It’s been over 15 years since Takara first showed off what was to be the first toy in the Binaltech series. BT-01 Smokescreen was a statement of intent in 2003, alongside MP-1 Masterpiece Convoy signalling a return to high-end collector-aimed lines for Takara with die cast metal and high paint content. Smokescreen even had a real-life accurate racing livery and was a strong overall conceptual homage to the Generation 1 Smokescreen. Having looked at some collectors’ favourite alternate modes last week, with Binaltech Smokescreen coming up, it seemed like a good opportunity to look back at that figure (and line) to discuss just how good it was.
Back in Generation 1, official race car liveries on Transformers toys were not uncommon in the early days of Diaclone-inspired toys, even if some of the sponsors were deliberately misspelled to avoid legal difficulties. The Binaltech Smokescreen, both the BT-01 varieties from 2003 and the BT-07 Smokescreen GT varieties from 2004, re-created the World Rally Championship look of the Subaru Impreza WRX cars of Petter Solberg, Tommi Makinen and Mikko Hirvonen. Various official sponsors like Denso, PIAA, Corona, Motul and Pirelli were all present on the toy. Compare that with Masterpiece Smokescreen and it’s quite a different story.
Binaltech Smokescreen’s vehicle mode had turning wheels (on a working magnetic axle) and rubber tyres, which of course we rarely get on modern Transformers, having to settle for fixed wheel direction and plastic tyres. That’s not to say we should feel entitled to this stuff, we all understand the rise in cost of raw materials and the sacrifices needed to keep these things mildly affordable, but the differences are stark. BT Smokescreen also had opening doors, hood and trunk, with its intercooler doubling up as its G1 Fairlady-esque hand weapon. Let’s also not forget that the Binaltech line was scaled at 1:24, making the cars bigger than modern MP scale, not surprising as they were meant to scale with the much larger MP-1 Convoy of yesteryear.
We should also talk about how the Binaltech series strove to provide realistic car interiors for the vehicles in the line, and how the die cast metal and painted surfaces of the toys gave them a similar finish to high quality scale models of road and race cars. Modern Masterpiece does certainly bring the paint, and much like Binaltech, can be prone to subsequent chipping and wear as a result of use and transformation. I remember an interview with a Takara employee who explained how Mazda needed the BT-08 Meister figure designed to accurately mirror the lines and proportions of the actual Mazda RX-8 vehicle before they could clear it for use.
Smokescreen in particular seemed to have a lot of care put into its accuracy, Takara going so far as to retool certain vehicle mode parts for BT-07 to reflect the updated chassis features of the 2004 Impreza WRC. Sure, it was a minor retool in the grand scheme of things, so the very least they could do was update the livery (check) and add something else to the package, such as shoulder rockets! The thing is, though, they pulled a fast one and only included one missile and launcher with each BT-07 release, so if you wanted a G1 accurate pair of launchers for BT Smokescreen (or Streak), you had to buy the BT-07 #1 Impreza and #2. Things haven’t changed much there as TakaraTomy pulled a similar stunt with the missile launcher accessories released as Amazon exclusives with BT-17 Prowl the first time around.
I think everyone can agree that the vehicle modes on Binaltech toys were quite wonderful, and if you could get over the fact that they were not trying too hard to be 100% Generation 1, maybe even better than what we get for Masterpiece today. I certainly feel they were superior in the vehicle mode department. It was always exciting to see who a prototype would turn out to be, or what mode a significant character would eventually get.
Binaltech robot modes, especially these days, are a case of split opinions. At the time I thought they were wonderful, and frankly I still do today. I regret that I had to sell all of my other Binaltech toys, but they really would not fit into my current collecting methods or priorities. The transformations may have felt complex at the time, but as with Car Robots Speedbreaker/RID Side Burn, time has put their once complicated transformations into perspective. Modern 3rd Party products and even some official Masterpiece toys really do take complexity and intricacy to a brand new level. Very often they can spill over into the downright frustrating, but when I was transforming Smokescreen for this photo shoot and for last week’s article, I was struck by how much more straightforward and accessible the whole thing was (not to mention memorable) than a lot of high-end figures that have come since.
I remember at the time believing the BT toys to be highly articulated, and compared to what I had collected previously, they absolutely were. In Smokescreen’s case, though, his die cast metal content and weight distribution mean that standing is not easily achieved, and there are some limitations in his waist/thighs and feet/ankles, meaning there are not THAT many achievable and believable robot poses to work your way through for a comprehensive gallery or display. I have often come back to find him toppled, so those heel spurs are absolutely essential to utilise, even if it means limiting the range of poses he can rock on a shelf.
That said, the wide range of head motion, double-jointed arms and excellent weapon grip are nothing to scoff at, even today when not all high-end figures can tick all of those boxes simultaneously. Also, the rockets actually launch on the BT-07 version. How many modern MP and 3P figures can say the same? Whenever I have stored Smokescreen away for a significant period of time, upon handling the figure again, I am always impressed. That spectacular vehicle mode and quite lovely headsculpt, not to mention delightfully strong proportions, always pull on my heartstrings.
I recall buying BT-07 (both versions) brand new at the Epic Heroes store in North London for an import-influenced price of £40 each (and this was one of the more expensive outlets). That translates to roughly $51 in 2004, for a die cast, rubber-tyred, fully painted, well-articulated and high end Transformers product with official race car livery in 1:24 scale. Of course I understand collector feeling that modern Masterpiece is better value for money due to more genius transformations, cartoon and vehicle accuracy where possible and inflation etc, so there’s no easy winner here. What I will say is that I never once felt I’d overpaid for a new Binaltech toy, and I always felt I was getting something premium and special for a very reasonable outlay. Apart from BT-17 Black Convoy, which was horrific in price and construction.
It’s a common theme among Binaltech lovers that they associate the toys with the era they came out in. It was a lovely time to be a collector, many friendships were forged, there was a strong customisation scene and a lot of people were finding their way back to the hobby around the time of Binaltech and the Hasbro Alternators equivalents, sometimes as a result of hearing about these toys. Again, let’s not pretend that today’s MP scene does not share some parallels with the Binaltech time; people still customize MPs, a lot of friendships are made through the MP collecting scene and many a new collector has cited Masterpiece as the gateway drug! For me, Smokescreen is symbolic of a lot of the above, with the added element of an extremely well-done motorsport homage. I was also stunned to realise this week that out of all the Transformers I currently own (not including childhood toys) – and this includes my G1 and Joustra Diaclone – Smokescreen here is my oldest surviving collection member, bought in 2004 and never sold. Other toys I owned before got sold and re-bought, but I believe Smokescreen has outlasted them all.
I bet the BT Smokescreen in my collection is not the only one that can claim such accolade in the fandom.
All the best