How do you make something that’s already mega-popular even more collectible? That’s right! Make it smaller and give it a number, gotta catch ’em all. The Autobot cars remain to this day one of the most loved and pursued sub-categories of Transformers collecting. Combine that with the fever for Japanese-style packaging, and you’ve got an instant hit with collectors.
In 1985 Takara finally unleashed The Transformers upon the Japanese public, featuring an interesting selection of differently-packaged Cybertrons (Autobots) and Destrons (Decepticons) than that seen in the US. Different how, you ask?
The big boss himself, 01 “Convoy” as he was called in Japan, is as good a place to start as any. A styrofoam insert tray is nothing new here, but there’s no main box flap as there was with the US Transformers Optimus Prime. Could this box design come from somewhere else?
Let’s look at some cars…
In fact, yes, this style of packaging does hail from somewhere else. This is especially noticeable and traceable from the actual Autobot car packaging, specifically the styrofoam insert trays which were not used in the US, Canada or UK. These types of insert, used instead of plastic bubbles in larger outer boxes, were first utilised by Takara with these moulds for the Japanese Diaclone Car Robo selection starting in 1983. Compared to Japan, the Autobot car packaging used in countries like the US and UK wasted quite a lot of space, especially when it came to the paperwork and accessories which required their own compartment separate from where the toy itself was packaged and displayed. In the 80s Japan was all about optimising space and size, based on their relatively low amount of land, housing and retail store space. This philosophy is evident in the volume-conscious Cybertron car packaging.
Many things can be explained by these Autobot cars’ Diaclone heritage, like why 08 Streak/Bluestreak’s artwork depicts a blue robot when the toy itself was always silver for The Transformers. The Diaclone predecessors of Bluestreak came in blue as well as silver/black, and even though the Takara Streak came out a year after the US Transformers Bluestreak, this Diaclone-hatched artwork remained firmly a part of this character’s legacy. Moving from the outer packaging to the inner packaging and that styrofoam…
How much better is this? When you’re done Streak-ing and Prowl-ing, all the accessories just slot right back into the styro, as does the toy, and the displayability of the piece is completely unaffected. Assuming the packaging didn’t disintegrate in a child’s hysterical rush to get to his robot. This superior displayability and illusion of untouched contents makes these Japanese cars a real treat.
Now just to take a small step back into history and demonstrate this relationship between Diaclone and Japanese Autobot cars, let’s have a look at a Diaclone Hilux Wrecker, better known as “Red Hoist”:
Looking resplendant in red and nacho, Diaclones came with small pilots boasting magnetic feet as their drivers and controllers. Transformers of course were sentient robots and soooo….
…no need for the Diaclone driver, hence the filled-in space in the top left corner of the styro. However, the “Wrecker” text was retained on the side of the toy until later corrected versions closer resembled the US Transformers Hoist.
This wasn’t the only item of interest in the Cybertron car sub-line of Japanese Transformers. Sideswipe was called “Lambor” as he was of course a Lamborghini Countach, Mirage was called “Ligier” in reference to the fact that he was a Ligier JS11 F1 car from 1979. Jazz was called “Meister” in Japan and Red Alert was just “Alert”. However, the intrigue does not end there, what about the cars that didn’t get released in Japan in this lovely half-pint packaging?
For a start, Ironhide was never available on shelves in Japan, and neither was Ratchet. The latter though was available in very special mail-order packaging which showed Ratchet as he appeared in the original G1 cartoon:
Ratchet’s styro still had the space for the Diaclone driver though, I guess they didn’t feel the need to produce new styro for a toy only available as a mailaway.
Sunstreaker and Skids were also never released in single-packed format, they came packaged together in the VSZ giftset along with Buzzsaw:
So, just in this small category of collecting, we’ve already identified two staples of the Japanese Exclusive diet, the VSZ set and the mailaway Ratchet. In my opinion though, as with most specialised areas of collecting, we have the headline-grabbing “rarities”, “exclusives” and “VHTF” items that pop up in unused condition month after month, but the true stars are the ones where very few people are truly aware of their scarcity and will take you much longer to find in pristine shape…
My feeling is that this particular area of collecting, fascinating as it is, remains one that will be committed to fully only by people determined to complete the Takara Japanese Transformers run, or the most hardcore of Autobot car enthusiasts. A majority of collectors will probably only go for the Japanese equivalent of their favourite character. I personally would only shell out the inflated amount (compared to a US, UK or even multilingual European boxed car) for an 07 Ligier. These days it’s far more common to see a Diaclone car or two in someone’s collection than a Japanese G1 Autobot car in package, simply because the smaller packaging and styrofoam insert is all you will be paying for. Compare that to Diaclones that might be moulded differently, coloured differently and be something altogether more novel and removed from TFs, it’s hard to justify the high asking price that almost all of these Japanese Cybertron cars command.
Having said all that, if you can find them at a good price or trade favourably, the delightfully compact and tremendously displayable packaging – not to mention comparative rarity – will make any Cybertron car a worthy purchase. Then, you too can be heard saying “I can’t believe it’s not bigger!”.
Many thanks to Marco Salerno, Quint Gremmen, Gordon Yip and Morgan Evans for the kind use of their photos for this article.
View TFSource’s Japanese Transformers selection HERE to begin your descent down the slippery slope!
All the best