I would have waited an eternity for this. Paul Hitchens is one of the most recognisable names (and faces) in the Transformers collecting community, not just because of his numerous and significant contributions to conventions, the community, the discovery and cataloguing of variants, rarities, prototypes and history of Transformers animation, but also as a representative of the community and the brand in various media including TV, DVD, radio, print and publications. He is as well known for being a long time collector and enthusiast as he is for being one of the most reputable and enduring toy dealers in the business, The Spacebridge. Beyond all of these things, he is someone I look up to as a close friend, a father, a level-headed collector and someone I’d ask for advice given just about any situation, collecting or otherwise. It is a credit to him that his interview is probably the most anticipated of any before, and it’s a credit to me that I was finally able to get him to agree to it!
Because of Paul’s long standing in the community, I have asked him to describe how the scene has changed in the last 15 years as opposed to the normal 10 years I ask all interviewees, and it’s also why he’s the only one allowed to use sub-headings! Bring it, Hitch.
1) Who are you and what do you collect?
My name’s Paul Hitchens. I’m 37, married with two children & live just outside London, England. I’m a Transformers collector & dealer. Many people know me by the name Spacebridge or Hitch.
I was a dealer at (deep breath) Botcon USA 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007. OTFCC Chicago 2003, 2004. Botcon Europe 1999, 2002. Transforce London 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004. Auto Assembly Birmingham 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013. Cybercon New York 2005. Conversions / B.O.T.S Holland 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014. Roll Out Roll Call 2013.
I’ve done work with the BBC, Channel 4 & SKY on Transformers. I also provided the commentary & extras for Sony’s 2007 DVD release of the animated movie. I’ve presented panels at Botcon & Cybercon & contributed towards several books. I collect Transformers, but rarely the toys . . .
I mainly collect prototypes, original artwork, store displays, anything related to the 86 movie & G1 Inferno (My first Transformer) / Hot Rod (My childhood favourite). I also have a love for rare paperwork or sometimes just the plain strange & unusual.
I’ve tried to select photos to go along with this article of items that aren’t pictured to death on the internet or stuff I haven’t already featured on my Facebook page. Sadly 90% of my collection lives in boxes split across 3 different sites miles apart so I rarely see it all together.
2) How has the collecting scene changed in the last 15 years?
I tend to interact with the Transformers community with two different heads, my collector head or my dealer head. I feel there have been several key influences that have changed Transformers collecting over the past 15 years
The rise (and fall) of eBay
15 years ago pretty much every Transformer I found was from a childhood collection. You could still walk into toy stores & find G2 or Euro Gold box sitting on the shelf. I can remember in 1997 buying in Spain 100+ gold carded Combaticon Swindles for 100 pesetas each (about 50p) and yes I still have a box of them. Ebay wasn’t widely talked about or used. I remember there were groups of fans who would host local meets ups (I’ve included a picture of my table at one of these meet up trying to sell a sealed G1 Mirage for £75. It never sold, I still have it!). Without eBay being a strong influence prices were random, they were (as they should be) the right price for the right buyer. Then around 2002 there was a change. The phrase “that’s cheaper on eBay” echoed around toy shows.
Going back to my two heads, my dealer head & my collector head. The rise of eBay was devastating as a dealer. For many years I had concentrated on bringing G1 toys that were never released in the UK into the UK. I would spend thousands on Swoops, Trypticons, Blasters, Omega Supremes & sell them in the UK. I suddenly became aware of torrents of abuse aimed at me online, criticising my prices vs eBay. I’m sure Maz (the guy who runs these blogs) won’t mind me saying, he was once one of the people complaining about me online (He was one of the polite ones though!). When you are a dealer at a show people don’t realise that as a dealer you were up at 4am, drove for 2 hours, spent 2 hours carrying boxes & setting up, then you have been standing up for hours without a break/food. I think I snapped at Maz once for asking to look at rare toys (I wrongly thought) he had no intention of buying. I said to him “talk to me when I’m not running my stall”, he did & now I consider him one of my closest friends. Remember dealers are people too, usually tired dirty ones! Looking back at this time (late 90’s), I have pictures of my table at a show selling a sealed Liokaiser giftset for £200. So, yes, I was terribly expensive wasn’t I? If you were more expensive than eBay back then it was a crime. Few people considered the costs involved in being a dealer at toy shows. So I started dealing at fewer events & selling on eBay instead.
Putting my collector head back on . . . eBay was wonderful. So many rare & unusual items cropped up, things I had never seen before. For many years I was one of very few people who cared about prototypes or other rare items & you got them for a steal!
I feel now though eBay has come full circle and its own popularity is harming it. Everybody who has any vintage Transformer thinks they have hit the jackpot! Even more so when the new films came out. There are several dealers now on eBay who regularly sell items as “mint complete” when you can see from the pictures it’s broken & incomplete! The phrase “it’s cheaper on eBay” was replaced by eBay horror stories. Buyers came back to me at shows because they could see & handle the toy before buying it. Also as I had ridden the storm of abuse about my prices, as eBay fell out of favour I fell back in. Many people bought off me on eBay as they knew what they were getting & trusted me. Sadly now eBay is full of Transformers junk or people trying to sell the left foot from a £1 toy for £5. On the flipside the days of scoring things for my own collection on eBay are gone. Everybody is on there every 5 minutes, waiting for the next mis-listed Diaclone or unreleased prototype.
Re-issues & Fakes / Bootlegs
I can vividly remember Botcon 1998 I took maybe 30 loose G1 Hot Rods with me (and sold them all!). Hot Rod was fairly common in the UK but rarer in the US (particularly Targetmaster version). Looking back the G1 car I used to sell for the highest price was . . . Skids! Why? Because decent mint condition ones were near impossible to find. Jump to 2014, which are the rarest G1 cars? Wheeljack, Mirage & Sunstreaker. Toys that few people cared about 15 years ago, but now, they haven’t been re-issued so everybody wants them. The once prized Hot Rod & Skids are now two a penny. Re-issues destroyed the value of some pieces, the God Ginrai giftset once a $1,000 piece sealed, now just as rare & sells for a quarter of that. I feel the good of reissues FAR outweighs the bad though. It has made minty G1 toys available to the masses & more importantly made once impossible toys such as Stepper easily obtainable. I proudly display many reissues in my collection! I wish Takara would continue to release more reissues & listen more to fans about the toys they choose.
15 or 10 years ago I never had to look at a G1 toy & worry it might be fake. Sure there was the odd bootleg but they were terrible in quality. The rise of the fake G1 over the past few years I honestly feel is one of the worst things to happen to the Transformers community. These toys aren’t being made to give collectors the toys they want. They are being made to deceive & make money. Official Takara re-issues are different to the original release and are of superb quality. These fake cassettes, Primes, Dinobots, cars etc are designed to catch out unsuspecting collectors. You can go onto eBay right now & find loads of these fakes presented as the real thing. I even was duped myself into buying a fake boxed Gnaw last year. I thought with all my experience I would have known better. I’ve found myself many times having to explain to somebody that one of their prized toys is a fake, nearly always a Prime or Reflector. It’s a shame Hasbro hasn’t done more to stamp this out. However I did once purposely buy a fake G1 toy which I display. A red G1 Mirage. It’s a toy I would love to own an original of but I never will (until that lotto win) so when the fake was released I did buy it. My excuse, it’s not passed off as an original so I don’t mind. I wonder sometimes if the people making these fakes, if they stopped trying to make perfect G1 packaging, put “reproduction” on the copyright & sold them for double their actual cost (which believe me isn’t very much) would they make more money overall?
3rd party items are an area I am still undecided on. I have good close friends who think it’s amazing & I can’t lie, some of the designs are beautiful. I just can’t get out of my head “it’s not a real Transformer” I honestly don’t own a single 3rd party toy.
The 80’s Kids
Most Transformers fans 15 years ago were people who had the toys as a child. If you were at Botcon 1998 then you were probably born 1972-1979. Many collectors start out by trying to buy back the toys they had as a child, I know I did. You didn’t really see couples with children walking around the shows in the 90’s. Now that group of 19-25 year olds at Botcon 1998 are now 35-41. Many now have families of their own & their lives have gone through the cycle of first home, first wedding, first promotion at work . . . What I have seen over the past 15 years is many long term collectors drop out of the hobby, usually to get married & have a family, then return to the world of Transformers a few years later. A few have even sold their collection to me then come back to me looking to buy it all over again. The collectors that have stuck with the hobby throughout have usually ended up completing their G1 collection then looking for something else to buy. This coupled with the fact that they usually have much more money to spend on toys than they did when they were 20 has created a whole generation of high end, high spending collectors. It may be Lucky draw items, Diaclone or AFA graded, these collectors have found something new to concentrate their time & money on.
The Next Generation
I’ve been trying to think when I first noticed this. I think it was around the time of the 2007 movie & Transformers Animated TV series. Suddenly there were collectors who didn’t care about G1. They didn’t have G1 toys, they didn’t want G1 toys. As an old time collector & dealer I found this very odd at first. It took me a long time to embrace this & switch my dealing away from mainly G1. Just recently I visited a collector to buy a few figures from. He was proudly displaying his Universe / Classics collection. I made a comment about comparing the figures to their G1 version. He looked at me puzzled. He had no clue that these toys were based on toys from 30 years ago! Why should he, how often do you hear a song without realising it’s a re-edit of an older song or watch a film without even knowing it’s a remake?
And then it came to me, to this new generation of collectors, NOW is their G1. The new movies, Universe & Masterpiece toys. An old time collector like myself, we remember ripping open a G1 toy, hacking the tech spec off with scissors and sitting applying the stickers. These toys battled every day inside & out in all weathers before returning to the box under your bed every night. Switch to today, toys are bought, carefully opened with a knife, posed & placed on a shelf in an Ikea cabinet. I’m not sure if this makes me happy or sad. Maybe Transformers have grown up from being just “toys”.
The Films 2007 – 2014
I’ve never understood the haters of the new films. There are plenty of crap films out there; I don’t feel the need to rant about them online. Like them or hate them, the films have propelled our hobby further in 7 years than anything did in the previous 23 years. For the first time since the 1980’s the movies put Transformers toys back on children’s birthday & Christmas lists. Sure Transformers had always been in the shops from 1991 to 2006 but for the first time in 15 years “mummy I want Optimus Prime for Christmas!” was heard again. The movies put Transformers toys back where they belong, in the hands of children. Sure the 2nd film was pretty weak and yes Devastator was terrible, but the films were what we had all dreamed of. From the moment we saw Blackout transform & stomp across that base, Transformers fans knew we had hit the jackpot. The films brought Transformers to millions of people who hadn’t thought about it for 20 years. Before the films you would say to somebody you were a Transformers fan & you would stir a vague memory in them “wasn’t one a truck or a gun?” Now you tell people you’re a Transformers fan & you usually get a positive response related to the movie.
But has the movie been a positive influence on Transformers toys? Overall, no. I feel the movie toys work on a ratio of one good toy for every 3 terrible toys. Transformers has become just another Hollywood movie merchandising runaway train. A big factor in the 2002 He-Man toy line’s failure was too may He-Man figures and not enough figures of the other characters. Without the backing of Toys R Us stocking the toys, the series failed. The movie has created the exact same problem but with Bumblebee. Yes I know he’s the bot aimed at the kids, I get it. But Hasbro, we don’t need 3 new versions of deluxe Bumblebee when the past 5 versions are still peg warming everywhere! With the exception of the excellent Human Alliance series, the need to produce more & more toys had brought the quality of Transformers down. The figures are getting smaller, more simple & with less refinement. This is even more so with the frankly shockingly poor TF4 toys. However as long as Transformers toy sales are strong, stores like Toys R Us will continue to stock Masterpiece figures & other exclusives aimed at collectors so there is good coming from so many bad toys
3) How do you see, or hope to see the scene changing in 5 years’ time?
I feel the future of Transformers is directly related to the success of the Hollywood films. Should a Transformers film be a spectacular flop I think it would surely end the production of Transformers toys. I’ve not followed Transformers Prime, I didn’t like the look of the show (I did however like some of the toys). The apparent need to link any cartoon to the movies I feel will weaken any TV show. Transformers Animated was amazing and it felt like a true Transformers series. I would hope we would get a series which gets back to the level of storytelling that Beast Wars had. Sadly I have no doubt the upcoming new cartoon & the toys that go along with it will be dumbed down again to a lower age group. It makes sense; if you were in charge of marketing at Hasbro who would you want to sell to, the 10,000 hard-core fans worldwide or the 1,000,000 children who watch Transformers films & cartoons . . .
I would love to see a live action TV series spin off from the movie. Something along the lines of Agents of SHIELD or The Sarah Conner Chronicles. I know any such series would have to be based around humans but I still think a decent show could be found. Maybe NEST hunting down hidden Decepticons hiding around the world & locked in vehicle mode. Or maybe look to Micromasters, tiny Transformers interacting with humans. Small budget special effects possible on a TV show.
I hope Takara return to G1 re-issues. I would love them to start re-issuing more toys in Diaclone colours or other rarer toys such as Artfire or Black Zarak. The 3rd party market is sure to continue to grow. I’m still not sure where I stand on it but I feel I will have to “pick a side” before too long. The return of UK exclusives would be a great thing. We haven’t had a true dedicated UK exclusive repaint since . . . . Beast Wars Claw Jaw & Spittor? I know we have had some random minicons since then, I mean a true repaint toy just for the UK. BotCon needs to return to Europe. I love Auto Assembly & BOTS but an official Hasbro backed event in London with an exclusive toy would be huge.
4) What has been your single biggest success as a collector, or your greatest ever find?
I have a few that leap to mind. Back in the late 90’s I regularly traded at a Toy Show in the UK called Memorabilia. I was the only dedicated Transformers dealer at the show for a long time. For many attendees it was the first time they had encountered a Transformers dealer, I had a lot of people come to me selling childhood collections, two funny stories from the same show leap to mind.
In 1997 at a Memorabilia a guy came up to me asking if I buy Transformers as he had loads of them in his car. I said of course & he handed me a list & asked me to write what I would pay next to each one. Without seeing the toys, I had to make best guesses, he assured me they were all complete & intact. I was slightly mystified as this guy was far too old to have been a child in 1985 but he assured me he had bought all the toys for himself. So I went through the list writing next to each one . . Sideswipe (red car) – £8, Skids (blue car) – £10, Starscream (white Plane) – £10, Menasor £15 etc (Remember this was 1997 before reissues). There were about 50 toys & in the end we agreed on about £700. The guy agreed to meet me with the toys at the back loading door of Hall 18 (Don’t ask me why I remember which Hall it was).
Anyhow, I go to meet the guy at the agreed time, he comes walking towards me with his friend carryinh 5 HUGE boxes. I guessed he had agreed to sell other toys to other sellers. I give him the cash & he hands me over all the boxes. As I opened the first box, the realisation hit me. They were all sealed. I had assumed when he said “I got these when I was younger” it was a childhood toy collection. No, the guy had been in his 20’s during the 80’s and had bought all kinds of things to keep. I then got talking to him more; he had bought and kept Transformers, cereal boxes, games consoles all sorts. I asked him if he was happy with the agreed price & he admitted I had given far more than he actually wanted. When I unpacked the boxes I was amazed to find some toys were still in the original store carrier bags complete with the original receipt, they hadn’t even been out of the store bag since the day they were purchased! After this I took some of the doubles in the collection to some shows & tried to sell the cars for £75 each sealed. I couldn’t sell them, they were just too expensive & nobody was interested. So in 1998 I sealed them all up in boxes & sent them into storage. They are still there. . . . .
Another story that leaps to mind also originates from a Memorabilia toy show. It was around the year 2000. A woman came up to my table & said she had some Transformers to sell that were her son’s. I asked her if she could bring them to the show, she couldn’t but she actually lived on my route home. So after the show I visited her house. There on her dining room table were the toys all laid out. And what a sight it was. They were the worst collection of smashed, broken, rusty, dirt covered Transformers you had ever seen. They were truly horrific. Not just Transformers, there were half-built Zoids, headless Action Men, armless He-Man figures. Then sitting to one side of the table was a perfect, sealed Targetmaster Hotrod. I picked it up to check it & the woman commented “I bought that for my son but he already had it so he never opened it”. I asked how much she wanted for everything & we agreed on £50. I bundled everything up & placed Hot Rod on the top. As I walked back to my van I passed her wheelie bins (trash cans) so I took Hot Rod off the top & tipped the lot into her own bin & walked away with my sealed TM Hot Rod. I often wonder if she found the toys & what the expression on her face must have been.
One of my earliest finds was way back in 1997. I had been trying to track down ex Hasbro members of staff with some success. I was contacted by a man in the North of England (I think it was in Leeds from memory) who had seen one of my adverts. He explained that his younger sister had been an avid Transformers collector but she had sadly recently died. I drove to see them to see what they had. There are many items I got in that collection I have never seen another of since ( a S.T.A.R.S. branded board game for example, not related to the STARS base in any way). I wish I had learnt more about the girl who had collected all these items, but it’s awkward asking somebody about their recently passed relative when you are there to buy their possessions. I soon found out that the girl (I never knew her name) was the niece of somebody at Sunbow in the USA. In her collection there was a pile of Sunbow paperwork including scripts & storyboards to the 86 movie. There were also rolls & rolls of 35mm camera film that had not been developed but were in boxes marked Transformers. When I got it developed they were mainly photos taken of a TV screen paused on key moments in Transformers cartoon episodes. There was also a photo she had taken of herself in the mirror. I remember I kept that picture of her pinned up on my noticeboard for many years. I wish I had asked more questions when I got the collection. I used the storyboards I got in the collection to make the extras on the Sony movie DVD so I hope it pleases my unknown collector that her collection was shared with so many people. I have sold a couple of scripts that had doubles in the collection but other than that I have kept it all together. I think it’s still in the original box I got it all in. To be honest I haven’t looked at it in many years & I’ve not really discussed it much until writing this.
5) What is the most surprising or outrageous collecting story you have heard?
Hmmmm, depends on your definition of surprising or outrageous. I have a million funny / crazy stories mainly about things that have happened at conventions. I’ll give some brief highlights.
The guy at Botcon 2000 who bought a MOSC C10 Unpunched Action Master Elite from another British dealer friend of mine for $1,000 cash. We then watched him walk away from the table tearing it off the card (and I mean tearing!) smiling as he started to Transform it!
At one of the Fort Wayne Botcons (I forget which) a rather loud gentleman announced he was going to open his just-purchased sealed Black Zarak. I think he had paid maybe $700 for it. A small group gathered round him and I watched from a distance as he cut the tape, pulled Zarak from his styro, snapped the tail section round which them promptly shattered at the joint and came away in his hand. Swiftly followed by him breaking both feet off . . .
A young lady at a show once offered me “services” in return for my MOSC Action Master Sideswipe (Something about UK Action Masters must attract the crazies), I swiftly declined! Remember it was a $500 piece at the time & she sure didn’t look worth $500! I’ve had one collection sold to me by an ex-wife who took it in the divorce & I’ve had another one (quite recently) where a father sold his (aged 20 something) son’s collection for not paying his rent.
The guy in the lift at Auto Assembly 2012 arguing with his 6 foot hooker about paying her before or after her services were complete, whilst he still wore his AA tag round his neck clutching his bag of toys – You sir are a legend!
6) If you could pick one item from your collection to keep, what would it be?
I think everything has a price. I don’t think there is anything Transformers related I own that I wouldn’t sell for the right price. One of my grails was always to get a prototype Hot Rod & I was lucky enough to get both a hardcopy pink Hot Rod & a test shot Pink Hot Rod. I think if I sold everything, they would probably be sold last. I also own a plastic Wheeljack door chime which never fails to make me laugh, that’s something I always want to keep. I don’t have any of my childhood Transformers as they were all given away. I do still own my original childhood annuals which I had written all over so they have sentimental value.
7) If you could have one item out of someone else’s collection, what would that be?
Nothing. That’s like wanting to hang the Mona Lisa on my bedroom wall, I can want & want & want – It’s never going to happen. Sure, there are plenty of items I know good friends of mine have that I would love to own, but unless they are offered up for sale I’m not going to lust after them. I’ve never been a collector who “wants it all” or wants to complete a set. I tend to keep something if I like it or if it relates to my key interests in the hobby. If something is out there you want, wait long enough – One will be offered up for sale. It just might take a long, long time.
8 ) What advice would you give a new collector starting out today?
Firstly, you are never going to own it all. Even if you had unlimited funds & unlimited time you will never own it all. Don’t try to be a completest. Even if you pick the easiest thing in the world to complete, there will always be that variant, high rub sign, lucky draw, Mexican paint job, misprinted tech spec, chrome plated, vanilla scented, glow in the dark, thermo nuclear variation you don’t own. Don’t try to get the rarest toys or most valuable toys just because they are rare or valuable. Get toys you enjoy, that make you smile. Make friends in the community. Some of my oldest closest friends I met through Transformers. Strangely now we rarely talk about Transformers though. Message boards or Facebook groups are a great way to meet fans with the same interests as you. If you can, make it to your local convention, be it Auto Assembly or BotCon, do try & go along, don’t be afraid to talk to people!
Never EVER sell something if you aren’t 100% certain you can get it back again one day if you wanted. I made this error several times early on in my collecting days, I sold a few items thinking I found them once, I’d find them again. Sadly not and one of them still bothers me to this day. If you sell something consider you may never get it back. Don’t let your collection be proudly displayed in cardboard boxes. This is a crime I am sadly guilty of! So what if you own every variation Beast Wars figure carded, it may as well be frozen sausages if it’s kept in boxes all of the time. Display your collection, a single shelf of toys will bring you more joy than 50 boxes stacked up in your garage. Two words, Ikea Detolf.
When Maz asked me (about a year ago) to do an interview, I was hesitant as I didn’t think I had anything to say. It would seem I have plenty to say. Transformers have been a big part of me for more than half my life. I sometimes feel like the old man of Transformers in the UK. There are many collectors like Sid (who recently did an interview here) who I have been selling to since they were teenagers. I’ve been adding up in my head, I think I’ve traded at about 200+ shows over the years. I regularly encounter people who know me and I can’t remember their name or where I met them before (I’m terrible with names). If you’re one of those people, I’m sorry! Transform & roll out.