When Transformers collectors speak about Generation 1, the rose-tinted glasses come out and nostalgia colours perceptions. The technology employed at the time of manufacture is now appreciated for what it was in the grand scheme of things, and the figures that made up the line are enjoyed as venerable icons. When collectors now speak of Binaltech, they’re sometimes described as “ahead of their time” or ”vastly outdated thanks to modern Masterpiece”, but almost a decade on from their inaugural release, is it not time for perception to shift and for Binaltech to be appreciated for what it was instead of how it ranks on such technical levels to what is available today or how well it replicated what had gone before? No more modern comparisons, no more damning analysis. It’s time to give the Binaltech project and concept credit for what it did and tried to do so well.
So, what did it do well? That would be taking G1 characters (Autobots and Decepticons) and casting them as contemporary 1:24 scale die cast model cars that transformed into (mostly) highly poseable robots that referenced and homaged Generation 1, while not ever claiming to recreate or copy it, despite the degree to which some fans wanted it to. So far we’ve looked at Binaltech BT-01 to BT-04, then BT-05 to BT-08 and last week we spotlighted BT-09 to BT-12. A growing voice within the collecting community was bemoaning the use of traditionally non-vehicle characters by Takara for this series, and that started to detract from the support Binaltech was receiving, but those who fell away were about to miss one of the richest veins of form this series ever hit.
~ BT-13 Laserwave ~
It is a credit to BT-13 Laserwave (Shockwave) that even as a repaint, a character that was originally a giant space laser gun but who now lives in a Mazdaspeed RX-8 verision II, he ranks higher on most collectors’ top 5 Binaltechs list than some of the more unique Binaltech toys with original moulds. When a repaint/remould is done this well, the arguments about original alternate mode and relevance just evaporate. Laserwave was the fourth Destron Binaltech, and just like Dead End, Ravage and Swindle, he was released as a remould instead of an original mould. Display stand is white, indicative of an evil Binaltech (Swindle being the exception).
Even though we’re only talking about a change of colour to sparkly deep purple, new black rims, a front splitter, rear wing and diffuser (a bodykit basically), Laserwave looks dramatically different to BT-08 Meister. As with Ravage and Dead End, Takara have nailed the menacing look of a Decepticon vehicle without the need for obvious insignias visible in this mode. The compact and well-fitting vehicle feel is carried over from Meister, maintaining the RX-8 mould as one of the finest of the Binaltech line. The cold-to-the-touch die cast sections fuel the feeling of evil beneath.
Binaltech Laserwave has one of the most meaningful alternate modes ever assigned to this character since G1, and the readiness with which people were willing to accept Shockwave as a car speaks volumes – although one could argue that Swindle, Grimlock and Ravage had laid the groundwork for this acceptance and softened any blow. However, nobody could question the execution, presentation or attraction of BT-13. Functional magnetic-axle steering is standard, not optional, as are opening doors, hood and trunk. While it is easy to spend hours admiring Laserwave’s vehicle mode (as it is with most Binaltechs), the magic really happens when you transform him to robot mode.
The excellent RX-8 mould’s transformation is simply one more top tier quality that this release can boast, and I would argue that Laserwave suits this mould and body even more than Meister/Jazz does. The head sculpt has virtually no over-the-top embellishments to add more menace or evil feel, it accomplishes the above perfectly by sticking to basics and the original Shockwave aesthetic. Proportions are absolutely nailed, with the possible exception of his laser arm which does feel a tad on the diminutive side, maybe if it came as a separate attachment they could have allowed for it to be more imposing.
The only thing missing from this successful robot mode is the wire/cable feature which is so iconic for the original Shockwave – but I applaud the designers for keeping what they have, and not going overboard with what they didn’t. Colours are stunning but subtle, a good example being the purple detaling on the thighs and shins. I believe from the moment this character was seen as an unpainted Alternators test shot, the anticipation began to grow. BT-13 Laserwave did the impossible for me, it followed BT-12 Overdrive and raised the overall Binaltech standard. This could easily and justifiably be considered as the point at which the series collectively peaked – or rather – its purple patch.
~ BT-14 Wheeljack ~
One of the increasingly common complaints that was surfacing about the Binaltech line at this point was that of missing Autobots (Cybertrons). If you’re going to do a line of Transformers that focuses solely on modern day automobiles, surely there are some unmissable Autobot characters that have to take their bow as a Binaltech before the likes of Swindle, Grimlock, Dead End, Laserwave and Overdrive? Wheeljack was one of those characters, having been a huge part of the original Autobot crew, and his spark graced the Street Tuning repaint of the Ford Mustang GT mould first seen on BT-10 Grimlock.
Just as with BT-08 Meister, BT-14 Wheeljack throws up arguments about his Binaltech appearance compared to his G1 toy appearance. Wheeljack was originally an Alitalia-sponsored Lancia Stratos Turbo, featuring a heavily red and green livery on a white car. While the white Ford Mustang GT Street Tuning mould used for Wheeljack in Binaltech is the same base colour, his blue racing stripe decorations were subject to customisation and reprolabelling by many collectors as they felt that better represented the character. Those customs look fabulous, but since when has a character been defined by sponsorship decals, and since when has Binaltech been about sticking to the G1 bible of appearance?
Having mounted a defence for Takara’s use of this vehicle as Wheeljack, I do understand where the detractors are coming from. This was always a hugely popular original character, and some will feel that assigning him to one of the most frustrating moulds in the series was ill-advised. However, the Lancia Stratos Turbo was far from delicate, so a powerful and beefy Mustang is not inappropriate for Wheeljack. Blue stripes on white are classic Ford and classic Mustang – Alitalia colours would be nonsensical on this car, instead it has an accurate livery that respects the talismanic Mustang’s – and Ford’s - automotive heritage. Plus, it looks tremendous as a vehicle, really attention-grabbing. It should also be mentioned that the remould of the Mustang GT mould has been shown in conceptual drawings to have been pitched as a convertible, and shown at one stage with a head sculpt intended for a Windcharger character. That name and head sculpt were eventually used elsewhere.
There’s not a lot wrong with Wheeljack in either mode, it’s an attention-grabbing colour scheme and mould, the vehicle is attractive and the robot mode is far from plain, with good poseability. It’s a figure that I enjoyed holding and posing – but to be honest not transforming. Yes, I know the transformation steps from Grimlock, and with practice you can reduce the number of times you have to reattach the arms or doors, but this was definitely the Binaltech I spent the least time with when I first bought them all. That said, once it was out of the box and displayed, I could rarely take my eyes off it. Even when the photography for this article was done, I just looked at it for a while and posed it differently, even having to set up the photo equipment again for a few better shots.
The fact that he retains Grimlock’s exact weaponry is maybe slightly odd, I’ve never thought it particularly true to Wheeljack’s character for him to have a sword but I understand its inclusion fully – and it’s better to have it than not. The head sculpt is gorgeous, that’s another thing I can’t pick on. I do wonder if they could have engineered it so that the car floor would split in robot mode, allowing both halves to be rotated upwards to act as Wheeljack’s traditional robot wings behind his head. So while there are some really good things about this release, and he really does fit, I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was spectacular in any way.
~ BT-15 Prowl ~
BT-15 saw Takara take the Binaltech line into yet another new and unexpected direction, making noticeable changes to the outer and inner packaging of the toys. The box for BT-15 Prowl was somehow less robotic/futuristic, and now featured images of the toy in a real-life city street setting. The apertures on the sides of the box were no longer like that of a circular mechanical airlock, but rather square windows. The retro style that was being used for the name/function bar was also ditched in favour of a more sedate style of presentation. Furthermore, the display stand included with the toy was now a mellow sky blue vista instead of the typical Transformers grid-style pattern stand emblazoned with TF and manufacturer logos. It was almost as though Takara were trying extra hard to push the real-life aspect of these releases as well-scaled and faithfully reproduced contemporary road cars as the main selling point, instead of just an added bonus feature of a transforming robot toy line. Thankfully, the paperwork remained the same and we still got the excellent collector’s card and accompanying booklet.
Having spoken about the packaging and inserts, let’s now concentrate on the toy and character, and what a major Transformers character it is, the Autobot strategist Prowl. It’s also a major vehicle choice too, the Honda Integra Type R. Honda’s Type R range is incredibly well known and respected in motoring circles, thanks to the Integra and its previous iterations as well the the different Civic and NSX Type Rs that have helped put Japanese performance cars on the map. Prowl was released in two variants, the Japanese police car complete with gold Asahikage insignias and Japanese lettering, as well as a signature Type R colour scheme – Vivid Blue Pearl. Now, Type Rs are better known for being plain white, contrasting well with the red Type R logo, but Takara certainly couldn’t release two white versions of Prowl, so we got the next best thing. Notice also that like BT-08, each variant has its own personalised box photography.
Prowl comes with working steering and opening hood, trunk and doors. The mould does suffer quite badly from weak wing mirrors though, and they have been known to peel off with the slightest provocation on both the police and Vivid Blue Pearl version. The police Prowl photographed above is actually my second one, I gave away my first one because of this very issue. One major difference between the Japanese Binaltech and the Hasbro Alternator (other than the Japanese police vs G1 style Autobot Prowl deco) is that the Binaltech is based on the Honda Integra Type R, whereas the Alternator is based on the RSX by Acura, which is Honda’s US performance car arm. The Acura Hasbro Prowl has the manufacturer insignia on the front grill instead of the Asahikage, and doesn’t have the picnic table rear spoiler like the Integra, and different rims. The Hasbro Prowl also has a baby blue colour for many of the robot parts, but Binaltech Prowl is mostly grey in robot mode – a vast improvement. Speaking of robot mode:
BT-15 Prowl’s robot mode has an equal number of strengths as weaknesses. Because of the lack of hood decoration, the police version can look a little plain whereas the Vivid Blue Pearl edition looks more complete. However, add some weapons and Prowl’s V-Tec engine/gun and translucent red baton make him appear quite the aggressor. The head sculpt does the Prowl dynasty proud, and the look of the feet and body in general makes me feel that Takara were going for a ‘man in uniform’ motif. It must be said that the lack of leg and knee articulation – mainly due to obstruction – can be quite frustrating. The creamy-white plastic shoulders also do not contrast particularly well with the painted and die cast sections of the body. This is a lovely robot toy to hold in your hands, and it’s just a shame that the articulation doesn’t allow you to pose it the way your imagination demands.
I love what Takara did with Binaltech Prowl, I simply can’t tell you how much I love this release. And all of this despite a robot mode that lacks a lot of the articulation of its peers, despite the change in packaging putting BT-15 (and later BT-16) out of sync with the previous releases and despite the bits that pop off during transformation. I love it because I think in many ways Prowl embodies what’s great about Binaltech. Takara resisted covering the car in “Highway Patrol”, “POLICE” and age-old Japanese police car symbols just because G1 Prowl sported those stripes (although the Alternator does look nice). They stayed true to modern vehicles, and they didn’t bow to the pressure of history in making Prowl a repaint of Streak – in other words, another Subaru Impreza. In addition to that, undoubtedly as a result of a manufacturer licensing agreement, they released a second version in a beautiful colour allowing car enthusiasts to enjoy a fully road going and unaltered version of the Integra Type R. Either you are someone who likes vehicles like the Type R, Impreza, Lancer, RX-7, Supra etc, or you are not. I grew up on Gran Turismo, so this was pure heaven to me.
~ BT-16 Skids ~
Little did we know, but the glorious BT-16 Skids featuring Toyota bB X Version would mark the end of the original Binaltech series concept as we knew it – maybe not officially, but certainly in a lot of respects. Skids saw release around late 2005, and we wouldn’t see BT-17 until 2007. Skids was also the last Binaltech toy to come with the lovely collector’s card and detailed booklet. BT-16 had the same new type of packaging as Prowl with the real world street vehicle feel, and the same plain display stand. As the line went on hiatus indefinitely after the Skids release, Prowl and Skids remain the only two Binaltech toys to be offered in this style of packaging. A lovely addition to this set is the stickersheet which allowed the owner to decorate Skids in Alternators-style flame decals or G1-style red stripes. It even contained a Japanese new driver “Wakaba / Shoshinsha (new leaf)” badge.
There’s no understating the significance of BT-16 Skids, this toy was a major victory for Binaltech – moreso the collectors and fans than Takara itself I guess. First of all, we got a non-sports car mould and another major manufacturer on board, the biggest in the world actually, Toyota. And not just any new mould, but a simply brilliant mould and an excellent toy. I truly did not expect to be so taken with this figure but it’s one of the finest Binaltech moulds of the lot – and I had an Alternators test shot before the lovingly finished Binaltech which I thought was better than some BTs! The Scion, at the time, was described as the kind of vehicle you might see on Pimp My Ride, but BT-16 looks classy, clean and makes the lack of Alternators flame decals look anything but plain.
There’s such a lovely gloss on this figure, and even though it doesn’t have windtunnel-sculpted curves, it is supremely easy on the eye. All doors and sections open up nicely, but no, there is no scooter. The Scion doesn’t come with one, and therefore neither does Skids. While the relatively obscure choice of character meant that big name Autobot cars such as Ironhide, Ratchet, Sunstreaker and Mirage were still left unaccounted for, his inclusion at this stage of the line was entirely justified by his execution.
Skids’s transformation was perfect, and to my memory the only Binaltech that actually required you to extend his legs, how retro! The folding of the roof/backpack and connection to the chest is complicated, no doubt, and made doubly difficult by the omission of a major step in the instructions. Get it right, and the robot mode is divine. The only let-downs are slightly weak ankle joints that can cause toppling under the die cast weight of his chest and the tendency of the front seats to fall off. For all my trumpeting about how Binaltech is its own toy line and not G1 recreated, Skids harks back to his Honda City Turbo roots quite frequently with the addition of those stripe decals, his overall robot mode look and design. I should say that I am highly fond of the Alternators Skids too with its flame decals and slightly different paint application on the head – which I might add is a terrific sculpt.
At the time I don’t think any of us appreciated just how spoilt we were with Binaltech, and the strength in depth of the series even at this late stage where Takara were wrapping up activity on this project for a while was impressive. Prowl and especially Skids were worthy new moulds, and the introduction of Wheeljack and Prowl brought real gravity to the line-up, as did the simply unrivalled execution of the awe-inspiring Laserwave. Wheeljack was no weak link, not at all, but compared to the other three anything less than perfect was going to stand out. For years since then we’ve received toys with non-descript alt modes or make-believe vehicles loosely based on real life automobiles, but trying very hard to drag G1 kicking and screaming into the modern day. The new Masterpiece Autobot car sub-line is the best and worst thing that could have happened to the memory of Binaltech line as it has forced unfair comparison of G1-reproducing credentials upon these gems, but at the same time allowed them to be appreciated for precisely what they were and are. If Binaltech was to go out with BTs 13-16, at least it was going out in some considerable style.
All the best