The month of May plays host to two of the world’s biggest and most historic motor racing events, the Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. Just a few weeks later we have the immense Le Mans 24 hour race in June, so what a perfect opportunity this is to pay tribute to the magnificent racing cars used by Takara and Hasbro for their Diaclone Car Robot and Transformers Autobot car selections respectively. Motor sport and collecting Transformers/pre-Transformers are the two things I am most passionate about outside of family, I’ve written articles on both subjects so this was too good a crossover to ignore!
My interest in transformers and motor sport has strong roots in my childhood, and I have kept the fires burning under those hobbies for decades. The combination of heroic Autobots and spectacular racing machinery has led the toys featured in this article to become some of the most treasured and well-loved in action figure history. So let’s begin our short tour of the origins of these toys based on real racing cars:
The Diaclone Porsche 935 Turbo, which became the Autobot Agent Jazz, has a very glorious racing history. Porsche are well known for conquering all sorts of global motor sport categories, but this particular Martini Racing liveried 935 Turbo #4 was piloted famously by Le Mans and F1 legend Jacky Ickx. This car competed in the 1976 Group 5 racing series, specifically the Mugello 6 hours. The remarkable 935 shape is based on the timeless Porsche 911, suitably beefed up and decked out in stirring Martini Racing colours.
The toy was originally a Japanese Diaclone Porsche 935, also released in Italy and mainland Europe as “Trasformer” and “Diaclone”. Probably its most famous incarnation was as Optimus Prime’s right-hand man, the Autobot “Jazz”. The first releases of Jazz had a deliberate misspelling of the Martini brand decals (“Martinii”). Unfortunately later versions of the Hasbro Transformer had the “Martinii” removed, and eventually the recent reissues have “Meister” stickers reflecting his Japanese Transformers designation.
Of all the racing cars used for the many different Transformers and Diaclone lines, the #26 Ligier JS11 F1 that became the Autobot Mirage is my absolute favourite. It is a proper race winning and legendary Formula 1 car and Mirage was the hero of the first Transformers animated feature. This car started out the 1979 F1 season as the vehicle to beat, Jacques Laffite and Patrick Depailler taking a handful of wins before the faster pace of development of the Williams and Ferrari teams eventually put out their early season fire.
There was a degree of censorship on the Ligier/Mirage as well, the “Gitanes” cigarette sponsorship being replaced by “Citanes”. In Italy, GiG went a step further and created “Ligier 26” stickers to go over the sidepods, eventually releasing a painted version of their “Ligier 26” pre-TF. This toy also saw release in mainland Europe as “Diaclone” with a specific Finnish version seeing limited store-exclusive distribution as well. Again, the most famous version of this car is the Transformers Autobot Spy “Mirage” which has been mercilessly counterfeited by Chinese manufacturers, but was never officially reissued.
What we have here is yet another famous racing car of immense pedigree being used as a Diaclone and Transformer. The #539 Alitalia sponsored Lancia Stratos Turbo (Alitalia being the national Italian airline) was originally driven by Sandro Munari and P. Sodano in the Giro D’Italia in 1977, and of course the notorious Diaclone Marlboor Lancia Stratos Turbo was based on the earlier 1976-liveried cars.
This stunning vehicle was used, as mentioned above, for Japanese Diaclone as well as an Italian Trasformer release and a very late European Joustra Diaclone release too. No surprise that the toy is best remembered as the Autobot engineer and nutty professor Wheeljack. A hugely popular toy and character, at least it didn’t suffer from cigarette or alcohol sponsorship, Takara and Hasbro instead choosing to deliberately misspell the Italian airline brand “Alitalia” as “Alitalla”. Ok, the Marlboor version had cigarette brand Marlboro’s colours emblazoned all over it, but that’s a completely different story! Having not been reissued apart from as a European 1989 Classic Heroes toy, Wheeljack retains its value to this day despite the Chinese counterfeiters’ best efforts.
The final early G1 and Diaclone racing car we’re going to look at is the Electramotive Racing #38 Datsun 280ZX Turbo, driven in the IMSA championship (specifically the 1982 Fuji 6 hours) by Don Devendorf and Tony Adamowicz. This livery was specific to the Japanese race and was duly chosen for the Diaclone Fairlady Z 280Z Racing toy, later available in Italy and mainland Europe as Trasformer and Diaclone respectively.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, for its release as the Hasbro Transformers Autobot Tactician Smokescreen, this toy had its factory “Datsun” and sticker sheet “Nissan” brand stickers removed. Only the “38” sticker remained for the Transformers release linking it to its racing past. There was also a very interesting Mexican version of Smokescreen which used a normal Datsun 280Z road-car chassis with these colours instead of the updated racing car mould, but that was later corrected. Great for kids at the time, but frustrating for variant collectors now. Smokescreen was also reissued in Japan and Europe by Takara and Hasbro, giving collectors no excuse at all for missing out on such a beautiful mould and deco.
The use of racing cars, or at least, toys made to look like racing models did not end in 1985. Toys such as the Stunticon Drag Strip and more modern examples like the Binaltech and Alternators Smokescreen were also based on historically significant race cars like the Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler and the Subaru Impreza WRC. Combining child-friendly concepts like robots and racing cars was always going to be a resounding success, but the the racing cars used in Diaclone and early G1 paid homage to some genuinely historic and iconic vehicles, making them truly legendary and timeless. Long may this proud tradition continue.
Huge thanks must go to the hosts of the original racing car photos, whoever they are. Please feel free to claim the photos or request their removal at any time, my apologies for any inconvenience caused.
All the best