The era of the vintage hobby shop find

For many years, I used to go hunting for vintage R/C goodies at old Hobby Shops. Digging for leftover stock, and lost bits of memorabilia – both at stores in Australia, and sometimes overseas.

But as Hobby Shops suffer under the downturn of retail caused by online shopping, many of the oldest (and most interesting) stores have closed for good. So perhaps the time has come to reminisce not just about the R/C cars of the 1980s, but the joy of finding vintage R/C treasures in the years that followed…


Before I get into this article properly, I’d just like to mention that it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted here on R/C Toy Memories. And for that I apologize. The reason has been partly due to some major change in my life, beginning with an incident in 2016 that sent my life off-track. After that came the long process of making a new start.

Sometimes, the after-hours joy of a hobby like this has to take a back seat while you sort out the bigger-picture things. And this has been the case with me over the past 18 months or so. The good news is, my new life is looking positive now. And as far as the hobby side of things goes, the changes have even led to me having a better (and much larger) workshop space for my R/C collection.

All this personal change and growth has also given me pause though. For a while it made me think about the hobby itself – and what it meant to me. I even did some soul-searching and questioned whether I should continue to make it a priority, or even an interest. But I came to the conclusion that hobbies and collections are a healthy outlet in so many ways – from self-expression (writing, researching), to simply connecting with others around the world who share the same interest. Above all, a hobby like this is about fun – and sharing the joy of something from the past that means a lot to you.

So, I’m afraid that my nostalgia isn’t going anywhere 🙂 Let’s continue to enjoy the R/C cars of yesteryear. And I hope to post here a little more often, and offer something interesting to read now and then.

Also, because it’s been so long since I posted anything fun, I’ll just throw this one out there…

I recently discovered a lost 1987 TV commercial for Tamiya R/C buggies in Australia, in which they even advertised the “Tamiya Challenge” – perhaps the first Tamiya-sponsored R/C buggy racing event in Australia. I have uploaded the clip to my Youtube channel

Amazing to see that even the popular brand of Uncle Tobys Muesli Bars here in Australia had advertising on the front of the packet for the “Tamiya Challenge”. Also amazing that I never spotted this at the time, because as a kid I used to eat those bars just about every week!

Back to the main topic now…

Sadly, I feel that the days of the “vintage find” at hobby stores, are probably over. So here are a few little stories from my past, about visits to hobby stores and the things I found.

For many years, I used to trawl hobby stores both locally and overseas, looking for lost treasures – such as vintage leftover spare parts, old R/C memorabilia, or even sometimes whole R/C cars, both new and used.

Back in the mid-1990s, right at the end of what’s considered the “Golden era” of R/C (roughly 1976 – 1992) I was already seemingly aware of how things in R/C were changing, and I was already beginning to feel the urge buy items that were leftovers from the 1980s.

This was because most R/C models of the mid-1990s had become homogeneous in design – too similar to one another, too lacking in scale realism, too mass-market in their feel or presentation, or otherwise (in the case of ready-to-run models) just plain cheap in construction, as manufacturing began shifting toward China. Many great Japanese R/C brands had also failed altogether to survive into the 1990s, and either went bankrupt or quit making R/C cars, due to a downturn in the hobby itself – a downturn which is generally thought to be connected to the rise of video games in the 90s.

I can clearly remember seeking out hobby shops near where I lived as early as 1992 or 1993, specifically to see what vintage leftover spare parts they might still have from the 1980s. And sure enough, back then there were still plenty of bits of gold to be found. Often my only limitation was my empty wallet. And on occasion, I can remember being forced to leave items behind because I simply couldn’t afford everything I found. Like the time I left a set of Tamiya Wild Willy tyres in a hobby shop bargain bin, because they were $45… These days, a brand new set those tyres will set you back $150+ (if you can find them!).

In the years that followed, through the rest of the 1990s and into the 2000s, I continued to visit old hobby shops whenever I had the chance. And each time I visited somewhere new, I’d ask if they had anything old. The reaction I’d get would either be with relief (that some old stock would finally sell), or annoyance (because it meant the shop owner needed to let me dig through his parts bins and boxes for an hour). As you can imagine, by visiting and calling at least a hundred stores over the years, I met a variety of characters – from the deeply generous souls who would even give old items away for free, to the greedy hawks who wanted to charge me (I am not kidding here) $10each for vintage Tamiya plastic wheel bearings (which were not rare items at all).

In 2008, I visited an old store in Sydney called Vagg’s Hobbies. After politely asking about old stock, I was rudely told I couldn’t browse through what they had as it was “just too difficult” for them. Too difficult to take my money? Hmm… Turned out the rude bloke behind the counter wasn’t the owner anyway. And when the real owner found out, he personally invited me back the next day and into their back storage room… which had 30 years worth of R/C mess in it, and where I spent the next 2 whole hours digging for vintage goodies. Naturally I snuck a few photos while I was in there, and since Vagg’s Hobbies is sadly now gone, here’s a little photographic record of what I saw that day…

There were lots of kits piled, mostly 90s or 2000s era… but a general sense of collapsed chaos that I knew could lead to anything…

Down on the floor… there were loads of parts, bits of body sets… and a Tamiya Grasshopper II (1988)…

What’s this I found in a box somewhere? Oh boy, it’s a Tamiya Wild Willy (1983)…

Oh crikey, it’s a whole Mardave Meteor kit NIB!…

And on it went.

Needless to say, I spent hundreds of dollars that day, and went back several more times around 2008-2010.

In 2013, Vagg’s Hobbies finally closed for good, ending a history that dated back to the early 1980s. Here’s how the shopfront used to look…

The Vagg’s Hobbies visits were one of many examples I could give of lucky breaks, persistence, and chances I took. And the odd bit of polite persuasion with usually friendly, but occasionally surly, hobby shop owners and staff. It was also a classic example of a wonderfully cluttered old hobby shop that has now disappeared forever.

The emotions I’d feel when entering old shops likes this with 30 or 40 years behind them, was always one of … well, barely contained excitement. On the first visit to a place like that, when I had a sense there could be great collectables and leftovers lying around… I’d act casual… but my eyes would dart around the very moment I walked in, looking for telltale signs that the shop had a history dating back to the 1980s. Things like faded Tamiya stickers on a wall somewhere, or old magazines lying in a pile, were often a good sign there might also be vintage goodies sitting in a box somewhere.

Those older shops were often easily distinguishable from the outside too, with their old retro “Hobbies” signs, and usually nondescript shopfronts which said nothing of the disorganized delights within. Here’s one I visited in Anchorage, Alaska, 11 years ago called Anchorage House of Hobbies, which pretty much epitomizes what I’m referring to…

This place was a really old, dusty hobby shop, and I found a few nice old bits and pieces there… such as unused spare tyres for Tamiya buggies, and even decal sets for cars like The Bigwig. Occasionally you would find bizarre things too – like lost spares for obscure 80s buggies that you never even knew had a spare parts line. House of Hobbies still had a vintage Tamiya Bigwig buggy sitting on a shelf when I visited (though it wasn’t for sale – I checked).

Another great “find” I had was when I visited a store called Port World of Models in 2008, which was located in the coastal town of Port Macquarie to the north of Sydney. By a stroke of (sad) luck, the store was on the verge of closing when I visited, and I got talking to the owner, Frank, at some length about the future, the past, and what he planned to do with all his leftover spares (new and old). In the weeks that followed, I ended up taking home practically a car load’s worth of vintage R/C parts and even some memorabilia. Some items were even given to me for free, such as old Tamiya catalogues, and any parts whose price sticker had fallen off decades ago and which Frank could no longer be bothered to remember what they were worth.

But Frank still got nearly $1000 out of me, and was very pleased to finally see so many old bits and pieces go to a good home. While I had found easily $2000+ worth of goodies, including everything from spare Jet Hopper spare tyres to entire chassis decks for the original Tamiya Avante.

Port World of Models closed in 2010, but here’s a photo of it’s humble shopfront among the hairdressers and charcoal chicken shops of a small shopping strip…

As the years went by, I even began keeping a diary of the hobby shops I visited, and a record of any interesting old R/C things I found. What a nerdy thing to do! And yet… now even my notes make for nostalgic reading. Like the time I found a few Tamiya Porsche 959 parts in a hobby shop in Paris, or the time I found brand new Hirobo Zerda tyres (from 1985) in a box literally right under the front counter of a hobby shop.

Because of course, it will be no surprise to anyone that such fun was never meant to last. After all, any old R/C stock should have sold when it was released back in the 1980s. The fact it didn’t was only due to those heady days being such a boom period for R/C. And inevitably there was a bit of oversupply… so we ended up with this rather weird retail phenomenon where your average Local Hobby Shop may or may not still have some spares, parts or even whole cars dating back 20-30 years, just sitting around and gathering dust. I can’t think of another class of retail store where the same sort of thing could have happened.

So, the fact that any “vintage R/C treasures” could still be found in hobby shops as late as the 2000s, was itself a minor miracle.

But nevertheless, it now feels to me as though too much time has passed, and the days of finding R/C goodies in old hobby shops is truly over, since most of the old hobby shops themselves have gone out of business in recent years.

I myself feel as though I have exhausted just about every store in my region of the world, and even a few in other parts of the world.

So the only real place to find vintage bits and pieces now is, of course, online, and from other collectors.

To finish up, I will leave you with some photos of another long-lost Hobby Shop in Sydney called Wing’s n Things – which was actually one of the very first places I went looking for old parts back in the 1990s.

The outside of the shop had a rather cool painted facade featuring a Tamiya Wild Willy 2, among other things. And I can remember visiting the store, and literally being unable to afford all the vintage Tamiya tyres, decals, posters, and other 1980s R/C ephemera that I was finding in their bargain bins in the 1990s. Great times, great memories.

Here’s how Wings n Things once was…

And here’s what it became after it closed down… 😦 There was almost something obscene about the way the Wild Willy was removed, leaving only a scar on the wall…

If anyone has any nice memories of vintage R/C things found at hobby shops, or even just visits, please share them in the comments below.

Keep the memories alive, keep in touch, and keep enjoying your vintage R/C models 🙂

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6 responses to “The era of the vintage hobby shop find”

  1. fiveeight0sixsix says :

    Timely post – I was just thinking about hobby shop closures this week, because another local shop (although not one that ever dealt with RC) is closing after 33 years in business.

    I always used to like going into long-established model shops and seeing what old stuff they had hanging around. Would occasionally ask if they had anything out back although this only turned up one really good find, where I managed to get several sets of Sand Scorcher tyres for about £5 a pair. I think that the first wave of collectors (late 90s/early 00s) must have got the best stuff before me – I sold my Top Force Evolution via the classifieds of one of the magazines for about £80 in 2001…

    What I did see on the shelves was lots of, well, junk. Mid 90s Schumacher and Kyosho kits that wouldn’t even sell today. Sanyo NiCD batteries that wouldn’t take a charge any more. Off-brand electronics. Happy nostalgia though.

    And now those shelves are pretty much all gone in the UK. The vast majority is sold online, and a lot of that comes straight from overseas. That is the economic reality. I can’t see it changing any time soon.

    • R/C Toy Memories says :

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, I almost mentioned this in the post too, because while traveling overseas back in 2007, the one place where I was already unable to find anything vintage leftover in hobby shops, was the UK. And I must have visited at least half a dozen different model shops there.

      Perhaps the strong tradition of hobbyists in the UK meant that anything leftover from the 80s, was snapped up early on, and didn’t linger for very long.

      Great find with the boxed Sand Scorcher tyres though. In the mid-1990s, I knew a local hobby shop that still had a large plastic crate filled with those for a similar price to the ones you found (about AU$10ea). Being young and broke at the time, I only bought a couple of sets. And when I went back a couple of years later, they were all gone.

      A couple of years after that, we had eBay, and a lot of vintage parts were obtainable – but you had to fight for them in bidding auctions, and the boxed Sand Scorcher tyres were suddenly nudging up to $100 per set. Still today you’ll pay $60 – $100 per vintage boxed set, as the original wheels are different to the reissued ones, and everyone wants the cool, coloured tyre box.

      Yes, everything is online these days, including the vintage stuff. Though of course I am grateful because it has enabled me to get hold of far more things, than old hobby shop stock would ever have allowed…

      Though nothing quite beats the feeling of walking into a real shop and finding vintage treasures in-person.

  2. FONTENEL Benoit says :

    Nice to read you again.

    Best regards from France,
    Benoit

  3. Patricia Blinkhorn says :

    It’s great reading your stories again, glad you are back 🙂

  4. Enrique says :

    Hi Rob, glad you’re back !

    Fantastic reading as always, thanks for this !

    I have the chance to have a hobby store at about 20km, here in Belgium (Hobby 2000), which I visit from when I was a teenager, so more than 25 years… I left to go in 1à years ago, as I was in other hobbies (real scale cars…) but 2-3 years ago, nostalgia came up and I’ll return to this shop, as it’s still open, fortunately.

    The smell, the exactly same implementation of items (it sell also scale train as Marklin) and have a upper floor with slot-racing, which is also something I have always liked, same vendors (with less hairs !), all of that make me feeling the chance I have to make a travel in past, and your present article confirm me that I am (and of course all the people who visit it) very gifted to still can do that…

    Even with the online market, which it penetrate also (maybe the secret of it’s longevity ?), it remains one of the best place for R/C enthusiasts.

    Just to join your first video on this article, I found this, but you certainly already viewed it: https://youtu.be/R4Nv7MlFbQ8

    I love Nikko vintage items also, but Tamiya, as this video show it, still the best and most implicated in his business from many years that it force admiration, for me.

    Thanks again for all of your work, as you’re now a Guardian of R/C History, and that’s a part of my life, not only my childhood, so what you’re doing is near to Anthropology, so never leave it !

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