10 years, 2 toy-lines and six photos.
Six photos depicting two upcoming toys that captured the imagination of the Transformers fandom and collecting community and have not released their grip since. Those toys would become the BT-01 Binaltech Smokescreen and the MP-1 Masterpiece Convoy. The day was Thursday July 17th 2003. The San Diego Comic-Con had just started, and during “Preview Night”, the attending Transformers fans had been given their first glimpse of what was about to be revealed the following day – albeit a whole continent away. However, the seeds of that imminent revelation had been sown even earlier. So, let’s take a few steps even further back and tread the path that led to that unforgettable day 10 years ago.
In early 2002, Aaron Archer, then a designer on Hasbro’s Transformers team, signed up an account under the screen name “Orson” at the TFW2005 Boards – at the time part of the newly-created super-site Transfandom.net. The user “Orson” remained relatively anonymous for a while, until a fan made bold claims that he was a photographer for Hasbro and had seen the prototypes for the then upcoming Armada line. It was then that “Orson” came out of hiding and directly questioned the other user’s claims, insisting that he himself was actually a designer at Hasbro and that the alleged photographer was full of it.
Initially unsure of whom to believe, the board staff were able to verify that yes, “Orson” did indeed work for Hasbro after checking with their PR department. Soon afterwards, Aaron was given his own sub-forum at the 2005 Boards, named “Orson’s World”, where he could answer fans’ questions.
With the 20th anniversary of the Transformers brand drawing closer, Hasbro and their Japanese partner Takara intended to release a special figure to commemorate the occasion. Because Hasbro wanted to give fans the impression that their opinions mattered, they collaborated with the 2005 Board staff and organised a multi-part poll where fans could decide on the character, and later on specific details too.
An interview with Takara designer Hironori Kobayashi would later reveal that the figure in question took nearly three years to progress from the first prototype to the final product, so the key decisions had most certainly already been made by that point. However, the poll did reassure Hasbro that they had made the right choice by picking Optimus Prime to be their anniversary figure, and the fans were able to decide on various particulars, such as the addition of “Desert Dog Formula” markings for the rubber tyres – a nod to Optimus Prime’s Generation 1 toy.
In the meantime, Hasbro and Takara had been working on another project, an entirely new toy line aimed mainly at collectors, with modern re-imaginations of classic Transformers characters using up-to-date toy engineering and contemporary cars for their alternate modes.
However, as Hasbro had learned only a few years earlier with the Robots in Disguise line, unlicensed toy versions of existing vehicles would result in legal trouble with car manufacturers. Therefore, the Armada line, which was aimed primarily at children, had started a new trend of coming up with completely fictional vehicles or modifying existing car designs enough to avoid legal ramifications. Since Hasbro and Takara agreed that this was not going to fly with a series aimed at collectors, they set about pursuing the licenses for the cars they wanted to use. Soon, Hasbro and Takara learned that car companies were a somewhat difficult bunch. German manufacturers like Porsche, Volkswagen and initially General Motors in the US, presented considerable obstacles.
Ultimately, Japanese manufacturer Fuji Heavy Industries proved to be the least troublesome partner for negotiations, leading to the globally iconic Subaru Impreza being chosen as the first toy to spearhead the new line. In order to maintain financial viability and save money, Hasbro and Takara decided early on that re-decos and retools were to be an essential part of the line, and Subaru’s 2003 Prodrive-run Impreza WRC rally car provided a welcome and exciting contrast to the Impreza WRX street model. The Autobot Bluestreak (aka “Streak” in Japan) was chosen for the street version, and from there, Smokescreen was an obvious choice for the rally version.
As we got closer to the big reveals, Takara’s marketing department decided to swap the release order, arguing that the rally version with its WRC livery and sponsor decals would be more eye-catching for the inaugural release of the new line than the street version. The scale of the line was also still being discussed at this stage, as hinted at in an interview with the Takara staff and later confirmed by a hardcopy prototype of a Deluxe-sized version of the Impreza sculpt shown at the BotCon 2007 Hasbro Tour.
Hasbro and Takara eventually settled on a uniform 1:24 scale for the line. Like the Anniversary version of Optimus Prime, these licensed car robots would boast rubber tyres, and while Takara wanted to use parts made of die-cast metal for the vehicle shells like in the days of Generation 1, Hasbro decided to stick with moulded plastic parts in order to keep costs down.
Aaron Archer, in his guise as “Orson”, first hinted at the new line in early May of 2003, referring to it as the “tween line” that would be among the new products to be revealed at BotCon in July of that same year. On May 29th, it was discovered that Hasbro had applied for the trademark “Transformers Alternators” with the United States Patent and Trademark office a few weeks earlier and soon after that it was pointed out that Hasbro had also registered the domain TransformersAlternators.com, and established a redirect to the official Hasbro website. Soon, the consensus was reached that “Transformers Alternators” was most likely the aforementioned “tween line”.
On July 2nd, another community member posted a list of new Transformers-related products recently added to the internal systems of major US retailer Target. Among them was the mysterious “Transformers Alternators” again, with a “Deluxe” assortment slated for an MSRP of $19.99.
On July 7th, “Orson” confirmed that “Alternators” was indeed a new toy line that would be released alongside “Energon”, the “Commemorative Series” line of reissues of Generation 1 toys and “Universe” line of re-decos, all of which would be revealed at the “Official Transformers Collectors’ Convention” (OTFCC).
And then it happened. During the San Diego Comic-Con “Preview Night” on July 16th, Hasbro handed out a flyer depicting an artistic rendition of Alternators “Smokescreen”, believed to have been drawn by Pat Lee, then President and CEO of Dreamwave Productions. The artwork clearly showed that Smokescreen’s alternate mode was a Subaru Impreza WRC rally car, complete with sponsor decals, and the flyer marketed the toy with the clever slogan “0-300 mph in 5.4 seconds. Vehicle to robot in 1.7 seconds.”
A day later, on July 17th, the online Transformers fandom finally exploded. First, around mid-afternoon, a TFW2005 board member posted a scan of the flyer, which was promptly dissected by other fans. Meanwhile, a continent away over in Japan, Takara were holding an exhibition aimed at retailers and distributors where they previewed upcoming new toys, of which 2 in particular held great significance for the Transformers collecting community. One of them was a resin hardcopy prototype of the 20th Anniversary Optimus Prime figure, which would be released under the title “Masterpiece” in Japan. As shown in the exhibit, the toy was going to include Optimus Prime’s famous ion blaster, G1 Megatron in his gun form and the Matrix of Leadership.
The other one was a full colour version of Alternators Smokescreen, who was going to be released as part of a new line named “Binaltech” in Japan. Three versions of the toy were displayed: One in robot mode, one in vehicle mode and one in vehicle mode with the doors, the hood and the trunk opened, thereby showing the immense attention to detail this toy offered. Even a sample of Smokescreen’s packaging was shown.
When photos of Takara’s exhibit were posted by the Rakuten Be-J Web Shop’s coverage of the event, the fandom collectively gushed over the photos. Every detail was scrutinised, and despite the occasional instance of individual people jumping to premature conclusions, the overall reaction was sheer and unbridled joy at the possibilities of modern toy engineering, coupled with extreme attention to detail and – in Smokescreen’s case – a fully licensed vehicle mode. When online retailers started taking pre-orders, the name “Binaltech” was interpreted in various bizarre ways, ranging from “Binartech” to “Binarytech” to “Banal-Tech” to “Vinyl Tech”.
Just to emphasise the importance of these two toys for the Transformers brand, up until that point, the only toys that came close to this level of detail were the few newly-sculpted toys released as part of the Robots in Disguise line (“Car Robots” in Japan). Those toys were still showing clear indications of trial and error. The toys from the subsequent Armada line were designed in close cooperation with Hasbro, who required them to be more child-friendly and gimmick-driven. Because of Hasbro’s bad experience with the RID toys’ realistic alternate modes, the Armada toys all sported heavily simplified alternate modes which often bore only a passing resemblance to vehicles found in real life.
Another aspect the Transformers brand was still struggling with at the time was acknowledging its heritage. Sure, there were the “Commemorative Series” reissues, which had only just taken off a year previous, and while the “main” lines typically featured a version of Optimus Prime and Megatron (and even Starscream in “Armada”!), the rest of the Generation 1 cast wasn’t considered all that iconic. The occasional homage like RID Ultra Magnus or name-drops like Armada Smokescreen and Red Alert, which bore little (if at all) resemblance to their G1 namesakes, were the most that G1 fans could hope for.
This was an era long before the Michael Bay movies had made fully licensed car modes a standard element of many Transformers lines. It was before Classics, Universe 2.0, and Generations. It was before other, similar lines made updated, modernised versions of “classic” characters that were clearly identifiable as their G1 predecessors a common thing. It was even before Takara started the trend of developing new versions of Generation 1 Optimus Prime (aka “Convoy”) every few years, like they later did with Robot Masters, Hybrid Style and, eventually, the smaller MP-10 Masterpiece “2.0” version.
No, this was something new, something groundbreaking, and, in retrospect, the beginning of several trends with repercussions felt to this very day. And even though the fandom obviously had no idea of what would come later, they certainly appreciated and embraced the prospect of these two new toys, and what they represented.
After that, it all went really fast. Japanese hobby magazines previewed Binaltech Smokescreen and Masterpiece Convoy, Hasbro officially unveiled 20th Anniversary Optimus Prime and Alternators Smokescreen (as well as the next figure in the line, Side Swipe, a Dodge Viper), at OTFCC in late July. Collectors with “connections” in Asia got their hands on test shots of the Hasbro versions, followed by samples of the final toys in packaging, and eventually, the toys were released.
Binaltech Smokescreen officially came out in Japan and other Asian markets on September 26th, 2003. As had been revealed before, the toy was available in two variants, with the driver/co-driver numbers #7 and #8. Alternators Smokescreen (only available as the #8 version) was first released in Hong Kong around November 8th, then showed up at retail in New Zealand and Canada on December 12th, and was finally found at a Target store in the United States on December 16th. Alternators Smokescreen was even released in Europe, first in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in January of 2004.
Masterpiece Convoy was officially released in Japan alongside the second Binaltech toy, BT-02 Lambor, on December 12th, 2003. 20th Anniversary Optimus Prime was first stocked by US-based online retailers on December 29th, 2003, slightly ahead of schedule, then came out at retail in Hong Kong around January 9th, 2004 and was finally spotted at a Target store in the United States on January 31st, 2004.
And while the Binaltech line ended years ago, the Masterpiece line is currently healthier than ever. In 2011, a smaller version of Convoy/Optimus Prime, numbered MP-10, heralded a new phase in the line’s history, soon shifting from a sporadic line with roughly one release per year, coupled with multiple redecos and “special” variants, to a fully-fledged collector-focused line with multiple new releases per year. The excitement and following that surrounds the Masterpiece line nowadays, and Binaltech in its heyday, can all be traced back to the supernova that was July 17th 2003, ten years ago.
Facts, dates, article concept and text kindly provided by Nevermore, The Six Photos courtesy of Rakuten Be-J Web Shop.
All the best