Toys faced an interesting evolution of sorts throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. Initially, you had the Barbie line of dolls from Mattel, which measured in at nearly a foot tall. This was soon followed by Hasbro’s G.I. Joe “action figures” for boys, which followed a similar scale.
Things changed up a bit when Kenner acquired the Star Wars license, however. Certainly, they could have continued with tradition by producing Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and all the rest in that same scale, but half the appeal of the franchise is the myriad vehicles used to travel the galaxy and fight that eponymous war in the stars. Producing vehicles to match the established scale would be a nightmare of costs for the manufacturer and consumer alike — just imagine how big an X-Wing would need to be for a figure that size, never mind something like the Millennium Falcon — so something had to give.
That ended up being the size of the figure. Smaller, simpler figures at a 3 3/4 inch scale would be more affordable, more collectible, and most importantly, would allow for the massive scale of vehicles and playsets to be affordable and collectible as well. This would influence later lines as well, including the military-themed G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero line from Hasbro, which could now incorporate tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, and fortresses into its lineup (or, for the big-ticket spenders, the seven-foot U.S.S. Flagg aircraft carrier).
After passing on the Star Wars license themselves, Mattel sought to enter the action figure market with their own franchise: Masters of the Universe*, but they wanted something a little more “powerful.” So they upped the ante to 5 1/2 inches — bigger than Star Wars and its ilk, but not so big that vehicles, etc. would be impractical.
Part of making Masters of the Universe a hit was in the animated series from Filmation, and for the purposes of this article, that’s where things get interesting. It was the first cartoon, following a lifting of children’s television regulations by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, to directly promote a toy line. For some kids like myself, we were none the wiser at the time, figuring that if anything, the toys were there to cash in on the cartoon show. Regardless of which direction everything flowed, it was a hit nonetheless.
And promote the toys is just what the cartoon did. You would see different minions of Skeletor or different allies of He-Man show up in several episodes, though strangely enough, there were perhaps just as many episodes that didn’t feature a particular toy appearance — in fact, many characters seen in the series would not appear in toy form until 20 to 30 years later in Mattel’s recent Masters of the Universe Classics line. As for those toys that did appear, there were some interesting disparities — simplified character designs, or Snake Mountain looking like an actual mountain.
Perhaps the most interesting, however, was what was positioned as one of the key vehicles of the line: the Attak Trak. Here is how the toy looked:
A pretty awesome design, like a combination of an ATV and a tank, with just a dash of toyetic whimsy thrown in for good measure. It looked cool, and it had an interesting gimmick. There was also something else about the vehicle worth noting: it could only seat one person.
For whatever reason, though, when the animators at Filmation looked to have a vehicle that could transport a group, they looked to the Attak Trak. Instead of simply giving each character their own (or assigning different vehicles to each, which one would think would sell more toys), they took to redesigning the vehicle so that just one could take the entire group wherever they needed to go.
A large, boxy, bus-like vehicle whose only resemblance to its namesake is the distinct treads upon which it rides. It’s not without its charms, especially for its intended purpose as a multi-troop transport, but those who kids who sought to acquire the same massive vehicle they saw on the cartoon were probably disappointed when they discovered the scaled-down version that went by the same name on retail shelves (though I’m sure some thought the toy design was cooler, but either way, the promoted purpose was sacrificed).
One has to wonder if the disparity between what was on screen and what was in the toy aisle upset Mattel, as Filmation did include the following in the episode “Evil Seed:”
Though colored like its bigger brother, the “Small Trak” is clearly based on the toy design. Just the same, its sole appearance in the cartoon in such a fashion almost screams “compromise.”
The Attak Trak would prove not to be an isolated incident in these toy-based kids cartoons, however.
Following the success of Masters of the Universe came a toyline in a similar scale from LJN (yes, that LJN, though before they became a renowned/reviled video game developer) called ThunderCats. Like Masters of the Universe, it too relied largely on syndicated television programming to get the word out about their wares.
One such product was the ThunderTank. Unlike the Attak Trak, this mode of transportation was practically iconic to the show and its namesake team, even receiving its own theme tune like any other character. One might even argue that it’s as iconic to the ThunderCats as the Batmobile is to Batman, except in the latter case, the design ends up changed a lot more frequently. Rare was the episode, at least early on, that did not feature an appearance from the ThunderCats’ favorite ride, and it was even the one vehicle that received an update for the 2011 reboot.
Suffice to say, its importance to the franchise is not to be undersold. And as you can see above, there is a good reason for that, as it was a vehicle big enough to transport the entire core ThunderCats team, along with numerous cool features.
But while many of those features made it into the toy version of the ThunderTank, one did not:
The toy version of the ThunderTank was a two-person ride at best — at least, without a ton of fiddling and squeezing figures around any way they can fit (I think I got my whole-but-incomplete team in there… once). In the cartoon, the front portion alone is big enough to support two passengers, but for the toy, the scale of the figures meant that you got one guy up front and one in the back — provided that the back was open, which also meant every other feature on the ThunderTank was activated simultaneously. Hardly the way they ride around in the show.
Interestingly, the aforementioned reboot had figures that were of a much smaller scale, going for the 3 3/4 inch scale that has traditionally worked well with vehicles. And yet, the new version of the ThunderTank — much more massive my comparison, even in toy form — still couldn’t hold the entire team, though that was more by flaws in the toy’s design than a matter of scale. Perhaps Bandai was banking on the new rear section added later to act as a troop transport?
The ThunderTank was an awesome beast of a machine; perhaps it was just too awesome for toy form.
Before we close out the 80’s, I feel like a nod needs to be given to the Maraj from ThunderCats‘ space-policing cousin, SilverHawks, which not only resembled the cartoon’s appearance quite closely, but whose design was such that being able to fit all five SilverHawks as on the show was practically mandatory.
The final piece I’m looking at here, interestingly enough, manages to flip this entire situation on its head.
Unlike Masters of the Universe‘s Attak Trak or ThunderCats‘ ThunderTank, the Party Wagon from Playmates’ line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys was very much ready, willing, and able to transport all four of the green teens and even some of their allies to the battlefield. Six figures — or the entire opening cast of good guys — could be seated comfortably, and even more if you squeezed them in.
Funny enough, though, the cartoon took a bit of a different approach to the vehicle.
The Turtle Van — almost never (if ever) called the “Party Wagon” — featured a rather different appearance. Besides far less red, the gun placement on top was different, and besides numerous details that didn’t match up — just the broad strokes, really — all of the action features were different from what the toy provided.
First and foremost? No Turtle-Launcher, which is one heck of an omission, given that it was featured for a good ten seconds of the one-minute opening used for the series’ first three years. If one were to open the top of the vehicle (as seen above), you could fake it with a bit of imagination, but let’s face it: they weren’t trying to sell us on our imagination, they were trying to sell us on their product (though disparity with the cartoon promoting the product is something of a persistent theme with Playmates’ TMNT line especially).
Its debut appearance in the cartoon also featured a swing-open panel on the passenger side which allows Raphael to man a turret and open fire on the Rock Soldiers/Stone Warriors’ Techno Rover vehicle. Instead, the toy featured an overlong arm with a similar seat attached, but no turret. Instead, bombs would roll out, but the main part of the feature was that the arm would “smash” any figures in its way. Sounds cool in theory, but in practice? It felt kind of impractical to pull up alongside a bad guy and then smack them with the door instead of just hitting them head-on.
I suppose that brings us to the third feature shown above, which is the opening platform on the driver’s side that Leonardo used to step onto before slicing the treads of the Techno Rover with his katana. It feels like maybe that’s what the bomb-dropping platform (which, now that I think about it, would also endanger the guy who swung out on the door) was meant to do, but in trying to fit the whole gimmick together, it felt like Playmates’ missed the beautiful simplicity of what made the Turtle Van’s features work so well in the cartoon.
Back to the whole seating thing, though, there’s one more thing. While the back of Playmates’ Party Wagon is filled with seats, the cartoon had something else going on:
Instead of a ton of cushioning, the back of the cartoon’s Turtle Van was basically their command center, filled with radars, computers, and all the fun kind of stuff you’d expect to find in a headquarter, but set to go on the road. If anything, the seats probably took up more room in the toy. Granted, standing room only may sound ill-advised, but the Party Wagon didn’t exactly come equipped with seatbelts — your figures were getting thrown around no matter what.
Oh, and there was no back door like on the show, as seen above. Barring the slightly-meta opening roof, there was only one way in or out of that van — through the swinging door. On the one hand, that’s a perfect set-up to an ambush, but on the other, I guess we have a practical use for the smashing feature?
As a kid, I always wanted a toon-accurate Turtle Van, but one never came — not even with the “Toon Turtles” subline, which instead retooled the Party Wagon into a news van for a very toon-inaccurate April figure. Amusingly enough, that one did retool at least one row of seats for communications equipment, among other changes.
Interestingly enough, the 2012 series’ Party Wagon (which is referred to as such in a clever way) feels more like a hybrid of the two with some other tweaks, and feels closer to the Turtle Van toy I always wanted as a kid. Go figure.
In the years that followed, the “group transport” seemed to fall out of style. The Power Rangers would hit the scene about half a decade after the Turtles first took to the airwaves, and their Zords were something else altogether. Batman typically doesn’t work in groups, so the Batmobile was largely a non-issue there (though when Justice League hit Cartoon Network in 2001, the Javelin 7 toy only carried two members of the team), and the Maximals and Predacons of Beast Wars Transformers were usually as self-sufficient for getting around as their ancestors.
To bring things full-circle, Masters of the Universe has seen a continuation and two reboots since, with no Attak Trak in sight, and while G.I. Joe has all but faded from the public eye, Star Wars is still in full force — er, Force? — and is still producing figures and vehicles large and small.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading over 2,200 words about something that no one but me has ever likely given a fig about.
* Note that this is a simplified account; more detailed versions are available, including the upcoming documentary Toy Masters
David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you’re interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.