As a kid I basically remember three brands of RC cars that were stocked by the local hobby shop. From time to time they had the odd Schumacher etc., but it was Tamiya, Kyosho and Marui that always filled the displays. Tamiya was the most popular, by far. The quality was good, spare parts availability were good, the cars were cool looking, and they were reasonably priced. The second most popular brand was Kyosho. The Kyosho models were more advanced, more expensive, and basically attracted those who had “outgrown” Tamiya. Kyosho did have a few entry- and mid-level cars in their line-up as well, but they were never as popular as their Tamiya counterparts. The third brand sold by the LHS was Marui. The Marui buggies were mostly considered toys by us who frequented the shop. The entry level models seemed like cheaper versions of Tamiya, with what felt like poorer quality materials and definitely poorer spare part availability. The box art and style of the Marui manuals seemed like rip-offs of the Tamiya artwork, and even a couple of the cars looked like cheap copies of the “real things”. All in all we didn’t like Marui very much, and we didn’t pay much attention to them, other than talking them down.
The first Maruis, the Super Wheelie jeeps, we considered to be just cheaper and poorer versions of the Tamiya Wild Willy, while the chain driven 4WD Samurai was considered a cheap plastic version of the Optima or Progress. To us the Ninja looked like a toy-grade car you could buy even cheaper at any toy store, so you get the picture of how we were thinking back then. In hindsight this was obviously not “fair” on Marui, as they did have a few original innovations of their own, and the quality probably wasn’t that bad. Talking with friends in Japan leaves the same impression, so I believe this to have been the case almost everywhere. Maybe because of that, Maruis venture into RC cars was rather short lived. I do have, on several occasions, read that they were very popular in France. I’m not sure if that’s just some kind of urban myth, or if it’s a fact…. Hopefully someone living in France could comment on that? What I do know is that, at least in Japan, Marui obviously neglected the advertising market in the largest RC magazines. I have a huge pile of various Japanese magazines from 1980 to 1990, and only every now and then do I find a Marui ad. Other brands like Kyosho, Yokomo, Hirobo etc. have several ads in every issue, showing off every aspect of their cars. Interestingly enough, Tamiya too, seems to have been slow in the Japanese magazine ad department, but they were covered by various shops and third party companies that focused heavily on Tamiyas in their own ads. In Europe and the rest of the world, Tamiya ads were much more common in the RC magazines.
Most people think solely on the entry level/mid level market when they hear the name Marui, but Marui did one brave attempt at breaking in to the top racing circles. If they had been successful in that venture, everything could easily had been different. in 1985, about half a year before the public release of the chain driven 4WD Samurai, their only real attempt on a competition racer, Marui sent a team of drivers with prototype Samurais to the 1985 1st IFMAR 1/10 World Championships at the Ranch Pit Shop in Del Mar, San Diego, California. Among the drivers were both Tadashi Kurihara and Hiroshi Nakamura, the Marui designers, working on the Samurai for Mr. Kuriharas Proto Design company.
In addition to the Proto designers, Mr. Kurihara and Mr. Nakamura, the Samurai team also included Tetsuji Okamura the head of Air Supply, Hiroshi Ohide who worked for the Radio Controlled magazine and Tatsuro Watanabe who later founded HPI. But in an event totally dominated by Yokomo Dogfighters, the Samurai prototypes failed to make any form of impact.
Two years later, in the 1987 World Championships in Romsey, UK, there were no Maruis competing in any official capacity. There were however rumors that the shaft driven 4WD Kyosho Ultima that Hiroshi Nakamura brought to the event, the “Nakamura SPL”, was a disguised Proto/Marui test-bed mule. It is however unclear if he actually raced that car.
The Proto Design company was run by Tadashi Kurihara, a former Kyosho employee who was the man behind Kyosho classics like the Sand Skipper, the Mr. and Miss Wheelie fun cars, as well as the legendary body for Akira Kogawas Scorpion based Beetle.
Together with Hiroshi Nakamura, Mr. Kurihara designed at least all the Marui 4WD buggies, and probably some (maybe even all) of their other cars too, but that’s nothing I have managed to get 100% confirmed. The time line of the Marui cars does however match with the time Mr. Kurihara left Kyosho and started Proto. Taking into consideration that he designed the Mr. and Miss Wheelie cars for Kyosho, and that the first Maruis were the Super Wheelie jeeps in 1983, it will be my guess that he actually designed them all. Mr. Kurihara and Proto also designed models and parts for other brands, and seems to have had a tight cooperation with the Japanese brand Air Supply, as well. Mr. Kurihara died in the late 90’s in a light-plane accident, and that also marked the end of the Proto Design company. According to Akira Kogawa, Tadashi Kuriharas brother, Noriyoshi Kurihara, is today running his own car design company NORI Inc., although for “real” full scale cars. He has done work for brands like BMW, Fiat, VW, Seat, Volvo, Renault, Citroën, Porsche, and while working for European Ford he was involved in the design and production of their Fiesta, Escort, Scorpio and Transit models.
After the Samurai, Marui seemed to lose interest in competitive racing, and decided to go back to focusing on the broader hobby RC car market, at the time dominated by Tamiya and Kyosho. The Tamiya Hotshot-series had been very successful for years, and buggies like the Boomerang and the Bigwig were seen everywhere. Due to the shaft-driven 4WD construction, the Hotshot-series were simpler to build and maintain than the chain or belt drive competition buggies. Although the shaft drive came with a power loss compared to the chain or belt drive cars, the concept proved perfect for the younger audience, who cared more for bashing around in the back yard, and competing at club level, where driving skills were far more important than having the state of the art and most efficient equipment. In 1986 Proto presented the shaft driven MX486i concept car, that a year later was released to the public as the Marui Ninja. The Ninja was designed to take on the hobby grade mid-level 4WD Tamiyas and Kyoshos, but sporting a futuristic space ship inspired body, the Ninja unfortunately looked (at least to me) more like a toy grade car than the cars it tried to compete for attention with. The Ninja is actually a nicely designed chassis, and with another body, and maybe branded Tamiya or Kyosho, it could really have been a hit. But stuck with the Marui name, it was the beginning of the end of Maruis RC car venture.
In 1988 they did a final try to break into the Tamiya/Kyosho marked with the beautiful Shogun, a car based on a modified Ninja chassis. Gone was the spaceship body of the Ninja, and replaced by a Turbo Optima-style body that really looked classy in its black and gold box art. But going up head-to-head against popular cars like the Tamiya Boomerang, Bigwig and the new Thunder Shot, as well as the Kyosho Rocky and the new Shadow, the Shogun wasn’t the success Marui had hoped for. The same year they introduced the Coors Melling Thunderbird, a multi purpose car that came with both on-road and off-road wheels and tires. The chassis was a modified Shogun chassis, and despite the versatility of this new concept, it couldn’t save Maruis RC car venture. After the Shogun and the Thunderbird they finally decided to drop out of the game, and focus on other types of “toys”. In the following years they did however release a few “mini buggies” both of their own former models, as well as with designs and names licensed from Kyosho, Yokomo etc.
Super Wheelie Toyota Land Cruiser/CJ-7 Golden Eagle
The Super Wheelie “jeeps” were released in 1983, and were obviously meant to capitalize on the success of Tamiya’s Willys M38 Wild Willy released the year before. They all featured jeep styled bodies with chassis’ that gave a choice where to put the batteries. You could choose to put the battery either down low in the middle, or up high in the back, deciding if the car would do wheelies or not during acceleration. Too similar concepts and too close in time to be anything other than copies of the Wild Willy. Interestingly, the Super Wheelies had the writing “Marui R/C Car Series Super Willy” instead of “Super Wheelie” on the spare wheel cover at the back. Intentionally or a typo? You decide!
I strongly believe that the Proto Design co., and the prviously mentioned Mr. Tdashi Kurihara were behind the design of the Super Wheelies, and if I’m right that wouldn’t be the first “wheelie” style cars he designed, as he was the man behind both the 1/16 scale Miss Wheelie and the 1/12 scale Mr. Wheelie on-road cars as early as 1981, while still working for Kyosho.
If the Super Wheelies were “knock-offs” of the Tamiya Wild Willy, the Marui Hunter from 1984 were more of an original design. Well, sort of. The tub chassis wasn’t anything new, and neither was the rear monoshock system. Both at the front and at the rear the Hunter had A-arms, while most of the other cars still used various trailing arm systems. Actually, the Tamiya SRB series used A-arms at the back very similar in function to the Hunter, with the same single jointed axle, but the SRB had double trailing arms at the front, while the new Marui had the same double wishbone system seen on competition buggies today. There were however no oil shocks at the front, only friction shocks. The monoshock system at the rear could remind of the FFPDS of the last of the Tamiya SRBs, the Super Champ, but used a normal oil shock instead of the reservoir-equalizing system of the FFPDS.
The inspiration from the Tamiya SRB can also be seen in the Marui Hunter prototype. The body of the Hunter prototype is very close to the ABS body of the Tamiya Rough rider, only cut at the back with an added F1-style wing. This body didn’t make it past the prototype stage though, and was replaced with a polycarbonate body, more in the style of the Tamiya Frog.
Big Bear Datsun
The 1/12 scale Marui Big Bear Datsun may very well be the first RC monster truck. Based on a chassis very much like the Super Wheelies, the Big Bear has the lifted body and huge tires that defines the monster trucks. It is however unclear if it was intended from the start to make it a monster truck, as the prototype looks more like a standard truck. It’s actually unclear of the prototype shown is of the Big Bear at all, or if it was of another planned model. It has the Datsun body of the Big Bear but it sits on what looks like a standard Super Wheelie chassis. As I don’t have either of those models, I’m not sure how much the chassis’ differs in size between the 1/12 Big Bear and the 1/10 Super Wheelies. But anyway, with the Big Bear Datsun, Marui invented a new class of RC vehicles, and for many people, the Big Bear is actually THE monster truck.
The Marui Galaxy and Galaxy RS released in 1985 are basically revamps of the Hunter from the year before. A few changes have been made, like oil filled shocks in each corner, instead of the friction and mono shocks of the Hunter. The polycarbonate body is gone and a plastic cage style body takes it’s place. The cage body reminds me of cage bodies seen on the early 1/8 scale gas buggies, and is not as sleek and stylish like for instance the Kyosho Javelin. The blue Galaxy RS comes with a 540 size motor, while the red Galaxy has a 550 size motor.
Toyota Land Cruiser/CJ-7 Golden Eagle
Well, here we go again… You think you have seen these models before? You have, as it’s the re-release of the two year old Super Wheelies. There is very little new here, besides slightly changed names and some small modifications to make room for 7.2v batteries. There were however plans for a new model in the line up, the Mitsubishi Jeep! It even made it as far as the promo material, but for an unknown reason it was never released.
The Samurai 4WD
Well, now things start getting interesting. With the Samurai, Marui made a bold move to try breaking in to the competitive racing market. As mentioned before, Marui sent the Samurai to the 1985 World Championships, and released it half a year later, in 1986. The 4WD chain driven buggy is by a lot of people considered as the best looking of the Maruis, and I tend to agree. In my opinion, only the 1988 Shogun comes close. It is obvious that Mr. Kurihara had taken a look at the Progress/Gallop from his former employer, when designing the Samurai. The Progress/Gallop was however designed in 1983, and Kyosho was by now getting ready to release the most legendary 4WD buggy of all time, the Optima. So you can say it was too little too late for Marui.
After the failiure to get a foot inside the racing circles with the Samurai, Marui returned focus back to the lower level markets, and in 1986, the Proto Design company unveiled the MX486i prototype. With technical solutions and chassis design cues from the now evolved Tamiya Hotshot series, the MX486i was released in 1987 as the Marui Ninja 4WD. Some like the body design, but I don’t. I think it looks toyish and cheap. The plastic shocks looked very much like the Tamiya CVA shocks and kind of “announced” that they were aiming at the mid level market.
Further development of the Ninja chassis led in 1988 to the beautiful Shogun. Basically sitting on a modified Ninja chassis, the Shogun featured the most beautiful of the Marui bodies. Again, that’s my own opinion, of course. But struggling with the same competition from Tamiya as it’s predecessor, the Shogun, despite its looks, didn’t sell enough for Marui to continue in the buggy market. The Shogun ended up as being the last of the Marui buggies.
Coors Melling Thunderbird
But despite the struggles with their 4WD buggies, Marui had one last card to play, the Coors Melling Thunderbird. Just like with the Big Bear, Marui now entered uncharted territory again, with a multi purpose car that could run both on- and off-road. Providing the kit with two sets of wheels and tires, and adjustable ride height, the Thunderbird could adapt to various surfaces. But being early with a concept doesn’t always mean success, as the kids still preferred real off-road buggies when given the choice. The concept with a lowered buggy style chassis for on-road use, could possibly be seen as the forerunner to the 1/10 scale touring cars that gained popularity some years later.
Well, at the end of this dive into the world of Marui RC cars, I do have a something to admit…. I don’t have any Marui cars at all. Please take that into consideration before flaming me with e-mails for insulting Marui. Somehow I never really fancied them, and I fail to see all the ground breaking innovations highlighted in other round-ups of the Marui history. The truth is that Marui only ever produced 4 different chassis designs as the Super Wheelies, the re-releases of those and the Big Bear all share the same chassis concept. The Hunter and the Galaxy/Galaxy RS were basically the same chassis, and the Ninja, the Shogun and the Coors Melling Thunderbird were only variations around the same chassis theme. If I should pick one of the Maruis as my favorite, it is a close call between the Samurai and the Shogun. The Samurai for its race heritage, and the Shogun for its Kogawa-esque body design. I know some of you would choose the Big Bear Datsun or the Coors Melling Thunderbird for their kind of innovative impacts, but I’m all about buggies, so they really aren’t my cup of tea.
And just to be absolutely clear, I have the deepest respect for the work of Mr. Kurihara and Mr. Nakamura, and I do range them at the very top of the Japanese buggy designers of that time, right up there beside Akira Kogawa, Shigeru Hino, Hidenori Tsuno and Fumito Taki.
LET THE FLAME WARS BEGIN! 😉