Transformers are alien robots hailing from the planet Cybertron, a metallic world riven by aeons of civil war between Heroic Autobots and Evil Decepticons. The differences between these two factions are absolute: Autobots are peace-loving, kind and curious about humanity; Decepticons are bellicose, authoritarian and contemptuous of other lifeforms. Transformers came to Earth by accident: a chase through an asteroid field caused them all to crash-land in North America. They lay deactivated inside the Autobots’ spaceship, beneath a volcano, for four million years, until awakened by an eruption in 1984. At this point, their war resumed on earth.
The name ‘Transformers’ comes from the robots’ ability to transform their mechanical bodies to alternate modes, resembling cars, aeroplanes, animals and many, many other things. The clever combination of robot and vehicle toys, and the often-complicated series of movements required to change between the two modes, ensured that Transformers were some of the most popular children’s toys of the mid-1980s. Many of them resembled real-life vehicles and are wonderful pieces of design; they twist and swing and snap into place in a highly satisfactory manner, providing a sense of accomplishment the first time the toy is successfully transformed.
Transformers was launched in 1984, but the history of many of the toys actually goes back slightly further. Earlier that same year, American toy company Hasbro purchased the distribution rights to two existing Japanese toy lines: Microman and Diaclone, both made by Takara. With the addition of a few models from other manufacturers, these were compiled into a single Transformers line, given a backstory to fit them, and were marketed and sold in North America and Europe. The line was launched in time for Christmas, alongside an accompanying animated television programme and series of Marvel comic books. The UK version of the comic became highly acclaimed due to the more serious nature of the storylines written by Simon Furman, compared with the US release.
In 1986 an animated feature-length Transformers film was produced, bearing a far darker tone than the television series. Boasting the vocal talent of Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy and, in his final film appearance, Orson Welles, Transformers the Movie is widely considered notorious for Hasbro’s apparent cynicism. Many of the much-loved characters from the first two series’ of the television programme were unceremoniously killed-off in the opening scenes in order to introduce new Transformers, and new must-have toys, to the public. Nowadays it’s something of a cult film and it was also the first DVD I ever bought. The original run of Transformers toys and accompanying media (known as ‘Generation 1’) was produced until 1991, when it was succeeded by Generation 2. Since then, there have been several relaunched and reimagined toy lines, comic books, television shows and, since 2007, big budget Hollywood films.
I have always loved Generation 1 Transformers although I’m really a bit young for them, I was not born until 1988, when their popularity was in fact beginning to recede. I can mostly attribute the pleasure I have taken from them, not to mention my strong knowledge of them, to the Betamax video cassette I had of the first three episodes of the cartoon (‘More than Meets the Eye’). This I watched over and over again, firstly in the living room at my parents’ house, then in my big sister’s bedroom after the Betamax was relegated there to make way for a VHS. I’ve no idea where the video came from, possibly it was a gift from my dad or one of his friends. I had a few Transformers toys, for the most part they were second hand and in a mixed condition. Some of them were received from the older boy who lived next door, who one day presented me with a precious treasure: a cardboard box filled with his old toys. Others I obtained in various ways, through swaps which were heavily biased in my favour, and through one shameful episode at a school jumble sale, the details of which I will not bring forth in the hallowed pages of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog. All I will say is that, Leon, wherever you are, I am sorry.
The Museum of Childhood has a collection of twenty four Generation 1 Transformers toys, to which I have been turning to study in rare free moments. All of these were received by the Museum in 1994, a gift from Mr. Jermaine Dacas, who also gave the Museum a number of He-Man figures. Mr Dacas (born 1973) recalled that he purchased his Transformers with his pocket money between the years 1985 and 1987. His Transformers are an eclectic selection, perhaps dictated by what was being sold in his local toy shop. There are fifteen Autobots and nine Decepticons. I have been cataloguing these objects, photographing them, and matching them up with various unsorted ‘bits’. These ‘bits’, mainly weapons and limbs, were described in 1994 as parts of an object called ‘Equipment for He-Man figures and Transformers’. Thus, I have been doing some tidying, for example I have reunited Motormaster with his sword and Sideswipe with his gun and rocket launcher. Most of our Transformers are in a very good but played-with condition. There are no serious problems with any of the plastic or metal parts and, aside from a few stickers losing their stick, they all look good.
One of the benefits of addressing small areas of the collection like this is that it allows us to estimate its quality and completeness. The ranks of our Transformers lack two key characters: Optimus Prime and Megatron, respectively the leaders of the Autobots and the Decepticons. Optimus was a must-have Christmas toy, deeply beloved by his owners, but infamous for his scarceness and his hefty price tag. In my parents’ attic, I have what I used to claim to be an authentic Optimus Prime toy, albeit with only one hand, one exhaust pipe, a missing trailer door and his plucky car pal, Roller, absent. My Optimus was also white, not red. However, I came to realise, gradually, that in fact I have a mismatch: an Ultra Magnus cab paired with a genuine yet broken trailer. This may be a case of deserved comeuppance, for I acquired him at the age of six by pressuring a friend to give him to me in exchange for a Decepticon called Jawbreaker, who transformed into a small shark with legs. I will never forget his mother’s look of disbelief. Another unfortunate absence from the Museum’s collection are any of the so-called ‘Gestalts’, very large robots formed by joining together a number of smaller Transformers. Despite not having these, the collection is very good, with a great range of characters and transformations.
The V&A has little money available for acquisitions, so we rely heavily on the generosity of the public when developing our collections. We are always grateful to receive offers of donations, even if we are not able to accept them. If any reader of this blog feels able to help us to develop our collection, or can give us any information about the Transformers we already have, please get in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org.