Between late 1984 and 1986, Hasbro released a series of Transformers characters in North America and Europe that never saw release in Japan as “Transformers”, despite previously being available as part of other Japanese toy lines. These non-Japan Transformers became known in the Western world as Jetfire, Deluxe Vehicles and Deluxe Insecticons. Another thing that all of these toys had in common was that they were not manufactured by Hasbro or Takara.
When we think of Pre-Transformers, thoughts of Takara’s Diaclone and Micro Change Series toys are conjured up. However, the toys mentioned above were manufactured by other companies like Toybox, Takatoku, Bandai and even Matsushiro, and they make up some of the lesser-known Pre-Transformers for whom Hasbro purchased the licence to release as Transformers, albeit with a few significant changes. The title of the article is a little misleading as not all of the aforementioned characters were released under the “Deluxe” banner, but they certainly were extra special.
As far as Generation 1 Transformers go, the Autobot Air Guardian Jetfire is possibly the most beautiful of them all in-package. The mould for Jetfire originates from the Japanese toy line and series The Super Dimension Fortress Macross. The original Macross toys were manufactured by Takatoku, and after they went under in 1984, rights were eventually acquired by Bandai. Jetfire is based on the 1:55 Super VF-1S variable fighter or “Valkyrie” (even has “Valkrie” (sic) on the packaging) and the box also has gold Tatsunoko Productions stickers on the box front in the bottom right corner (and on the back occasionally), the company responsible for distribution of the Macross series.
While it’s true that some Macross toys were brought over to the Western world under Matchbox’s Robotech banner, due to licensing issues this mould could not be released as a Transformers toy by Takara in Japan as it was by Hasbro abroad. Changes were made to the moulding of course, the nosecone was rounded, the colour scheme had a great deal more red added to it to represent Autobot colours and the missile-firing handgun was neutered. The colour scheme for Jetfire greatly resembles the VF-1S Strike Valkyrie from Macross, moreso than the Super Valkyrie where the mould originates. The robot antennae were also remoulded for the more common Bandai Transformers Jetfires.
Unrivalled beauty in every mode has helped elevate Jetfire to legendary status among a lot of Transformers collectors, aided by his size and excellent posability for the time. In the G1 cartoon he was called “Skyfire” and his animation model was significantly different to the iconic VF-1S appearance of the Jetfire toy, due again to understandable licensing issues. While Jetfire is often cited as being a 1985 release, he was actually available from some retailers in late 1984. There is also a well-known Matsushiro-manufactured Transformers variant of Jetfire with Macross-style antennae and even a UN Spacy logo on the wings.
Macross wasn’t the only Takatoku-manufactured Japanese series that Hasbro drew moulds from to pad out the 1985 Transformers selection, Autobot Deluxe Vehicles Whirl and Roadbuster came from Takatoku’s Special Armored Battalion Dorvack line. Whirl was originally the Ovelon Gazzette VH-64 MR. The toy was recoloured for Transformers and it can be seen in its packaging above, the original figure being a darker blue with light grey robot head and elbows. The “AP” sticker next to Whirl’s name/function bar stands for Ashi Productions, the animation studio that worked in cooperation with Fuji TV to produce the series between 1983 and 1984 in Japan.
Boasting a very particular robot aesthetic quite different to much of what the Transformers were offering at the time, Whirl is a quite standout figure. The Wreckers stories and IDW’s More Than Meets The Eye comic series has helped raise this toy’s popularity greatly, but even before I had started reading the series I finally got my hands on one this year and found the toy to be really enjoyable to display. Because of the obvious licensing clash with the Dorvack series and toys in Japan, Whirl could not be offered as a Takara-released Transformers toy in Japan.
Autobot Ground Assault Commander Roadbuster is the second toy from the Transformers line to be taken from Dorvack, and he has almost as many words in his function title as he does accessories! Roadbuster boasts one of the smallest accessories ever available with a vintage Transformers toy; his Infrared Range Finder. As a Dorvack toy, Roadbuster was originally called the Mugen Calibur VV-54 AR and was more orange and yellow, compared to the green/orange of his Transformers successor.
Roadbuster’s snap-on armour is reminiscent of Jetfire’s, not surprising as they hail from Takatoku designs. If you’ve never owned or seen these Deluxe vehicles in the flesh, their proportions and size may surprise, the boxes are especially spacious. You can see from his packaging that Roadbuster also sports the “AP” Ashi Productions sticker on the packaging. The stickersheets for these non-Takara moulds are all quite similar too, often having many smaller decals and being transparent with fine detailing.
It wasn’t just Autobots who got the deluxe treatment back in 1985, the Decepticon ranks needed some padding out too beyond Soundwave and his minions, the triplechangers, the coneheads and Shockwave. Once again Hasbro got their hands on Takatoku moulds licensed to Japanese animation studios and distributors for release as Transformers in the West. These figures would come to be known as Deluxe Insecticons, four extra insect warriors to add to the three Takara-designed Diaclone Insecter robo moulds that made up the first 3 Insecticons.
Venom, Chop Shop, Barrage and Ransack were never released as Transformers in Japan, but they did see release in North America and parts of Europe. The series that these moulds hail from was called Armored Insect Battalion Beetras where Venom was “Beet Zeguna”, Chop Shop was “Beet Gugal”, Barrage was “Beet Gadol” and Ransack was “Beet Vadam”. Of great interest was the fifth character, a female insect ladybird called “Beet Papil” that never made it past the prototype stage for an official release, probably due to Takatoku’s demise.
Now Beet Papil was not the only Beetras insect from the series that wasn’t released in Japan, even the pre-Ransack “Beet Vadam” didn’t make it to an official release in Japan, so the Transformers Ransack is the first official release of the mould for whom prototypes and production samples probably already existed and were no doubt part of Hasbro’s acquisition of the rights. You may also have spotted the “AM” sticker on the packaging for these Deluxe Insecticons. So, what does that stand for?
“AM” stands for ArtMic, another Japanese animation studio responsible for working on Beetras in Japan, and again making it clear why these toys were not featured in Sunbow’s Transformers cartoons or released in Japan as Transformers. The “AM” stickers in theory should have been on all Deluxe Insecticons, US, Canadian or European release. The 1984 Beetras series never had a cartoon or a movie, but the paperwork from the three released toys is quite lovely indeed, and the Beetras toys sported the same translucent detailed stickersheet decals as the other Takatoku-based moulds.
The original Beetras insects weren’t the same colour as the Transformers Deluxe Insecticons, Beet Gugal (Chop Shop) had a dark grey and white deco, Beet Zeguna (Venom) had a grey/brown motif instead of green/orange and Beet Gadol (Barrage) was originally brownish/grey colour, very different from the green and yellow of the Transformers version. Beet Vadam (Ransack) would have had a light brown and grey scheme, going off Beetras paperwork.
There are of course other characters in the Transformers universe that never saw release in Japan as an Autobot or Decepticon under Takara’s banner, toys like Omega Supreme. Omega was originally the Mechabot-1, mostly grey and red and manufactured by Toybox. Sky Lynx was not available in Japan and neither were the movie Targetmasters Hot Rod, Kup, Blurr, Cyclonus and Scourge – but at least reissues have addressed some of those gaps.
Look at how fervently Western collectors hunt down Japanese exclusive colours of particular moulds like Stepper and Artfire or white Astrotrain, or exclusive moulds from later series like Masterforce, Victory and Zone. I do wonder if Japanese collectors hold toys like Whirl, Roadbuster and the Deluxe Insecticons in such high regard. We can often be guilty of not appreciating the Transformers that we got in lieu of what Japan received with their exclusives, but we didn’t do too badly over here did we?
Many kind and gracious thanks to Bryce Rutledge, Jon Krause and Mijo for their fantastic photographic contributions, to Jeremy Kaufmann for clarifications and info, and to Botch The Crab for the 1985 box art.
All the best