Tamiya 1980's Buggy history and iconic box art

Tamiya Buggies are iconic to many people. The following article is written by a friend who is a graphic designer. He covers Tamiya's buggies from the 8o's, with a little bit of history and and explanation on the feelings they evoked to us when we looked up to them on the Model stores shelves.

Hi guys, Just want to say that I know this is a RC car blog and I’ll issue a quick disclaimer; I’m not a RC car aficionado nor Dirt Buggy enthusiast so we are really only skimming the surface here. What I do have though are vivid memories of these Tamiya models and the craze they stirred through the mid to late 80′s.
Before I start I’d like to point out that it’s entirely possible that all the below renderings are the work of one (highly talented) illustrator. That person I believe is Yoshiyuki Takani, but at the moment I cannot confirm. If anyone knows more please let us know in the comments
Right then, to give the article a little structure I’ve done my best to assemble the vehicles in a chronological order. Scrolling through you’ll notice it is focussed solely on Tamiya’s 1/10th scale Radio Controlled Dirt Buggy range. Reason being is simple, not only do they look the coolest with their beautifully sculpted chassis and humorous, brash liveries. 

Look a little closer and there there’s as graphical language that totally set them apart, some truly wonderful design work that’s quite like nothing else. It’s little surprise then that they captured and enthralled a generation, at least for a little while….

Lets begin with some history first.
Tamiya’s roots date back to 1946 postwar Japan, and the city of Shizuoka. The company was founded in 1946 as Tamiya Shoji & Co by Yoshio Tamiya (15 May 1905 – 2 November 1988) and was originally in fact a sawmill a lumber supply company. Model production began in earnest in 1947 with the construction of wooden models of ships and airplanes. By 1953 Tamiya had switched all focus away from lumber sales and were focussed solely on model making, with the concept of being “easy to understand and build, even for beginners”.
By the early 60′s Tamiya had really started take off, thanks in part to the early Box art of Shigeru Komatsuzaki. Plastic model kits of aircraft and military equipment were soon joined by highly detail reproductions of famous sports cars. Originally Tamiya packaging was designed as ”compositions of achievement” or “a story contained in a picture”. This would change in 1968, super detailed scenes were dumped in favour of focusing purely on the vehicle, still painstakingly rendered but now placed on just a plain white background. It’s an iconic style that stuck.
A quick side note on the famous Tamiya Star Mark logo, first designed in 1960 by Yoshio’s son-in-law. The left, red star stands for passion and the right, blue star stands for precision.
In 1976, Tamiya entered the Radio Controlled market with their first RC model, the Porsche 934, a racing version of the 911. To make this scale model as accurate as possible, Tamiya took the unprecedented approach of purchasing an original 911 which they promptly dismantled in order for their engineers to better under the vehicles inner workings. Attention to detail, Japanese style.
A series of both on and off road vehicles were to follow, there’s many types and styles, but for the purpose of this post we are going to fast forward through to December 1983…

The Frog (1983)

Though it wasn’t their first off road RC vehicle, The Frog marked a shift in Tamiya’s design ethos. Rather than replicating real life cars like they had with the Sand Scorcher or Rally car copies, effort was channelled into designing bespoke dirt buggies. Essentially then, despite the kinetic realism the box art oozes with, all Buggies featured here are 1/10th Scale models of vehicles that never actually existed at full size.
The Frog also marked the start of a series of wildlife inspired designs, each buggy taking subtle styling hint’s from it’s animal namesake. Note here the prominent headlamps, and general all-round slightly bulbous nature of the monocoque. Oh and by the way, KC Daylighters actually are a real product.

Any adults that once as children drooled over the thought of owning one of these 2WD classics will no doubt be pleased to learn that Tamiya recently reissued The Frog. A quick browse through Amazon, show prices starting at $150…

The Grasshopper (1984)

Next up we have The Grasshopper, originally released in May 1984. The namesake designed cues are obvious, sharp wedged lines cut a spindly frame that’s complimented with forceful go faster stripes.
The Grasshopper was Tamiya’s entry level model, and ran a weaker motor which could however be upgraded. Less power did however mean easier handling and longer battery life, and the buggy proved to be immensely popular. In fact today it’s seen as one of the out classics. As the cheaper option I do have hazy memories them being ridiculed, but I guess that’s just how snobby kids can be…
Once again The Grasshopper has enjoyed a re-release, with pricing starting at around the $140 mark.

The Hornet (1984)

Following on from The Grasshopper came the legendary Hornet with it’s unmistakable black and gold livery Hornet, as you can see above. With it’s high performance, durability and ease of maintenance The Hornet quickly became one Tamiya’s most popular ever models. Any of you anxious to get there hands on this slice of pure 80′s Nostalgia, will be pleased to learn it’s still available from Tamiya priced at $170 upwards.
In fact to further more highlight just how deep into the pubic psyche The Hornet has buried Tamiya (recently-ish) released a limited edition with a wild custom paint job by Japanese designer Jun Watanabe. As you can see, no expense was spared with this completely wacky and somewhat bovine take on things. It’s camp as christmas and I love it.

For more on Watanabe’s RC design work, and misc cool shit from The Land of The Rising Sun, check out this link: http://www.junwatanabe.jp/rc/
Also check Tamiya’s original ‘The Hornet’ promotional video

Hotshot (1985)

This was Tamiya’s first attempt at a 4WD buggy, featuring a mid mounted engine for stability. It’s not one I particularly remember, but as it spawned several successors (shown later) the Hotshot is included for chronologic. Livery wise this tough looking little vehicle is a little bland, with small decals that applied somewhat sparingly. Still whilst it sadly lacks a cheesy slogan, the Hotshot’s general butch presence gets a big thumbs up, in fact it almost looks like a Transformers ready to make that robotic fart noise and spring into action. I’m waffling again.

The Fox (1985)

October 1985 saw the release 2WD ‘The Fox’ with it’s unfussy sweeping livery and gleaming gold wheels it is considered another design classic and is highly sought after today. Tamiya obviously took design cues from the animal counterpart giving the vehicle an elongated, slender snout and all round svelte appearance. Presumably there also must have also been some sort of tie in here with the real ‘Fox Racing‘ Team…

Super Shot (1986)

The Super Shot was something of an evolution of the previously mentioned Hot Shot using the same chassis but alternate suspension system. There’s definitely something fairly menacing about it, especially the vehicles gaping maw, presumably great for catching pebbles in.
If your tempted at all, Tamiya re-released the Supershot in 2012.

Boomerang (1986)

The Boomerang was an affordable 4WD entry point for many first time RC Buyers. Slick and Simple livery nicely complimenting the wedge like bodyshell.

The Falcon (1986)

Sporting a swooping nose cone and two tone, flaming paint job ‘The Falcon’ was another popular animal inspired design. Renowned for it’s ruggedness the chassis would be reused as the basis for other subsequent designs.

The Bigwig (1987)

With it’s bright, if slightly sickly colour scheme and aggressively postured 4WD chassis ‘The Bigwig’ was another memorable addition to the Tamiya stable. Built to commemorate Tamiya’s 10 year involvement with RC model building ‘The Bigwig’ was created by actual buggy Racing design boffin Dick Cepek, his stylised name appering on the rear wing.

Hot Shot II (1987)

Released two years after the original 4WD Hot Shot, this update featured numerous minor enhancements and a new Hornet-esque colour scheme.

Vanessa’s Lunchbox (1987)

Next up we have a slight deviation away from the theme with the famous ‘Lunchbox’, a 1/12 scale RC Monster Truck. Despite relatively poor stability and handling due to the large tyres and high centre of gravity Tamiya’s ‘stunt vehicles’ were extremely popular, and none more so than the competitively priced Lunchbox.

Super Sabre (1987)

The Super Sabre was essentially The Boomerang with red plastic parts and a new futuristic looking body shell. Interesting to note how much the styling has change since from the earlier boxy look, something that gets even wilder as you’ll see further down.

Thunder Shot (1987)

Looking something like a fighter jet with it’s wings removed The Thundershot’s wild appearance marks the shift towards pure Sci-Fi buggies. Great logo too.

Avante (1988)

The over engineered 4WD Avante was a technological masterpiece that very advanced for it’s time. As you might expect such engineering came with a high price tag, still it’s a fantastic looking vehicle.

Thunder Dragon (1988)

If you could some how capture and sequester the essence of all 80′s Paleo futurism and then wickedly beat it into a space buggy styled shape you’d probably end up with something not too dissimilar to the Thunder Dragon. It’s a truly wild design, part top loading VCR, part attack drone, looking like it’s fallen to earth off the back of a passing battlecruiser.
In true wacky Japanese style the Thunder Dragon was tied into a a strip that ran in the Manga comic ‘Coro Coro‘. Not entirely sure how but basically that’s what this quirky little character is about.


Grasshopper II (1988)

Tamiya updated there entry level buggy in August 1988 with a more streamlined shell.

Terra Scorcher (1988)

The fantastically titled ‘Terra Scorcher’ was essentially the same as the 4WD Thunder Shot with a different bright blue paintjob.

The Vanquish (1988)

The attractive looking Vanquish was a slightly simplified reworking of the The Avante, but with a cheaper price point.

Fire Dragon (1989)

Based on the Thunder Dragon Chassis, the Fire Dragon was the second of the ‘Coro Coro’ Buggies. Another literally out of the this world design, though on closer inspection I did have to wonder where exactly the drivers leg were? The swing arm suspension seems to take the place they should be. Hmmmmm.

Egrees (1989)

We finish off with probably the best looking buggy of them all, and certainly the best tagline ‘Way Out Running!’
The Egress was a top end 4wd model that is still a much respected and sought after to this day.
I’m going to wrap up the post here, there are of course many other Tamiya Buggies, produced after these and actually a few from the 80′s managed to miss out.
Originally I’d planned this just a quick article, but the more research I did on Tamiya I realised only a comprehensive overview would suffice. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

If you are interested in Graphic design then why not read more musings at http://www.sci-fi-o-rama.com/

Images copyright to their prospective owners
tamiya 6578176708400174215

Post a Comment

  1. Nice article! A few comments:

    1. "According to legend Tamiya actually purchased a original 911.. ..for their engineers to better under the vehicles inner workings."

    Comment: Not just a legend, but reality. Shunsaku Tamiya confirms this in his biography "Master Modeler" and the car is exhibited at the HQ. It was primarily for measuring components, less for the understanding.

    2. Supershot: "..gaping maw, presumably great for catching pebbles in."

    Comment: Looks so, but hardly in reality. The underguard however, actually is a pebble catcher. At first glance it looks like a good idea. With its bathtub shape and no way for pebbles to escape, it isn't!

    3. Bigwig: "‘..was created by actual buggy Racing design boffin Dick Cepek…"

    Comment: Sorry, but this is wrong. The Dick Cepek logo has been used on many Tamiya models, as have logos of many other automotive component manufacturers. The Bigwig designer is Takuya Yura of "Mooncraft Design". www.mooncraft.jp And btw, the Bigwig was released in 1986, not 1987.

    4. Hotshot II: "..featured numerous minor enhancements"

    Comment: rather major!. Gone is the fragile and inefficient ORV-damper monoshocks, replaced with a superior CVA-damper monoshock up front and and 2 conventional CVA's in the rear. The bumpsteer isn't completely gone, but less extreme. The speed controller is more robust, and the very expensive and unique resistors are gone, replaced by a cheap and reliable double ceramic resistor. The multipiece propshaft and driveshafts are replaced by single piece lighter and more durable designs. Including other changes, the Hotshot II is vastly superior to the Hotshot.

    5. Super Sabre: ".. essentially The Boomerang with red plastic parts"

    Comment: Essentially yes. However, it has a lower rear shock tower to clear the body, necessitating "Short" instead of the "Long" CVA’s of the Boomerang. It also came with a chassis cover to keep debris out. The Boomerang didn't get this before the re-release.

  2. 6. Terra Scorcher: "..was essentially the same as the 4WD Thunder Shot"

    Comment: Same chassis tub, gearboxes, tires and lower suspension arms, but that's about it. Upper suspension arms are adjustable, front UJ’s, full ballbearings (22 pcs vs. 0 of the Thundershot). The body is completely different, though looking a bit similar. The Terra Scorcher body (not wing) was re-used on the Dirt Thrasher btw. The Terra Scorcher had white wheels and 4 dampers (2 "Mini", 2 "Short"), vs the Thundershot’s black wheels and monoshock up front (all 3 dampers of the "Short" type). The Terra Scorcher is thus vastly superior to the Thundershot. The Thunder Dragon is however identical to the Thundershot, except for the body and the front body mount being turned 180 degrees.

    7. Vanquish: "slightly simplified reworking of the The Avante,...."

    Comment: Wouldn’t say "slightly". It’s in fact massively simplified. Too much to list! Clues: Gone are the front UJ’s, GRP-chassis, Technigold, aluminum dampers, multijoint suspension, many of the ballbearings etc.

    8. Fire Dragon: "Based on the Thunder Dragon Chassis, the Fire Dragon was the second of the ‘Coro Coro’ Buggies"

    Comment: I don't want to be nitpicking, but it was based on the Thundershot, the first in the series. Also, it has more in common with the Terra Scorcher.

    It also wasn't the 2nd of the Coro Coros. The Super Dragon was 2nd, but just released as a body set (suitable for the Grasshopper-chassis series and Thundershot-chassis series), not as a complete kit.

    As for the boxart shown of the Hotshot, it's the re-release, with generic sponsor stickers, single piece driveshafts, brass bumper holder and maybe most important; white wheels. The original boxart shows gold wheels (although also the original kit always came with white wheels), the multipiece driveshafts and less durable aluminum bumper holder of the original.

    And please don't consider my comments as an attempt of harsh criticism. It's rather meant to be complimentary to your great article!

  3. thanks for that info, its good to have the extra detail, as mentioned above Kei isnt a Tamiya Nut, more just a fan so this extra detail compliments it brilliantly.

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