

You will also need to add either a 6-cell NiCAD/NiMH or 2-cell LiPo battery. Pay very close attention to the maximum battery dimensions listed in the manual (140 x 50 x 25mm). All of my NiMH batteries fit fine. Yet, none of my LiPo and A123 cells would fit. I'm sure there are LiPo options that will work in the Optima, but it is not a given.

The Optima can handle modern brushless motors. However, I used a brushed motor from Kyosho's 4WD starter kit. Note that I soldered the ESC wires directly to the motor.

I was able to remove excess wire and needless connectors by soldering the ESC's motor wires directly to the motor tabs. I also snipped off the ESC's on/off switch and soldered the wires together. Now the system is armed as soon as I plug in the battery. I was pleasantly surprised by how clean and tidy the electronics installation could be.

Assembling a well-designed kit like the Optima is fun. Take your time and enjoy the process.

Overall, the build process progressed very smoothly. I did not have any issues with poorly-made or ill-fitting parts. Everything went together just as it should. The only areas where I improvised were very minor. I secured the antenna tube into its mount with a small dab of GOOP adhesive. I also used GOOP to lock the Velcro battery straps to the chassis. Otherwise, they will fall free each time you loosen them to remove the battery.

I didn't keep a detailed build log, but I estimate that I spent between 7 and 8 hours assembling the mechanical parts of the Optima.

There is limited space for mounting the battery. So double-check the specs before choosing a specific pack for the Optima.

Painting the Optima

The clear Lexan body included with the Optima looks just like the original. I wouldn't normally replicate the box-art paint job on a body. I like to do my own thing when it comes to painting. But this is an Optima. That body and the flagship paint job are kind of iconic in the RC world. So I made an exception in this case.

Kyosho includes a huge set of decals that lets you recreate the box art in a streamlined way. All you have to do is paint the inside of the body white. The yellow, blue, and black sections are decals that can be added to the outside of the body. There are a lot of compound curves. So it may be tough to get the decals to lay down flat. It's probably worth a shot, however, if you want the classic color scheme and don't enjoy painting. Although the decal option was tempting, I do like painting. So I ignored the panel decals and used paint.

The driver figure must be assembled and painted. It adds a nice scale touch while also hiding the receiver and wiring.

I soon realized that the Optima's color scheme is deceptively complex. Not only is it 4 different colors, but the borders tend to follow body contours. It all makes for a lot of masking and intricate detail work. Keep in mind that you have to paint in reverse, applying the darkest colors first. If you've never painted an RC car body before, check out my painting tips from an earlier article.

Kyosho includes precut masking tape for the windows…that's handy. I also appreciate that the outside surface of the body has a peel-away clear protective layer. So, I didn't have to worry about overspray while painting. I used green Frog Tape for all of the interior masking.

When painting RC car bodies, it is important to use paints made specifically for Lexan. Most other paints will not adhere properly. They'll flake off whenever the body flexes (and that happens a lot). I've been using Duratrax's R/C car paint for a few years and I like it. Since there were no fade effects to apply on the Optima, I went with rattle cans rather than my airbrush.

I used Duratrax RC car paint to replicate the classic Optima paint scheme. It's a lot of work, but I think the results are worth it.

The kit also includes a driver figure that remains attached to the chassis. The bust is made of clear Lexan, while the head is a 2-piece unit made of injection molded plastic. I painted these pieces at the same time I painted the body. Testors plastic model paint worked well for detailing the driver's face and eyes. I made a silly mistake and began painting the seat belts and other details on the exterior of the bust before realizing that it too has an outer protective layer. I peeled it off and started over. As a final step, I applied a thin black wash to the driver to make him appear a little dirty.

I invested several hours painting the body and driver. I then trimmed the body to fit properly. Special curved Lexan scissors help a lot when trimming. I also added a selection of sponsor decals to the outside of the body. I could then step back and admire my new old buggy.

Start Your Engines

The Optima is no static model. It was made to run! In my next article, I'll tell you about driving it at the local RC racetrack and bashing it around my neighborhood. The RC world has evolved a lot since the Optima was first introduced. So we'll see how well this legacy machine holds up in the modern era.

Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.