It’s not just about the toy cars: Tamiya and its place in automotive culture

Class leader. Gold standard. The Rolls-Royce. Phrases like these get bandied around far too often when we talk about brands and their influence on a particular sector, but on very rare occasions the plaudits are entirely justified. One such occasion ought to be reserved for the Tamiya Corporation.

This is a particularly fitting time of year to be talking about the Japanese producers of model kits, because in my formative years Tamiya products invariably marked the highlight of Christmas Day. The box their 1/24 scale kit cars came in was of a very distinctive size – too small to be a board game, too fat to be a selection box – which meant I always knew which present to unwrap first. This being prior to the internet age, the gift I received depended entirely on what the model shop in the Inverness Victorian Market had on their shelves when Santa’s elves went to do their shopping, but the presence of the two white stars with the red and blue squares was enough to make the prospect of assembling any car exciting – even a Porsche 911.

Tamiya Plamodel Factory, Shimbashi, Tokyo

Tamiya Plamodel Factory, Shimbashi, Tokyo

It’s also a good time to be talking about Tamiya, because the shenanigans I got up to on my last visit to Japan included a visit to the Tamiya Plamodel Factory – essentially Tamiya’s HQ store – in Tokyo. ‘Plamodel’ isn’t a typo, by the way, rather the Japanese way of saying ‘plastic model kit’, following the Japanese linguistic tradition of condensing Western phrases. Fighting the kind of killer jet lag only twenty-six hours with no sleep and fifteen sugary coffees can induce, I dragged myself onto the Yamanote Line and broke out of my stupour for just long enough to explore the three floors of the Shimbashi shop and significantly lighten my wallet.

My introduction to Tamiya came at the age of seven or so, not through 1/24 scale model kits but by way of a pair of slightly smaller motorised racers my Dad’s car-daft golf buddy gave me as a birthday present. One was a Nigel Mansell Williams Honda F1 machine, and the other was a Porsche 959 rally car replete with knobbly rally tyres and Rothmans tobacco branding. The batteries ran out after a couple of weeks and it was too much hassle to replace them, but I was hooked. The Christmas of that year I received a massive box that held enough bits to put together a Mitsubishi Pajero Super Exceed. Three hundred pots of paint, fifty tubes of glue, sixty cars and twenty-one years later, I found myself at the door of the Tamiya factory outlet in Japan.

The entry level of the Tamiya Plamodel Factory is stacked from ceiling to floor with the distinctive low rectangular boxes that house frame after frame of plastic parts, all of them waiting to be painted, cut out and stuck together. Everything about Tamiya models oozes quality, and it starts with these ubiquitous boxes. Constructed out of robust cardboard, the lid carries a graphic illustration of the product contained within, block capital letters describing the model, and the double-star logo in the top-left corner. The sides have profile views of the car, tank or whatever it is you’re going to be making, and lists of the paints you’ll need. Even the inside of the container is printed, perhaps with suggestions of other kits you might like to make or upcoming releases. So good are the boxes, so perfect are the colour drawings printed on them, that one feels bad throwing the box out when the model is complete. I’ve resorted to using boxes of completed models to hold paints, spare parts, cars not on display and even things that have nothing to do with model kits. It is not unusual for a Tamiya box in my house to outlast the car contained within it.

No idea where at least one of these models is...

No idea where at least one of these models is…

Indeed, it is perhaps testimony to the strength of the Tamiya brand that an unmade kit is just as iconic, if not more so, than the finished product. Hanging on the wall by the door of the Factory are some ridiculously priced – if admittedly very, very cool – deep frames that contain collages of Tamiya’s flagship kits, their painted but unassembled parts scattered around the car’s body shell as if laid out ready to be glued together. The Nissan GT-R, Ferrari Enzo and Lexus LFA are given this superstar treatment, arranged (and priced) like an early Damien Hirst work and with an engraved metal plaque to explain their provenance. Pop stars too have been getting in on the Tamiya act, British group McFly’s video for their single Room on the Third Floor depicting the band as pieces in a Tamiya kit, and a member of Japanese pop group Golden Bomber triggering a national fashion craze for Tamiya-branded t-shirts by performing in a shirt emblazoned with the double-star logo.

Unless you’re a fashion icon, though, there comes a time when you stop looking at the box of plastic and rubber goodness and turn your attention to actually making the thing. This is where the instruction booklet comes into its own. The front cover always has a picture of the finished model, completed by some guy in a studio in Japan to a ludicrously high standard you can never hope to attain. Below is the earnest short paragraph about the car, first in Japanese, then translated impeccably into English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese. “The Subaru Impreza was launched in March 1993, and instantly gained admiration from the international motoring community. With a flat-four 2.0-litre boxer engine…” The drawings are a cut above those produced by any other model company, somehow leaving you in no doubt which of the four virtually identical suspension legs you’re supposed to cut out, and precisely which of the six tiny holes in a 1cm radius you are supposed to glue it into.

For more than twenty years, Tamiya instructions have also been blessed with a cartoon sketch of a big-nosed man in a workshirt, reminding you in six different languages to work in a well-ventilated area. I always assumed it was impossible to acquire the range of cutters, adhesives and paints listed up next to the cartoon workman, but there they are all hanging up for sale in the Tamiya Plamodel Factory. In addition to the usual things like paints, brushes and modeling tools, the shelves and hangers are also home to three different kinds of work apron, dozens of sizes of cutting mat, and a multitude of airbrush kits. If finances permitted, one could easily spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds on all the right kit before even cutting a part from a sprue or dipping a brush in a paint pot.

Assorted Tamiya produce in the Mabon household

Assorted Tamiya produce in the Mabon household

That, however, is not a style of model making I’ve ever got into. I am, and always have been, what real anoraks would (with more than a hint of derision) call a ‘kitchen table’ modeler, armed with only a sheet of newspaper, a pair of nail scissors and a few sheets of sandpaper. I’d like to go all out in the search of perfection, but I just don’t have the time or money to do so. Where I do push the boat out, though, is in adding my own touches of individuality to what I make. When I was younger, I was happy just to get the kit put together without getting glue on the windscreen or losing a wing mirror under the floorboards. Nowadays, I love to add, change and fiddle with things to create an end product unlike any other in the world – and the selection of ‘after-market’ goodies in the narrow aisle at the back of the Plamodel Factory is a pretty strong indication I am not alone in this regard.

An even stronger indication is the fact I have to weave my way in-between five people to access the section I want to. Want your rally car to be muddy? There are four different sets of fake mud depending on whether you want desert, tundra, arctic or temperate mud. Want to put your own registration plate on the car? For the princely sum of three hundred yen you can acquire a sheet of decals with the codes for every prefecture in Japan. Race numbers? Racing seat belts? Extra fire extinguishers to bring your historic up to modern-day safety standards? No problem. The top, top kits have their own detail-up sheets of laser-cut metal, giving you shinier brake discs and radiators for almost the same price as the kit itself. I knew some of this stuff existed before, but the extent and variety was unknown to me until I went to the Shimbashi shop.

The differences these little pieces can make to the finished product are neglible to all but the most trained of eyes. But making a Tamiya model is about so much more than the final product on the shelf – if you wanted that, you could just buy one of the hundreds of beautiful ready-made diecast models that are on the market. It’s about the whole process, from planning your next purchase to choosing the paint colour, agonising over which set of decals to use, which wheels to opt for, assembling and re-assembling to get the finish just right. The entire upstairs of the Plamodel Factory is dedicated to this process. Before you climb the stairs, a faint electrical whine is already audible. The whine intensifies as you near the top of the stairs, reaching the point where quiet conversation becomes impossible. There’s a door and one of the quintessential vending machines to the left, and big windows straight ahead affording a view of the room behind the door. On one side of the room are rows and rows of people – almost exclusively male – working away on models, quaffing cans of juice and coffee as they crank their tools. The other side of the room is given over to the source of the whining – an expansive scale racetrack which scores of radio-controlled cars are screaming round and round.

The logo familiar to scale model anoraks the world over.

The logo familiar to scale model anoraks the world over.

This little club is open every day until late in the evening, and for an entrance fee of a few hundred yen you can come in after school, university or work and blow off steam by developing and trialing your latest creation. There are workshops and competitions during weekends and holidays, a printed A4 flyer telling me what’s coming up in the coming month. As I’m about to go downstairs again, a TV camera crew explodes out the door, a female announcer with a microphone charging round the shop and pointing out quirky features with a mix of curiosity and bewilderment. By the time I get to the bottom of the stairs the crew have stopped to poke fun at the custom number plates I was seriously poring over moments before. I take this as I sign I may need help.

For me and many people like me, Tamiya is about so much more than making kits of toy cars. It’s a way of getting into a particular car culture, of finding out about vehicles and racing series from different countries, and even learning about how cars work. Just like Bryn Musselwhite over at Speedhunters, it was the little catalogues that used to come in Tamiya boxes that served as my introduction to the world of Japanese domestic market vehicles. Tiny thumbnail sketches showed cars not available on British shores, their shapes predictable but names unfamiliar. Nissan Silvia K’s. Toyota Soarer. Calsonic Skyline. What were they? These blobs of curiosity, pricked by an inch-square drawing, led to the buying of a kit or ready-made scale model, to supporting a particular driver or team on TV, to choosing a certain car in a computer game, and maybe even to visiting a garage or buying a similar vehicle in real life some years later.

Latest releases in the shop window

Latest releases in the shop window

Talking about scale models of cars only scratches the surface of what Tamiya do. The Plamodel Factory basement is given over in its entirety to radio-controlled cars, the Lunchboxes and Sand Scorchers that were a way in to the company for many other people. And then there’s the extensive military line which indiscriminately replicates World War II machinery from all sides of the conflict, Panzers, Mitsubishis and Shermans lining up alongside each other on the shelves. The Plamodel Factory also tips its hat to the wider culture that’s grown up around Tamiya’s produce, the magazine and book section extending beyond model catalogues to encompass motor sport periodicals and books about full-scale cars. Plus there are of course racks and racks of the white t-shirts popularised by the Golden Bomber singer.

When one thinks of Tamiya, though, one thinks first and foremost of the kit cars in boxes, their parts stitched together on plastic frames and wrapped neatly in clear bags. It is no coincidence that the cover of company president Masayuki Tamiya’s autobiography has a photo of him holding a completed kit of an F1 car, or that pride of place in the Plamodel Factory’s window goes to the most recent kit releases. It takes me five weeks these days to put together a Tamiya kit as opposed to the five hours I would need to rush through them as a youngster, but the enthusiasm remains undiminished. Which reminds me, I really need to speak to the bank about recouping some of that expenditure and buying Tamiya shares…

It's about so much more than the finished product...

It’s about so much more than the finished product…

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Filed under General Motorsport, Japan, Road Cars

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