Personal tales from over 30 years’ of collecting Transformers toys
Chapter 1 – How the Convoy Started Rolling
Christmas Day, 1984.
A 7 year old boy, in his blue and red pyjama/dressing gown combination that made him think he was Superman, excitedly opened one of his gifts from under the tree. He paused.
“Oh, it’s a lorry,” he said disinterestedly. Then a dawning realisation, “aaand it’s also a space robot in disguise this is without doubt the best thing I have ever seen in my whole entire life!”
And that was how my decades-long obsession with Transformers started.
Prior to receiving Optimus Prime for Christmas in 1984, I’d never heard of Transformers before. Not the toys, not the comics, not the cartoon.
That’s the problem when you spend your childhood in a non-English speaking country, you kind of miss out on the zeitgeist. Despite being an “80s Kid”, I was oblivious to a lot of cartoons, etc. from that era.
If it weren’t for my mum’s best friend buying Thundercracker for her son’s Christmas, she wouldn’t have been inspired to buy Optimus Prime for me. It was our first Christmas in England, and my first exposure to Transformers.
Optimus Prime was, indeed, the best thing ever. (And still is!) An articulated truck that became an articulated robot, with a trailer that opened up into a command base. And there were stickers. And a bit of text on the back of the box that said he was some kind of robot space commander who led the rest of the “Autobots”.
For a young boy who was already captivated by science and robots and space travel, this was finally it, I had found my “thing”. It was a once-in-a-lifetime, alignment-of-stars, lightning-in-a-bottle moment
I soon realised, through catalogues, comics, playground friends, and the shelves of toyshops themselves, that there were more of these things. A lot more.
My next Transformer was Wheeljack. I traded a bunch of Matchbox cars with a neighbour for him. He was missing all his accessories, and had some of his stickers missing. I actually thought he was Jazz for several weeks until a school-mate (who had seen every episode of the cartoon) joylessly corrected me.
There wasn’t a lot of money available in the family budget for alien robot toys, so the next 18 months consisted of the odd Mini-Autobot here and there which I gratefully received in the form of birthday and Christmas gifts. Bumblebee… Powerglide… Seaspray… Beachcomber.
For the entirety of 1985 (and most of 1986), I had only Autobots. How was I supposed to recreate the intergalactic space war I’d seen in the Ladybird books and Marvel comics in my own bedroom with only Autobots? Believe me, there were a lot of unseen enemies shooting from behind furniture and curtains.
I didn’t have the room to keep the boxes, but I did diligently cut out the box-art and bio/tech specs cards and filed them away in scrapbooks.
While I had only a handful of the toys, I listened to the narrated stories from the tapes that came with the Ladybird books and, coupled with an Annual and a handful of the weekly Marvel comics, I let myself drift off into the world of the Transformers whenever I could.
It was the start of something amazing.
Chapter 2 – The Soundwave and the Fury
What drew me into the world of the Autobots and Decepticons, and kept me there, was that the Transformers were robots in disguise. Please, don’t do the voice.
While it was pretty cool that a young and imaginative kid could suspect that every car that drove past might very well be an alien robot in disguise, for me, it was the fact that (many of) the Decepticons assumed the form of everyday gadgets… a camera, a handful of mini-cassettes, a tape recorder… that grabbed my attention.
More than that, it terrified me.
Imagine an advanced and evil alien invading force that could hide among humans in plain sight, infiltrating anywhere and everywhere, listening in, watching, learning our secrets. It was creepy and sinister. It was the stuff of nightmares and I loved it!
Soundwave and his cassettes–Buzzsaw, Laserbeak, Ravage, Rumble, and Frenzy–were at the top of my Transformers wishlist. I had them circled in my mum’s catalogue and everything.
My best friend owned Soundwave (and Buzzsaw) and whenever I visited I’d ask to look at him. “Do you want to watch some cartoons?” he’d ask. “Nah, I’m good,” I’d reply, marvelling at cassette-mode Buzzsaw fitting into Soundwave’s chest. His batteries became his weapons, for goodness’ sake!
Sadly, though, I never got Soundwave. Or any of the Spy Cassettes. For Christmas, in 1985, I got the Transformers annual and that set of three Ladybird books/cassettes. I got real cassettes but not the fiddly little transformable ones I wanted. (Not that I was ungrateful, I loved those Ladybird stories!)
The Ladybird stories really cemented the idea of Transformers being robots in disguise on Earth: Active only under the cover of darkness, and hidden from us all in their alternate modes the rest of the time.
I loved the idea that alien forces were seeking to conquer or protect humanity in secret. It was something that I could easily imagine happening while I was staring out of the classroom window and getting shouted at for not paying attention.
The first two years’ of Transformers covered the requirements of an “action” toy range more than comprehensively. Cars, trucks, planes that changed into weapon-toting robots were the draw to most of my school-mates but I was more attracted to the range’s subtler side: namely Soundwave and his cassettes.
(You’ll be happy to learn that I did eventually acquire my own Soundwave and Buzzsaw; from a model shop in Derby in 1994.)
“Yeah, but what can you do with a tape player and a bunch of cassettes?” I would get asked. “That’s not very exciting!”
But the point was that the seemingly unassuming gadget-modes of the Decepticons stirred my imagination more than anything else, and for me, the kind of kid that would stare out of the window all day and take the long way home from school on purpose, it captivated me utterly.
Chapter 3 – Big Trouble with Little Autobots
Transformers always seemed to have a reputation for being the most “expensive” of all the transforming robot toy ranges that appeared in the mid- to late-1980s and I had a hard time convincing present-buying adults that they were worth it. It was like they somehow didn’t care about the deep, layered personalities these robots had or the heart-arresting adventures they found themselves in.
Nope, as far as an adult was concerned one transforming robot was pretty much the same as any other. Even though I asserted that Transformers were, indeed, more than met the eye.
Budgets were very tight at home. Phrases like “single parent family” and “free school meals” haunted me throughout term time and, coupled with the odd spell of bullying, school was generally hell. But Hasbro provided the silver lining to that particular dark cloud.
I liked to think that Hasbro knew about kids like me and, as wonderful and expensive as the larger Transformers were, had my back with their pocket money sub-range: Mini-Autobots!
While it often felt like school-mates were getting Optimus Primes and Megatrons just for behaving themselves at the dentist, I was actually just happy and so, so grateful to receive a Mini-Autobot for my birthday or Christmas or while on holiday*.
(*Seaspray at Hunstanton beach. He was the only Transformer you could find at the seaside!)
Over the course of 1985 and the first half of 1986 I amassed a staggering 8 Mini-Autobots. And, boy, did I love them! They were small, easy to transform, and a lot more durable than their more expensive counterparts.
(You’ll notice only 7 Mini-Autobots in the photo. I did get Wheelie one Saturday and took him to school the following Monday. He was stolen out of my cubby hole during lunch. No one owned up. That was a bad day.)
The brilliant thing about the Mini-Autobots was they sported a decent range of vehicle modes, not just cars like the larger Autobots. Seaspray, one of my favourites to this day, was a fun little hovercraft.
And it wasn’t just the range of alternate modes, but the range of personalities, too.
Beachcomber was a favourite: a little beach buggy who suffered mental stress and was a loner who liked to escape? That bio alone–on the back of a toy–was worth more to me than any value an adult could perceive or appreciate.
It was always disappointing that the Decepticons didn’t have an equivalent to the Mini-Autobots. Sure there were the Spy Cassettes but they were packaged in pairs and were thus priced out of range. (Not to mention they were a lot harder to find.)
Thankfully, Hasbro “equalised” things in later years with the likes of the Triggerbots/cons and Micromaster Patrols.
Having access to only the Mini-Autobots taught me some valuable lessons early on. I realised that my own imagination (and that of the people who created the Transformers characters) gave me just as rich an experience with the likes of Bumblebee and Tailgate as I got with the likes of the more expensive Transformers.
Those adults may have known the price of Transformers, but they never knew their value.
Chapter 4 – Team Building
One afternoon early in the summer of 1986 I was leaving a toy shop empty-handed, having had an hour-long look at all the Transformers I couldn’t afford. As I passed the till I spotted something: a large glossy leaflet that featured two massive robots with cars and planes for limbs that I’d never seen before. The leaflet opened up into a poster showing photographs of all of the “Special Team” collection.
For the rest of the summer that poster was stuck on my bedroom wall and ritually stared at, gazed upon, and otherwise scrutinised. Of particular interest to me were the Aerialbots, especially Silverbolt. I had a thing for aircraft as a kid (both my dad and his dad were in the air force) and already had quite a collection of Airfix models.
Two of my all-time favourite aircraft were/are the SR-71 Blackbird and the Concorde. I also loved the design of the Space Shuttle orbiter. Seeing Silverbolt and the other airborne characters on that poster, was a revelation. I was magnetised. (Yes, Devastator had been out. But, you have to remember, he wasn’t officially available in the UK at the time.) As far as I was concerned, these new Special Teams were a must-have!
As my 9th birthday approached I was given the latest Argos catalogue and there, on page 296, was Superion—the entire Aerialbot team! At £22, it was a lot to ask for. But, you know what, I’d been a good boy all summer!
On the morning of my birthday I opened up the Superion gift-set. And, oh boy, what a gift it was! Five (no six!) new Transformers characters all on the same day. That sort of thing was unheard of! (Incidentally I’d received Snarl and Runamuck that same birthday, but didn’t open those on the day itself.)
I spent the entire evening of my birthday applying the stickers to the Aerialbots and getting to know the characters via the bio & tech specs cards on the back of the box. A flying leader who’s scared of heights? A jet fighter more interested in books? Another one who’s a terrible pilot? That was the genius of Bob Budiansky right there.
So from there I was hooked on the Special Teams. I asked for, and received, the Stunticon/Menasor set that Christmas and it took me the entirety of 1987 to collect the Combaticons. Of note was Blast Off, the first Transformer I bought myself with my own* money! (*50p per week less 32p for the weekly Transformers comic over six months… You bet I splashed out from time to time!)
By the time I got round to the Protectobots, they were no longer on the toys shelves (I only managed to get Streetwise) so I started on collecting the Technobots and Terrorcons (just Lightspeed, Strafe, and Cutthroat) before the Seacons came out.
I think what I liked the most about the Special Teams was that the Autobot/Decepticon balance was perfect… one leader and four warriors per team on both sides. And for the first time it felt like there was a point, or a goal, to my Transformers collecting. I felt like it was all somehow building towards something greater than the sum of its part. Damn Hasbro knew how to sell robot toys to children!
Countless combining teams have come along since those halcyon days but Superion–the set that had everything I wanted from a Transformers team from fantastic alternate modes to wonderfully flawed characters–will always be the one I think of most fondly.
Chapter 5 – Oh my S.T.A.R.S. and Jumpstarters
Along with the bio/tech specs cards and box art illustrations (when they hadn’t been ruined by a torn bubble), I dutifully cut out and kept the Robot Points that were printed on the backs of Transformers packaging. I was never really sure what do with them until early 1987 when I saw an advert for the S.T.A.R.S. cardboard cutout command base, er, thing on the back page of the weekly Transformers comic. It was £4.99 and 4 Robot Points. I had to have it.
One of the most impressive things to me about Transformers: The Movie was the fact that, in the far future of 2005, the Autobots had their own city, a proper home, on Earth. The panoramic scenes of it in the Movie, with its golden towers and spires, its hydro-electric power stations and causeways (and its beautiful fishing lake but a drive or hoverboard trip away) were breathtaking.
But the price of Metroplex, advertised in the UK as the “Autobot City Playset”, was far beyond my means. And so, the £5 S.T.A.R.S. base was the only viable option!
The S.T.A.R.S. set was everything I hoped for, and more! Ample floorspace to display my Autobots, a place for the bio/tech specs cards and a backdoor-cum-storage area for weapons and Superion’s combing pieces. Oh, and some weird spinning board game thing that I repurposed as a Star Trek-like transporter panel.
I kept the S.T.A.R.S. plastic membership card with me at all times. But one fateful morning at school I dropped it in the toilets and my (horrid) teacher found it and tried to embarrass me in front of the entire class by asking if I’d found any “Deceptions” in the toilets. (I then got sent to the headmaster for correcting him that it was DeceptiCONS not “deceptions”.)
Sadly, there was no such base of operations for my Decepticons. They had to make do with the top shelf of Bookcase Sinister.
My cardboard Metroplex served me and my Autobot army well for several years. I can’t recall its ultimate fate but I’m pretty sure it was thrown out at the same time as my bedroom was decorated to reflect my new (apparent) grown-up persona as I started Big School.
As a kid I yearned for an actual Metroplex (and Trypticon, once I knew he was real after the weekly Transformers comic offered him as a competition prize). It wasn’t until the far future of the mid-00s that, after decades of searching, I finally tracked down the very nice MIB specimens of them both. (This was, of course, before they were both reissued.)
Trypticon and Metroplex were both worth waiting for and to this day are the most cherished parts of what little is left of my Transformers collection. To finally find myself in a position to track them down, acquire them and, most importantly, appreciate them had been like finding long sought-after treasure.
I didn’t seek out Metroplex and Trypticon because they were necessarily the biggest or most expensive of Transformers, I just always felt that the Autobots (and Decepticons) deserved a home of their own.
Chapter 6 – Wanted: Galvatron — Dead or MISB
Beginning in 1987 my local newsagent finally started to offer a reservation/delivery service for the weekly Marvel Transformers comic. After the infuriation I felt at missing the end of “Target: 2006”, I had no hesitation in giving up 64% of my weekly pocket money in return for never missing an issue again! (Well, up until issue 203 but that’s another story.)
My first regular issue was No. 97, the second chapter of “Prey” and, at last, I felt part of the same club a lot of school mates were already members of. I finally felt like a bona fide part of the Transformers universe; no longer just a kid who asked for Transformers for Christmas and birthdays but a dedicated fan of the whole package, fully immersed and proudly obsessed!
The remaining 36% of my pocket money dutifully went into one of my Natwest piggy banks, glacially amassing untold wealth to be deployed during the next future trip at the toy shop.
Based on what I saw of him during “Target: 2006” and Transformers: The Movie that previous Christmas, I had my sights on Galvatron. And reading “Fallen Angel” in issues 101-102 of the weekly comic only… (sorry, I can’t not)… galvanised my yearning for the new Decepticon leader. Trust me, seeing a Decepticon defeat a bunch of Mini-Autobots in a battle portrayed by Geoff Senior will have that effect on a kid. Good job, Hasbro marketing people, good job! (And you’ll remember: my Transformers collection up until now was mainly Mini-Autobots and a couple of Special Teams.)
Saving up for Galvatron would have taken me about 2 years, which is a huge commitment for a 9 year old. But you know what? Somebody was looking out for me somewhere out there in the big, wide Universe, someone who felt the painful longing inside me for a Galvatron toy. That somebody was evidently the buying manager at WHSmith in Nottingham because one fateful day during the Easter holidays that shop had a stack of Galvatrons in the sale at £8 each. £8, reduced from £25.
But I had only about £4 saved up.
Perhaps out of love, or perhaps, more likely out of embarrassment that her 9 year old son had prostrated himself before the table of cheap Galvatrons, my mum gave me the rest of the money I needed.
As soon as I got back home Galvatron had already “killed” Optimus Prime and Superion before I even put his stickers on. He was put pride of place atop of my bookcase along with the rest of my Decepticons.
Getting Galvatron was really the first time I wanted to get a Transformers toy because of how it (or he) was portrayed in the Transformers comic. Prior to Galvatron, the Transformers I got were either because they were gifts or because I simply thought they were cool toys and/or had cool vehicle modes.
Galvatron was a character first to me, and a toy second. To be fair, Galvatron-the-toy was pretty awful and looked nothing like Galvatron-the-character. From then on, what I read and saw in the weekly Transformers comic was pretty much the inspiration for which toy to get next.
I fully, and equally, blame and embrace Bob Budiansky, Simon Furman, and the other Transformers “creators” for feeding my obsession and providing the narrative to some of the most wonderful and treasured parts of my childhood.
Chapter 7 – Sins of the Wreck-Gar
Spring, 1987. Optimus Prime was dead and a new Prime, Rodimus, had taken his place.
And it’s all the Transformers comic could talk about. So naturally, I wanted one for myself. I wasn’t being selfish: the decimated Autobot forces in my bedroom were waiting for a hero. Especially since that time I got Galvatron in a WHSmith sale, and he pulverised them all. It wasn’t pretty.
For whatever reason, Rodimus Prime and Wreck-Gar weren’t officially released in 1986 in the UK (as they had been in the US/Canada), but when the latest Argos catalogue came out in 1987 they were both there. Ready, and waiting.
Prior to this point I rarely bought Transformers for myself. They were presents from relatives: Optimus Prime for Christmas, 1984 right up to Menasor for Christmas, 1986. I wasn’t yet a collector. I wasn’t yet someone who sought, acquired, catalogued, organised, and maintained Transformers. I just thought they were really cool toys based on really cool characters.
But the day I went to buy Rodimus Prime was the day I became a collector of Transformers: A collector of a collection, rather than someone who just loved a handful of individual items.
Rodimus Prime and Wreck-Gar were advertised together in the UK as “Autobot Heroes”. But to be honest, I cared for Wreck-Gar not one bit. His character in the Movie annoyed me, equally so his appearances in the comic. But, regardless, he was by Rodimus’s side.
Having traveled to my nearest Argos (Nottingham, downstairs in the Broadmarsh shopping centre), I was dismayed to find that Rodimus Prime had sold out.
So what did I do? Did I think sensibly about the situation? Did I think carefully about what I would do with my hard-saved money? Did I have the patience to wait for some future opportunity to buy Rodimus Prime? No.
Instead, something clicked inside my brain. Some switch was flicked. An unconscious “collector mentality” kicked in. Instead of buying what I really wanted, I bought Wreck-Gar. I didn’t even want him. But the desire to own something “Transformers” branded had overridden all sense.
Wreck-Gar’s personal motto, “Collect and save, collect and save,” was entirely apt.
Suddenly it was ok to buy an individual Transformers I didn’t really want because I had a “Transformers Collection” now. As long as it was a Transformer it made no difference because it was no longer something special or individual, it was part of an apparently greater whole.
Any Transformers toys that I didn’t yet have were but missing links in an infinite chain.
I did eventually find a Rodimus Prime, and he was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped he’d be, but I had cheapened my experience by buying an imitation of him, a “next best thing”. After that day, I didn’t desire individual Transformers any more, I just desired Transformers.
My hobby had suddenly turned into a compulsion that lasted some 30 years, perhaps borne of a need to escape to somewhere comfortable and exciting. But I never once dwelled on any meaning to what I was doing, I was still having tremendous fun voyaging ever further, ever deeper, into the Transformers universe.
Chapter 8 – World’s Apart
1987 saw a lot of changes to the Transformers toyline. Continuing the trend that started in the previous year’s Transformers: The Movie, the entire line had moved away from its early “robots in disguise” theme to a new generation of robots that were “more… much more than meets the eye”.
Gone were the detailed (and fragile) die-cast, recognisable vehicle/animal/etc. modes and in their place, chunky, colourful, and futuristic vehicles and monsters. They were worlds apart.
After the summer holiday of 1987 I returned to school to find that almost all of my school mates had grown bored of Transformers and that this new direction certainly wasn’t for them. If not for my investment in the weekly Transformers comic, I would have felt the same.
That summer, a fortnight visiting generous relatives yielded Wideload (and an Optimus Prime Decoy), Rodimus Prime, and Apeface–my first taste of the new Headmasters range. As much fun as I had with Apeface (and, honestly, I loved the gimmick of his pilot, who could ride inside the vehicle, turning into his head) he felt different and somehow cheap compared to my existing Transformers. They were worlds apart. Wait. I think I said that already.
For my 10th birthday I gratefully received Kup (not the Targetmaster), Cutthroat, and Cyclonus (the Targetmaster). It was about this time that the Marvel UK comic began its huge push of the Headmasters line: cover-to-cover Transformers action, a free gift “data scan”, competitions, etc. While the lead strip returned to showcasing the Movie characters, the backup strip focused on Nebulos. The last quarter of 1987 (and continuing into 1988) was a time I was hopelessly and irremediably addicted to the Transformers comic, eagerly waiting for its Saturday morning arrival.
Without that comic I think, like my school mates, my interest in the Transformers toys would have died that year.
That Christmas I received Pipes, Onslaught, Starscream, and Chromedome from my mum and, separately, Targetmaster Blurr and Mindwipe from my dad. “No fair!” my school mates would say, “You get two Christmases!” My retort: “No fair! You get two parents!”
Transformers-wise, it was the best Christmas ever! I got the final bit of Bruticus/The Combaticons that I’d been collecting all year, and Starscream, one of my all-time favourite characters who, coincidentally, had been featured in just that week’s comic’s Christmas story. And, as with Apeface, I loved the gimmick of Chromedome’s driver being able to sit inside the car and become the robot’s head.
Oddly, the Headmasters I had felt very out of place on my shelves compared to my existing robots. Chromedome seemed to tower over Optimus Prime and, to me, never felt quite right.
Those 6 new Transformers (9 if you count the Nebulan companions) took me through into 1988 and my desire to get any new ones started to wane. I was more excited about the stories that were being told in the comic. Galvatron was back! Ultra Magnus was back! The will-they-won’t-they (kill each other) tension was undeniable.
It felt like while the toys were now being pitched to kids younger than me, the comic was pitching to an older audience. For the last three years, I’d always felt that the toys and their characters and stories went together seamlessly. But now, the gap was widening. They were indeed (Rule Of Threes alert) worlds apart.
Chapter 9 – People Power
I often take for granted that I can get a new Transformers toy and instantly share the event with friends all over the world via social media. I’ll get feedback in return, whether it’s a comment, or a “love/like”, or even just a thumbs up emoji. In short, I’ll get the joy of the experience reflected back at me and multiplied tenfold.
But back in 1988, it was a different story. Collecting Transformers had become a solitary experience. It was the penultimate year at primary school; all my school mates had long forgotten about Transformers, instead focusing on their Atari computers and Euro ’88.
Happy to increasingly isolate myself from the rest of the world, I continued reading the weekly Transformers comic and continued to spend my pocket money on the more affordable offerings from Hasbro: the Seacons, Sparkabots, Firecons.
It was business as usual for me, but with the difference of (apparently) no one else showing the slightest interest in them. No one else saw the appeal of Transformers any more.
In fact, the last Transformer I had bought for me by my mum was the Pretender Landmine during the Easter holiday. After that I was told that, with the prospect of “Big School” looming, I should start growing up and focusing on more “grown up” activities.
I refused to let anything or anyone temper my still-strong love for Transformers. The Marvel comic started dropping hints about the return of Optimus Prime and I couldn’t have been more excited! My original Optimus Prime (like a lot of my toys) was, after 3 years, wrecked. I was eager to resurrect him!
We visited my grandparents during our annual summer holiday trip up to Scotland and, armed with a chunk of holiday spending money, I defiantly declared I would locate a shiny new Powermaster Optimus Prime. I didn’t find one, but I did get Slapdash and Darkwing. I loved the Powermaster gimmick, and I loved the return to recognisable vehicle modes: Darkwing, in particular, as he transformed into a Tornado jet–which was the type of aircraft my dad’s squadron was working on at the time.
My grandfather was a quiet man and, much like me, he kept himself to himself. But he was a warm man and made sure to say something if and when it needed to be said. Like my dad, he too had been in the airforce.
The afternoon I got Darkwing, I was sitting at the dining room table, carefully applying the stickers and my grandfather, recognising the Tornado form, took an interest.
After explaining that there was another jet that Darkwing could combine with (using the pages of “People Power” in the comic to illustrate the point) my grandfather reached for his wallet and gave me a £20 note. “Get that one tomorrow,” he said. “And don’t you ever worry about what anyone else thinks.”
The next day I bought Dreadwind and I was over the moon with it; for several reasons: at last I had someone on my side! I didn’t feel as alone or isolated about my hobby as I had been.
That summer 1988 trip was the last time I saw my grandfather. He died the following spring from cancer, having, ironically and devastatingly, kept his illness to himself.
Incidentally, I did get Powermaster Optimus Prime for my 11th birthday in 1988. It was a present from my dad. At 33 years old and still reading 2000AD comics, he evidently didn’t listen to his mother about growing up either!
Chapter 10 – A Small War
1989 started badly. The local newsagent decided to stop carrying the Transformers comic. I guess her New Year’s resolution that year was to reach into the chests of children, pull out their still-beating hearts and feast on them while picking out the tubes with her cold, gnarled fingers. Not that I’m still bitter about the situation, you understand.
Transformers 202 was the last issue I had delivered; right in the middle of “Time Wars”. It was like missing out on the ending of “Target: 2006” all over again! It broke my heart. With nowhere local to go, I had to rely on sporadic trips into Nottingham. The next issue I found was 230. Then 232. Then 235, 243, 245, 250, 253, 255, 301, 323, 327… Even now I can recite them. That’s how few, far-between, and very precious they’d become.
I can’t state, even now, how much of a lifeline that weekly comic was for me. It was my escape from the world. It was there for me every single week for the last two years. And now it was gone. It was the reason I was even still collecting Transformers. No more comics meant no more impetus to get new toys. Which, as it turned out, fit the prevailing narrative at home, and at school, of, “Well, you’re too old for Transformers anyway.”
It was assumed therefore, that I was done with Transformers. Not so!
I wasn’t ready to let go but the world around me was expecting otherwise. I was expected to “grow up”. I was expected to like football, and I was expected to like girls. I was expected to like acid-wash denim for goodness’ sake!
I carried on buying Transformers with my pocket money, except now it was all done in secret.
During shopping trips I would make an excuse and slope off to Beatties and buy whichever Transformer I could find and afford, dash around the corner and tear the toy out of its packaging, then hide it in my pocket and return as if nothing had happened. How had it come to this?
I was waging a small war against the rest of the world. There were casualties: those precious bio/tech specs cards and boxart illustrations I used to put in my scrapbooks. That was the price I paid to hide my real self.
Hasbro’s latest offerings, the Micromasters, were the perfect soldiers for my small war. They could be hidden anywhere! And it was easy to sneak them amongst all the existing Transformers on my shelf. I loved the Micromasters: recognisable alternate modes, bases that could connect (Metroplex be damned!), and themed, affordable sets that were just so, so collectable!
But because I no longer read the comic regularly and had no bio/tech specs card to refer to, those Micromasters had no character or meaning to me. As collectable little toys I loved them, but as characters they meant nothing. But the important thing about them was this: They were a link to a past, a comfortable and reassuring past that I didn’t want to leave behind.
My small war, my fight to fit in with the rest of the world, was a silent struggle. But I had every hope that reinforcements would be on their way. Heroes were coming…
Chapter 11 – Not All Heroes Are Cars
I used to have dreams about Transformers: wonderful dreams in which I’d be in a toy shop looking up at shelves that were filled with Transformers toys, each one in its pristine, glossy box that glinted down at me like a wink of starlight.
The Transformers in my dreams were always the original ones, the ones that were long gone in the real world and, and such, out of reach. But I dreamt of them in such detail; my subconscious teasing me with what could have been.
One day in 1990, in the very real city of York, England, I was on a school trip to the Yorvic Centre museum. During lunch, I spotted a department store and snuck away from my school mates hoping to maybe find some Micromasters in the toy department and get away from those “authentic” Viking smells the museum was so proud of replicating.
At the back of the store (I forget its name) on a back wall of the toy department my Transformers dream had come true! In the wall of gold packaging before me I recognised the likes of Prowl, Jazz, Ironhide, the Aerialbots, the Stunticons! There was no time to fully process what I was seeing! I had to get back to my teachers, to that awful smell.
The sight of those Transformers, those same original Transformers in new boxes, filled me with such excitement and hope. I felt like I had been given a second chance. Not just to have an opportunity to get some of those Autobots I’d missed out on the first time around, but it was a second chance to break down the barrier I’d built up around myself and stand up to the world and say, “Yeah, I’m a Transformers collector and fuck you if you have a problem with that.” Hey, I was a 12 years old now, I knew how to use the f-word.
That the original Transformers had been reissued as “Classics” meant I could show people that these things weren’t just toys. If they were reissued, then that meant they were considered to be vintage and therefore bona fide collector’s items. The truth was that I hadn’t “played” with my Transformer for over 2 years, but, as is common, people have their assumptions and judgments.
I was now, very proudly, a Transformers collector. I could now cultivate a well-manicured display of beautiful die-cast robots that were monuments to my beloved comic characters. I stopped hiding the fact that I was buying Transformers. “They’re not toys,” I’d say. “They’re collector’s items.” You couldn’t argue with that.
(And it meant I could return to archiving the boxart illustrations and bio/tech specs in my scrapbook again!)
Even my dad could appreciate my position. He wasn’t seeing me with the colourful, chunky toys of recent years, but with the detailed, almost model-like sports car from the early years. On days together he would say, “Your mum wants me to buy you new trainers for school.” “My trainers are fine, Dad,” I’d reply with a smile. “Let’s go to the toy shop instead!”
With the “Classic Heroes” of 1990-91 I entered a new phase of Transformers collecting. I was in a new and positive mind-set and I had a new attitude towards my hobby. I had wrecked almost all of my original toys, but now I had the chance to have a proper and more meaningful and focused collection: something that I could be, and was, very proud of.
Chapter 12 – Pieces of the Action
Historians generally agree that the first time Transformers was Ruined Forever was in 1990 when Hasbro released their line of non-transforming Action Masters.
Me? I love them. Not necessarily because they were amazing toys (they weren’t, really) but because they were nicely detailed and highly collectable action figures based (mostly) on existing, now-classic, Transformers characters.
I first saw the Action Masters in Harrods’ toy department in the summer of 1990. My keen eye spotted Blaster. And, for a split second, I thought it was the original transforming Blaster somehow imported. I rifled through the hanging carded figures, looking desperately for the likes of Perceptor and even Swoop (on account of seeing Grimlock and Snarl).
The first Action Master I actually bought was Jackpot, incidentally on my first-ever visit to Toys R Us (Metrocentre, Gateshead). I couldn’t tell you why I picked him specifically, except that all the “classic” carded characters were nowhere to be seen.
I was never really interested in the accessories or vehicles that the Action Masters came with, just the figures themselves. In fact, it bugged me that they were named after the vehicles! For example, “Armored [sic] Convoy with Optimus Prime”.
Thanks to Hasbro’s Classics line, I was, by 1990/91, a fully-fledged Transformers collector and the Action Master figures fitted that ethos just fine. I was no longer getting Transformers because they were “toys” but because I was so deeply invested in the Marvel comic characters and, by extension, their designs. The Action Master figures recreated those designs beautifully.
In the pages of the Marvel comic, Action Masters were barely mentioned. Instead, in 1990, the comic focused on the Classics reissues in storylines such as “Perchance to Dream” and the whole Earthforce
In North America, with only the Action Masters and (yet more) Micromasters to offer, the Transformers toyline was cancelled at the end of 1990 due to poor sales. But, thanks to some bright spark at Hasbro UK, the introduction of the Classics and their Marvel comic tie-in material most likely saved the line here.
Treating the Classics and Action Masters like collectibles and not toys seemed to have an effect on my parents. After two years they temporarily lifted their (separate) “bans” on buying them for me. For Christmas in 1990 I received Action Master Wheeljack (and Micromaster Countdown) from my dad and Action Master Shockwave (and the Transformers Universe book) from my mum.
The Transformers Universe served as an invaluable bible/master guide/handbook/checklist for my collection for many years to come. It’s so well-thumbed now its deteriorating spine is barely keeping its pages together!
As collectable as the Action Masters were, they didn’t age well over the years. I completed my collection of them (except for the Action Master Elites) in 2013 after finding the last pieces I needed at the Auto-Assembly convention.
But looking at how discoloured and paint-chipped the figures had become tempered any sense of accomplishment I was hoping to feel. The Action Masters were cheaply made compared to older Transformers and, like all children’s toys, were never intended to have much of a lifespan.
It was then that I started to realise that Action Masters, and Transformers in general, perhaps weren’t as collectable as I thought they were back in 1990. The seeds of my decision to stop collecting Transformers had been planted and slowly took root.
Chapter 13 – Turbocharged!
It’s impossible now to imagine that there was once a time when new Transformers weren’t on toy shelves in some parts of the world. While it was a dark time in those places, here in the UK it was the complete neon opposite!
The early 1990s saw Hasbro (in the UK and elsewhere) release the likes of Overlord and the Motorvators, the Turbomasters, the Predators; all of which seemed to go back to the original themes of the very first Transformers. I would say they were almost back to being robots in disguise again but since this was the 90s, their colour schemes were positively hallucinogenic!
Maybe sales of the Classics from 1990-91 were strong, maybe someone at Hasbro saw the benefits of going back to the car/robot dynamic (and bringing back actual firing projectiles!). Whatever wave Hasbro was riding, I was right there on its crest.
Without the Marvel UK Transformers comic, there was no fiction to tie in with the current toy range. I was buying the likes of Overlord and the Turbomasters on the strengths of their toys, not their characters. I can only imagine how amazing a story that featured Overlord, Rotorstorm, Pyro, and Ironfist might be!
I was a teenager by this point and, thanks to my part time job (working evenings and weekends at the supermarket) I, at long last, had the means to buy almost every single Transformers toy that Hasbro released. My collecting was in maximum overdrive. My RPM (robots-per-month) was redlining!
This turbocharged rate at which I was buying Transformers was unprecedented. But as much as it was a rush, it also meant that I wasn’t giving myself the time to appreciate my toys in the same way as I had been doing.
I had no idea that the likes of the Turbomasters were unavailable officially in, say, the USA or that the likes of Overlord were previously exclusive to Japan.
I was, as usual, making my lone trips to the toy shop to get everything and anything I could get my hands on without the slightest thought that they were worth anything more than they were worth to me.
I found it odd that the “Generation 2” subtitle suddenly appeared on the packaging in 1994, especially on the re-packaged robots from 1993. I had no idea that other countries had had a “break” from Transformers. I guess I really was in my own little world!
My favourite of the Turbomasters was Flash. He was a sleek callback to the original Diaclone car robots and, hot pink windows aside, had something of a parity with the likes of Jazz and Prowl. The Predator jets, too, were some of my favourites and, to this day, I never found a Skyquake; the only 1992-release that was missing from my collection.
I felt extremely fortunate having the means to buy any of the Transformers I saw. It was a completely different time now, compared to only getting one Mini-Autobot every few months when I was younger. However, as strong as the feeling of accomplishment was when I completed a sub-group, the feeling of frustration when I didn’t was even worse.
Transformers collecting was an addiction now. Every day that I found a new robot was a high, and every day that I didn’t was a low. I was caught up in the swirling kaleidoscope of neon and blissfully drowning.
Chapter 14 – The Three Thousand Mile Stare
On a rainy afternoon in 1985 I was being dragged by the arm through Newark market when I spotted the Constructicons hanging up at the back of a toy stall. But there was neither time to stop nor money to spare!
In 1986 a family friend, who had recently returned from his air force posting in Germany, visited and his son, my age, keenly showed off his brand new Shockwave. He had that glowing barrel all up in my face, tormenting me like the spoiled little bastard he was.
In 1987 our American student exchange teacher (Miss Grover) promised that she would try to find a Swoop for me when she went home for the holidays. (She didn’t find one, but she did redeem herself by showing our class The Goonies at the end of term.)
In 1988 the Marvel UK Transformers ran a competition to win Trypticon. Which I entered, ever hopeful.
In 1989 my dad bought me the Triggercon Crankcase (which I impatiently opened just before we went to see Ghostbusters II at the cinema) which came with a leaflet for a mail-away Reflector.
So many times I was so very tantalisingly close to tracking down an elusive “American only” Transformers toy. And I wasn’t the only one, judging by the letters that were published in the Marvel UK Transformers comic. Shockwave, Swoop, the Constructicons, Blaster, Perceptor, the Predacons, Omega Supreme, Trypticon… were all Transformers I deeply and unhealthily desired while growing up.
A lifetime later, in 1995, I joined the “Transmasters” fan club, and within weeks I was in touch with fellow fans all over the UK, the USA and Canada via newsletters such as “The Informer” in the UK and “Auto-Update” in the USA. One of the first things I did (toy-wise) was buy the fuck outta all those unavailable-in-the-UK Transformers that I’d yearned to own for all those many years. Like, all of them. Every last fucking one of them. It was Christmas times a million.
I also quashed a few assumptions about some of the “American” Transformers that I had. I used to think that the Predacons were the size of the Constructicons/Special Team limbs, and that they were blue and red (as they were in the comics). I also assumed that Blaster would be, like Soundwave, a good toy.
Now, look. I cannot state emphatically enough how joining that fan club changed my life, both personally and professionally. After ten years of collecting Transformers as a lonely and solitary hobby, I had finally found my kindred.
I found people I could talk to at great length about my hobby. There was no judgement. It was wonderful, yet surreal. Even saying the words “Autobot” and “Decepticon” out loud felt weird. We all wrote letters, we swapped fanzines, we had meet ups. A door, nay a space bridge, to a whole new world had opened up.
Inspired by the existing members’ fanzines and newsletters, I decided to start my own. “Transmasters Universe” and its successors started me on a path of graphic design, writing, and photography that I’ve stayed on ever since and still make a decent living doing.
The whole Transformers collecting experience had evolved once again into something even more amazing than it already had been. It was a community now, and almost every day I received a letter or a fanzine or a parcel that contained a highly sought after Transformers toy. The friends I made back then I am still friends with to this day, over 20 years later.
The world wasn’t cold like it had been. It was smaller now. Even though some of my new friends were more than three thousand miles away, I’d never felt closer and I knew, from then onwards, I didn’t have to be alone anymore.
Chapter 15 – Found in Translation
It was a whisper at first. A hushed utterance in an unknown language. Then, through the white noise, words formed: Masterforce, Victory, Zone, Battlestars. In other words, Japanese Transformers. It was like discovering a hidden secret through faint, stuttering Morse Code. No, it was more primitive than that, it was a black-and-white photocopy of a Takara Transformers leaflet!
Back in the mid-1990s, having joined the Transmasters fanclub, I set about to accomplishing two major things (Transformers-wise): 1, catching up on all the issues of Marvel UK’s comic I’d missed and, 2, obtaining all the not-available-in-the-UK toys. Unresolved childhood issues? Check!
And then I discovered that, all the while, Takara in Japan had been doing its own thing. You know; its own toy lines, comic series and animated television shows. Fuck me, I’d just levelled up.
This was new collecting territory to me, potentially challenging and very expensive. My supermarket wages would only go so far, after all! Almost all of the Transformers I’d been collecting these last 10 years had been because of their characters (as portrayed by the Marvel comics) and, as I pored over the photocopied leaflets, I realised that these Japanese Transformers were complete strangers to me.
Well, almost; on the Masterforce catalogue, for example, I was drawn to “Powermaster Optimus Prime” (AKA Super Ginrai) one of my all-time favourite Transformers toys. But this fellow was different… retractable hands maybe… a separately transforming trailer/robot called Godbomber that formed additional armour… And Pretenders, again, other favourite of mine. But there was an additional one, Metalhawk. On the Decepticon side there was a little gun like Megatron (Browning) who look liked a far better robot.
Via the fan club network, I managed to get copies of the Masterforce episodes on VHS tapes so I could get to know these new characters. I pretty much fell in love with the series immediately. It was just so different to what I’d seen before.
Sorry, I should have explained what “photocopies” and “VHS tapes” were. Maybe ask about them at your local library.
Obtaining any of the Japanese Transformers was far beyond my means at the time, so I put the notion of collecting them aside and decided to wait until I was financially solvent and for eBay to be invented.
Come the mid-2000s I was in a position to start collecting the Masterforce toys properly. (A few years earlier a good friend did help me track down Godbomber.) It just felt like the right time to go for it. By that point its animated series was officially out on DVD, too.
The first one I tracked down was the Pretender, Metalhawk. He was the most I’d ever spent on one Transformer before and completely worth it. All that die-cast metal for a start! Then I got Browning, another pricey piece. (Luckily the likes of God Ginrai and Star Convoy were being reissued at the time, so that helped to offset costs.)
Even now, Browning is one of the few Transformers toys that remains a favourite and one that I doubt I’d ever be able to part with.
Collecting the Masterforce–and other Japanese–toys felt extra special. Perhaps because they weren’t based on anything from my childhood, and their relative rarity (especially mint, boxed specimens), it made them some of the most appreciated and treasured pieces in my entire collection.
Chapter 16 – Beasts With Two Backs
1996 was the year I left home. I was prepared for new horizons. I was ready to leave behind all that was familiar and comfortable, and eager for something completely new and completely different. That’s right, I was ready for… Beast Wars!
The time of the Beast Wars saw a substantial shift in the way I collected Transformers, more out of necessity than choice. British shops, post-Generation 2, had no new Transformers product on the shelves, and I was now based at University in Bristol, a fair distance from home.
My new strategy was this: I traded what left-over “Euro” exclusives I could find in Jolly Giant stores with a friend in Canada who sent over wave after wave of Beast Wars figures to my parents’ house. It was only during holidays that I got to open that which walked, crawled and otherwise filled my old bedroom like a stock room.
While it felt like fun at the time it was also a very intense and fleeting experience. I had been used to getting Transformers about once a week during the Generation 2 run. But this was another level. Some poor figures had no more than a couple of minutes of my time before being cast aside so the next one could be opened.
Apart from the main cast of characters from the excellent television series, I could barely remember the names of any of the Maximals or Predacons. This trend continued until Beast Machines. Figures were opened, transformed, put to one side, opened, transformed, and so on. Like speed-dating but nowhere near as awkward.
I also became something of a completist. I started getting multiples and variations of the same character/toy. I discovered a collector’s shop in Bristol called “Global Collectables” and found myself buying a lot of Japanese Beast Wars II toys, even if they were the same mould (but different colours) as their Hasbro counterparts.
All the while I kept a niggling promise to myself that as soon as I graduated I would take the time to revisit all those Beast Wars and Beast Machines toys and look at them properly. Of course, that never happened.
As it turned out, the way in which I collected Beast Wars meant that when I had my first “collection purge” some years later in 2003/4 I had no real emotional attachment to the toys themselves and found them very easy to let go of.
I vowed since to never go back to such an intense method of acquiring Transformers. It wasn’t fun. I didn’t get the chance to appreciate each figure/character, certainly not to the level it deserved; Beast Wars was a revolutionary toy line with an enduring legacy.
Chapter 17 – All the Familiar Faces
Imagine a line drawn down the middle of the first 30 years or so of Transformers. On one side (1984-2000) there’s the original series, Generation 2, and Beast Wars/Machines. And on the other (2000-present day) there are all the reissues, Unicron Trilogy, Masterpiece, Generations, Movie lines, Animated, Prime, and so on.
In very general terms you can see something of a distinction to the approach Hasbro/Takara/etc took to selling transforming toys before and after the millennium.
Pre-2000, the Transformers range mostly consisted of hundreds of different and interesting new characters each year with new concepts and features being introduced to build a sprawling, epic universe.
Post-2000, the Transformers range was “rebooted” every year or so with the same “legacy” characters making repeat appearances year after year as new toys that were variations of their original forms. Every time a new line came out, you were guaranteed that all the familiar faces would be there.
As I said, I am talking in very general terms. There are many exceptions to this “millennium divide” rule, of course.
My personal perspective, or bias, when it comes to collecting Transformers is that in most cases the character is more important to me than the toy itself. I grew up on the weekly British Marvel Transformers comic and that’s what has almost always inspired my choices of which Transformers toys I’ve sought.
Since 2000, while I’ve enjoyed picking up the likes of Binaltech, Masterpiece, Generations, and some of the Movie toys, I haven’t experienced the same thrill as I did pre-2000. That’s not to say that modern Transformers aren’t objectively better than the 80s/90s toys, it’s just that in recent times there haven’t been many new characters for me to get acquainted with.
Much like toys from the Beast Wars/Machines lines, I’ve had a great deal of enjoyment from modern Transformers and I admire the detail and engineering on many of them, especially the Masterpiece figures. But emotional investment has been lacking.
I imagine we each have a “perfect” idea in our minds, a kind of Platonic idealistic view, of what each character should be like and look like and we wait for either Hasbro or Takara to make it real as either a Masterpiece or a Generations toy. If it’s close enough we’ll be drawn to it, and if not, we pass on it. Maybe that’s why “Third Party” toys have become so popular with some collectors?
As for me, and the way my weird little brain works, I cannot appreciate (or even tolerate) a display that contains too many of the same character even if they are from completely separate lines. If I had two Optimus Primes on my shelf, I’d have to race them to find out which one is the “real” one!
This little quirk of mine quickly knocked out any completist mentality I may have had. Collecting variations of the same character or even of the same mould has never been of interest to me. (Exceptions: the JAFCON Optimus Prime and Movie Preview Ultra Magnus reissues.)
Transformers characters these days have a very powerful nostalgic quality to them, one that Hasbro/Takara have been expertly capitalising on since the year 2000.
The nostalgic nature of my own Transformers collection has often provided me with great comfort and joy. It’s been for those same nostalgic reasons that while I could easily let the likes of the Binaltech, Movie, Masterpiece and Generations toys come and go, I always felt much more of a sentimental attachment to all the pre-2000 pieces in my collection.
That’s why, whenever deciding to move or sell on a Masterpiece/Generations/etc toy compared to its Generation 1 version, the G1 version has always been the one that was kept, without question.
After all these years of buying Transformers it turns out that I haven’t been collecting toys at all, I’ve been collecting characters.
Chapter 18 – Mint In Schrödinger’s Box
Of all of our planet’s fast-dwindling and valuable resources, a MISB or MOSC Transformers toy is surely the most precious. I mean, what kind of monster would buy a sealed Transformer and proceed to open it, enjoy it and, sometimes, recycle the packaging? Me. I would. With reckless abandon.
Let’s call a toy a toy; I always have. In fact, I’ve never held a pretence that has implied otherwise. I’ve been a proud Transformers toy collector for over three decades and I’ve been one for that long because Transformers are fun toys. It’s because they, you know, transform. And you cannot enjoy that aspect of them if you keep them sealed up in their prison-like packaging.
I’m being tongue-in-cheek, I know. And I know a lot of MISB/MOSC collectors buy one to open and one to keep sealed. Someone needs to keep these things preserved for posterity, after all.
For me, half of the magic of getting a new Transformers toy (when I was young) was getting a brand new one and having the privilege of being the first and only one to open it. That’s how I knew it was meant for me, that it was mine.
And, of course, the packaging itself is a work of art, especially those beautifully painted box art illustrations and epic battle scenes on the back.
Over the years, I’ve been spoiled by all the various reissues. It’s meant that, for relatively little expense, I’ve been able to recreate that magic from my childhood over and over again. I’ve also tried to do the same with any vintage (non-reissued) pieces.
But buying a Transformers toy MISB or MOSC is not without its perils and pitfalls! Despite their rarity and expense nowadays, they are still a mass-produced children’s toy. As such, they are prone to the same flaws and faults as any modern toy. The difference is, buying a new toy for £10 that is flawed is easier to shrug off than something that’s cost orders of magnitude more than that from eBay.
The biggest gamble when buying a vintage MISB Transformers toy is that you really don’t know what you’re getting until you open it. And that can be a huge risk sometimes. Did you buy something sealed? Did you even get it “slabbed” and “graded”? How do you know what condition it’s really in? Does it have all its accessories? Has it discoloured with age somewhere you can’t see? Has it got a mould defect or other breakage anywhere?
All of those things have happened to me. I’ve had a sealed Nightbeat come with two left “ears”. I’ve had a Micromaster Combiner come with a mis-moulded hinge. I’ve had a Pretender come with a weird, sticky residue all over its helmet. (!) And I’ve had several Transformers with parts that literally shatter like they’ve got Gold Plastic Syndrome (even though they haven’t been gold).
Honestly, I have enough anxieties in my life without my hobby providing any more! So, yeah, my dalliance with acquiring sealed Transformers toys didn’t last too long.
It’s a disheartening realisation when you consider that your Transformers toy collection is ageing just as badly as you are. Despite what anyone selling you a Transformer might say, these things are really just toys and were never designed or built to last a long time.
Maybe you haven’t been collecting Transformers for relatively long and maybe you only focus on newer releases like Masterpiece and/or Generations but, trust me, your toys will succumb to age and the process will be overlong and painful to endure. (Much like a Micheal Bay Transformers movie.)
I’ve never considered Transformers collecting to be any kind of long-term investment. In some ways, their limited lifespan adds to their appeal. All beauty, whether natural or manufactured, is fleeting. It makes you focus on what it really is: something awesome, something fun, and something to cherish while you can.
Chapter 19 – Giving Up the Chase
Every Transformers toy has its own story, and I don’t just mean the biography written on the packaging. Each story is a unique combination of time, place, and serendipity, that binds that particular robot to you as a collector. You will hopefully have seen from this “Collecting Stories” series that I have had plenty of wonderful stories of my own.
I think that it is this story, this distinctive and rich tale attached to each Transformer, that makes collecting them such a joyful and rewarding experience. But I have come to realise, over the years, that the stories of mine have dulled and lost their spark and shine.
When I was a child in the 80s, I found out about new Transformers from catalogues, the cross-sell leaflets packed inside Transformers, the Marvel UK comic, friends at school and, most excitingly, in an actual toy shop. Toy shops, back then, were a safari and I, armed with my pocket money, was a hunter. I was fully immersed in the thrill of the chase.
Of course, nowadays, finding out about new Transformers is a lot more passive. Instead of any kind of chase, it’s almost more like a banquet that’s presented in front of you.
Transformers news sites climb over each other at conventions to be the first to bring information and pictures of Hasbro’s and Takara’s latest offerings. It’s very intense. But is it more thrilling than the “old days” of gathering information from various sources or coming face to face with a previously unseen Transformer in a toy shop for the very first time?
During my early years of collecting, I always found that geography was my biggest barrier. There were only so many times you could visit the same local toy shops before starting to realise you could recite from memory the exact quantities and locations of their Transformers inventory.
The more of the world I saw, the more hunting grounds I came across: Finding the Predacons and Gnaw in a tiny shop in Metz, France in 1996, finding almost all of the 1992/1993 European range in Athens in 2000, and finding some Japanese Masterforce in a store called Toy Tokyo in New York in 2006. (And most recently, finding G2 Swindle in a branch of Phat Collectibles in Los Angeles in 2014.)
The advent of auction sites and online stores have, this last decade or so, vastly changed the hunting landscape. But I don’t know if they have made the chase any better.
Maybe prices of vintage Transformers wouldn’t be as expensive? Maybe scalping wouldn’t be such a big thing? Transformers certainly are easier to find, if you’re willing to pay. So whereas the hunt used to be limited by what you could find, it is now limited to what you can afford.
After all that searching, bartering, and waiting, it felt like every new Transformers toy was a trophy. It was a unique moment of peace and contentment for a split-second when all the built up desire of the chase had evaporated. It was that “new toy joy” moment when the “plastic crack” hit your bloodstream. It was a feeling of victory.
When I was much younger, the trophy of a new Transformers toy was something very special and hard earned. It was an event in itself as it only happened once every so often. Back then the experience meant so much more to me compared to my “collecting” days when the trophies were easier to earn but brought with them far less meaning.
What you do you with your trophy? Do you keep it mint and unopened (if indeed you acquired it that way)? Do you add it to your display, or do you put it in storage? Do you show friends, take photographs and share online? Did it live up to your expectations, or did it disappoint? Are you glad you finally found it, or does its arrival bring with it a feeling of regret?
In other words, what is the ending of that particular Transformers’ collecting story?
In recent years, the answer to that question has always been, to my regret, “in a storage box” or “hidden away in my toy cupboard” because I never had the space to properly display my Transformers collection how I’d imagined. It was no way at all to honour these wonderful toys.
For me, the thrill of the chase itself had been steadily declining for years. Instead of actively finding anything new, I’d been caught in a repeating cycle of pre-order, pay, receive, pre-order, pay, receive. It was like collecting on auto-pilot.
Thus the collecting stories stopped being unique, stopped being special. They became repetitive and predictable. In fact, the only truly memorable collecting story I have from the last ten years was unexpectedly finding that MOSC Swindle by pure chance in Los Angeles three years ago. It woke me up to how mindlessly I’d been buying Transformers.
After a lot of thought to the situation and figuring that there were no new collecting stories to tell (combined with several other factors) I made the decision in late 2015 that, after 30 years of collecting Transformers, I would be giving up the chase.
Chapter 20 – The Drive Home
When it comes to collecting Transformers there are many different roads to take, and over the course of the last 30 years I think I’ve been on every route imaginable.
The journey has been something wonderful and it’s taken me to places I would never have conceived of. But no matter where I’ve been, the destination has always been the same: a return to my childhood memories and all those characters I met who called the Transformers universe home.
My journey came to a halt not suddenly, but slowly. My interest in collecting Transformers toys had been waning gradually and I hadn’t been paying enough attention to notice. I was buying them but not giving them the time and attention I used to. Of those I opened, many remained untransformed and/or left with stickers unapplied. The priority I used to give them had been slowly slipping down an ever-growing to-do list.
When I gave myself time to really think about my Transformers collection, I came to realise that I couldn’t even remember the last time I intentionally bought one. I was buying new Transformers out of curiosity (e.g. to see what the ones from the movies were like), because it was the next one on the release schedule (e.g. reissues/Masterpiece), or because it was a new take on a old character (e.g. from the Binaltech/Henkei ranges). In short, I was buying Transformers while on auto-pilot.
I realised then that my hobby had turned into a habit.
What had once brought joy had now become a responsibility, a burden almost, having to take care of them and store them safely. I was more of a caretaker than a collector and it started to make less and less sense to keep them like that. Besides, a lot of them were, like me, showing their age.
What I had on my hands were memories collecting dust. I was replaying the past over and over again. I asked myself two questions: How much more will I be fortunate enough to experience? How much will I be leaving behind?
And that’s when I realised that these wonderful little plastic robots deserved better homes than I could give. I decided to sell them. It has happened as part of a larger plan to simplify life in general, to make peace with it all. All of the books, magazines, comics*, DVDs/Blu rays, CDs and other general baggage I’d accumulated consciously and unconsciously over the years went to charity. (*except my Marvel UK/US Transformers comics!)
It occurred to me that the greatest joy I ever got from my Transformers was back in the 1980s, when opening one for the first time, transforming it, reading up on its bio and tech specs, and otherwise just feeling like it was a priceless gem in my small, young hands. It was something to have fun with but not necessarily keep forever.
When I was (a lot) younger, say 9 or 10, my Transformers experience was fuelled by how much I loved the weekly Marvel comic and, back then, it was never a consideration that I would amass a collection of the toys.
I realised then, that whatever pure, distilled joy that I felt all those years ago could never be replicated or honoured with amassing a large collection. I had in my mind a handful of Transformers toys that I knew that I could never part with. The rest, not to sound too cold, had become flotsam; mostly those that I had bought on auto-pilot, the ones that, pun intended, had no spark.
I had, in the past, sold off parts of my collection (Beast Wars/Machines, Car Robots, Binaltech, Henkei, the Movie stuff) but, until now, I’d always thought that the core of my collection, the “G1 stuff”, was untouchable.
As it turned out, I felt no sense of loss once I’d started selling them. There was no pang of regret which, though it surprised me, told my instincts that I was doing the right thing. (The right thing for me, of course. I hope it goes without saying that what I’ve been describing is in no way a judgment on anyone, or their hobbies.)
Selling my Transformers was far easier than I was expecting. It was a kind of reductive process, going from least sentimental to most sentimental. (Bearing in mind that almost all of my childhood Transformers had long gone.) Reissues and duplicates and variations of characters went first, followed by latter “G1” in reverse year order until I reached the beginning.
Ending this journey hasn’t lessened my enthusiasm for the universal Transformers experience: there is still much joy to be gained from reading the comic books, from taking an online peek at the latest wonders from Hasbro/Takara, and, most especially, from chatting to like-minded friends online and at conventions.
For my 10th birthday in 1987 my dad came to visit for the day. In the morning I showed him an animated spiral pattern I’d programmed in BASIC on my ZX Spectrum Plus. When I told him how I could never save my programs properly (the audio cassette recorder I used was notoriously unreliable), he showed me that by hooking the computer up to the VCR I could “save” what I’d done by recording it onto videotape so I could re-watch the animation on the television.
In the afternoon he took me to Beatties in Nottingham and I picked out Targetmaster Cyclonus and Cutthroat. During the drive home I remember sitting by his side clutching onto my new Transformers as if I had the world in my hands. I had such an overwhelming sense of gratitude and happiness and that I was the luckiest boy in the world.
Thirty years later when I think of Transformers, that’s still how I feel.
I have kept a few Transformers toys, a few souvenirs of the journey: Metroplex*, Trypticon*, Jetfire, Soundwave, Browning, some (G2) Mini-Autobots and some Special Teams members. Each one remains a treasure. (*Along with some Smallest Transforming Transformers because, frankly, they go perfectly with the citybots!)
It’s always been about the journey, the chase, the quest… it’s been about the story. When you’re collecting stories it’s important to remember that there is every page, not just the last page, just as with life there is every day, not just the last day.
Each of my collecting stories has become a fond memory.
For all these years I’ve actually been collecting beloved characters and memories more than I’ve been collecting toys. Memories are better to be kept in the heart, not on the toy shelf.
Some time later…
It turns out that ever since I stopped collecting Transformers toys, I’ve never had so much fun with them.
No longer burdened by an unmanageable collection, I experienced a massive shift in my mindset and attitude towards Transformers. I didn’t have to worry about storing and looking after anything. I didn’t have to be so precious about accessories going missing, or plastic discolouring and ageing, or labels wearing. A weight had been lifted and I was free to enjoy Transformers as toys again.
Whoever is in charge of this universe (someone who works for Hasbro, I imagine) certainly does have a sense of humour and so made sure that the year I decided to sell my collection, the fantastic Titans Return range would be available.
Titans Return, on the whole, has been one of the best mainstream Transformers lines in recent memory. At least as far as I’ve been concerned. It has featured obscure but beloved “Generation 1” characters that I never thought would see a modern update, a wealth of new approaches to the way the robots transform and interact, and a really fun line-wide play pattern (transforming heads, connecting bases, vehicle mode cockpits). While I can appreciate these toys to a certain level, I know that younger me would have absolutely loved them!
My new, post-collecting attitude has helped. I haven’t been worried about completing a team or a set (or even an entire range), or worried about the odd paint splash, loose limb or mis-applied factory sticker.
It’s simply just been fun to enjoy something for what it is, not what I wanted it to be.
You must bear in mind that after collecting Transformers for 30 years (a habit , giving up is not something to do lightly or abruptly so a line like Titan Returns has made the transition so much smoother. (Perhaps if 2016 had been a “movie year” things would have been much, much different.)
The post-collecting toys I’ve acquired have come and gone easily, I admit. They’ve been great fun to get and to explore, and have brought much joy. The main difference between being a collector and not being a collector is that instead of ending up on a shelf or in a storage box, each toy has been moved onwards to a new home. Even this in itself has been a joy.
In many ways I’ve had the thrill of the chase, but without the burden of (permanent) ownership afterwards. Each new Titans Return figure has been a potent hit of new toy joy which has quickly left my system afterwards.
I’ve been asked many, many times if I have at all regretted selling my Transformers collection and my honest answer is no, I haven’t. Not one bit. I’m free to enjoy Transformers, moreso than I think I’ve ever done.
What does the future hold? Who knows! Maybe if I see something from any new offerings from Hasbro/Takara I’ll pick it up. Or maybe I’ll pick up something vintage from eBay to rekindle a cherished memory.
All I know is that I’m no longer tethered to the collecting mentality I had and I’m free to enjoy my hobby in whichever way I feel like.