Hot Rod was meant to be pink? They actually MADE a grey Astrotrain? What do you mean Alternators Jazz was supposed to be a Porsche?! Having begun to explore the appeal of pre-production items in the later Transformers universe last week, this week sees us go back even further in time before G2 and delving into the most holy of pre-production material, the G1 prototype. Shrouded in mystery and subject to the ravages of time, recent years have blessed us with some almighty finds and truly legendary items.
If you read last week’s instalment, by now you’ll have a pretty good idea of what makes pre-production material so valuable, rare and exceptionally sought-after to collectors of a certain ilk. Being lucky enough to own a piece of Transformers history, to know that an item in your collection once graced a board meeting at Hasbro or Takara and was a vital link in the chain between a designer’s imagination and the store shelf, cannot be quantified.
The sad fact about collecting G1 prototypes, test-shots and other such items is that there simply isn’t enough to go around. Most of these kinds of finds are made privately, when a collector is fortunate enough to track down an ex-Hasbro employee and clear out whatever they may have been holding onto for a couple of decades. Very rarely are these things dropped on eBay, so automatically they are limited to quite a small number of people in the fandom. Another restrictive feature is that there are so few of these things to begin with. The number of production toys for a particular mould, compared to the number of resin hardcopy prototypes is just incomparable.
With all that said, imagine everyone’s shock when the ex-director of Hasbro Europe Boy’s Toys division decided to throw this little beauty onto eBay UK:
This mostly yellow G1 Tracks prototype had been sitting in a cupboard somewhere in the UK for a number of years until it was auctioned relatively recently. The stamping on the toy is G1, so it’s definitely not one of those Jolly Rancher-coloured Lunchtime Specials from the reissue runs in China, this is genuine G1 pre-production gold. A find like this reminds us that no matter how many decades have passed since the glory days of G1, no matter what quantity of famous protos and unreleased gems have surfaced, you just do not know what is around the corner. The appearance of this yellow Tracks sparked a frenzy amongst proto collectors and the seller was subsequently cleaned out of his best stuff pretty sharpish. This is not a game for the procrastinator.
Prototypes from the G1 animated movie era are a wonderful niche of pre-production collecting. Since most of the moulds released during this period were brand new and not just repainted/re-tooled Diaclone or Microman moulds, a relatively significant number of hardcopies, test shots and samples have been unearthed. This has allowed us to closely follow the chronology and evolution of particular characters and toys from first concepts to final release specimens. The half-resin half-plastic Springer you see above has very clearly hand-coloured stickers and was undoubtedly used for a Toyfare or catalogue photoshoot somewhere in the past.
Other such gems from that era include a pink hardcopy Hot Rod that’s a little taller than production Hot Rod, and a Blurr that has an almost perfectly movie-accurate face sculpt. And the less we talk about Unicron prototypes, the better! It should however be mentioned that a well-known prototype dealer sold a Unicron prototype at a BotCon for a reported $11,000. Still want in?
Yet another fantastic advantage to owning or seeing prototype Transformers toys is their ability to reveal hidden modes or long-abandoned gimmicks which never made it to production. This kind of thing can really enhance one’s appreciation of a previously un-noteworthy mould, or just augment one that was already well-loved. The wheels seen on the above resin hardcopy Punch Counterpunch are a fine example, time finally revealing whispers of a third mode which never made it to the production toy.
While many types of pre-production item are massively important when it comes to charting chronology, evolution and never before seen features, sometimes certain prototype toys are desireable and valuable for no reason other than they are absolutely beautiful to look at. The clear resin Headmaster Highbrow and Hardhead above, complete with Headmaster partners, are drop-dead gorgeous. That’s not to say they don’t exhibit fascinating mould variations, they most certainly do.
A specific type of non-release item that I have a strong affinity for is the production sample. These are toys which are basically one step or less away from being actual store shelf-ready goods. The moulds are completed and perfected, the packaging might even be ready, stickers printed and the whole thing could just be awaiting the final signing-off from the person in charge. You never know what you’re going to get with a production sample, and sometimes the smallest of variations can be immensely satisfying to spot.
The Cyclonus production sample shown above is the first-release blue eared version, but you can see that the shoulder stickers still bore close resemblance to the hand-painted pink ones you find on a G1 Cyclonus box. Production Cyclonus had black shoulder stickers, this sample had the correct pattern, but a purple background. It’s always worth buying normal-looking G1 toys from a seller who’s shifting a great deal of prototypes, the focus will always be on the headline items but you never know what kind of marvel you’ll snag by veering off the beaten path.
This stunner is another giant of the Hasbro US production sample stable. Sold in mid 2003 on eBay by another former Hasbro employee, this time the American Boy’s Toy’s ex-VP, the orange-canopied Ramjet above was due to be displayed in a Hasbro museum, showcasing the whole toy-line. The orange-canopied Ramjet came with a misplaced rubsign common to all very early conehead jets, and no factory stickers on its wings. It was sold alongside a number of other packaging samples, Transformers and Diaclone. If you look at a G1 Ramjet’s stock photography on its box, you will see the first mock-ups of the toy featured an orange canopy. Knowing this toy never sat on a store shelf, but was an in-house sample only just lends it an extra air of uniqueness and its own special spot in G1 history.
Staying with the venerable coneheads, even though the basis for these moulds was Diaclone, Hasbro’s Thrust, Dirge and Ramjet had all new wings for their 1985 Transformers release. Amongst the same lot of precious items that the hardcopy G1 movie prototypes and G2 hand-painted mock-ups were found in, were a set of unpainted and painted resin wing prototypes for Thrust, Dirge and Ramjet. What is phenomenal about these are that they are greater in length than production Dirge and Ramjet wings, just look at how much space there is between the larger and smaller Dirge wings! You can see an array of prototype weapons for the aforementioned coneheads too. How about that for a slice of history?
Going back further still…
Considering the fact that Smokescreen was my first childhood G1 car, imagine the significance of being lucky enough to own one of the actual Diaclone samples of the Fairlady Racing toy that was sent from Takara to Hasbro to evaluate its suitability and viability for the Transformers line! Found in the possession of an ex-Hasbro employee (again), the toy has had Diaclone-specific stickers hand-removed, the offending areas coloured in manually and hand-written notes are scribbled on the toy where Autobot stickers would eventually be placed. A true marvel, an actual pre-production item with direct and traceable Diaclone roots. Other such samples include a pre-Grapple, pre-Swoop and even a couple of Diaclone-mould Blitzwings in Transformers colours in a Diaclone box, sporting the same “SAMPLE” sticker.
Whether it’s a wood-carving of a possible toy concept, a few sheets of paper that indicate the existence of unreleased toys for a particular sub-line, uncropped and uncoloured original packaging artwork or an unapproved packaging sample, pre-production items are a priceless treasure in this hobby. These toys and their peripherals provide answers to age old questions, keys to mysteries long hidden and revelations beyond compare. With a finite amount of material out there, and so much recently discovered, the already rarefied atmosphere of the prototype collector’s universe is becoming an increasingly competitive, expensive and surreal place. But, honestly, who cares how difficult it is to be a proto collector or how much coin needs to be spent when the rewards are as earth-shattering as this…
There you have it, the appeal of pre-production in one picture.
Huge thanks to Ras, Quint Gremmen, Paul Hitchens and David Duca for sharing their treasures, and to Esteban ‘Crazysteve’ De Anda, who some of us still remember was the first to coin the phrase “lunchtime specials”!
All the best