Nostalgia drives third wave of 4WD toy cars

Source and more: The Japan News

By Hiraku Kubo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

Miniature four-wheel drive toy cars powered by electric motors are enjoying a third wave of popularity.

In 2012, Shizuoka-based major toy maker Tamiya Inc., which sells the mini 4WD model cars, resurrected a national race featuring the toy cars that had last been held 13 years earlier.

The popularity of mini 4WD toys has surged since the event, mainly among adults. I also found myself caught up in the excitement and sense of nostalgia, owing to my love of mini 4WD toy cars during my elementary school years.

To again experience the sound of the toys’ whirring motors, I visited a race event and a bar catering to mini 4WD enthusiasts.

On a Sunday in mid-December, children’s cheering voices filled Tamiya Plamodel Factory in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district. The toy model shop is about a five-minute walk from JR Shinbashi Station in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

The children were pumping up their fathers, shouting, “Go for the win, Dad!” and “You can finish the course!” They watched the race closely as their fathers’ mini 4WD toy cars zipped back and forth on a miniature circuit course in the store.

Mini 4WD model cars are about 15 centimeters long and about 10 centimeters wide. Activate the electric motors, and the toy cars sprint ahead at a speed of more than 20 kph. The fastest ones reach a top speed of about 40 kph.

Though many people are under the impression that mini 4WD toy cars are remote-controlled by wireless devices, in truth the cars immediately take off down the track when their motors are activated.

Nineteen parent-child teams participated in the event that day. Corkscrewing circuit courses totaling a maximum of 110 to 130 meters in length were assembled in a space equivalent to about 10 tatami mats.

After releasing their mini 4WD toy cars on the track, the parent-child teams recorded their combined times as part of a competition.

Koji Kikuchi, a 35-year-old company employee from Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, showed off what he called his “cherished ride” — a 4WD toy car he had dug out of storage at his parents’ home. “I actually assembled this machine when I was in elementary school,” he said.

Patting the head of his 6-year-old eldest son, Kosei, a first-grade elementary school student, Kikuchi added with a sheepish grin, “I joined this event hoping to show my son the joys [of 4WD cars], but I’ve gotten more into the races than he has.”

After hearing about a bar near Ikebukuro Station in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, where customers can take their mini 4WD cars for a spin while enjoying drinks, I bought my own car for ¥850 and headed for the bar.

At Dribar Ikebukuro-ten, a bar for mini 4WD fans, racing events are held two or three times a week.

Most of the customers were in their 30s and 40s stopping by on their way home from work. In addition to the counter, the bar has a permanently installed course for mini 4WD cars and a work area outfitted with drills and other tools.

When I showed my mini 4WD car to bar manager Naoto Hotoda, 36, he said, “How about replacing the motor with a high-performance one?”

Taking his advice, I replaced the motor with one sold at the bar for ¥360, then joined a time trial race in which participants were competing to record the fastest time over three circuit runs.

It had been 20 years since I last competed in a mini 4WD car race. When I placed my car on the starting line, my hands began to tremble from what must have been nerves.

When lamps signaled the start of the race, I removed my hand from the car and watched it swiftly surge ahead. However, my car built up too much momentum and went off course before clearing the third curve.

“Oops, that went off course quick,” said Hotoda, who was giving live commentary on the race. The words echoed inside the bar.

Hayato Abe, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Nerima Ward, Tokyo, who said he visits the bar frequently, comforted me. “Competing is important, but what’s more important is enjoying the activity in the same way as school club activities with teammates,” Abe said.

In the 1980s, mini 4WD toy cars were featured in manga and anime, and became highly popular among elementary school students.

Tamiya held a national racing event for elementary and junior high school students in 1988, ushering in the first popularity boom in 1989. In the middle of the 1990s, mini 4WD toy cars became popular again thanks to manga and other pop culture works. We are now in the midst of the third wave.

After Tamiya launched racing events in 2012 in which adults were able to participate, mini 4WD cars became newly popular as “a hobby for adults.” A total of about 33,000 people participated in events in 2015.

Enomoto Circuit is a store specializing in mini 4WD cars in Hachioji, Tokyo. The store has stood apart from the boom-and-bust cycle of popularity and steadily offered rare products and self-designed parts to attach to mini 4WD cars.

Mini 4WD fans thus recognize the store as a “holy site” where “everything related to mini 4WDs is available.”

Shoji Enomoto, 71, the store’s owner, said that many foreign customers have visited and taken photos with him to remember the occasion.

Enomoto, wearing a red cap and jacket that made him look like a race car driver, said, “Seeing mini 4WD cars makes everybody smile. Nationality or age don’t matter at all,” he said.

Enomoto added, “This boom will end sooner or later. But I will keep my store opened as long as I’m alive so that [mini 4WD cars] take root as a culture.”

The occupations and backgrounds of the mini 4WD car fans I met varied widely. However, all of them spoke of their affection for the toys like little boys with stars in their eyes. One enthusiast even went so far as to say collecting and racing mini 4WD cars “is my whole life.”

The pleasure of watching the tiny machines race is hard to resist. I hope everyone tries it at least once.

2 thoughts on “Nostalgia drives third wave of 4WD toy cars

  1. Max Lee

    Same here but in my country Singapore it wasn’t that fun so hopefully one day I travel to
    Japan I hope to relive the good old days of Mini 4WD.
    Here in my home country I have to compete against Mini 4WD modders it’s tough
    and local track mainly are technical tracks which are small and tricky.
    Since I play just by using Tamiya parts does not like or will do modding to any of my 12 cars.
    Despite I pick up Mini 4WD in 1994 using Seiba brothers machine but never compete in
    tournament back than.
    Only in 2015 when there was a Tamiya RC event at a local shopping center I pick up
    Mini 4WD in particular the Seiba brothers machine again.
    Have to tried to compete in race mainly using VS chassis, it did a good lap but still no where close
    to the timings modders clock.
    Much of the older chassis parts have cease to exist especially motors like Mach Dash motor is no longer available so most of the time I only compete with Hyper Dash 3. (Newer motors like Sprint Dash I just feel it is too fast for older chassis to handle)
    I am also in my early 30s and I hope to bring my 12 Mini 4WD (Seiba Brothers machine) to Japan and showcase my collection as well as their might.
    Most here know that my machines are dead silent when running so racers in Japan if I do visit your country.
    You be surprise how I maintain my cars not to mention they are not only slient but fast and stable using only Tamiya Original Parts.
    Happy New Year To All

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