Collecting vintage R/C models
As this website was created to share my ramblings about the toys I’ve collected over the years, I thought I’d take a moment to talk a bit more generally about what I like to collect, and why.
So please forgive the fairly prosaic title of this post, as I go back to basics and look at the philosophy behind a lot of my own toy collecting (and perhaps you’ll have a think about why you collect as well).
I’ll also use this opportunity to sneak-in some views about collecting in general, my opinion on things like remakes and reproduction items, and a new UK TV show about people with huge collections.
Lately, I’ve been watching the new UK TV series Collectaholics. As the title suggests, it’s a show about people who collect things. Lots of things. In some cases, without boundaries.
For instance, here was one person’s collection of Star Wars toys…
This image shows the collection in boxes, after it was moved out of a standard-sized family home and put into a warehouse. (Here’s the whole segment on Youtube).
Each episode of Collectaholics features three enormous and unique collections, and aims to help each collector refine or improve their collecting in some way, such as by having an appraisal, re-displaying the items so they can be better appreciated, or reducing the size of the collection.
The show has highlighted several vintage toy collections, so it’s worth watching for those alone. But often the psychology behind why people collect is just as interesting as the collections themselves.
To offer another example… one man is attempting to collect every pop music CD ever released. He buys hundreds of dollars worth of CDs per day, and employs multiple staff to sort and organize them when they arrive in the mail. So far he has purchased 6 whole apartments just to house the 75,000+ CDs he has accumulated. All this and he rarely listens to any of the CDs.
Clearly this is a case of “collect them all” syndrome – that catchcry you often hear in commercials. Taken to it’s extremes, collecting is no longer about enjoying particular items, or even having them. It’s about having all of them. The notion of “completing the set”.
This is actually a very common motivation for collectors. But it becomes a mammoth task if your chosen subject is too broad.
Which got me thinking about why I collect and what I like to collect. Luckily, I have no interest in completing sets, and I’m also fairly particular about what I like!
To quote comedian Steven Wright:
You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?
Collecting is about having a passion for something and, to a certain degree, every collection must seem a bit strange to those who don’t share the same interest.
For me, it’s about owning some nice pieces that exemplify my area of interest and it’s history. And while it relates mainly to vintage R/C cars, a lot of my “philosophy” about collecting (as detailed below) could really be applied to any kind of collecting – or in other words, if I collected something entirely different, I’d probably still take the same approach.
And while I’ve written this article to serve as an example of what one collector does, at the end of the day I’m just that: one collector. And every other collector is going to have their own collecting preferences (including you).
If you collect vintage R/C cars, you may agree with my approach, or you may not. But either way, and no matter what it is you collect, you should do whatever you find most rewarding. We only have one life, and only a few years in which we have the income (and the marbles) to enjoy a passtime like collecting.
What do I collect?
Obviously (!) I collect vintage radio controlled cars.
But I also have some vintage LEGO, video games, model kits, Matchbox cars and a few other things as well. I’m probably more picky than you think, and I pick and choose the items I want to own based on whether:
a) I remember them from my childhood, or
b) I don’t remember them (but am sure I’d have wanted them if I’d known they existed!)
Overall, when it comes to the cars, the items I find most interesting are: Electric Toy and Hobby grade R/C models from the 1980s – mainly the off-road vehicles, and mainly those made by Japanese companies.
Why do I collect?
1. Nostalgia. Like most people, I’m unwittingly a product of my era. When I was growing up in the 1980s, R/C toys were (to me) the most exciting toys available.
2. Realism. Because the concept of “radio control” was still relatively new in those days, toy makers focused on making R/C cars look very realistic. They had a great mix of design ingenuity, colour and fun about them, while often remaining very “scale”-like. As time passed, scale realism started to go out the window, and designers focused more on performance. Eventually, most R/C cars turned into boring, unrealistic blobs with 4 wheels and a fluorescent paint job. Of course they performed better than ever. But they usually had all the character of an ice cream tub.
3. Quality. Almost every R/C car product of the 80s was made by Japanese, American and German toymakers. Not every item was great quality, but most were.
To sum it all up: for a combination of reasons, the R/C toys of the 1980s were a phenomenon. The era was like a perfect storm in which the toys looked great, were new on the market, and (in hindsight) were very well-made and quite uniquely engineered. Between the years 1979 and 1986, it seemed just about every new electric R/C car release was a marvel of looks, design and construction.
It all fell in a big heap in the early 1990s, when R/C innovation began to decline. Designs became homogenized. The market was flooded with boring cars. And video games replaced most hobbies involving physical toys anyway – leading to lower sales and many R/C car companies quitting or closing their doors forever.
All of this just makes the “golden era” of electric R/C toys all the more fun to look back on, preserve, and enjoy.
When it all began…
The first time I spent my own money on a vintage R/C toy, to add to something worthy of being called a collection, would have been in about 1992.
Does everything I collect have to be vintage/original? Pretty much, yes. Almost every R/C item I have – from the cars themselves, to spare parts, to decals, right down to the screws, nuts and washers, is a vintage/original item as sold in the 1980s.
I was recently reading about a huge Star Wars toy collector who said…
I will also put a nice dividing line up between people that collect vintage, and people that just want something that looks vintage.
And I tend to agree. For me personally, collecting vintage toys is about collecting vintage toys. Things that were manufactured and sold “back in the day”, around the time when I was a kid and couldn’t afford them. It’s about the fun of finding, owning and preserving those items you had (or wanted) as a child.
No matter what kinds of toys you collect, you’ll probably be aware of remakes. A remake is when something is remade and relaunched (in changed form), in an effort to modernize it but also capture some of the demand that exists for the original thing. Movies often undergo remakes. And so do toys.
Companies love to cash-in on nostalgia, and remakes have become commonplace. The concept is not new though. In some fields like pottery and furniture, remakes have been around for many decades. Among toys, in the past 20-30 years most toy makers have remade and relaunched just about every product line that was once a craze.
You’ll also notice that in relation to toys, I used the word remake in preference to the word re-release. This is because when something is produced again in changed form, it’s not accurate to call it a re-release. To use movies as an example, if a movie is re-released, the movie you watch is simply the original movie back in cinemas again. For a toy to be re-released it would have to be identical to the original. Any toy that isn’t identical, is therefore a remake.
In the past decade or so, Tamiya has been remaking some of their early R/C cars, and other brands have followed as well. But as with all toy remakes, they are not the same as the originals.For me, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I grew up hoping that someday I would be able to own those classic R/C models that I used to pore over, in catalogues and magazines back in the 80s and 90s. When the Internet finally made it possible to search for original examples from the 1980s, there was no way I was going to settle for anything but the ones that had actually been around when I was a kid.
Another factor here is that collecting is often fun in terms of sharing and discussing with others. You should only collect for yourself, first and foremost. But there’s not a collector in the world who doesn’t enjoy sharing their interests with others. And to be able to say some vintage item you have is original, is the preference of most. It just has more meaning.
To use an analogy, some aspects of collecting remind me of when you travel overseas and visit famous landmarks dating back centuries, only to find out they’ve actually been rebuilt. When traveling the world a few years ago, I was amazed at how often a famous location or building would carry a plaque on the wall somewhere that read something like: “Original building circa 1805. Destroyed by fire in 1962. Rebuilt in 1965.”. Seeing this, I’d often think “why am I here?”. With the original landmark gone, the new structure is little more than a sad placeholder to keep the tourists coming. It has no provenance.
Not that vintage toys compare in any way to famous landmarks. But on some tiny scale, the appeal of any collectible is connected to its inception, the memory of that era, and it’s provenance. For this reason, remakes feel a lot like those landmark placeholders to me.
Reproductions are created when enterprising fans and enthusiasts feel there’s money to be made by cloning vintage items, using their own molds and plastics. They differ from remakes in that remakes are done by the companies who own the rights to the toys, whereas reproductions are generally done by other parties – such as individuals or small businesses, many of whom run the risk of copyright infringement.
As the world braces itself for the era of 3D printing we can probably expect to see a lot of more reproduction stuff in the future.
Personally, I have no desire to own reproductions, for the same reasons mentioned in relation to remakes. But I know life as a collector can be hard. And sometimes there are little bits and parts you need that you cannot seem to find – ever. So I can appreciate why some people turn to repro items. And yes, some original items are truly hard to find.
On the other hand, many people do turn to repro items without really searching hard enough, in my opinion. Call me Ishmael, but… if I had a dollar for every person who has contacted me over the years searching for a rare item that they say they “cannot find anywhere”, but which I have seen sitting on eBay in recent weeks or months – well I’d have a lot more money to waste on toys.
Collecting requires a lot of patience. You shouldn’t expect to find everything you want within a few weeks. Sometimes it takes months (or years) to find rare items. But if you set up saved searches, or talk to other collectors, and remain patient – even rare things can be found. And you just might enjoy the treasure hunt nature of it all, more so than buying readily available reproduction items.
I’m a big fan of collecting vintage toys that are new in box. When something is still new, it’s a nice feeling to know that “here is an example of the item as it originally was when sold in shops”. And that’s all it really boils down to. Everything is clean and new, and may even remind you of the time you actually received one as a gift for Christmas, a birthday, or some other occasion.
I wrote once before about the notion of vintage packaging, and how some people will pay more for perfect packaging. But this is not something I do.
My philosophy here is:
1. Having a vintage toy with it’s original box, is great, and always better than having no box at all.
2. Having a brand new in box vintage item is the pinnacle. No matter what condition the box is in.
– Boxes that are old and ruined can sometimes be repaired.
– Boxes that are simply old from shelf wear, e.g. sitting in a shop window for years – that’s often lovely patina that makes the thing feel like a true leftover from the 1980s.
– Boxes that are minty white and look like they were manufactured yesterday – well they’re nice too. And I do own some. But I would never pay crazy money for them.
And then there’s the investment debate. Over the years I’ve seen a fair few people make the claim that if someone collects new in box vintage toys, and keeps them, and doesn’t immediately unpack them and build/use them, then they are “just investing” and/or “hoarding” – thus denying other poor fans the chance to get their share.
Firstly, I can’t speak for everybody. I can only say that none of my collecting has been done for investment purposes. There’s a lot of fun in simply collecting and having, and not everything needs to be unpacked and used – for it to be enjoyed.
Secondly, as for those people who do try to invest in toys, well… so? People can do what they like with their own cash. I don’t really begrudge those who try to invest in toys. It’s nice if they have a genuine appreciation for the items in question, rather than treating them like a portfolio. But in my experience, the latter type of collector is rare. Most people who collect toys, do so out of an interest in those toys. And if some of them end up being an investment, the profits they turn often go straight back toward funding their own collections anyway.
And we ought to remember that those who cite “investing” as undesirable behaviour, may themselves (it has to be said)… simply be jealous of what other people have. I remember some years ago, a Tamiya collector (with a collection far larger than mine) told me he considered the really envious, spiteful people to be “the have-nots” of the world. Harsh perhaps. But unless you believe in a communist-style raid/redistribution of all vintage toy wealth, you have to accept that everybody is out there just doing whatever they can to get whatever they can.
To a large extent, collecting these days is like a big, global game of Hungry Hungry Hippos…
Grab whatever you can! But also, be thankful for what you’ve got.
So, those are just some ramblings about my approach to toy collecting, and in particular the collecting of vintage R/C cars.
As I said earlier, every collector has their own priorities and goals. You may not agree with mine in some way. The most important thing is to focus on what you enjoy the most.
As always, feel free to add your thoughts below, and happy collecting!