Tamiya: Meet the man behind a million boyhood dreams

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The Tamiya Plastic Model Company is universally recognised for its accurate scale replicas and has inspired countless car designers and racing fans

If you are interested in motor sport, then you probably have fond memories of Tamiya models. The Japanese company’s radio-controlled and plastic car kits are most people’s first experience of building a scale model vehicle – and often herald a lifetime’s fascination with all things petrol-powered. 

One well known Formula 1 designer has even admitted privately that, as a young lad, he would buy Tamiya F1 car kits and cut up the body parts to create new aerodynamic forms. This inspired him to become an engineer and he ended up creating some of the most successful designs in Grand Prix history. Tamiya, then, can be seen as a scale-model gateway drug to the world of hard-core motor sport. 

Sure, there were others model manufacturers producing kits in the 1970s and ’80s, but Tamiya’s products offered something new; moulded plastic parts that fitted together without fighting back, plus accurately profiled bodyshells. Unlike rivals, Tamiya models just looked ‘right’ and much of that is down to the company’s president for the past three decades, Mr Shunsaku Tamiya.

My first encounter with Mr Shunsaku Tamiya was in 1994, during my first visit to the Nuremberg Toy Fair, a vast annual trade show in Bavaria that encompasses all aspects of the toy and hobby industries, scale and RC modelling included. 

Every year, the modelling magazine editors would make an annual pilgrimage to the event to gather editorial material for their respective titles and, as a lowly editorial assistant, at Tamiya Model Magazine International it was my first work-trip abroad. Business class? No, nor even economy; we drove from our Hertfordshire office to Nuremberg in the company Ford Mondeo estate.

Back then, the Tamiya trade stand was smaller than it is now, but for me it still held the mystique of a temple, albeit one dedicated to scale modelling. All I can recall of meeting Mr S Tamiya was desperately trying not to make a fool of myself, shaking his hand while simultaneously bowing, a gesture not really expected of westerners, but I did it anyway. 

The next year I was invited to Tamiya’s HQ at Shizuoka City and this time I was far more confident. We spent much time talking about scale modelling and Mr Tamiya, Bud Voss (a friend and colleague of Shunsaku) and I managed to polish off a litre of Jim Beam in the top office, which overlooks Mt Fuji. Today as editor of that magazine, I still remember meeting Mr S Tamiya – a memory that will stay with me forever. 

So what is it that makes Tamiya models so special? To understand it fully we first need a bit of history. 

The family-owned company was founded in 1946 and started out making wooden kits of battleships in the immediate post-war years. The company’s home town of Shizuoka City, just over 100 miles south-west of Tokyo, was a centre for the timber industry and so there was a plentiful supply of high-grade Japanese cyprus, magnolia and katsura woods from which to make the kits.

In the late 1950s, with the increasing popularity of plastic model kits imported from the United States, the sales of wooden kits went into decline and Tamiya (then still run by Shunsaku’s father, Yoshio) had no option but to convert to the new technology and start creating its own injection-moulded plastic models.

In 1960 the company’s first polystyrene kit was released, the WW2 Imperial Japanese Navy battleship Musashi in 1:800. It was by no means a success, thanks to the simultaneous – and less expensive – release of exactly the same subject by rival Japanese manufacturer, Nichimo.

In an attempt to recoup some of the tooling costs of the failed Musashi project, a cheap and cheerful solution was needed and this resulted directly in Tamiya’s first model car kits, the ‘Baby Racers’. In reality, these were not actually Tamiya products at all; they were made from toy car moulds, borrowed by Tamiya as an expedient measure. The parts were marketed in attractive new packaging that echoed pop-art imagery and, to the huge relief of the company, sold in enormous numbers. 

At the time of the Musashi’s release, Shunsaku also commissioned his younger brother Masao, then a first year student at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, to create a new company logo. He drew up the ‘Star Mark’ that has endured to this day and become the most evocative and prestigious emblem in the model industry.

Tamiya fully established itself as a plastic model company through the 1960s and ’70s with a line of tanks and other military vehicle kits. The popular scale of 1:35 that now dominates this modelling subject came about purely by chance, when Tamiya’s Panther tank kit – which was motorised and had to accommodate two type-B batteries – just happened to be one thirty-fifth the size of the real tank. The scale stuck, and now it is by far the most popular size for model military kits and figures. 

One of the key things about these early years is the fact that it was Shunsaku who wrote to the museums, racing teams and manufacturers to arrange research visits. It was he who took the photos, measured up tanks, aircraft, racing cars, sketched the box art, drew the instructions, built the display models and sold to distributors at trade fairs. Mr Shunsaku Tamiya ‘was’ Tamiya.

Tamiya’s true history with automotive scale models began in 1965 with the creation of its first slot car, the 1:24 Jaguar D-type. It was a highly developed design with a low centre of gravity (thanks to a beautiful brass chassis), ball-race bearings and coil-spring rear suspension. The Jaguar sold extremely well in Japan, but the slot car craze was already beginning to fade in the company’s home market – partly because officials perceived slot racing to be on the same level as how we view amusement arcades today; slightly dubious places to hang out and morally questionable. Schools banned their young students from visiting slot race venues and the craze faded.

The story could have ended there but for the fact that Tamiya came to the attention of European modellers – and Formula 1 followers in particular – with the release in 1967 of the Honda RA273, in the large scale of 1:12.  

The car had won the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix and Shunsaku wanted to celebrate its achievement: “The conventional wisdom in the world of F1 was that it took a minimum of 10 years from first participating in a race to winning one. Honda had reached the top in a mere year and a half. It was an unfeasibly brilliant achievement. This amazing performance was what inspired me to create
a model of the Honda F1 car.” 

The main problem was not so much in the model’s creation, but in having it sell well in Japan; in the mid-60s, the fanbase for F1 in Japan was in its infancy and the sport was barely reported in the domestic press. It was during one of Shunsaku’s business trips to Britain that his mind was made up for him. On the insistence of the company’s charismatic UK distributor Richard Kohnstam (remember the RIKO stickers on Tamiya kit boxes in the 1970s and ’80s?), Tamiya went ahead with the project, on the basis that F1 was so popular in Europe that the kit would sell successfully with little effort.

At that time, Tamiya employed a 20-year-old petrolhead by the name of Kazuo Okabe as a designer – and it was he that Shunsaku entrusted with the Honda kit’s development.  The real car was about to be air-freighted to Monaco for the GP, so all of Tamiya’s Honda research photos and measurements were carried out in a shipping warehouse at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. 

The result was a stunning model of this important machine and it still stands as an excellent replica that has sold well throughout its several re-issues over the years. The finished model measures 333mm long, 143mm wide and 70mm high. It comes with a fully detailed engine and has semi-pneumatic rubber tyres (invented by Tamiya for scale models) plus a seated driver figure. 

Tamiya is world famous for its static scale models, of course, but there’s a whole other side to the company: radio control. In 1976, Tamiya launched its very first RC car, the Vaillant-sponsored Porsche 934 Turbo, but it came about in a slightly unorthodox manner. In the same year, Tamiya released one of its most iconic static model kits in the form of the 1:12 Porsche 934 RSR, in the fabulous orange Jägermeister livery. It was detailed inside and out and was highly accurate, a feat of scale authenticity achieved when Mr S Tamiya purchased a brand new 911 and took it apart, bolt by bolt, to measure the bodyshell. 

“I made up my mind to buy a 911,” he said later. “I was buying the car for reference, not for driving. Disassembly was my only aim. I deposited the 911 in the garage of my house and every part that could be dismantled, was dismantled.”

The disassembly was rapid, but a Porsche dealer in Japan was called in to re-assemble the poor thing, much to his exasperation. This 911 now resides in the lobby museum at Tamiya HQ and is always popular with visitors.

Initially the 934 kit did not sell well due its high price; so much time and effort had been put into the model’s research and tooling that the costs had snowballed. Something had to be done to offset the outlay of creating the near-perfect bodyshell moulding. What can you do with an exquisitely detailed 1:12 Porsche bodyshell? Add radio controls, of course! Mr Tamiya had observed one of his employees (the now legendary RC car designer Fumito Taki) playing with RC models during his lunch breaks and presented him with the challenge of creating a radio-controlled Porsche 934 Turbo. The model used regular dry-cell batteries, which ran out after 10 or so minutes of running, so Tamiya developed rechargeable NiCad battery packs for the Porsche and subsequent models, which went on to become an industry standard for many years. 

The 934 was a huge hit and launched Tamiya’s radio-control ranges, which included such classics as the Sand Scorcher Baja Buggy, the first mass-market off-road RC car that every schoolboy of a certain vintage is likely to remember.

Against a backdrop of growing popularity of Formula 1 in Japan, thanks to the participation in the 1987 season of Satoru Nakajima and thus greatly increased TV coverage, Tamiya’s F1 car releases also became ever more successful. In 1991 Tamiya began its sponsorship of Team Lotus, during a time of crisis for the team. It had lost a major sponsor, plus an engine supplier, and was in need of support; it couldn’t even afford to ship its cars from England to America for one race, so Mr S Tamiya met this cost. Having had support from Tamiya, Team Lotus gained the backing of Japanese companies Hitachi and Shionogi and the team was viable once more. In an act of gratitude, team principal Peter Collins, a Tamiya model fan himself, stuck the company’s logos on his cars. 

Naturally Tamiya has expanded over the years and now does much of its manufacture in a vast purpose-built factory on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, established in September 1994. 

But if you really want to get a flavour of the company, you need to travel to Japan. Here there is a series of factory outlet stores known as the Tamiya Plamodel Factory. At street level these sell Tamiya’s kits, tools, paints, books and accessories, but in the basement you’ll find something very different: for a small charge, you can rent a modelling table for a few hours and use it to build and paint the model you have just purchased from the shop upstairs. 

The price includes a locker that allows you to store your kit in its box, plus the paints, airbrush and tools needed for its assembly and finishing. On my visits to Plamodel Factories in Tokyo, this didn’t seem as lonely as it might sound; I saw fathers and mothers with their children, all building things together in a modelling pastiche of a family meal at a restaurant. It is typical Tamiya and typical of the company’s charismatic boss. Shunsaku is now 83, but if his sprightly dancing at this year’s Nuremberg Toy Fair is anything to go by, he’s never lost a childlike wonder in his toys. 

Marcus Nicholls is editor of Tamiya Model Magazine, published in the UK and around the world: www.tamiyamodelmagazine.com

An audience with Mr Tamiya 

At the 2017 Nuremberg Toy Fair, editor Nick Trott sat down with his hero Shunsaku Tamiya 

As an innovator, Mr Tamiya should be considered in the same league as Colin Chapman. As a businessman, he should be likened to Henry Ford. He is, in my mind, every bit as inspirational as these men.

Shunsaku Tamiya inspired a passion for cars in many people – me included. I remember my first kit – an F2 radio controlled car hand-me-down from a cousin. Such was it a perfect scale mimic of the real thing, and so beautiful was its engineering I couldn’t understand why my older cousin would surrender it. Still, he’s not getting back, I thought.

Slowly I collected Tamiya models. I drew Tamiya models – particularly the buggies. I covered my school text-books in pages from the beautifully printed Tamiya catalogues. I laughed at the rear wing slogans on said buggies (‘Being Nuts Is Neat’) and I would dream about owning the ultimate Tamiya radio controlled buggy – the Avante. 

The Avante 4×4 was exquisite. It used a mid-mounted motor in a carbon-reinforced chassis. It had three differentials. It used tiny aluminium rose-joints. It was also beyond the realms of my pocket money so I saved, and saved, and saved. Then one day I had enough to buy one. I still remember the day I unboxed it; I could barely breathe.

When I became a motoring journalist I made it a mission to meet Mr Tamiya – to look him in the eye and say ‘thank you’. Luckily enough, I did that 10 years ago at the Nuremberg Toy Fair. I didn’t think I’d get the chance to meet him again but I’d heard a rumour that this year – the 50th year Tamiya has exhibited at the Toy Fair – would be the last Shunsaku would attend. I simply had to jump on a plane and try to speak to him again.

A broad grin envelops his face. He looks much younger than his 83 years. He tells me that he has no plans to stop travelling to the Toy Fair. “This is business for me, but my personal passion too. When I came here for the first time I was 32, quite a lot has changed since then. As I have been travelling since I was very young, I was fortunate to find out what to do to make a global business. 

“It is a fact that a number of people have been using the PC game [in recent years], but the enjoyment of assembling something by hand is totally different from a PC game. Modelling something is analogue. By assembling our products, people can learn how a car is contrasted – why a stabiliser is needed, a differential, suspension. And the history too. For any kind of model, the story behind it is also very important. It is perhaps sad that children are not experiencing this.

“From a small child, I liked making models. When I was young the Condor visited Japan – and since then I loved aircraft. In 1967 I visited England and went to the Imperial War Museum to see the Mosquito. I have a, how do you say, romance for that aircraft. When I saw it, I thought that the engineering capability of my company then meant I couldn’t make it. It was a dilemma; as the president of the company I loved the aircraft and I wanted to make it but we were not ready. Forty years later, we did.”

As Mr Tamiya speaks that final paragraph, something dawns on me. He’s so much more than a Chapman-esque innovator or a great businessman; his respect for the subject also makes him an archivist – accurately preserving the history of mankind’s greatest machines. Long may that continue.

With thanks to Anthony Shaw, Pete Binger, The Hobby Co (www.hobbyco.net) and Shunsaku Tamiya.

 

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