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Retro Crimbo: Toys are us ~ the top 10 greatest Christmas presents

December 13, 2011




A long time ago in a galaxy in your bedroom: the original Kenner Star Wars toys not only enabled fans to recreate moments from the momentous film trilogy, but was also a backbone to a generation’s playthings

To be fair, when you cast your mind back, many Christmases merge into one. The most wonderful time of the year is, after all, defined by tradition: it’s usually about reuniting with family, overdosing on turkey, Christmas cake and yule log, pulling the odd cracker and avoiding Noel Edmonds on the telly. And, arguably, it wasn’t much different when we were wee nippers either; however, the prospect of the whole shebang seemed a lot more exciting back then – and there’s one very good reason why. Presents. Indeed, if anything made one Crimbo stand out from another it was probably the fact you received an ace present or two that year. It certainly was for yours truly, at least.

I can’t claim to be up with the toy trends nowadays (not having kids, why would I?), but I get the feeling there’s an over-reliance on video games in this modern age of ours, which must be most true of all at Crimbo. And that seems a damn shame to me. For how can it generate the same unadulterated delight that discovering a cool box of building bricks, a super-duper action figure playset or a sleek, new bike in your stocking always did? All right, perhaps none of those would actually have fitted in your stocking. Mind, I recall those things being damned stretchy…

Anyway, given the biggest present-related delight I tend to get at the yuletide now is considering the irony of finding a pair of socks in my stocking (which given its only a metaphorical stocking these days means there’s no irony anyway), do indulge me, peeps, as I look back on a classic list of Crimbo present toys; some personal, others universal. Rip that wrapping paper away…!

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CLICK on the toy names for video clips – many of them ads from back in the day

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10. Raleigh Chopper bike (1970-82)

So, what better toy to kick-off the countdown than this undisputed retro icon (after all, it features in the banner at the head of every page of this blog)? Indeed, of all UK children’s bikes there’s few more fondly recalled than the legendary Raleigh Chopper. Having said that, given it was far from the most reliable or easiest-to-ride two-wheeled mode of transportation, it’s a little perplexing its mention brings such a smile to those who remember it. Mind, so too does mention of its four-wheeled ’70s counterparts the Austin Allegro and Maxi and they really were craptastic. Influenced by the look of the ‘chopper’ motorbikes made oh-so familiar by Easy Rider (1969), Raleigh introduced the bike in 1970, the most popular model of which was the Mk2, available from ’72 onwards, which boasted five gears. Almost instantly, the Chopper was a big hit; not only (in a very ’70s way) did it look damn cool, but with its back wheel bigger than the front, it guaranteed kids up and down the country could pull wheelies easier than ever before, while its long seat allowed Chopper-less friends to enjoy lifts, ensuring they looked almost as cool as the bike’s rider. Despite its issues (its wide tyres caused ‘rolling resistance’, it would wobble worryingly at anything approaching speed and, if crashed, its gear-lever could contribute to injuries), in the days of bell-bottoms and parkas there was simply no cooler way to get around – well, until you grew up and could afford to buy an actual ‘chopper’, that is.

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9. Rubik’s Cube (1977-present)

Not often in history has a specific toy been a hit with kids and adults alike, but throughout the ’80s the Rubik’s Cube seemed to bewitch, perplex and infuriate everyone from age five to 105. Like practically all the best toys, its premise was simple: solve the puzzle by finding the correct colour pattern; only the switch was the puzzle was a cube and the hook that it was eccerin’ impossible to solve. Many peeps are hardy sorts, though, to whom challenges appeal, especially those that others can’t meet. Maybe I’ll be able solve this puzzle when every single person I know can’t, one tends to think optimistically. But, with the Rubik’s Cube, it was a vain hope – nobody could ever solve one (ensuring it looked as it does in the image above rather than it does in the image in the banner at the top of the page). And if they could, they were declared a freak and driven out of their community by townsfolk bearing pitchforks. Well, they should have been anyway. The Rubik’s Cube (named after its boffin inventor, the Hungarian sculptor and architecture professor Ernő Rubik) was created in 1974 – as so often with such things – by accident, then mass-produced in Hungary in ’77 and exported from 1980 onwards. It sold like hotcakes and became a cultural phenomenon, making it on to TV shows and into movies and inspiring nifty artworks. Oh, and appearing at events worldwide, of course, where ‘Cube enthusiasts would race each other to solve the thing in record time. They still do. Ruddy freaks…

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8. Space Hopper (1968-present)

Far less intellectually taxing than the Rubik’s Cube and capturer of the imaginations of (almost) as many adults as children, yes, it’s the giant orange inflatable fun-machine, the Space Hopper. Designed by Italian Aquilino Cosani, it was patented in 1968 – but, with understandable lack of foresight, only in his native country. For who back then would have believed this overgrown rubber satsuma would still be bounced on by kids of all ages today? Originally named a Pon-Pon, Cosani’s toy made it Stateside in 1969, where it achieved moderate success (look out for several of ’em in the background in the original Star Trek series episode And The Children Will Lead – yes, really) and became known as a Hoppity Hop there. It found its spiritual home in the UK, though, where from 1968 the eccentric British took it to their hearts. Yep, back in the ’70s, while the cool kids were performing wheelies and skids on their Raleigh Choppers, the, well, less cool were bouncing their way to the sweet shop on a Space Hopper, the toy’s most popular name over here. Primarily manufactured in Britain by Mettoy-Corgi (the toy car company), it was 60-70cm in diameter, could be inflated via a bicycle pump and featured two knobbly handles – which were given the appearance of ears thanks to the happy/ scary (delete as appropriate) kangaroo-esque face painted on the front – that riders held on to for dear life once they’d started bouncing. For a ride on a Space Hopper often proved fruitless (you may’ve only gone up and down) or painful (falling off and grazing one’s knee was commonplace). But aren’t almost all the most fun pursuits in life pointless and sometimes bad for us? Indeed, like Crimbo itself, you might say.

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7. Scalextric (1952-present)

Never were the pursuits of the different sexes more separately defined than back in the halcyon days of childhood. Girls had My Little Pony, Barbie and dolls that made irritating baby noises; boys had Action Man, Transformers and, yup… Scalextric. Ah yes, racing that miniature sportscar around a black rubber track and making it go faster by squeezing a trigger on an object that looked like a ray-gun from a sci-fi movie. Really, it got no more masculine than Scalextric. Well, when you were eight. Originally produced by UK clockwork toy car company Minimodels (and now owned by Hornby), Scalextric hit its stide in the ’60s when boys couldn’t get enough of it. And who could blame them? The thrill of racing a little vehicle against your friends’ as they whizzed around a – more often than not – figure-of-eight track (like in the above image) was the closest you ever got to participating in a real car race. For most of us it always will be. But, don’t doubt it, those cars really moved; it required skill to control them at speed, so spectacular crashes (like in real motrosport going back) were frequent. And for some reason the burning smell of the little metal brushes, which kept the cars on the track, as the electric current passed through them and made the cars go was eerily intoxicating. Like the smell of burning tyre rubber at a real race track. Erm, I imagine. Truth be told, I was never much of a car person (still aren’t), thus the Scalextric sets in our house were my brother’s, but some rainy afternoons it got no better than pretending we were Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna – and sounding as high pitched as Murray Walker as we pretend-commentated on our antics.

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6. Playmobil pirate ship (1978-c.90)

All kids loves pirates – just ask Johnny Depp’s accountant. As such, once again I must confess I feel sorry for today’s ankle-biters, for unlike their forebears they rely on viewings of the (generally) lacklustre Pirates Of The Caribbean movies to get their fill of hijinks on the high seas. Back in the ’80s, though, it was a different story. Why? Because of the Playmobil pirate ship – the classic version, that is (serial number: 3050). This item of toy lore was, dear readers, like manna from heaven for me. At about half-a-metre long, it featured not just a deck and a poop deck, but a captain’s cabin beneath the latter (the poop deck being cleverly removable to reveal the cabin). Other moving parts included a metal anchor that could be winched up and down and a crate that could winch a treasure chest (full of minature gold-painted coins) into and out of the hull. Of course, Playmobil figures were all present and correct too (in pirate costume, all with hats and one with a natty hook for a hand) and, best of all, there were also a couple of cannons that, yes, thanks to being spring-loaded could fire little cannon balls – of which there were many; just as well, as when you fired one from a cannon it’d invariably move at such speed you’d never see it again. Oh, and the ship was so designed – or should I say so well designed – that it would also float on water. Ideal one would think as a bath toy, but being as our bath was regular size it was a bit impractical in that scenario. Playmobil, owned by Germany’s Brandstätter Group, has been making toys featuring its inconic figures since 1975 in scores of different Lego-esque real-life and fantasy ‘themes’, but of all its efforts, the original pirate ship surely has to be the treasure at the centre of its plaything ocean – well, to this lan’lubber’s mind it certainly is, at least.

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5. BMX bike (early 1970s-present)

In 1982, the British bicycle giant Raleigh called it a day manufacturing the Chopper bike. But it wasn’t the constant complaints from grow-ups about its safety issues that did it in, it was that Raleigh weren’t shifting enough of them anymore. How so? Well, there was a cool new two-wheeler on the block – the BMX. Also in 1982, Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was released, which – as a flick that would quickly become the biggest money-spinner in cinema history – contained a seminal sequence featuring kids on BMX bikes. A coincidence? Hardly. If you were a child/ teenager in ’82 and beyond, you weren’t anyone unless you owned a BMX. It was even more important than being au fait with Star Wars. ‘BMX’ is, of course, an acronym – for ‘bicycle motocross’; the pedal-tastic toy having started out as an engine-less children’s version of the dirt bike used for motocross racing in early ’70s California. Over the years its popularity grew and, with the help of the likes of E.T., became world conquering – or at least universal on both sides of the Atlantic. Mind you, even for those who didn’t use theirs to race on muddy hillsides it was more than just a mode of transportation. Unlike the Chopper, most BMXs were sturdily made, which was handy given they were as much designed for being thrown about and used to perform tricks as they were for speeding round to your mate’s house after school. Many came with extra-long wheel-nuts so you could stand on them as opposed to sit on the saddle as you risked your life hopping about to impress your friends. Yes, in the ’80s, we were all BMX bandits (Australian filmmakers even made a movie by that two-word term); today we sport the discoloured skin from fomer scabs to prove it – and it was all totally worth it.

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4. Lego King’s Castle (1984-c.90)

It was December 25 1987, or maybe ’88 (but definitely not ’89), and the main present from my parents I opened that day was the Lego King’s Castle – a king among Christmas presents and no mistake. Lego, the Danish giant of brick-building-based toys, has been the purveyor of many great Crimbo presents since the company’s inception way back in 1949, but none of ’em have outdone this effort. Indeed, this medieval-influenced playset (serial number: 6080) is perfectly summed up by Lego’s official motto: Det bedste er ikke for godt (‘Only the best is good enough’). Beyond fitting together brilliantly – the secret behind Lego’s outrageous success; ‘creative play’ is always what the business has striven to achieve in kids around the world and it always seems to have achieved that aim with bells on – the awesomeness of the King’s Castle was two-fold. One, when built, not only did it form a fortress-like square, but also could be opened out, as hinges were cleverly included in its design, thus ensuring one could properly play inside as well as outside the castle. And, two (and arguably most importantly), like almost all Lego playthings, it looked terrific. Elegant, sleek and oh-so cool. For a 10 year-old it was simply impossible not to fall in love with this toy. Not least because it also came with a drawbridge and portcullis, both of which could be raised and lowered, and the requisite collection of Lego little people – some dressed as soldiers in a fine-looking read and blue livery of a make-believe lord and others dressed as knights who could mount steeds. And, yes, they all came with natty helmets, spears, swords, shields and bows and arrows. Truth be told, actually, this particular toy took on a whole new meaning for yours truly when Lego introduced a glorious Robin Hood range about a year or so later – put this castle together with Lego’s Robin Hood hideout, as I did, and you were on to an absolute winner. No question then, the King’s Castle was truly magisterial.

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3. Corgi Aston Martin DB5 (1965- present)

For many, Corgi has always had a midas touch when it comes to model vehicles, but in its 55-year history surely the toy company’s produced no more golden – or legendary – a nugget than this (ahem) dinky version of James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. Based on the motor that Sean Connery drove in the sensationally popular Goldfinger (1964), it originally hit shelves in October ’65 and was surely the first example of a toy that UK stores ran out of in the run up to Christmas – no surprise it was easily the biggest selling plaything that Crimbo. Although this first version was actually made from Corgi’s pre-existing model cast for an Aston Martin DB4 not a DB5, it was regally painted gold (unlike its film forebear). But just like its big screen counterpart it also came laden with gadgets, all of ’em operated by clever switches protruding from under the chassis. Yup, there were the machine guns that popped out from under the headlights, the rams that jutted out from the sides of the radiator, the bullet-proof screen that rose up from the boot to protect the rear window and, yes, most unforgettable of all, the ejector seat. Why was the latter so awesome? Because, like in the movie, it was perfectly realised. At the push of its switch, not only did a powerful spring force up the passenger seat and open up a section of the roof, but the force of that launched a plastic passenger up and out of the car faster than you could say Pussy Galore. Put simply, probably the coolest gadget in any Bond film had become definitely the coolest gadget built into any model car. The first version of the toy (serial number: #261) was swiftly followed by another (#270), painted an ‘authentic’ grey and adding tyre slashers and revolving number plates to the gadgetry. This, in turn, was followed in 1978 by another (#271) which is still manufactured to this day, ensuring that Corgi has now shifted a staggering seven million units of them. In fact, so popular are they that not only are many incredibly collectable, but restorers can order replacement parts and effectively build clients new ones – like Q, you can bet all the gold in Fort Knox they never joke about that lucrative work.

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2. Subbuteo (1947 -present)

It was the 1990 World Cup that did it. Lineker, Gascoigne, Platt, Schillaci, Matthäus, Klinnsman and Valderrama. What 10-year-old boy couldn’t have fallen in love with football thanks to that tournament, especially with England defying the odds and actually making it to the last four? Unfortunately, though, despite my new found delight in the sport, this 10-year-old wasn’t very good at it – I’m not really the most outdoorsy person in the world. So, if I couldn’t get my, er, kicks pretending to be my heroes by playing football, what could I turn to? One word (and a very cool one): Subbuteo. Invented and named by Peter Adolph (after Falco Subbuteo, the Latin scientific term for the bird of prey the Eurasian Hobby, which he went for when informed his finger-flick-based game couldn’t be trademarked with the simple name ‘Hobby’), it was first available in 1947 and merely comprised two teams of 11 one-dimensional cardbord-and-base figures (one in red, the other blue), a ball and instructions of how to mark out a pitch on an old blanket. With its popularity ever rising, it arguably hit its stride in the ’60s when not only did it kick into touch its fierce rival, the similar table-top replica football game Newfooty (which went bust in ’61 after over-investment in TV advertising), but also launched its iconic three-dimensional moulded team figures. In the decades that followed, Subbuteo became a true household name; not only was it possible to buy teams from every conceivable real football league, you could also get your mits on throw-in figures, corner-kick-takers, stadia and crowds and Her Maj herself to present the FA Cup. Oh, and even streakers. Growing to become a global giant, Subbuteo has enjoyed international championships for years now and has even campaigned for Olympic sport status. For little old me, though, it was the saviour of many a rainy holiday afternoon. Like Lego it was a toy that wonderfully fuelled my imagination, inviting me to set up knockout tournaments between all the teams I collected. I may be sharing too much here, but I remember a mammoth 16-team one ended up with the semi-finalists England, Italy, Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest. Only in Subbuteo. It was like football from a parallel universe and, often, a better one than the real football universe – especially today’s.

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1. Kenner Star Wars toys (1978-85)

There are only two objects I can think of that I’ve owned since a child and can instantly lay my hands on at home today. The first is a Christmas cactus (so called since it flowers around Christmas every year), whose seeds I sowed in a used yoghurt pot at school in spring 1986. The second is the Kenner Star Wars figure of Yoda that Father Christmas deposited in my stocking the Christmas before that spring. Both have accompanied me through every home move, both have experienced their downs as well as ups (the cactus, because it’s a cactus, survived about two years in a dark garage without water; Yoda no longer possesses his snake and the end of one of his ears mysteriously disappeared years ago) and both are arguably as dear to me as my right arm. Well, almost. The reason why I love the cactus is fairly obvious (it’s a living thing I’ve nurtured and sustained since I was a young ‘un); the reason why I love that Yoda figure is maybe a little more complicated. All right, I love Yoda (who doesn’t?) and that particular figure, like the film character himself, is very damn cute, but it’s also got something to do with the action figure range it comes from – something unique and thoroughly wonderful that millions of kids of the ’80s will appreciate and no doubt identify with.

For many, there is simply no toy – or, to be specific, no toy range – like the original Star Wars action figures and their additional paraphernalia. The line actually started with a bit of a goof by the once all-conquering US action figure manufacturer Kenner (now owned by and merged into Hasbro), in that after the phenomenal success of the first Star Wars flick in the summer of 1977, the company didn’t manage to get the toy range out in time for that year’s Christmas – the first batch of the action figures, mostly of the film’s principal characters, were available from winter ’78 onwards. But when it came to these oh-so special Star Wars spin-offs, Kenner certainly didn’t goof again. Undoubtedly due to the immense, almost cult-like (nowadays quasi-religious) popularity of the movies, the figures sold faster than it took the Death Star’s big laser to blow up Alderaan. And yet, perhaps because there was an agonising three-year wait between each of the original trilogy’s films, the devotion of children everywhere to these near 4-inch tall figurines became something separate from the films themselves; something magical, something so wonderful it was simply unquestioned. Not to overstate it, but if you were a child in the ’70s and/ or ’80s, owning a Raleigh Chopper made you trendy; owning a Rubik’s Cube proved you were clever; owning Star Wars toys confirmed you were a child.

Truth be told, I never owned that many of the things (in addition to Yoda, figures of Luke, Han, R2D2, C3P0, Vader and one or two randoms, as well as an X-Wing), but I still own them all – I didn’t exchange any of them, blow any up or (sacriledge!) sell any. Did I know how dear they’d remain to the adult me? Doubtful. But the magic that seemed to surround them, the same that still does today, probably had something to do with me holding on to them so long and so carefully. Surely most of all because of Kenner’s success with this toy range, there was a figurative action figure explosion in the ’80s. Competitors to The ‘Wars’ plastic replicas were Mattel’s Masters Of The Universe range (1982-88), Hasbro’s Transformers range (1984-93) and Kenner’s own The Real Ghostbusters range (1986-91), but while these three toy lines were unquestionably huge in their own right, they were never as beloved or frankly as special as the leader of the plastic-tastic pack. Indeed, so ubiquitous were these toys that your ownership of certain ones indicated your level of cool. You had to have the main character figures (naturally), but if you possessed a replica of Han Solo’s hamburger-shaped spaceship the Millennium Falcon you were cool (I so wanted one) and if you owned a Boba Fett (the only character figure who did more than stand or bend limbs; missiles could be propelled from his jet-pack) you were almost as cool as Boba Fett himself. Actually, so cool was this figure that as something of a preview it was actually released the year before his debut in the film series, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), appeared in cinemas.

As mentioned, though, my collection was rather on the small side. But, you know, that didn’t matter a jot. The fact I had a collection, the fact I was part of the original Kenner Star Wars action figure kids’ collective was what mattered. And, as said, the jewel in the crown of my collection was and always will be that Yoda figure I discovered in my stocking on Christmas morning 1985. For, yes, that little green chap with silly big ears and eyes like Albert Einstein was as special as my Christmas cactus and as magical as Christmas itself. And, don’t doubt it for that single second it takes to jump to hyperspace, he always will be.

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Further reading:

For more retro toys (and to buy them) visit:

blastsfromthepast.co.uk

midlandmemorabilia.co.uk

retrotogo.com/toys_and_games

hawkin.com

Thanks to ratherchildish.wordpress.com for the brilliantly arty Star Wars toy images

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. bob's your uncle permalink
    December 19, 2011 5:02 pm

    playmobil was the best god damn thing in the world to appear at christmas.

  2. March 7, 2016 12:14 pm

    Here in Poland back there in 80’s there was not so much to expect. We have shops like Pewex or Baltona where You could buy premium goods for foreign currency (dollars).The Average family could afford only one-two toys per kid, So, in most cases, it was some mid size Lego sets. Not including presents for “uncle” from USA or West Europe. My first toys came from USA from my father – pre-owned He-man figures, then I hadn’t known ewent their names (till TV aired some He-man cartoons). Later I got Lego sets – castle, pirate ship, pirate island, team, some Turtles figures, Nintendo Game Boy. Now I own one of biggest collection of action figures in this part of Europe – 50k+ G.I. Joe alone (If I was putinng one figure every 0,8 km I would make a line of 40000km – equator 😉 )

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