What’s scorching hot today in vintage Transformers collecting and often labelled “rare”, causing a frenzy on auction and realising astronomical end prices? Japanese exclusives like Liokaiser, Black Shadow, Blue Bacchus, Big Powered, Guard City and Battle Gaia? Peruvian minibots? US Defensor giftsets and high-grade sealed Megatrons and Soundwaves? Well it wasn’t always that way, over a decade ago it was a different series of variant toys that grabbed the headlines, were considered “rare” and were hyped. Even though they aren’t that hard to get today, it’s worth paying tribute to yesterday’s heroes.
Those heroes of legendary G1 status include the ‘Red Tracks’, ‘Red Slag’, ‘Black Prowl’, ‘White Astrotrain’, “Soundblaster”, “Twincast”, “Artfire” and “Stepper” amongst others. Certain minibots, US and Diaclone variants have also seemingly been top of collection hitlists for decades and been considered high profile must-have status symbols, but this week we concentrate on these particular gems of G1’s variant past that were able to define the profile of one’s collection.
I’ve said so much about the red Corvette “Tracks”, either as a Transformer, a Diaclone or a reissue over the last 2 years, but the focus this time is on why it was so legendary in the first place. Any variant that appeared on Transformers packaging or paperwork in the US, UK or Europe back in the 1980s, but wasn’t released that way (think grey Astrotrain, blue Bluestreak etc), remained in the minds of collectors until adulthood as mysteries. A red Tracks could always be found in the centre of the 1985 back-of-box battle scene artwork transforming from a car to a robot.
When the global online community started to take shape, the history of these toys started to become common knowledge, and a proper Transformers red Tracks was traced back to mainland Europe and the famous Milton Bradley release. Even if it was a busted Diaclone with no rubsign and “CS” hood sticker, in the early 2000s it was among the most desireable pieces one could find – and anyone who had a red Tracks was a known collector. If they made it public.
Even now it’s the ‘Black Prowl’ that puts Mexican Transformers on the map, ahead even of the special Iga minibots that Mexico is famous for. And it probably would never have been as interesting and loved as it is now had it just been a case of Spanish language factory stickers and a few extra bits of black paint across the chassis.
No, what raises the Black Prowl above so many other interesting, ‘rare’ and ‘significant’ European, American, Japanese and Mexican variants is the fact that his actual robot head is black – and that has a profound effect on his overall look and aura. It is completely plausible for collectors to treat the toy as a totally separate character to “Prowl”. The combination of that black head with the black fists, black rear section and black doors paints an image of a very dark persona. The Fairlady mould is a hugely popular one, and this variant can complete a set as well as any blue Bluestreak.
There is a theme running through these famous and legendary variants, they are the poster boys for their part of the world – the lesser known and once lesser-documented corners of the Transformers toy universe. Think Europe, think Red Tracks. Think Mexico, think Black Prowl. Think Canada, think Red Slag. Hasbro Canada’s finest export is this already-popular Dinobot, but with the slightest hint in dino mode that something is a little bit different. A small red hinge halfway up his back that should normally be black…
This is the colour scheme you will see on G1 Slag boxes and in a number of early Transformers catalogues. The white legs, red/silver head, red launcher and fists really set it apart from the regular Slag. The toy itself is from 1984 and shares a mould, copyright and colour scheme with similarly-coloured pre-Slags from Italy’s line of Diaclones. The cartoon model for Slag was no doubt based off this colour scheme (minus all red face) and that cements the Red Slag’s place in history and the pantheon of ‘significant’ legendary TF variants. If it was just about being different, the Diaclone blue Slag would be just as desirable, but it isn’t.
Japan has its fair share of legendary variant Transformers too that have been expensive and hyped for what seems like forever. Significant portions of Masterforce, Victory and many series thereafter contain very exclusive toys, moulds and concepts – but it seems that in that early period of online boom, the variants that captured the imagination and guts of many a wallet were major colour/moulding variants of well-established and well-known 1984/1985 Transformers moulds.
Astrotrain was supposed to be an Autobot. The seemingly-benevolent appearance on his boxart came from a very early Takara catalogue listing showing Astrotrain as #16 in the Takara designation list and with an Autobot logo. This seemed to be a concept being developed parallel to the Decepticon grey and purple prototype Astrotrain that appeared in cartoons and in early catalogues in 1985. The eventual Hasbro Astrotrain appeared to be stuck somewhere between the two. Sporting NASA decals, other different stickers, unique boxart and a very real-world look, the Japanese White Astrotrain has always been immensely popular. Stunning good looks have helped maintain that popularity down the years, but its heyday as a vintage heavyweight is definitely somewhere in the previous decade – a victim of repeated reissues.
While the White Astrotrain is a remnant of the earliest Transformers concepts, the other famous Japanese early-G1 variants were released in 1987 as part of the Headmasters series in Japan and featured heavy re-tooling and re-purposing. “Stepper” was a black Targetmaster version of Jazz that used to sell for over a grand, “Artfire” was a white and red Targetmaster version of Inferno, “Twincast” was a blue and yellow repaint of Blaster which could hold 2 cassettes and “Soundblaster” was his opposite number, a black repaint of Soundwave that could also hold 2 cassettes.
These are moulds that non-collectors would have recognised from their youth – but different. These were significant repaints of core G1 toy and cartoon heavyweights that would have evoked feelings of awe in the uninitiated collector upon discovery. I should know, I recall that awe vividly.
Nowadays, a few clicks on the Internet and you can build a similar collection through the numerous reissues that have come out of Hasbro and Takara. An E-Hobby Road Rage, TFC or Commemorative Series Astrotrain and Stepper (or Ricochet), Encore Twincast and Soundblaster, together with a counterfeit Chinese Red Slag remake would allow you to re-create much of the above glory for a fraction of what it would have cost you in 2001, and in a tenth of the time too.
Having said that, a boxed MB red Tracks and boxed Canadian red Slag are no easier to find today and are almost 4 times the price they were a decade ago. So while these toys are no longer considered as “rare” as they once were, and most have lost their status as the most desirable or high-profile Transformers variants around, one or two members of this ancient club of exclusives have not been reissued or faked, and to this day have managed to hold on to their status and mystique.
Having recently had the vintage Red Tracks, Red Slag and Black Prowl together in one place for the first time – and despite owning much rarer and obscure toys now – I felt as though I had achieved a rite of passage as a variant collector, something I was inspired by years ago through Devvi and Artfire2000’s websites. How little effect these pictures had online when I posted them a month or so ago struck me as a sign of how things have moved on. Yesterday’s heroes they may all be, but they are still legends today and will be forever.
Many kind thanks to Brandon Yap for much photographic rescue this week, and for a collection that reminds me of the golden era.
All the best