History of the radio-controlled car legend Tamiya

Tamiya

G-Wagen and Supra are faithful replicas of the real thing

Tamiya is world renowned for his intricately detailed scale model kits and iconic radio controlled cars. Tracing brand roots

Tamiya was the first company to make radio controlled models that are easy to assemble but far from simplistic. For many thousands of people, it broke out, an enduring love for cars and machines and caused a cult around the world.

Since the 1960s, Tamiya has made a name for itself with the quality of its static plastic and radio control (R/C) data sets and, most importantly, the ingenuity that goes into their designs and the details in them. The R/C cars and buggies that have grown so much have complex chassis and drivetrains, with suspension arms, dampers, differentials and interchangeable gear ratios (a bit) like the real thing. Driving takes a real skill: there's nothing quite like tossing a R/C buggy around in a tight ride to hone your reflexes.

The two latest Tamiya R/C releases are the Mercedes-Benz G500 and the Toyota Supra. The G500 model is based on the new CC-02 chassis – 'CC' stands for 'cross-country' – with a chassis ladder rather than a simple tub, and sophisticated suspension and drivetrain giving the same bridge of articulation as a full-fledged Merc. Which makes it perfect for rock crawling competitions, as well as 20 gear ratios for a single-speed gearbox.

The Supra model is based on the road-going Tamiya TT02 chassis and was launched at the same time as the real thing. Such trust and respect for the company for the Tamiya brand model company was allowed access to Toyota's secret design and CAD information long before the Supra was revealed.

Both are far from Tamiya's early days. Once at a logging company, he started making rough wood model kits after the war. Beginning modellers can shape them with a freshly sharpened penknife, but it took a lot of determination to do a decent job. One such youngster was Shunsaku Tamiya, Tamiya, the son of the founder, Yoshio Tamiya.

In the 1960s, Tamiya's attention turned to newfangled plastic kits and the company developed metal molds to make them. Tamiya's shunsaku passion for models has never left him and, unusually for a company boss, he takes a hands-on approach, preferring to measure, study and document new items in person. Initially, Tamiya is sold exclusively in the Japanese and Asian markets, but this will soon change.

In the UK, David Binger's toy wholesalers Richard Kohnstamm Ltd. (whom many remember as Rico) was on the lookout for new products that European sellers didn't have. In 1966, he noticed Tamiya's grey-imported sets while on a trip to the US and traveled to Japan to meet young Tamiya and his father for the first time. This meeting marked the beginning of a long and successful relationship between the two firms and introduced Tamiya to the UK and Europe.

David's son, Pete, is now the Managing Director of Hobby Company Ltd, and the current importer of Tamiya products. And Tamiya would later write to him: “David passionately encourages us to sell Tamiya goods in the United Kingdom… I was a skeptic about the idea then, but in the end David's courage and insight allowed our products to get a flow to the European market and led to the creation of our brand Worldwide."

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Binger says: “My father created the entire European network and screwed it up. He quickly established that the growth in sales was due to the expansion of the range.”

As the range has increased, Tamiya plastic sets have become known for their quality and the almost minute detail with which they were modelled. Formula 1 was seen as a potential big market, so Glynn Pearson, who had been working with Binger's seniors, was sent to befriend all the Formula 1 teams in the UK and obtain licensing rights to the model car. Some legendary car models have appeared, including the F1 Honda RA273, the Lotus 49 and the Lotus 72. “The Lotus 72 had a huge seller and put Tamiya on the map in the UK,” says Binger.

Binger describes Tamiya as "the ultimate archivist" with an eye for perfection and detail. “Other people were looking at the cost-effectiveness of the project; he just looked at the creation of perfection, and to this day. He was always one for collecting his own reference material and was never satisfied with supplied photographs and information. He is used to traveling the world, studying and photographing new subjects.”

In the simpler times of F1, the engines were overhauled rather than replaced, and the welded-up sump of one Tamiya item used as a reference properly appeared on the finished model. Military tanks are a passion and Tamiya is. He once climbed into tiny crevices under a German tank to photograph underbelly details at the US Army Ordnance Museum, and he once burned at night at the Bovington Tank Museum photographing every detail of a Tiger tank. In order to make an accurate model of the Porsche 911, Tamiya bought a full-size car that was dismantled at home to look at every detail. No one in Tamiya has the necessary knowledge to repair it afterwards, so woozy technicians were called in from Porsche Japan to do the job.

Tamiya switched from static to radio controlled models almost by accident. One lunch, and Tamiya is noticed by one of his designers, Fumito Taki, operating an electric radio-controlled car. It is equipped with a battery-electric drive for the Tamiya F1 car kit, and the result was that the owner was not looking for it. The company's first radio-controlled model was the Sherman tank in 1974, inspired by the same effort as the first car, the Porsche 934 in 1976. Porsche's body scale was based on a plastic body kit, which received critical acclaim but not much commercial success. Porsche was the first in the RC world to have a scale body, but there is room for improvement. The body was too fragile for a R/C car and dry non-rechargeable batteries were limited in performance and life. This didn't stop the R/c version from being a hit, though more durable monobloc bodies for R/C cars followed. Many purpose-built R/c cars that followed in the 1970s and 1980s became icons that fired up the enthusiasm of the budding car nut.

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One of these badges was the sand scorcher, on a 1/10th replica of the bottom bug that Binger says, really set Tamiya on his way. It was the first true SUV R/c car with an accurate Bach-based chassis, sealed gearbox and oil-filled differential, and a one-piece ABS body. After being discontinued for a time, the icons have been brought back, so now grown kids who couldn't afford them can then fill their shoes.

Learning Model

Everything starts somewhere and, in the case of legendary F1 designer Adrian Newey, it was Tamiya for the Honda RA273 V12 set in F1.

“My dad was a veterinarian but kept his car and was an avid radio enthusiast,” he says. “When I was nine years old I built my first model, the Tamiya Honda F1 car, and my father helped me. The second was Lotus 49 and that was probably the bigger impact. I found this incredibly helpful because the parts were all labeled as front upright 'or' upper arm, so I learned the terminology. As I built the models, I learned how F1 cars were built. Models have all the same components: engine, load-bearing body, gearbox and so on.

“Because the suspension and steering is about motion, it teaches you how the suspension articulates and how it all works. Around the age of 11, I started sketching my work and making it in my father's studio. I would make cars out of rolled pieces of aluminum and laminated fiberglass, then remake Tamiya models for bits I couldn't do, like the engine and wheels. I'm learning the way I went and it's an age-old thing: it takes at least 500 hours to become an expert at something - and without realizing it, that's what I'm doing."

Radio controlled Tamiya badges

Sand scorcher: There is a R/C ball rolling for Tamiya with an authentic 1/10th reproduction of the real thing. Funky yet technically sophisticated, even the swing-arm suspension echoes the original Volkswagen Beetle.

Lunch: the cars may not have been in the UK in 1987 when the strange lunch was first launched, but it has been a hit ever since. Tinkering may involve the installation of permanent adjustable volume - or ONMK - dampers.

Avante: a little more seriously, that's one thing. Not an entry-level kit, the Avante is designed for racing with tough aluminum and fiberglass. Suspension adjustable for convergence and camber and oil-filled adjustable shock absorbers.

Hornet: The 1/10th Hornet is one of the most popular Tamiya R/c cars ever and helped kick off the two-wheel-drive off-road buggy craze when it was first released in 1984.

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