Licensed real-life vehicles, strong homages to Generation 1 Transformers, updated interpretations with much-improved posability and action figure technology, aimed at the collectors moreso than children, feverishly lapped up by fans during their pomp. No, this is not another article about the new Masterpiece Transformers toy line, I am talking about Takara’s Transformers Binaltech chapter, a series of toys that these days are unjustifiably in danger of being forgotten about. So here’s a reminder, lest we forget.
The fandom is understandably fawning over the utterly spectacular new Masterpiece offerings from Takara Tomy, and to a lesser degree, Hasbro. Some of us still remember a time where we did not feel so entitled to the magnificence of instant classics like MP-12 Lambor and MP-13 Soundwave, a time when G1 reissues were still the big draw in town. Along came Binaltech in 2003, full of die cast metal, manufacturer licences and a lovely new swing on the Generation 1 Transformers tribute. With my heavy bias towards automobiles, Autobot cars and Smokescreen, BT-01 was the start of something magical…
~ BT-01 Smokescreen ~
What a way to launch a toy line. Accurate 1:24 scale die cast vehicles modelled faithfully on their real-life counterparts and nodding vigorously towards G1 were always destined to be successful, but even when the inaugural character was not one of the main Autobot cars, Smokescreen exploded onto the scene in his Prodrive Subaru Impreza 555-inspired World Rally Championship livery glory.
BT-01 was available to collectors as Petter Solberg and Phil Mills’s 2003 championship-winning Impreza WRC #7 as well as the #8 Tommi Makinen / Kai Lindstrom edition. The SWRT (Subaru World Rally Team) colours are as well known in rallying as Ferrari’s red is synonymous with Formula 1.
BT-01 boasted features that some of today’s Masterpiece collectors would kill for; rubber tyres and die-cast sections of considerable heft leading to inevitable paint chipping, but that certainly never caused me much heartache and just added to how impressive I found these toys.
The transformation was certainly not a 2-minute job, and care had to be taken when moving panels around. Smokescreen’s robot mode was beautifully reminiscent of the G1 toy and character’s signature look, and even the conversion between vehicle and robot was clearly G1/Diaclone inspired. While actual feet are now commonplace on all Transformers, BT-01’s use of the vehicle rear for feet worked well visually, although he does have some difficulty standing up with all that die cast weight. Transforming back to vehicle mode requires some patience and sequential alignment of parts too, easy when you know how.
The above picture shows Smokescreen sporting G1-style rocket launchers but they were not included with BT-01, instead packaged one per bot for the updated BT-07 Smokescreen GT the following year. Smothered in sponsors’ decals, Smokescreen set the bar immediately sky-high for the remainder of the series. Some would argue that the series never quite reached those heights again.
~ BT-02 Lambor ~
The next Binaltech release saw Takara show off their second big name manufacturer licence in the form of the Dodge Viper SRT-10, a hugely well known American sports car. As the story goes, the Binaltech project was the brainchild of the EDC (Earth Defence Command) and it oversaw the transfer of Autobot sparks into new bodies due to the Decepticons unleashing the Cosmic Rust virus on Earth’s Autobots. So Sideswipe (Lambor in Japan) went from a Lamborghini Countach to a Dodge Viper and was still quite the looker in vehicle mode.
Pretty though they might be, these toys were by no means perfect. You can see that this Lambor’s hood does not close well enough to sit flush against the surrounding panels. This is certainly Lambor’s strongest mode and he can quite easily be left as a vehicle, such is its faithful reproduction of the mean Viper and its inherent display value.
Like BT-01, Lambor had opening doors and hood, detailed vehicle interior, functional steering, rubber tyres and plenty of die cast metal. The cold heavy feel of these toys in vehicle mode is a wonder to behold, if you can just separate yourself from the paint chipping which of course is completely the end of the civilised world.
For all the criticism that is levelled at the Alternators/Binaltech designs in light of today’s Masterpiece Transformers, I feel that Lambor is the only true deserving recipient of said criticism. His robot mode is probably the weakest of the entire series, presenting quite a posing challenge when it comes to the legs. The above pose is the very best I could get out of his lower body geometry. I must admit to liking the way in which his arms fold up for return to vehicle mode though, and the clinking of die cast parts that touch during transformation.
The lack of resemblance to G1 Sideswipe in anything apart from colour, head sculpt and arm-guards (doors) can in part be attributed to the Viper mould being originally reserved for the BT version of Tracks. Lambor continued the trend of having something beastly from under the vehicle’s hood acting as his firearm, in this case the shiny Viper engine.
~ BT-03 Streak ~
More commonly referred to on this side of the world as Bluestreak (or later Silverstreak), this seemingly remoulded BT-01 Subaru Impreza is apparently the first toy developed for Binaltech. Takara understandably chose to go with the actual remould Smokescreen and his eye-popping WRC deco as the launch model though, leaving Streak to follow up the somewhat less impressive BT-02 Lambor. A tried and tested mould, the Impreza WRC street version in silver was certainly different enough to warrant purchase by fans of the line.
The appearance of this mould would not have been in the slightest improved had Takara chosen a black-hooded anime scheme or even a blue and silver Diaclone Blue Bluestreak homage, the all-silver G1 style look of BT-03 was just perfect. A common road car done well can still be hugely impressive, and with Streak’s signature silver and red colours, Binaltech was back with a subtle and sophisticated bang.
There’s a lot to be said for clean panel lines that align properly and having an alternate mode that could actually be passed off as a die cast model car. Streak does this very well and even though the vehicle choice may seem slightly tame, the WRX’s high performance is well noted in motoring circles. Opening doors, trunk and hood come as standard as well as the interesting magnetic bar axle for functional steering. At this point the Impreza mould was not viciously overused and Takara’s mould re-use at the start of a toy line was to be expected (See MP-1 through MP-7, Diaclone Car Robots 1 through 4 etc).
Streak’s incredibly clean and well-proportioned look in robot mode was a real highlight of the early Binaltech line, I never once felt I had to justify this purchase alongside the two versions of BT-01 Smokescreen, such was the effect of his unique colour scheme and very strong head sculpt. Really I just cannot see how they could have done this character or mould more justice, if only they could have just left the Impreza mould alone there and then.
So far the Binaltech line had gotten off to a marvellous start with the unforgettable Smokescreen, but raised a few eyebrows with the awkward Lambor, followed up by the excellent Streak. One great toy (released in 2 variations), a smart redeco and another questionable mould were never going to secure the long-term status and success of the Binaltech line though, and much rode on the nature of BT-04. Thankfully, it delivered in spades…
~ BT-04 Hound ~
Let’s face it, neither Smokescreen, Sideswipe nor Bluestreak were major G1 show characters, at best they played bit-part roles – not counting their dedicated “buy this toy” episodes. The latter two had memorable lines in the More Than Meets The Eye Generation 1 cartoon pilot, but nothing compared to the benevolent-looking hologram-conjuring Autobot Hound.
As far as vehicle choice goes, they absolutely could not have gotten it more right than a Jeep Wrangler. The colour is spot on, unmistakably Hound from every angle. The introduction of a completely new mould and a step away from performance cars was greatly welcomed by one and all. In a toy line where everyone was going to be a vehicle, variety was of the utmost urgency.
Plenty of lovely details to pore over here, sparkly green paint, nice looking headlights and indicators, fat rubber tyres and an essential overall chunky look. BT-04 does not have functional steering but it does have that glorious working suspension on all four wheels that screams out for you to push it. Real good. The flip-around Autobot insignia on the hood is a nice touch too, if made slightly redundant by the ever present ‘Bot logo on the licence plate.
The neat touches don’t end with the vehicle mode, as Hound’s admittedly tiny firearm is tidily stashed away in his spare tyre. I didn’t pick Hound up initially as I felt online images didn’t portray him in an attractive light, but having bought BT-09 Swindle (the remould of BT-04), I went back and sought out Hound immediately. Of all the releases up to that point, Hound had the best-fitting vehicle mode that could be returned to its original configuration and perfect alignment with the greatest ease.
The head sculpt may look a bit flat or even goofy to some, the junk on the back just sort of hangs there, the footplates are not to everyone’s liking and I myself am not a great fan of the limited shoulder movement, but the interesting ways in which this mould allows you to pose it due to the brilliantly articulated ankles are a great plus, and it is to date the best tribute to Autobot Hound available to a collector.
So that concludes our first detailed look at these toys. This series of Binaltech articles, much like the toy line itself, will not see uninterrupted release. There will be other topics covered in the meantime to break any possible monotony, but it won’t be long before we return to this classic series of Transformers toys. You can look forward to a detailed look at BT-05 to BT-08 when we revisit Binaltech.
All the best