Toys were a lot more ‘gimmicky’ back in the eighties and nineties. Often, the toyline itself would be built around one gimmick, and the toys within would have a gimmick on top of that. It’s a bit like how Cadbury now make chocolate with other chocolates inside. It’s madness!
A prime example of this phenomenon is Transformers. It was enough that they turned from robots to vehicles – “and back again!” as the packaging proudly announced, as if any sane person would assume otherwise – but before long they started doing other things. We had Transformers that joined together into bigger robots, we had Transformers with little men for heads/guns/engines and we had Transformers that burst out of human or animal carapaces a bit like those Russian dolls.
A very interesting concept was born in 1987 with the “clones”. These were essentially Transformer identical twins. The robots, while in humanoid mode, were more-or-less indistinguishable. However, they each had a unique alternate form that was disparate to the other’s. I’m a twin myself, so this is quite relatable; we look very much the same, so people assume we are the same. But scratch the surface, and you’ll see that I can turn into a jet plane, while my brother tills the fields as a tractor.
On the Autobot side, we have Fastlane and Cloudraker. As their names suggest, they turn into a car and a plane respectively. The baddies have Wingspan and Pounce. As their names also suggest, one turns into a bird and the other a puma-type animal. The toys are pretty limited in articulation: their shoulders move, and that’s it. Even for the time this was poor. In their defense, however, the engineering and imagination required to make the gimmick work is quite complex. A Transformer’s humanoid mode is largely defined by their other form – having to make two identical robots turn into different things, without having any visible remnant of that form in the robot mode is challenging.
I love these toys, truth be told. Yeah, the gimmick doesn’t quite work – you need to use your imagination and squint a bit – and they’re so limited in articulation they make Stephen Hawking look like Jackie Chan, but it’s a bold and refreshing concept for a toy. As a child, I had great fun imagining the kind of shenanigans these four would get up to. The idea that their true potential was masked until they transformed and revealed it struck a chord with me, too. People judge us by the way we look, and when you have a literal clone of yourself with you a lot of the time, you sometimes feel like your individual potential and talents are ignored. As a human being, you’re reduced to a gimmick – a curiosity. “The twins”.
These toys remind me that we’re all of us unique, and our capabilities have nothing to do with our outward appearance.
Anyway, the inspiration for this article came from an unlikely source. A knock off toy from China. I do love bootlegs, and this one made my jaw drop. In a pound shop in Birmingham, in space-year 2014, I found a copy of the aforementioned Fastlane. The mind boggles; twenty-six years after its original release, someone decides to produce a counterfeit. I can imagine the Chinese man working furiously into the night, carving the injection molds. He gets a call from his wife, begging him to return home and see his children. He refuses – “THE WORLD NEEDS THIS TOY!!” he shouts. Once again, his dinner gets cold at an empty table.
Well, he probably wasn’t speaking English, but the rest of that story is certainly true.
Now, other than the Crayola colours, this is a pretty unremarkable bootleg. He’s otherwise the same as the original release, although the plastic is much cheaper and thus doesn’t capture the sharp detail of the genuine toy. Helpfully, he has the words “RACING – CAR” printed over his spoiler, to remind us of what his alternate mode is supposed to be. Chucklesome, but nothing compared to what I’m about to show you. See, the original toys had heat-sensitive stickers on their bodies, visible as black squares on their chests in the above photos. Rubbing them with your finger made an image appear to allow you to tell which clone was which. For example, Fastlane here had a picture of a car and Pounce had a Thundercats-style puma head. It was pretty cool! But the makers of this toy obviously weren’t going to manufacture those special stickers; they had a better idea! Would you like to see the insignia that Fastlane proudly bears? Behold!
And that… is all I have to say. Keep smiling, my darlings.
“Imagine the Chinese”