Model Engines Hobby Shop, Richmond, Melbourne, Australia in 1987

Photos of Hobby Shops in the 1980s

Horizon advertisement, USA, 1989Remember the days of the local Hobby Shop?

Not only are there far fewer hobby shops around now, but it’s actually quite difficult to find photos of hobby shops from their heyday in the 1980s – or earlier. Nevertheless, here’s a selection that is sure to make you wish you could travel back in time.

I’ve written in the past about some of my favourite “Lost Hobby Shops” – stores I used to visit as often as I could, but which have since disappeared from the Australian landscape.

Hobby stores seem to be an endangered species these days, and it’s a phenomenon that’s occurring right around the world and which I have witnessed first hand over the years. Most major cities in the world no longer have many, if any, hobby shops. The combined pressures of online retailers with their lack of “bricks and mortar” overhead costs, plus a declining interest among younger people in the sort of crafty build-it-yourself activities that hobbies represent, are two factors often cited as the cause.

At the time of writing, I can only think of a handful of stores that are still operating in my region, when once upon a time there had been a store in nearly every major town, and most major population centres, in Australia.

I respect the fact that not everyone will feel as nostalgic as I do about the decline of the hobby retailer. I’ve certainly heard some negative stories over the years about high shelf prices and poor service. And I’ve experienced a few interesting moments myself. Like the time I was yelled at in front of other customers, by a hobby shop staffer, when I asked if I might look through some old parts bins they had behind the counter. How dare I offer to buy old stock that nobody had looked at in years? Fortunately the shop’s owner intervened and made me feel more than welcome. Ironically, the shop in question has since closed.

But as that example shows, there’s always a mix of good and bad. I’m sure there are plenty of former hobby store owners out there who’ve dealt with their share of rude customers as well. There can be no doubt in my mind that owning and operating a physical store – any store really – is hard work. And between the long hours, repetition, price wars with other businesses, book-balancing, theft concerns, and the need to maintain a pleasant demeanor at all times, it’s a wonder that anyone ever thought the concept of a retail store was a good idea in the first place. I’m not sure I could do it. I firmly believe that only a few people truly have the kind of resilience and sunny disposition to successfully operate a retail store for a long period of time.

Nevertheless, there was always something about walking into a really great hobby store that I loved when I was growing up. To the owner, I was undoubtedly just another another window-shopper – the 53rd that day. But to me, making my once-a-year visit, it was a world of wonder – model kits, trains, cars, boats and planes all stacked high or on display. A world of miniature modeling and amazing toys, all in the one place… if only you could afford to buy them all.

The best hobby shops I ever visited were the really old ones – you know the kind. The sort of places that still had stock sitting on the shelf from the 1960s or 1970s, and where every visit felt like a treasure hunt. Messy shelves, bargain bins, and every inch of space taken up with something – another kit jammed in a corner here, an aeroplane propellor hanging there, a pile of sticker sheets and old magazines sitting on the floor. Things slipping down between shelves. Boxes of parts. Used items for sale on consignment. Glass cases filled with models and cars and trains. Sometimes the counter even resembled the bench of an old man’s garage – with repair jobs and tools scattered around, and lots of little accessories and parts hanging on the walls behind the counter. And finally the shop owner – usually a gent in his 50s or 60s tinkering with some part or model, while customers wandered the store. If the owner was friendly and approachable it was the icing on the cake – you even felt a kinship with him (or her). Because here was someone who had most likely dedicated their whole life to messing about with toys, and was surrounded by them day-in, and day-out. As a kid, this seemed like nothing short of a dream job.

Most importantly though, at least for me, were the stock of R/C toys and models. In the 1980s these were typically among the most prestigious and popular items in the store, and as such would either be behind or below the counter – usually out of your reach, but always in your line of sight whenever you entered the shop.

So to commemorate (and in some ways, commiserate) the kinds of hobby stores we knew in the 1980s, I’ve uncovered a few old photos of actual stores. The pictures are mostly black and white and grainy, but in them you’ll see some of the all-time greatest vintage R/C car kits – those models you wanted, and probably could never afford. See how many you can identify in the background.

There could be more photos to come in the future, but here’s a start anyway…

Photos of Hobby Shops in the 1980s

Model Engines Hobby Shop in Richmond, Melbourne, Australia in 1987

Store: “Model Engines”
Location: Richmond, Melbourne, Australia
Year: 1987
This photo shows “Australian International 7 cell buggy champion Mike Farnan” with his father Tony, at a store in Melbourne, Australia. Clearly this was the era when the Mugen Bulldog and Mugen Bulldog II were some of the hottest kit buggies around, judging from the stock behind them.

Ron Sheldon's Hobby Shop in San Jose, USA in 1987

Store: Hobby Shop belonging to Ron Sheldon
Location: San Jose, USA
Year: 1987
This shop is positively brimming with (what are now) priceless vintage R/C kits. How many can you identify up there on the back shelf?

Castle Hill Hobbies in Castle Hill, Sydney Australia, in 1988

Store: Castle Hill Hobbies
Location: Castle Hill, Sydney, Australia
Year: 1988
Castle Hill Hobbies was a store that opened in about 1985, and closed only a couple years ago. I actually bought this Monster Beetle there some 20 years ago. Here’s the store back in 1988 with then owner Alan McLeay and some of his children. A number of classic R/C kits can be seen in this photo such as the Schumacher CAT and PB Mini Mustang… (and check out the little guy’s face on the left).

Tamiya Roadshow traveling hobby shop in the UK, in 1986

Tamiya Roadshow traveling hobby shop in the UK, in 1986

Store: Tamiya Roadshow traveling hobby shop
Location: UK
Year: 1986
Here’s something a bit different. In the mid 1980s, the Tamiya importer in the UK, Richard Kohnstam (RiKo) sent a traveling trailer around to various events – like a mobile hobby shop – to promote the Tamiya brand. Inside was a display of Tamiya buggies, as well as lots of information and promo material, from videos to stickers. Even the back of the trailer has Tamiya stickers on it.

Ren Models in Cambridge, UK, in 1982

Store: Ren Models
Location: Cambridge, UK
Year: 1982
Described as Cambridgeshire’s car spares specialists, Ren Models of Cambridge in the UK once had an over-supply of the Tamiya Toyota 4×4 HiLux Pick-Up. If only I could travel back in time to 1982 and take a couple more of those kits off their hands (for the original price!). I actually passed through Cambridge a few years ago and saw a hobby shop, but didn’t have time to stop and check it out…I wonder if it was this one?

The Ranch Pit Shop , San Diego California, USA in 1986

The Ranch Pit Shop , San Diego California, USA in 1986

Store: The Ranch Pit Shop
Location: Del Mar, San Diego, California, USA
Year: 1986
The Ranch Pit Shop was one of the most famous locations in R/C history, after being bought by one of the most famous families in R/C history – Gil Losi Sr and Janet Losi, and their children. Gil and Janet can be seen behind the counter in the first photo. In 1985, Gil Losi Jr won the inaugural 1/10 Off-Road World Championship 4WD title driving a Yokomo YZ-834B “Dog Fighter” 4WD buggy – and you can also see one of those on the shelf in the first photo.

The second photo shows the on-road R/C track at the back of the shop, which was used for competition 1/8 and 1/12 scale racing, often under lights in the evening (with the shop and refreshment bar staying open at all times). The Losis went on to found Team Losi, an R/C manufacturer, and this was later sold to Horizon Hobby. The Ranch Pit Shop, as seen in these images, sadly no longer exists and nor does the adjacent track.

Horizon advertisement, USA, 1989

Store: (Generic Hobby Store Advertisement by Horizon, a Hobby importer)
Location: USA
Year: 1989
Speaking of Horizon, here’s an ad by them from 1989 that depicts the ideal kind of hobby store that most of us probably remember – that’s you, buying your first R/C buggy, after 6 months of paper runs! What better way to start off than with a classic like the Tamiya Falcon too. There might be one or two other vintage kits in the background as well, if you look closely.

Mid Hudson Hobbies, Middletown New York, USA in 1986

Store: Mid-Hudson Hobbies
Location: Middletown, New York, USA
Year: 1986
This image may be a little grainy, but it might be the only image in the world of this store that once existed in Middletown, New York State, USA. See if you can identify all the vintage kits on the wall – Tamiya Hornet, Tamiya Hotshot, Kyosho Turbo Scorpion, Marui Big Bear, Team Associated RC10, Tamiya Wild Willy, Marui Samurai… it almost seems incredible to see all those classic models in the one place, as they’re all so collectible now. But we tend to forget that this was pretty typical stock in hobby stores back in those days.

Zanter Hobbies, Narrabeen, NSW, Australia in 1988

Store: Zanter Hobbies
Location: Narrabeen, NSW, Australia
Year: 1988
This image of Zanter Hobbies in Australia is also packed full of vintage kits, and as always they’re lined along highest possible shelf, practically jammed up against the ceiling and far away from the hands of the little kids (like me) who wanted to look at them. Among the kits here are the RCL Incident, Kyosho Optima Mid and the Schumacher CAT.

Nova Fontana, Greenhills Shoppesville Mall, Manila, Philippines

Store: Nova Fontana
Location: Greenhills Shoppesville Mall, Manila, Philippines
Year: Circa 1990
This image of a toy and hobby store in the Philippines is also packed with cars – note the Taiyo Mini Blaster at centre-bottom of shot, the huge range of Tamiya kits to the right, and even the Taiyo Jet Racer poster hanging overhead. Source.

If you have any more vintage photos of the inside of hobby shops from the 1980s (particularly if they feature R/C toys of course!) then feel free to get in touch as I’ll be happy to add them to this article.


  1. I can’t remember how much stuff they had, but I was young at the time – but Toy & Novelty at Chermside.
    When we drove past it last night I said to our daughter that when I was young you’d drive past it and kids would be jumping on the trampolines out the front….memories..

    1. They must have really wanted to create a spectacle back then I guess – you’d never see that sort of thing nowadays from a toy shop (and apart from “Toys R Us”, there are hardly any toy shops around anymore anyway).

  2. Well, I will have to begin scouring my old RC magazines for their photos if you would like to add those to your post. I can remember just about all you are mentioning as I was just the “right” age to be able to dream a little bit and afford a little of the extras in the RC Car department. It always seemed to me that every hobby store I went to hid the car department and you had to navigate the crusty old sailors and the airplane guys and equipment to find anything with four wheels on the ground. It was almost an afterthought to have cars in the Hobby stores I went to, or at least that was the way you felt going into them to look. I also remember all the goodies being high up on a shelf, I suppose it was the shear size of the boxes that forced that decision. The car repair section was almost always a 5 ft long glass case that had tools strewn on it and the case looked like it would be better suited to a jewelry store than an RC Car section/repair stand. Oh the good ole days, wish I could have another go as I would make some definite different decisions on my purchases and I know I would go back and enjoy some more racing than I did back then. No more race tracks easily found these days, other than an empty parking lot that you have to watch out for real cars to flatten your “toy”. That traveling hobby store idea has been floating in my head for the last 5 or so years. With the large panel vans we have here for sale from past rental places, I have often thought that would be a good idea and cool way to spread the idea of the hobby, but often I think, how would I fund such an adventure and when would I get back home as the wife would certainly wonder when she would get to cook for me again. 😀

    1. Haha, thanks for that Chris – and funny to hear that the RC cars in the stores you visited were a bit more hidden, as the cars definitely had pride of place in most of the store I knew in the 80s and 90s.

      And if you do come across any more images of hobby stores in the 80s, be sure to get in touch!

  3. Wow I love to go back in time got my first rc in 1986 it was a tamiya grasshopper now when you see how much technology has changed since then with the RC world thank you for the trip down memory lane.

  4. As usual, another excellent piece of nostalgia brought back to life…almost brought a tear!
    I was a U.S. military brat in Augsburg Germany and we had a local store (chain) called Koch. They had an awesome four story building right on the edge of downtown (sorry no pics!). They have since moved and focus on more expensive indoor hobbies like trains and slot cars, but what memories! I still have my christmas present from 1981, the Kyosho Landjump 4WD (I believe it was called the Vanning Integra everywhere else in the world. I look back and wonder what my father was thinking as this thing was expensive by those days standards and is astronomical by todays’! It was monstrously fast with a big gas engine and the chain drive 4WD would go through anything. The main drawback was it needs constant repair and parts that are impossible to find. As the hobby stores are a rare bird and ebay can get ridiculous, I rebuilt it and shelved my Landjump many years ago and look on it with fond memories!
    Keep up the awesome articles and it does my heart good to read your articles and know they transcend our countries, they can be read from the US or Aussie perspective without need of reference.
    Thank you again and keep up the exceptional work!

    1. Thanks so much Mike. The Kyosho Landjump – what a beast. I’m amazed you got one so young. Truly an incredible Off-Roader. You’ve done well to restore it too. Did your dad help you build it?
      A German hobby shop in 1981 would have been a place to behold too. I had the fortune of visiting a few remaining Hobby stores in Germany a few years ago, and even then I still found some vintage treasures (spare parts) left over from the 80s.

  5. The Ranch Pit Shop pictured above was in Pomona California. Their second shop opened a few years later was in Del Mar (where the first IFMAR Off Road race was held)

  6. Nice Article! I worked at Sheldon’s Hobbies circa 1987…at the time I wasn’t a collector and I couldn’t afford to be one. I spent all my money tuning my Optima and Ultima..and although I was really familiar with all the products we sold, I didn’t really appreciate all the future collectables in the store. Fun times!

  7. Well I had the good fortune to run Ren Models for over 10 years from the early 70s. One of the most enjoyable jobs ever, made many good friends not just in the Cambridge area but many mail order regulars. Now of course most sales are done via the internet.

      1. It was not so much a job as a great way of meeting people who were passionate about their hobby. In conjunction with the British importer of Tamyia we had some great times including TV shows promoting electric cars. I also promoted the shop by attending air shows with a retail store and now I am retired I spend several days a month as a volunteer at the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford just outside Cambridge, meeting and greeting veterans and families who visit one of Europe’s premier museums

        1. Love those kinds of museums Alan, and recently visited a similar one here in Australia. It’s also funny you mention the TV shows promoting R/C models, as I hear this occasionally from different people – and I keep wishing some of that old footage would show up. Collectors today would love to see it. So if you do have any footage on VHS tape and would be willing to share it, be sure to let me know.

          1. I have footage of one of the programs, Record Breakers with Roy Castle, we established a number of records and submitted them to Guiness book of records. Long jump, over a ramp and over 7 people including Roy, longest tunnel of fire, both with Tamiya Rough Rider plus a number of other stunts. Tamiya were keen on us showing off the cars in this manner rather than just racing them. The cars were not modified in any way and were just out of the box, we started our displays by doing a synchronised drive and then we allowed the public to try them out, we were given just about every R/C car kits they sold. We made a small nominal charge which at the end of the season we gave to a charity. We visited local schools and also the Sandown model show, gave the organisers a shock because they allocated the terrace overlooking the ground area, they were frightened we were going to set fire to the racecourse stand. Unfortunately though I cannot post the footage without the BBC giving me permission as it is their copyright.

          2. Extra thought regarding IWM Duxford. September 15th is the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Britain so it is a very special air show that weekend. The hope is that they can get as many Spitfires together to join the 9 on site and get them flying in one formation

    1. Soon after the first of the R/C kits from Tamiya came onto the market I approached Richard Khonstam’s to see if they would be interested in sponsor a team of enthusiasts promoting the kits. I was about the 10th to do so. However I got the sponsor ship because instead of racing we showed off the fun side of them. We started by having 6 cars doing a formation drive culminating in a jumping off an angled ramp. Fire drive through and at the end we had another jump with 5 or 6 people laying at the end of the ramp. WE were asked to do a show for Anglia TV and they drew out an outline of the area they wanted us to perform in, they came down see us and to see if we could manage it, we did. On the morning of the recording they sprang the surprise that the area they had asked us to do our jumps was actually 2 canteen tables and they wanted us to park at the end so that the last car had to clear 6 cars and then stop.
      We also submitted a number of jumps, stunts to the Guiness book of records, long jump, longest fire tunnel and jumping over 6 adults lying at the end of the ramp. We were asked to show this off on a BBC program, Record Breakers staring Roy Castle who volunteered to be the last man in the line up. We had trouble because the studio floor was highly polished but once a length of carpet was produced everything went ok, except we skimmed Roys backside as we landed. It was great fun and we had full backing from Richard Khonstam’s.

      1. Great story Alan, and thank you for sharing it here! I wonder if anyone else remembers seeing this on TV, or perhaps, if any footage of it still exists…
        Also, do you remember which cars you used for the performances?

  8. I have enjoyed reading some of the comments on here, but have not had time to look at all yet!!
    I wonder if anyone has any info about the Model Dockyard (Swanston St, Melb.) on here! I spent most of my time downstaris in the Plastic Kit section, but did occasionally look at the Brass Locos upstairs and marvelled at the Prices of them!! The one I always remember is the Berlin 1936 Olympic loco which was a streamliner and painted dark red with the 5 Olympic rings but also an eagle & swastika, I think.
    I used to love walking down the steps, carefully, looking at the small models-1/72 scale-in glass cases set on angles leading to the Plastic Kit and RC Plane area.
    I remember that even though the staff were kind of “stand offish”, they did wrap your purchases up in brown paper or a special paper that had US Railroad emblems on it.
    Going into The Model Dockyard also meant looking out for the white painted Sherman or Grant tank on a high patch of wall on the opposite side of the street which promoted I think, “Muirs: The Price Fighters”.
    All of the kits downstairs were on the service side of the counter, so you could not handle them unless you asked staff if you could inspect them, and this is what gave the place the ‘snooty’ impression possibly, to a boy who would be no more than 10 the first time he went in there.
    It was only when my brother would buy me something from there that I could look at anything closely, but you could often just stand there and look up in awe at the wall with the early Tamiya and Airfix kits all hanging on a vast white peg-board; a kind of fantasy collection that one could never hope to match but such were the things that kept my young entertained in those days!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.