Ever read a book or news article, or watched a TV special about “Classic Toys”? If you have, chances are it mentioned famous names like Lego, Cabbage Patch Kids, The Slinky, Meccano, Scalextric, Transformers and so on… but made no mention of Tamiya, Tyco, Nikko, or R/C toys at all for that matter. Why aren’t they included?
Sales figures for 1980s toys are tough to calculate. But if you grew up in that era, chances are you either had or wanted an R/C toy of some kind. And that goes for a lot of girls as well as boys. R/C toys were so ubiquitous that almost every child’s bedroom contained at least one – be it some tiny vehicle with limited functions, or a big and expensive hobby kit.
Even many of the major toy brands and licenses, such as Barbie and Star Wars, hopped on the R/C bandwagon for a while during the 1980s, to expand the play options of their vehicles. This made it possible to give your dolls and action figures their own form of transport. While classic diecast model brands like Matchbox and Corgi also had a go, creating their first R/C vehicles. Meanwhile at the serious end, the hobby of racing radio controlled cars evolved into a sport on a professional scale.
All this, and yet R/C cars never seem to be considered one of the “classic”, “top” or “favourite” types of toys to appear in recent decades. Why do I say this? Well, because the general public seems to only remember other specific toy brands.
I suppose R/C cars are a category of toy, whereas say – Lego – is a specific brand.
And when formulating a list of familiar toys for people to reminisce about, it makes sense to mention Lego, Meccano, Barbie and so on – all iconic leaders of the toy industry in past decades, that became synonymous with their own product.
But that distinction between brands and categories hasn’t stopped other generalized categories from being hailed as all-time “classic toys”. And besides, aren’t “Tamiya cars” iconic enough by now, to be mentioned in any list of classics?
To illustrate my point a bit better, a few years ago there was a lengthy TV special in the UK called “100 Greatest Toys”, hosted by Jonathan Ross. I think it was a couple of hours long.
Lists like these are never going to please everyone of course. And you can read the full list of 100 toys here. Scalextric, Hornby Trains and lots of other motorized hobby toys were mentioned and fawned over. But before we say “those were all specific brands”, what about #23 on the list – “Teddy bear”? That’s about as non-specific as you can get.
“100 Greatest Toys” was just one of dozens of TV specials, documentaries, books and articles I’ve seen over the years that make no mention of R/C cars, when summing up the “classic toys” of history.
So here are a few more I’ve come across…
Recent years have seen a spate of toy nostalgia TV specials, particularly in the UK.
Examples include “James May’s Top Toys” (2005), “James May’s My Sister’s Top Toys” (2007), “James May’s Toy Stories” (2009 – 2014) – all hosted, as if you couldn’t tell, by Top Gear presenter James May.
James’ love of toys is well known. But despite being a car nut and having hosted enough toy based TV shows to fill up an entire day’s viewing, has he ever mentioned or profiled R/C toys or cars? Not even once, as far as I can recall.
“The Toys That Made Christmas” (2011) was another lengthy TV documentary that attempted to sum up all the great toys, specifically from Christmases past, with the help of lots of TV celebrities. But again, barely a mention was made of R/C cars.
“Totally Tubular 80s Toys” is a lovingly conceived, beautifully photographed, and large book that I really enjoyed. But despite everything, and despite it’s size and detail, it’s quite typical of many books about “classic toys” in that – R/C cars are nowhere to be found.
Other examples include books such as “100 Classic Toys”, “Toy Time!”, “Timeless Toys”, “Collecting Gadgets & Games” and “Just Can’t Get Enough:Toys, Games, and Other Stuff from the 80s that Rocked”.
None of these books make any mention of R/C toys whatsoever.
So what if I’m wrong? Maybe R/C cars were never big sellers? And were never “up there” among the most popular toys of say, the 1980s?
Let’s go back to the 1980s then. Specifically, to Christmas in the 80s. And have a look at some of the news of the day.
Here’s an article from the Sydney Morning Herald on December 15, 1985, talking about the hottest and most expensive toys for Christmas that year…
That’s the Tamiya Frog in the picture. And to quote the article:
Among the most popular toys this year are the remote controlled and battery operated vehicles like the Animal and Tamiya models.
Here’s another from Christmas 1986. The red box highlights the important bit about R/C toy sales at the time…
And again, also from 1986…
And again at Christmas in 1988…
Tamiya and Tyco R/C cars were so popular in the 1980s, they were considered huge drawcards for retailers – right alongside Cabbage Patch Kids, Lego, Transformers, Masters Of The Universe and all the other favourites. And it wasn’t just a one-year craze. They were consistent top-sellers, year after year.
In Australia in 1987, the Tamiya Fox sold in the order of some 50,000 units.
To put that into perspective, about 0.3% of the Australian population of that time (about 16million people) purchased a Tamiya Fox. And that was just the Fox. It doesn’t include the Hornet, Frog or any of the other popular Tamiya models that were available at the time. Let alone all the other R/C brands, across both toy and hobby grade categories.
From 1986 to 1987, the Metro Jet Hopper sold in the order of 280,000 units in Australia. Enough for 1.7% of the population to own one. And I’m sure the figures were similar in the USA, UK, Germany, Japan and other places that went R/C-crazy during those years.
Fast forward to today, and the same Newspaper company in Australia that published all those articles (above) recently threw together a large “classic toys” nostalgia gallery. And well… R/C cars from Tamiya or anyone else, were quietly forgotten.
It’s always about plastic figures, dolls, and other obvious toy icons like the Rubik’s cube.
Has anyone got it right?
Well no, not really.
But to end on a slightly positive note, I can think of two examples of books that didn’t completely forget/ignore/not-bother/fail-to-research the 1980s properly, and notice that just about everyone either had (or wanted) an R/C car of some kind.
One is “TV Cream Top Toys”, a pretty enjoyable book which managed to include a whole page dedicated to the radio controlled Matsushiro Kit 2000 from Knight Rider – a popular toy released back when the TV show was one of the coolest things on TV.
The other is the book “FAO Schwarz Toys For A Lifetime”, which chronicles toys as seen from the vantage point of the famous old US toy store. This book manages to include a short chapter on R/C cars. Unfortunately, it also messes R/C toy history quite badly. For example (this is a direct quote):
Prior to 1986, radio controlled vehicles weren’t available in toy stores.
…er, say what? That’s not true. (I could give a hundred examples, but here’s a page full of R/C cars in the 1981 Wards Christmas catalogue for a distinctly American one). But nevertheless, at least they made an effort, praising the Tyco Turbo Hopper, Fast Traxx and Typhoon Hovercraft among others, for being both game-changers and big-sellers (which they were).
Still no mention of Tamiya in either of these books though.
Finally, a special mention should also go to Pixar. The Toy Story series of animated films always had “RC”, and while not a lead (or talking) character, he certainly had a few huge moments in those films.
John Lasseter and the rest of the Toy Story crew knew that Andy’s bedroom had to contain an RC buggy among all those toys. And Toy Story (and it’s sequels) are undoubtedly the most iconic films ever made about toys.
But if anyone has seen any other good articles, galleries, books or anything else about “classic toys” in which R/C toys aren’t forgotten – be sure to let me know!
I’ve been looking for books too here in the states only to have one I found in the 90’s dedicated only to R/C its actually a hard cover nicely done with all our modeling aspects covered as far as land, sea and air. I think its time someone write a new book for us hard core collecting fans.
Hi Terry, yes there have been the odd specialist R/C books over the years (there were a few small ones in the 1980s), and they are mostly about serious modeling and/or serious racing. Alas I’m still on the hunt though for any books or media aimed at the general layman, that give a proper nod to the popularity of R/C toys/cars, same as is given to most other toys 🙂
I collect just a few of the unique hobby kits that were available in the 80’s, 90’s and some early 2000. My latest is Robbe Testarrosa on eBay you might have seen it over the last year. I paid a high price but I don’t mind I’ve wanted it for years. I’ll try to post picks if I figure out how to
That is a pretty rare one! Don’t see too many Robbe brand models around, except in Europe.
You can see some of my collection on my YouTube channel Thetoymanbb
Ironically, I remember a Tamiya magazine ad from the late 80’s saying ‘Toys, they’re not’. Maybe the authors of these books have taken that literally. I guess we are sometimes victims of our own language. When we categorise these (Tamiya mostly) models as Hobby-grade as opposed to Toy-grade, are we not also buying into the notion that they are not really toys? I know the expense of the Tamiya kits really pushed them above the toy pricing threshold and crossed them off the Christmas lists of many of my friends. Quite a few of the Tamiyas owned by friends of mine were bought in Singapore or Hong Kong by travelling relatives; such was the difference in price at the time.
You raise a good point. Many, including myself, make the distinction between “toy” and “hobby” grade cars, as a way of description.
And yet at the same time, I’ve called this site “R/C Toy Memories”, and written about all kinds of models.
You’re right, the old Tamiya catalogues almost always had an opening page with the (slightly awkward) slogan “Toys, They’re Not” emblazoned across it – Tamiya wanted to draw a clear line between their products, and the myriad of ready to run RC cars, or at least distance their hobby kits from the stigma of the word “toy”.
And yet on the other hand, Tamiya did actually make RC cars that were (by the common definition) “toy grade” – like the “Quick Drive” series, and others.
The lines have often been blurred. And for me, the word “toy” – taken literally and without stigma – does (in my opinion) fit every RC car. People who race hobby grade cars may not agree. But then, the other day I saw a large book at a bookstore called “Big Boys Toys” and it was all about full size cars, Jet skis and other recreational vehicles. I don’t think those things match the definition of toys at all! But society has come to use the term in different ways.
For me it’s simply “An object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.”
That sounds like it fits Tamiya, Nikko, and all the others, quite well. And also should qualify for any general books about toys – just as any action figure or doll would. But for some reason, most toy book authors seem to disagree.