Lost Hobby Shops: Dick Smith Electronics

Dick Smith Electronics

Dick Smith ElectronicsThis month, Australia loses another “hobby” store when Dick Smith Electronics shuts it’s doors for good, after 48 years.

I really enjoyed visiting DSE stores while growing up in the 1980s, just as I did with Tandy stores – mainly due to the toys.

So if anyone else can remember the days when they sold Tamiya R/C cars, electronics kits, and some of the 1980s coolest robot toys, then let’s take a look at some archive material that proves they really were a fun store to visit back in their heyday.


Australian businessman and adventurer Dick Smith founded his eponymous business in Sydney in 1968, with just $610. Starting out as an installer of car radios, by 1982 the company had expanded to become a chain of hobby electronics stores with 18 locations in Australia, one in New Zealand, and even a presence in the USA.

Dick then sold the business and moved on to other projects, such as founding Australian Geographic, and becoming an adventurer – completing the first ever solo helicopter flight around the world. Today he remains one of Australia’s most respected identities and philanthropists.

Dick Smith Electronics - The Electronic Dick

Always one to embrace the double entendre for some extra attention, the company’s first delivery truck was unforgettable. No complaints were received in Australia, but when a similar sign was displayed on the new company building in Redwood City, USA, some Americans were offended and contacted the local city authority!

The story of Dick Smith Electronics reads like that of so many small businesses around the world. From humble beginnings, an energetic individual turns an idea into a national success with a lot of hard work. Eventually, he passes the baton to new leadership. Things remain steady and continue to grow for a while. But nothing grows forever. And one day the shifting sands undermine the now bloated company…

Dick Smith Electronics will close for good at the end of April, 2016. And if you want to find out why, I suggest you read this article which explains the apparently “legal” share market manoeuvres that have bankrupted the business.

Of course, the DSE of 2016 bore little resemblance to the one that began in 1968 anyway. It had even changed a lot since the 80s and 90s. Ironically, some of this change inspired a one-time Dick Smith manager to start his own hobby electronics store called Jaycar, in the 1980s. When DSE ditched hobbyists in favour of becoming another mainstream consumer goods store, Jaycar stucks to it’s roots – and was this year even in a good enough position to throw a lifeline to some of the now doomed Dick Smith outlets.

But whatever happens, the end of Dick Smith altogether is still a regrettable outcome.

Despite Dick himself not owning the business since 1982, some stores continued to feature his bespectacled image in the shop logo right until the end, which was always a nice touch. The inspiration for a thousand double entendres over the years, Dick had always dubbed it “the Dick-head”. Here’s a photo I took of one of the last remaining store-fronts, a couple of weeks ago (note the closing down signs)…

dick-smith-closing-down-sale-2016

Well, there’s nothing else for it now.

So let’s forget the present, and look back at some of the good years of Dick Smith Electronics. And in particular, the toys and R/C cars they sold…

The way it was…

In their 1978/79 product catalogue, the then ten-year-old company was already proudly displaying how far they had come via flashback photos vs images of their new showrooms.

Dick Smith Electronics - 1977

Back in 1977 the store was very much focused on parts and equipment for the electronics and radio hobbyist.

In those days the stores tended to be filled with trays and shelves of smaller objects set in a sort of woodgrain and beige atmosphere. It would have been hard to find any single item in the store larger than a shortwave radio receiver – a far cry from the later years of consumer goods and huge plasma TVs.

By the 1980s it seems the boom in video games, gadgets and electronic toys was bringing more focus on products for kids. And that meant a lot more colour – particularly their trademark bright yellow.

It really doesn’t get much goofier than this TV commercial from 1982, but hey, this wasn’t out of place on TV back then (believe it or not)…


 
“The electronic land of Oz”…

I can definitely remember having some Dick Smith “Whizz kids” style books at home about computers and programming that my Dad had brought home, hoping it might lead to a career in computing (it worked).

Another change around this time was the move to brightly coloured shopfronts. It’s no surprise really, based on the image below, that these stores started to seem quite similar to toy shops in my young mind…

Dick Smith Electronics

By 1983, DSE was marketing it’s own lines of computers, games consoles and lots more.

One example was the “Dick Smith Wizzard”, a rebranded VTech CreatiVision, which I never owned (I was more of a Commodore 64 kid). I don’t know how it compared to the many other offerings that were around, but as a kid in the early 1980s you were pretty much ready to play all the video games you could get your hands on…

Dick Smith Electronics Wizzard

No discussion about the impact of Dick Smith Electronics on kids would be complete without a mention of Dick Smith’s “Funway” line of electronics project kits either.

These were a constant product line from the 1970s, right up to the 2000s, and it’s likely thousands of Australians and Kiwis will remember getting their first taste of electronics from these little project kits. This ad appeared hails from the mid 1980s…

Dick Smith Electronics Funway Kits

Being more obsessed with toy cars at that age, sometime around 1984 was when I think R/C toys were becoming one of the biggest crazes in the world. And these new offerings were the perfect products to be included a technology variety store like DSE.

Their first ever R/C models seem to have been from old former Japanese tin-toy manufacturers like Taiyo and Yonezawa, who had been among the first to create quality ready-to-run R/C cars in those years. Such as this early Taiyo dune buggy…

Dick Smith Electronics

The other really big new thing in those days, was robots. Not just the tin toys of earlier years, but the kind that could actually do things and looked a lot like robots from the movies…

In 1984 you could have been the proud owner of a “Compurobot”… a very basic programmable droid on wheels with a ton of little buttons on the top that I think I would have gone nuts for (anything digital with buttons to press was a lot of fun for a 7 year old in 1984!)…

Dick Smith Electronics

Despite selling many products under their own store brand name – from cassettes to computers – Dick Smith was interesting in that they never had any R/C cars “custom manufactured” for them by Japanese companies, like Tandy/Radio Shack did.

As the R/C boom picked up more each year, Dick Smith expanded their range and stocked some very well known vehicles.

Take this flyer from 29th October 1985. Earth’s forthcoming encounter with Halley’s Comet was big news, and Dick Smith had also become a stockist of Tamiya kits like the Frog, Hornet and Hotshot – three of the greatest R/C models in history…

Dick Smith Electronics - Tamiya and Halley's Comet

As Christmas approached each year, the line-up of cool toys grew even more of course.

One of the most impressive things I ever knew Dick Smith had offered was the stratospherically expensive Tomy Omnibot – at AU$400 in late 1985, this was the equivalent of over $1000 in today’s money…

Dick Smith Electronics

Billed as a robot so sophisticated it might even perform basic servant duties around the house, the Omnibot was a toy truly from the future. And when I saw this full colour page in their 1986/1987 catalogue it was also right about the time that I saw the movie Short Circuit. And I felt like this was one of the most exciting pages full of toys that I had ever seen – I wanted every robot!…

Dick Smith Electronics

On the very next page of that catalogue however, came an R/C car that was also beyond my wildest dreams. And as much as I loved robots, the lure of cars was always just that little bit stronger.

It was called the Mugen Bulldog II. The first time I saw it, I had no idea what a Mugen Bulldog I must have looked like. But the sequel sounded as it could only be better. Four wheel drive and four wheel steering, plus that blocky asymmetrical body design, and the slogan “Racing Magician”.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this model one day. But for the time being, imagine how amazing this toy looked to a 9 year old in 1986, as advertised below…

Dick Smith Electronics

Toward the later 1980s and early 1990s, I can remember seeing quite a few cars from Tamiya’s excellent “Quick Drive” series available, such as the Thunder Shot and the Monster Beetle.

This next image shows products they sold in 1989, including increasing numbers of educational “laptop” style electronic toys for kids, which I can remember messing about with every time I went into their stores…

Dick Smith Electronics

And here’s the lineup from 1991, where we see the awesome Tamiya Monster Beetle Quick Drive, along with an interesting but short-lived R/C motorcycle from another brand that was also made in Japan, called G-Con. These motorcycles were quite large and I always wondered how they worked, but I never got further than handling the demo model at one of the stores…

Dick Smith Electronics

For most of the 1990s, Dick Smith stores remained much the same as I had always remembered them – small main street stores carrying a smattering of gadgets, computers, toys and practical electronics components.

Things changed a lot more in the 2000s as the company decided to remake itself with some larger stores (called “Powerhouses”), and more mainstream goods like TVs and mobile phones. The aisles of electronics trays were all but disappearing.

From an R/C toy perspective, very few quality R/C manufacturers had much presence in the Australian market by this time, and most of the offerings were becoming cheap, generic Chinese junk. Tamiya was (and still is) the most notable exception to this. And the last time I saw a Tamiya kit at Dick Smith was a Super Hornet package deal in the early 2000s.

Beyond that point, well, things were just never quite the same for me.

Dick Smith stores always embraced the latest in video game consoles and big screens of course. But as much as I’ve always appreciated gaming, the years of tactile, well-engineered toys was over. And the idea that Dick Smith had once sold tech toys as intricate for their time as the Mugen Bulldog II, Tamiya Hotshot or Tomy Omnibot, was had become a faded memory.

I wonder if any of the Dick Smith staff of 1982 can remember being in this photograph that adorned the front cover of their catalogue that year?

Dick Smith Electronics

I hope this little history has offered some insight into this iconic Australian hobbyist store, at least as seen through the eyes of a kid from the 1980s. If you have any good memories of your own to share, feel free to add them in the comments below!

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5 responses to “Lost Hobby Shops: Dick Smith Electronics”

  1. relaxavous says :

    Dear Toy Blogger,

    Firstly I would like to say thanks for posting this latest story on the DSE stores and experience for kids/teenagers in the 80’s. Looking back to the 80’s I have to admit they were great and exciting times. The electronic toys and games of the 80’s really created an atmosphere of immagination in young kids and teenagers. I used to pick up the DSE and Tandy pamphlets and catalogues and study them. The not so closest thing I have come to doing this now is when I look through an Aldi or Bunnings catalogue. These days however it’s more about what deals rather than the excitement and immagination of what I could create next, which leads me to the point of my post – The Funway kits.

    I guess I should begin with the year 1984 when I was in year 8 high school. I’ll never forget the day my science teacher said “Class I will be setting you an assignment whereby you are to build a simple electronic circuit based on what you’ve learnt in our lessons”.

    Well that was music to my ears as I had already been mucking about with wires, batteries, motors,light bulbs and the like for some years prior. I was going to make something special for this Year 8 assignment so I could impress the teacher and my classmates. I headed to my closest Dick Smith store which at the time was at Parramatta on the corner of Smith and George streets opposite the Collector tavern. I also remember at some stage the DSE store was located on George street closer to the Church street mall.

    Well for my assignment, I decided I would bypass the Funway One kits as they were too basic for a high school kid and so I went straight for the Funway Two kits and decided to buy an ‘Insect Repellor Kit’. For those that rememember, all the Two kits required soldering unlike the Breadboard push in style of the One kits.
    I therefore had to purchase a jiffy box, soldering iron and while I was at it I also bought a very basic multimeter and the guy at the counter recommended I buy a solder sucker or some soldering braid in case I mucked up the soldering.

    I dont know why I bought the Insect Repellor kit, but I think it had to do with how much money I had to spend. Thanks to Austudy allowance I had some money to spend – so thankyou Australian government of the time.

    And so I put the kit together and placed it in the Jiffy box along with a switch and drilled holes in front of where the speaker would ultimately emit sound, or so I thought. With my parents and siblings nearby, I connected the 9V battery and closed the lid and then flicked the switch for all to hear how good this thing was that I built. SILENCE was all that followed once I switched it on.

    At first there were attempts to help me and make me feel better. “Perhaps you wired the switch wrong”. “Is the battery new?” “It looks good anyway!”
    I knew I had completed as per the instructions and walked away saying I would check it all out and show them later when I had sorted out what was wrong.

    Well after some reading in the section of the manual that described the frequencies that repel insects, to my delight I discovered that the frequency emitted was well over 30 or 40kHz and therefore could never have been heard by humans.

    The next day I took my kit to school and handed it in. All I can say is that I received good marks for effort and level of complexity, however my teacher did say it would have been better if I had made something like a motor or light circuit that he could have tested worked. I guess he didnt have a Level meter – Oh well.

    The next Funway Two kit I built however, was awesome – ‘The FM wireless Bug’. I got into trouble a few times with this circuit that concealed perfectly in a cigarette packet and allowed for teenager spywork.

    Great memories though and my beginnings into the world of electronics and later R/C car sales and maintenance in the Uncle Pete’s Auburn store.

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention how great the music was in the 80’s. The only thing I could personally fault in the 80’s was the motor cars built between say 1981 and 1985. E.g 4 cylinder Commodores, Bluebirds and Sunbirds.

    What were they thinking?

    Tony Diquattro

  2. squidaloopa says :

    Truly a sad day. Actually it was sadder when DSE stopped selling components, which was years ago.
    My childhood was full of FunWay kits. Had the Vol 1 book, did most of them. Also had the 2nd book. Thanks to Dick I know what a PNP vs NPN transistor is. Also resistors, caps, how to read schematics. I still cringe at a project that was a flashing brooch, with the heading saying that “electronic jewellery is become all the rage today”….

    My last kit consisted of a Theremin, which I did back in 2007. Can’t remember if it was DSE or Jaycar. Nonetheless, thanks Dick for educating me….

    • R/C Toy Memories says :

      “electronic jewellery is become all the rage today” sounds a lot like it might have been authored by the same person who came up with “the electronic land of Oz”… lol

  3. Richard Baggaley says :

    Jesus. There wont be much left soon. Having visited Australia 3 times now i can say i used to love wandering Dick Smiths and picking up some cool items.

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