A very popular off-road R/C trike with fat, sand-digging tyres and the ability to pop ‘wheelies’, the Dust Runner was an unusual toy and a hit for Japanese company Shinsei.
I can even remember the day one of my childhood friends convinced his mum to buy him one from a toy store, before we went home and raced it around my house. Many years later, I knew I had to have one of my own.
Sometime in 1985, a friend of my parents called to say she was taking her son to see a film called “World Safari II“, and asked if any of us would like to join them. Her son Ramon was a couple of years older than I was, but a good kid and we always got along well. He was also an “only child”, and like many kids in one-child households he seemed to have been spoiled and had ended up with far more toys than usual. In particular, Ramon was quite a fan of R/C cars, so it was always fun hanging out with him. And he always seemed to have some new toy or creation to show me, from electronic games to huge Lego sets.
My Dad agreed to take me along to see the movie, so the four of us traveled about an hour to the theatre where it was screening. If you’ve never heard of “World Safari II”, that’s because it wasn’t so much a “movie” as an amateur documentary made by an Australian adventurer by the name of Alby Mangels. In the late 1970s and through the 1980s, Alby Mangels pretty much set the template for the quintessential Aussie outback adventurer by releasing a series of films documenting his journeys to far corners of the globe – camping, fishing, sailing, four-wheel-driving and generally getting himself into some very dangerous situations. His films had been popular enough to achieve cinema releases in Australia, in an era before Paul Hogan’s “Crocodile Dundee” had become a worldwide smash, and at least a decade before anyone had heard of the late Steve Irwin, aka ‘The Crocodile Hunter’.
The fact that we went to a cinema to watch a film like “World Safari II” kinda helps set the scene of what life was like in Australia back in the mid 1980s. And the fact that films like this were so popular also suggests it was an era when the public had a real thirst for adventure, and the idea of going on a Safari or 4WD trek was considered dangerous and exotic. Not that it would be any less exotic for most city-dwellers today. But I think the idea itself was more fresh and exciting in the 1980s.
If you think back to many of the popular “fish out of water” type adventure films of that era, they often featured characters who had found themselves lost in some remote wilderness – Crocodile Dundee, Romancing The Stone, The Jewel Of The Nile, The Gods Must Be Crazy, and even Raiders Of The Lost Ark (and the other Indiana Jones sequels) are a few that spring to mind. Meanwhile, in motor racing, the Paris-Dakar Rally captivated the public as rich amateurs attempted to race their vehicles across the Sahara desert – often getting lost for days in the process. Likewise, the “Camel Trophy” offered 4WD owners the chance to get bogged in the jungles of South America. And many TV shows also featured characters who owned off-road vehicles. All of these things struck a chord with a public fascinated by the possibilities of wilderness and adventure.
I think the popularity of remote adventures also affected other aspects of life in the 1980s – including, I would argue, the types of toys that children in many western countries played with. Just as space toys had undergone a boom in the 1960s when NASA was headed for the Moon, a lot of toy cars of the 1980s were off-road vehicles. And I think this was partly due to popular culture.
On our way home after seeing the movie that day, I remember we stopped at a toy shop (a Toyworld store) in a nearby town. And while I wandered around the store with my Dad and mainly just looked at stuff, my friend Ramon wasted no time in convincing his mum that she needed to buy him a really cool R/C vehicle he had found. At the back of the store, Ramon had located an impressive off-road trike called a “Shinsei Dust Runner”. I can’t remember whether he even knew about this toy before that day, or simply became fixated with it the moment he saw it. But I do remember him pleading with his Mum to buy it. I didn’t think he stood much chance at first… but to my surprise, his Mum caved in. And suddenly Ramon was the owner of yet another R/C car. I can still remember her complaining at the counter as she paid for it!
The Dust Runner was pretty expensive too. I can’t remember the exact price but it was somewhere over $100 (which was a lot in 1985). And it’s wasn’t Ramon’s birthday or any other special occasion. This was just a spur-of-the-moment purchase. I think out of pity, my Dad bought me a matchbox car of some kind, just to ensure I wouldn’t go home completely empty-handed.
Our next stop was my house, which meant Ramon and I would at least get to hang out for a little longer. And once we were there, we sat on the floor and he unpacked his new R/C toy and loaded it up with batteries.
I did have my own small stroke of luck that same day though. My own Tandy Jeep Renegade had been sent back to Tandy for gearbox repairs some weeks earlier, but coincidentally had just arrived back in the mail, and was waiting for me when I got home. I was pretty excited to have it back (and working). And so, once all the batteries were sorted out, the only thing left to do was to race. Ramon’s Dust Runner vs my repaired Jeep Renegade, from one end of the house to the other. As for who won, well I’ll get to that a bit later!
For now, let’s look at what made the Shinsei Dust Runner a toy that some kids simply had to have, the moment they saw it…
The first thing to note is that the Dust Runner typifies the variety of R/C toys you could buy in the 1980s. After all, how many R/C 3-wheeled off-road motorbikes have you ever seen? This was an unusual and eye-catching vehicle, with plenty of realism.
Made in Japan by a toy R/C company slightly less prolific than Nikko or Taiyo, but certainly no lesser in terms of quality, Shinsei had originally released the Dust Runner as merely the “Shinsei Honda ATC250R” in Japan – named after the real vehicle it was based on. But much like they had done with their highly successful Mountain Man 4×4 Chevy, they must have decided that their new creation needed a more catchy name in western markets – thus it was christened “Dust Runner”, and just like all catchy Tamiya buggy names of the 1980s that everyone knows, you can bet “Dust Runner” was a lot easier for kids in school playgrounds to remember.
The Dust Runner is a pretty authentic little Honda ATC250R though, and continued to carry the Honda logo and model details on the box as well. In the US, it was available widely through stores like Montgomery Ward, and here it is in their 1983 catalogue…
For comparison’s sake, here’s a real 1982 Honda ATC250R…
And here’s my brand new in box Dust Runner (which will be featured throughout this article). I think they did a pretty great job, don’t you?
Incidentally, in reference to my earlier point about “1980s toys being inspired by the popularity of wilderness adventures”, you might also be interested to know that Honda ATC250s were not only popular recreational vehicles, but a few were even raced in the Paris-Dakar Rally – here’s one in the 1985 event. In fact, these Honda trikes were basically designed for ATV racing, which was a sport still in it’s infancy in the early 1980s.
But as many of you may know, by 1986 all 3-wheeled ATVs were effectively banned in the USA, and production was ceased – due to safety concerns. Which makes the Shinsei Dust Runner a toy based on, not only a vintage off-road vehicle, but a vehicle whose lifespan was cut short and which has never really been in production since (at least not by Honda). Truly a souvenir of a lost era.
The box of the Shinsei Dust Runner also had a typical 1980s level of care when it came to images and information. I really love 1980s toy packaging with it’s clean design, photography (or artwork) and informative inset photos. Here I’ve extracted some of the best shots of the Dust Runner…
I should also mention that Shinsei may have got the idea of producing this R/C model after Kyosho released a hobby-grade kit R/C model simply called the “Honda ATC250R”. Kyosho’s version was a little larger (1/6 scale) and first appeared in Kyosho catalogues in 1982. Shinsei did file their own trademark for the Dust Runner in September 1982 though, so I guess they weren’t too far behind.
According to the box the Dust Runner is 1/8th scale, which sounds quite large at first, until you remember that it’s based on a much smaller vehicle than a car – so the toy ends up being a compact unit that measures about 26cm in length.
As you can see, this is a really nice quality R/C toy. And I say this time and time again, but they just don’t really make them like this anymore…
The most attractive features for me are those huge balloon tyres that just make you want to take this little trike straight out and over a dune somewhere. The tyres are made of high quality rubber and offer loads of grip. And I have never come across a Dust Runner where the tyre rubber had deteriorated, so I suspect it will pretty much last forever. The tyres have “Dunlop” on them, and I’m willing to bet those were the real brand used on the real Honda as well.
Unlike Kyosho’s model, the Dust Runner does not include a driver figure, but I think I actually prefer this as it’s fun to watch it steer and travel around as if driven by some phantom operator.
At the front there’s a headlight lens (but no actual light), and the trike features the “Honda” logo at least 5 times in various places…
There’s no suspension on the Dust Runner, meaning it will bounce around a lot on those balloon tyres when you take it off-road.
But perhaps a more important consideration is the little wheelie bar sticking out the back of the vehicle…
…Yes, the Dust Runner is designed for wheelies – that 80s toy craze that seemed to attract children like moths to a flame.
Wheelies were always a mixed blessing for me when I was growing up, because while “popping” them was undeniably fun, it also meant suddenly having no way to actually steer your car. Therefore if your toy tended to pop wheelies all the time, you might find yourself wishing you could drive something a bit more ‘normal’ after a while.
Fortunately the Dust Runner is a Digital Proportional model and has a certain level of Japanese refinement and balance – thus it doesn’t just pop a wheelie for every inch it moves, and instead you can easily pace yourself and just cruise around. Build up the speed a little gradually and you can enjoy plenty of normal running. Slam it into top speed in a hurry, and you should get the front wheel off the ground.
The only part where things get tricky of course, is when climbing up hills – the tail-heavy weight distribution means the Dust Runner will want to tip backward on steep inclines. Which is just like the real thing – the lack of weight offered by a single front wheel, and the propensity for 3-wheelers to roll over backward, was a big part of the reason why these vehicles were eventually banned from sale.
Underneath at the rear, there’s also a Low/High gear switch to offer some more variety of running. And of course the ubiquitous recharging jack.
It’s also fascinating to look at the Dust Runner and think “where do the batteries go?”. In such an oddly-shaped R/C toy, Shinsei needed to get more creative than the usual “battery bay underneath” design you see on R/C cars. The wheelie bar is affixed to a door that swings down, revealing a detachable battery caddy that you actually pull out to load 6xAA batteries. Meanwhile, the rider’s seat can be lifted off to reveal a space underneath for the 9volt receiver battery.
Being powered by 6 x AAs means the Dust Runner has adequate, but not overly impressive speed. But then you don’t really want this vehicle to be going too fast, or else it could tip over during cornering.
To pick up my earlier story about racing one against my Jeep Renegade – I remember being able to plough ahead with my Jeep, as my friend kept taking corners too quickly with the Dust Runner and tipping it over – those fat tyres were too grippy on carpet! Thus the Jeep pretty much won the contest that day. But things might have been a lot different had we been racing on smooth floorboards, as I think the two were pretty evenly matched in a straight line.
The transmitter included is Shinsei’s early, great quality Digital Proportional unit – the same one used on the Mountain Man and a few of their other early R/C vehicles. I’d have to say that among toy-grade R/C cars of the early 1980s, this unit was ahead of it’s time in quality. It’s funny to think that in the late 1980s some R/C brands were including far simpler (and crappier) radio units with their cars, than those from earlier years.
Overall, the Dust Runner is such a cutely proportioned, realistic, and fun toy to drive that I’m sure it fulfilled the expectations of most who had one back in the 1980s. So much so that today, these little trikes are in demand and there are many people out there trying to find one in perfect condition. And while most Dust Runners you see around are still relatively in-tact, it can be exceedingly difficult to find one that’s still in as-new condition – probably because people just couldn’t resist playing with them back in the day.
I have also come across ATV collectors in the past who specifically collect 3-Wheeler toys of all sizes and scales. So there are certainly some dedicated fans out there to whom the Dust Runner (and the Kyosho ATC250R) would be centrepieces of their collections.
For me, there’s just something quintessentially “80s” about vehicles like these – particularly these Hondas with their red colour schemes and their extremely fat, balloon tyres. They have a real dune-buggy look to them that recalls all those crazy years of Californian sand dune racing, the likes of which was depicted in films like “Dirt” (1979).
The early 1980s was the heyday for the real 3-wheeled vehicles themselves it seems, and that makes these toys seem even more authentic in a way, having been made right at the same time as their full sized counterparts.
And while my childhood friend probably no longer has his Shinsei Dust Runner, and the toy shop where he got it has long since disappeared, the Dust Runner deserves to be remembered as another 1980s classic by Shinsei. And last but not least, I just have to include a link to this photo of longtime Tamiya collector Shodog playing with his Dust Runner, circa 1984, as I think it captures everything about why we all still enjoy our childhood 1980s toys, over 30 years later.
On this page: Shinsei Dust Runner (1982)
|Motor||(to be confirmed)|
|Batteries||6 x AA, 1 x 9volt (Car). 6 x AA (Transmitter).|
How rare is the Shinsei Dust Runner (1982)?