Cowards play it safe. Think of a breakthrough artist whose first album showed glimmers of massive potential including an unforgettable debut hit that will be chanted in stadiums forever. The second album builds on that potential shown to establish the band as something special, but then comes the difficult third album where a crossroads is reached. Do you go for the same winning formula and hope people don’t get bored, or do you experiment with a new sound and risk losing your core followers? For their Transformers Binaltech line, Takara most definitely chose to experiment and be bold, not afraid to take risks and last-minute decisions. How are these choices remembered?
The last two installments of our Binaltech article series have looked at the launch releases BT-01 to BT-04 and then the follow-up set of releases BT-05 to BT-08 where more big-hitters were re-imagined as modern day vehicles and added to the line. This time we’re concentrating on Binaltech’s difficult ‘third album’ whose residents divided opinion across the community, every single one of its four controversial releases still creating discussion to this day, almost a decade on. Let the limelight shine, then, on Transformers Binaltech BT-09 to BT-12.
~ BT-09 Swindle ~
A repaint it may be, but what a repaint. The second Destron (Decepticon) to feature in the Binaltech series, the Combaticon Swindle, was a remould of BT-04 Hound featuring Jeep Wrangler. Swindle is cast in yellow and purple, not entirely dissimilar to his G1 counterpart, making him immediately more eye-catching than Hound – an achievement aided greatly by shiny chrome wheels and bull bar. Swindle’s package came with the wonderful collector’s card, instruction/story booklet, opinion slip and a small piece of paperwork highlighting a correction to his instructions all seen above.
Another faithfully produced alternate vehicle mode, once they had decided to go with Swindle for BT-09 the choice of vehicle could never have been anything else. At least the added bull-bar distinguishes him slightly from Hound. At this stage I had still not gone full-metal-completist on Binaltech so it was my first exposure to the Jeep mould having skipped Hound. I found Swindle so brilliant that I purchased Hound straight after.
As with BT-04, Swindle has no steering mechanism for the wheels but the suspension is spring-loaded and very hard to resist messing with, and he has a detailed vehicle interior. He also has the flip-around Decepticon insignia on the hood which is delightfully subtle – even if the licence plate gives the game away. Another feature that distinguishes Swindle from Hound is the tyres; larger in size with a more aggressive tread pattern.
This mould was really an eye-opener in terms of what contemporary toy technology could do for Transformers poseability and presentation, keeping in mind at the time I only collected G1 and had a handful of Japanese Car Robots toys. What Swindle could do with his ankles was awesome, and only the looseness in one hip joint and restricted shoulder movement were limiting play value and imagination.
The head sculpt was arguably one of the best to date for the line, insanely reminiscent of Generation 1 with a glorious purple visor. This remould was originally meant to be reserved for the Autobot Trailbreaker, but was seemingly switched to Swindle (who the story depicts as one of the main reasons for the Binaltech Project’s inception) for reasons such as balancing out the Decepticon vs Autobot ranks and trademarking concerns surrounding the use of the name “Trailbreaker”. This rankles to this day with many collectors who feel Takara ignored a number of important Autobot cars in favour of others awkwardly shoehorned into the line, but I’m not one of them. I’m happy to stand up and say I’d take this Swindle over Trailbreaker for a Jeep Wrangler Sport any day of the week.
~ BT-10 Grimlock ~
New mould, new car manufacturer, new direction. If last minute decisions to make Sunstreaker and Trailbreaker into Dead End and Swindle respectively caused a few eyebrows to be raised, it was nothing compared to the reaction evoked by BT-10 Grimlock featuring a Ford Mustang GT. What started out as an Autobot car series started expanding to involve Decepticon Scramble City vehicle combiner parts, and finally made the leap to experimenting with non-vehicle character inclusion like the Dinobot leader Grimlock. Heads turned, jaws dropped, fuses were lit.
The Ford Mustang has been a staple of the American muscle car industry for decades, and there isn’t exactly a canyon’s breadth between the animalistic, powerful and muscular heritage of the Mustang and the Dinobot leader Grimlock. As far as the vehicle mode goes, it cannot be faulted. The (then) new Mustang is a supremely attractive vehicle and the simple and sleek silver deco on this mould is easy to appreciate. Getting Ford on board with the Binaltech project was a real victory, as Takara and Hasbro’s later use of the Ford GT demonstrated. It wasn’t the last time a Mustang would be chosen as a Transformer either, the 2007 Michael Bay-directed Transformers live action movie cast Decepticon Barricade as a Saleen Mustang.
The fact is, once Takara had decided to make a car out of Grimlock, they could not have made a better choice. The colour fits, the macho image of the Mustang fits, the general perceived lack of finesse but considerable brute force of the vehicle fits, so they cannot be hauled up on that one. BT-10 Grimlock has the signature Binaltech detailed interior, opening doors, trunk and hood, and the steering is operated by an interlocking tab system not unlike that seen on Tracks. There’s a decent amount of die cast that lends considerable weight to the Binaltech release too.
You can’t mention BT-10 Grimlock, though, without mentioning all the points that his detractors have voiced down the years. The transformation is probably the hardest of all the Binaltechs to get right without becoming overcome with frustration or being drowned in arms and doors that pop off their ball joints. Once mastered though, it is very enjoyable and rewarding. The head sculpt seen on Grimlock is a gorgeous and thoughtful hybrid of the more detailed animation model and the G1 toy.
At this stage Takara would undoubtedly have lost some of the faith and support of those who were insisting that the Binaltech series should feature only Autobot or Decepticon characters who were traditionally cast as vehicles in Generation 1, leaving the rest to the Masterpiece line. To insist upon that is to ignore the effort that has gone into BT-10, the lovely sword, the handgun with nods to Grimlock’s G1 double-barreled hand weapon, and his quite impressive overall presentation and respectable poseability. One cannot deny that he looks fierce, as Grimlock should. This was a brave release, and I accept that some just don’t get it or like it, but falling parts and trailing skirt aside, I found BT-10 to be a welcomed carnivorous breath of fresh air – a successful flirtation with experimentation.
~ BT-11 Ravage ~
Now, BT-10 Grimlock tested collectors’ dedication and faith in the direction Binaltech was taking, but 2005’s BT-11 Ravage flat-out challenged them to give up on it completely. With the four Binaltech releases that immediately followed BT-06, 07 and 08 where repaints/variants were available of each character, BT-09 to BT-12 were only available in the one scheme or variant – meaning each release really had to do the business and justify its place in what was an extremely popular and highly-scrutinised series. Ravage certainly received his fair share of scrutiny and criticism.
I always got the feeling that unlike BT-10 Grimlock, the grumbling about Ravage had less to do about a traditionally non-vehicle character being re-cast in Transformers as a car, and more to do with the execution of the character’s representation within the series. Certainly nobody could fault the vehicle mode on BT-11 once they had come to terms with the fact that Ravage was to be a car, I mean, just look at it.
Yeah, we all know what’s coming, but we’re going to wait for it. First we simply have to appreciate the quite exquisite vehicle mode on BT-11 Ravage, taking Tracks’s popular Corvette C5 Z06 mould and painting it black, then losing the roof. The grey launchers that can be seen with the doors open are most reminiscent of the Diaclone black Corvette that had grey parts, and Ravage has other significant sections that are grey too, a very gentle nod towards that most infamous of pre-Transformers black Corvettes.
The real success of this figure, besides its stunning vehicle mode, lies in Hirofumi Ichikawa’s back-story. To quote from my TF-1 article on Ravage “The story is that ex-members of an intelligence and information agency (“Triple-I”) happened across a capsule, or what they thought was a capsule, from a prehistoric site dig. It turns out that the capsule was in fact a flight recorder from the future, belonging to the Ravage in the Beast Wars series. That Ravage has been referred to as “X-9”. Those ex-members of Triple-I managed to set up a correspondence with Ravage/X-9 and in exchange for technology and info from the future, they agreed to provide X-9 with a new body. The Binaltech Corvette body was born and the original cassette/jaguar Ravage (who was being held by the EDC – Earth Defense Command) was forced to remain in stasis lock as a cassette in the Binaltech chassis’ dashboard in order to provide a spark for the whole entity…Despite security precautions, Ravage was able to overcome his latest ‘allies’, kill them and be free to do as he pleased, planning to change the future”.
Your eyes are not deceiving you, this is a Decepticon black Tracks with a cat head. Admittedly, the Ravage head-sculpt is a thoughtful hybrid of the cartoon animation model and the G1 toy – much as Grimlock’s was – and the colours are superbly contrasting. But the simple inclusion of a Decepticon insignia and Ravage’s head does not a new character make, at least that was the argument from the naysayers. Maybe he could have had claws, a different chest, remoulded weapons – it was a perceived lack of effort that frustrated a number of collectors. I am admittedly biased, and the vehicle mode and back-story impressed me greatly, so I can love this toy, I really can. That said, vehicle mode display only for BT-11 Ravage, even if he is the only Binaltech with a moderately articulated jaw.
So far, our ‘third album’ had dished up 2 repaints/remoulds and 1 new manufacturer mould, but with controversy surrounding last-minute character changes, odd characters squeezed into vehicle modes and a growing divide in collector appreciation of this new experimental tangent. What came next was a resounding reminder to all about the powerful tools at the disposal of Takara and the Binaltech designers, a total gem and an emphatic return to form.
~ BT-12 Overdrive ~
Thank you Takara and Honda Japan, thank you for BT-12 Overdrive. Thank you for the drop-dead gorgeous paint finish and application all over this Honda S2000, for the mega-long-barreled weapon that acts as a drive shaft with no fear of legal or safety ramifications, and thank you for a wonderful new original mould with an excellent transformation, robot mode, for injecting some fresh blood and excitement back into Transformers Binaltech at just the right time. I always loved Alternators, and I owned and adored my Hasbro Windcharger (copyright issues with “Overdrive”), but BT-12 is one of those that completely deserved its higher price tag as a Binaltech import.
Overdrive featured magnetic axle-assisted steering, detailed interior, interchangeable rasied and dropped soft-top roof. The compact and fetching vehicle mode was, as with almost all Binaltechs, a victory. Opening doors, trunk and hood are welcomed inclusions, and the drive shaft/engine block that doubles up as a long-barrel sniper rifle is absolutely wonderful, inspiring a horde of collectors to order reproductions for their Hasbro Alternators Windchargers (and later Decepticharges).
One of the nicest things about Overdrive is that, like BT-08 Meister, it’s very easy and highly satisfying to transform the same way – back and forth- time and again achieving the same correctly fitting panels and completed look. The choice of displaying Overdrive with the roof up or down also elevates him above BT-11 Ravage and BT-02 Lambor in that respect, the level of detail and care that went into this release could easily have seen Overdrive follow up Smokescreen successfully as a flagship early Binaltech release.
I’m going to mention the downsides first to get them out of the way, so I can continue waxing lyrical about this tremendous figure. The die cast metal shoulders can occasionally sag under their own weight but as you can see, it isn’t a constant issue. Secondly, there is some limited leg articulation, but the final picture in this article shows you can still have a mighty amount of fun posing Overdrive. The upsides should be screaming at you from the pictures; great proportions and a faithful Overdrive head sculpt with correctly-assembled visor, crisp colour contrast and eye-catching presentation in robot mode with sharply distinguished features and while the shield looks great (only Binaltech mould with a shield accessory), one wonders how much that fabric could protect him from. That rifle is simply epic too. This majestic figure is the absolute highlight of this chapter of Transformers Binaltech, and one that held great excitement for me when I got the chance to photograph and enjoy it again.
This short period of time that saw Binaltech BT-09 through BT-12 get released is not usually held in as high regard as the early period featuring big-hitters like Smokescreen, Streak, Hound, Dead End, Tracks and Meister, and that is the collecting community’s loss if that opinion remains prevalent. The gutsy approach and risk-taking that Takara employed in introducing such controversial characters is often the reason this section of the toy line is remembered, but one should never forget that we got four spectacularly well-presented vehicles that suited their chosen characters perfectly, two completely new moulds and manufacturers on board, and in BT-12 Overdrive a reminder of just what wonders this unforgettable chapter in Transformers history could conjure up. Takara dared, and we won.
All the best