NEW YORK – Apropos to their original tagline, there is “more than meets the eye” when it comes to Transformers toys. That these cybertronic figures from another world change into vehicles is at the heart of the toys’ duality but their appeal goes deeper than first glance.
Transformers toys were first made in America by toy giant Hasbro in 1984 but their origins lie with a line of Japanese-made transforming toys called Diaclone by Takara that debuted in 1980. These toys changed from being a robot to a vehicle, and Takara also had a Microman line featuring miniature figures.
Hasbro executives liked what they saw at the annual toy show in Tokyo and licensed both lines, which they used to create the Transformers. Knowing they could better market these if they were not just toys, they created a good vs. evil storyline (Autobots vs. Decepticons) and backstories for the Transformers characters. Their approach worked and Transformers became a huge hit as collectible toys, perhaps second only to Star Wars and G.I. Joe. The Transformers universe expanded into comics, a TV cartoon show and several movies.
“There are several factors that go into making Transformers such a popular and lasting property,” said Mike Bollinger, senior cataloger and resident Transformers buff at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania.
A strong sense of childhood nostalgia is chief among the appeal of the Transformers toys today. “Adults who were children during the 1980s were bombarded with many great cartoons and accompanying toy lines,” Bollinger said. “Transformers was one of the more popular. Now as adults with more disposable income, many collectors look to recapture their childhood with familiar and beloved characters like Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Hot Rod and the Dinobots as well as nefarious villains like Megatron, Starscream and Soundwave.”
The first wave of Transformers, or “Generation 1,” was the first time most characters in the Transformers universe were introduced, and it was at this time that the characters’ personalities were developed, he said. “While there have been many different versions of Optimus Prime over the decades, fans always know just what kind of hero he is,” Bollinger said.
That being said, the Transformers toys that are most sought after by collectors are typically the more popular characters from back in the ’80s, he added. These include the aforementioned Autobots (the protagonists of the series, who are protecting Earth) and their villainous rivals, the Decepticons, above as well as larger Transformers, such as the “Combiners” like Superior, Computron, Devastator and Bruticus. As the latter were formed by combining several different individual Transformers, finding complete loose examples in good condition can be quite the task, let alone in their original packaging, Bollinger explained.
While Hasbro’s Transformers hit massive popularity heights, the original inspiration for these toys cannot be discounted. “Most of the original Transformers toys were based on preexisting Japanese toy lines like Microman and Diaclone produced by Takara,” Bollinger said. “It was due to two different (if not related) toy lines that saw some Transformers changing from vehicles to robots while others were weapons or household objects that changed into robots. Some even borrowed designs from other Japanese properties, like the Super Valkyrie mecha design from the anime series Super Dimensional Fortress Macross that was used for the always popular Jetfire Transformer.”
Hasbro produced its first generation of Transformers toys for a few years but by the time the first Transformers movie came out in 1986, Hasbro had already started changing the makeup of the toys for cost-savings and popularity waned. A second generation of toys was launched in 1993, and over the years, has continued to be released. Popularity surged anew in 2007 with the release of Michael Bay’s live-action Transformers movie and the toy line was again revamped, introducing a whole new generation to the Transformers universe.
For many serious collectors, however, only the first generation will do, and a Hake’s February 2021 auction aptly demonstrated the appeal of first generation Transformers when a Jetfire in its original factory-sealed window box from 1985 sold for an auction record price of $24,806, including the buyer’s premium. Jetfire is one of the most popular characters and began as a Decepticon but switched over to the Autobot side.
“There’s no denying Star Wars was one of the most dominant toy lines of the late 1970s and into the ’80s, but Transformers is also one of the most popular toy properties of the 1980s, ranking alongside toy behemoths like Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Bollinger said.
The Transformers toy universe is also so big, spanning three decades, that collectors from multiple generations can find toys to suit all budgets as well as revisit their childhood version.