Identifying vintage Tamiya R/C spare parts

Restoring a vintage Tamiya R/C car is a fun challenge. Many collectors use original vintage Tamiya spare parts when doing so, in order to keep the car period-correct and original. But gathering those parts can be like a treasure hunt. So it helps if you start off with some basic knowledge about how to identify actual vintage Tamiya parts, from the rest.

One of the great joys of old R/C models is not just the models themselves, it’s collecting the spare parts. At least, I have always thought so.

When kit-based R/C models first appeared in the 1970s, most carried with them a line of spares which could be purchased from hobby retailers. In those early years, Tamiya Corporation of Japan soon became the most popular brand of electric-powered R/C models for a variety of different reasons. But one reason was their excellent, international spare parts availability and support. What’s more, many of the spare parts Tamiya sold came in well organized, neat and attractive packaging. The earliest spare parts even came in full-colour boxes that were as enticing as the R/C kits themselves.

Tamiya also advertised their spare parts range with immense detail in their glossy, annual product catalogues, displaying page after page filled with small boxes – each one showing the contents of a specific spare parts packet, along with it’s spare parts code number. Each packet’s contents was laid out in such detail that even all the little screws and washers were lined up like soldiers. The image below comes from the 1987 Tamiya Catalogue, which was really at the peak of the golden era of Tamiya’s R/C line. And oh, how I used to study these arrays of spare parts pictures, to work out which items I needed (or simply wanted) for my cars…

The days of catalogues like this, are now somewhere between 30 and 40 years behind us. Yet as we all know, all early Tamiya R/C cars are now quite collectible. And most of the kids who grew up with them in the 1970s and 1980s, are now middle-aged.

Tamiya Corporation still exists of course – in fact, they are one of the last early R/C brands to still be operating in much the same organizational structure they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. And the only R/C brand I am aware of that still does not manufacture it’s cars in China.

But the early, classic R/C kits from Tamiya, and of course the spare parts for them, have long since been discontinued from the world. Many spares lingered for many years after the cars were gone, and literally millions of them were distributed around the world.  Which is why in some cases, those vintage parts could still be found in hobby shops right through the 1990s and even the 2000s

But those original cars and spare parts will never again be reproduced identically to how they first were. Which is why “vintage Tamiya” (and vintage R/C in general) remains a popular, nostalgic hobby with many collectors.

The current online marketplace

Today, eBay and other sites are flooded with spare parts for R/C cars of all kinds, both new and old. And of course, the online market is flooded with millions of cheap Chinese R/C cars that often lack branding. Whereas back in the 1980s and earlier, China did not manufacture R/C models at all.

Search for “Tamiya part” on eBay today, and while many parts will be listed, there is a good chance nothing on the first page of results will be a vintage Tamiya part. Search “vintage Tamiya part” and of course you will start seeing the right stuff. But not all of it will be genuine Tamiya, or genuinely vintage. In addition to seeing results for genuine Tamiya vintage spare parts, you are also likely to see results for the following:

  • Tamiya remake spare parts – I call them “remakes” as I feel that’s a more accurate term. Others may call them “re-re”, “reissue”, “re-rerelease”, or nothing at all. These are spare parts made by Tamiya in the 2000s and beyond. They are primarily designed to suit the Tamiya “remakes” which were modern, updated versions of some of the vintage Tamiya R/C kits. Those remake kits commenced in the 2000s. But because they carried many differences to the original 1970s/1980s Tamiya cars, the spare parts for them were often different as well. In some cases they fit vintage cars, in some cases they don’t fit. But in all cases, use of these parts in a vintage restoration will mean your vintage car can no longer be considered “100% vintage”. And if you ever decide to sell it, this will affect it’s value to other collectors.
  • Vintage third-party spare parts – These are spare parts which were made back in the 1980s and were compatible with the Tamiya cars of the day, but were not made by Tamiya. Most were made by small companies based in the USA, such as “CRP”, “Dirt Burners” and others.
  • Modern third-party spare parts – Similarly, these are more recent spare parts made by various non-Tamiya companies. The difference here is that these parts are often now made in China.
  • Parts that have nothing to do with Tamiya at all – Many parts listed on eBay just put the word “Tamiya!” into their listing titles to attract attention. When really, they have nothing to do with Tamiya cars specifically. A good example of this is ball bearing sets – hundreds of these are listed on eBay. Yet most are not made by Tamiya, and are not even specific to Tamiya R/C cars.
  • Counterfeit spare parts – Also known as “Repro” parts. These are parts which are, to put it plainly, illegal and unauthorized counterfeits of Tamiya spare parts. Some of the most common repro parts are body sets and decal sets. Some companies have been known to include small variations in the shape or appearance of these parts, to try to skirt Intellectual Property theft laws.
  • 3D Printed parts – Some hobbyists make custom 3D printed parts for old Tamiya cars. If those hobbyists are doing so privately, that’s OK. If they are doing so as a commercial enterprise and selling to others, that is also considered illegal. And just as with counterfeit spare parts, Tamiya has been known in the past to issue legal threats to companies that promote or sell these products.

So as you can see…

If your goal is merely to find original parts, identical to those that came in your Tamiya R/C kit back in the 1980s, it’s a very different world today than it was back then. I used to just walk into my local hobby store and ask, and still be able to buy many official spare parts from the 1980s. Much like this kid…

However, today with most hobby stores disappearing (certainly the old ones), and many not even stocking the Tamiya brand anymore, and almost zero carrying any truly vintage stock anymore for the early cars… this means the Internet is the only way.

So, as you trawl through the thousands of parts online, how do you know what a vintage Tamiya spare part looks like?

Vintage Tamiya Parts Packaging

As a long-time nerd for the Tamiya brand, who grew up in the 1980s and began seriously collecting Tamiya as early as the 1990s, I seem to have developed a certain “peripheral vision” for spotting vintage Tamiya parts amidst other things. Countless hours spent rummaging through boxes in old hobby shops (when those shops existed) looking for old vintage spares has made my eyes dart toward even the mere colour of a 1980s Tamiya spare part packet. And I must have bought hundreds, maybe thousands, of spare parts over the years.

With time, spotting vintage Tamiya parts eventually becomes second-nature. And these days if I’m looking for something, I scroll through the endless eBay listings online and usually know very quickly what is vintage, what might be vintage, or what isn’t vintage. It’s not complicated once you know. And most collectors will already know everything I have written below.

But this article is about sharing the experience with people who are new to collecting, and interested in keeping a vintage Tamiya “vintage”. So here goes…

What is vintage?

Generally speaking, when I say “vintage” I am referring to cars from about pre-1995.

“Vintage” in R/C can be explained as: a term used to demarcate an earlier era when R/C cars were still quite experimental in design. Making them flawed, over-engineered, complex, yet also very interesting and eclectic from one car, or one brand, to the next. From about the mid-1990s onward, experimentation and innovation tended to slow in the R/C industry, as the design of many cars became somewhat more homogeneous than it had been previously.

What do vintage Tamiya parts look like?

Below are examples of vintage Tamiya parts, and how they look, along with my best guesses as to the years those types of packaging were used.

Vintage coloured boxes (1976 – 1983)

Very early Tamiya parts which were expensive or fragile sometimes came in coloured boxes, with beautiful box art on them – just like the R/C kits themselves. These included things like body sets, electronic speed controls, motors and some other things. Here is a lovely Tamiya Ralt RT2 Hart 420R body parts set from about 1980…

Other examples include things like this Racing Speed Controller, which was designed for the Super Champ buggy…

And of course, early Tamiya tyre sets also came in the same beautiful boxes. Such as this Sand Scorcher Front Tyre Set

Beige boxes (1983 – today)

When the coloured boxes were discontinued, Tamiya began using beige boxes for things like body sets. So a lot of beige boxes date back to around 1983 and are vintage. But it completely depends on the car. If the body set is for a vintage car, it’s vintage. But since Tamiya continued to use variations of similar beige boxes right up until recent years, not every beige box you see is automatically a vintage spare part.

Anyway, here is a vintage beige box for the Tamiya Frog body parts set from 1983…

Vintage body set bags (1983 – 1990?)

Some vintage body sets also didn’t come in beige boxes at all, and were in bags instead. While some came in either beige boxes OR bags. One example of the latter is the Tamiya Hotshot. It’s body set came in either a box or bag. But what’s important is – even the bag was fancy-ish. Note the red header card with an illustration of the Hotshot on it, plus the large pink backing card inside the bag. This sort of extra detail on the packaging is still a hallmark of vintage packaging, even though this is just a bag and not a box.

Similarly, Tamiya also occasionally released other types of “special” packaging for certain parts or certain cars, such as this Tamiya Hotshot Ball Bearing Set. Note once again, the obvious vintage hallmark of having a nice, colour illustration of the car on the packet…

By comparison to these, the remake of the Tamiya Hotshot also had it’s spare body sets sold in bags – however, the modern bags are easily spotted because they are much more plain-looking with no frills.

Orange “Spare Parts” packets (1976 – early 1990s)

The vast majority of the smaller packets of vintage-era Tamiya R/C spare parts were sold in packets with orange “Spare Parts” header cards. Each of these packets had the official name of the part on them, along with the official spare part code number. These numbers were usually 3, 4 or 5 digits in length.

These orange packets represent one of the easiest and best ways to spot vintage parts, simply because these types of packets were phased out completely in the early 1990s as far as I can tell. This means that if the parts haven’t been tampered with… an orange packet is a guarantee of a vintage part.

Below is a packet of rare tyres for the Tamiya Porsche 959, along with a packet of the Tamiya Hornet Damper Set.

White Toy Traders “Replacement Parts” from Australia (1976 – early 1990s)

Back in the 1980s, some of the major distributors of Tamiya such as “Toy Traders” in Australia and “MRC” (Model Rectifier Corp) in the USA, packaged up Tamiya parts in their own packaging styles. These both date from roughly the same timeframe as the orange Tamiya packets, and are therefore just as reliable to consider as “vintage parts”. Below is a Toy Traders white header card packet of a Tamiya Boomerang parts set, as sold in Australia (the reverse side of the card says “Toy Traders” on it).

Yellow MRC “R/C Car & Buggy Parts” from USA (1976 – early 1990s)

Next up is an example of an MRC packet from the USA. These little packets never had header cards, but instead came with a colour illustration of the Tamiya Rough Rider on the front of them. This doesn’t mean they were all for the Rough Rider – that’s just for decoration. Again, these are reliable as always being pre-1995 vintage parts, to the best of my knowledge, and they may even have been used only in the early-mid 1980s.

Blue Toy Traders “Replacement Parts” from Australia (early 1990s – 2010s)

Later packets of Australian “Replacement Parts” came in a blue header card packet, which tends to date from just around the end of the vintage era (early 1990s), and continue through to the 2000s. So when you see parts in this packet, some of them may belong to vintage R/C cars. But most may belong to much more recent cars from anything up to and including the 2000s. Below is a packet of Super Hornet front tyres. The Super Hornet was released in 1993.

Packets taken directly from Tamiya R/C kits

Sometimes, Tamiya kits were broken up by hobby stores and sold as spare parts. Some of the parts in kits were still easy to identify once taken out of the kit box. But others – such as those inside  plain/clear packets with no header card on them, can be harder to identify once outside the kit.

In those instances, you should check the embossed writing on the part or sprue itself as per my guidelines here. The embossed writing is almost always the final word on whether a part is vintage or not, because Tamiya began changing their embossed wording in the 1990s, and today it contains a bunch of special codes and things that never used to be printed at all.

However as mentioned, many kit parts are quite easy to spot outside the kit. Take this Tamiya Fox screw bag below – the illustration is again, a typical hallmark of vintage packaging. And we also know (with a quick ebay comparison search) that the screw bags found in the remake Tamiya Fox have much more plain and boring header cards.

Similarly, below is a 540 motor which has literally been cut from a vintage kit blister – probably by a hobby shop who wanted to cut the whole blister up and sell every part separately. We know this motor is vintage both because of the style of motor itself, but also because of the fact that it was inside a blister to begin with (because blister packs were only common in vintage kits). Plus, the colour of the red cardboard tells me this motor was once cut from a vintage Tamiya Wild One kit.

Plain packets with an “X” item code sticker

Another tricky one, is the plain packet that has a small sticker on it beginning with “X”. These parts were found in hobby stores all over, and were usually vintage parts. Perhaps they were taken directly out of kits again to be sold separately. At any rate, the “X” sticker appears to be another hallmark of vintage era spare parts. Below is an example of a vintage Tamiya Boomerang parts set in a plain packet with the sticker (visible at lower-right). If in doubt though, always check the embossed writing on the part and sprue as per these guidelines.

Blue/Red “Hop-Up Options” Spare Parts (1988 – late 1990s?)

In the late 1980s, Tamiya created a second line of spare parts called “Hop-Up Options” which came in blue and red packets. These feature parts that are designed as official performance upgrades to certain cars, though some of the parts in this line were actually standard kit parts for certain cars (ie. the more high-performance cars). Below are examples of the Hop-Up parts packaging. And again, while early examples of parts in this type of packaging are certainly vintage, the later examples may be considered less so as the cars from the late 1990s are considered outside the vintage era.

If a spare part package doesn’t match any of the above?

If it doesn’t match any of the above descriptions, or it’s brand new but it has no packaging at all in the photo… these are signs that it probably isn’t a vintage Tamiya spare part. It’s probably a later part, a remake part, or something else.

Tamiya later changed their packaging header card styles again and again, through the 1990s and 2000s. So if a Tamiya header card or packet is present, but it doesn’t look like one of the above examples, then it probably isn’t a spare part from the vintage era.

If in doubt though, always check the product codes and if possible, the embossed writing on the part or sprue.

Collectors – feel free to get in touch 🙂

If you feel I have forgotten some important detail here, please let me know and I will adjust the article with new information.

Also, please remember to join the new R/C Toy Memories Forum and feel welcome to post any topic you like about restoring and collecting original vintage R/C cars. The forum only opened last week after a major site upgrade, and it would be nice to build up a little discussion community over time of avid vintage restorers, collectors and anyone else interested in vintage R/C models pre-1995 – with a gentle emphasis on originality 😉

As always, thanks for reading, and happy collecting!

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