Before the 1980s, vehicles were relatively scarce for action figure toy lines. This was mostly because most action figures of the era were 8”-12” tall, so in-scale vehicles were expensive, both for the producers and for the consumers.
But that all changed in the late 1970s when a little company called Kenner came up with the idea of shrinking the figures for their newest license, Star Wars, to 3.75”. There had been 3”-4” lines before then, but Kenner was the first company to fully embrace the advantages of the scale, creating dozens of vehicles based on the immensely popular Star Wars films. This led to an onslaught of vehicle-based toylines of the 1980s. This is a list of some of the best action figure vehicles of the 1980s. (To find out how I made my selections, see the note at the end of the list.)
10.) Tron Light Cycle (Tomy, 1982)
One of the most iconic vehicles of the 1980s was the Light Cycle, from Disney’s techno-fantasy film Tron. Sleek and curved, leaving solid virtual walls (how’s that for an oxymoron?) in their wake, the Light Cycles had a futuristic vibe that was half cyberpunk, half Art Deco.
Tomy produced toys based on the film, including the Light Cycles. You could fit one of the neat, translucent action figures into the cockpit. The Cycle could then be sent flying across the floor by pulling a ripcord. You had to use your imagination for the walls, though.
9.) A-Team Tactical Van (Galoob, 1984)
There are a few things about The A-Team that people will always remember: Mr. T, Murdock’s severe mental issues, Hannibal saying he loves it when a plan comes together, and The Van. The distinctive black GMC van with the red stripe and spoiler was the pride and joy of Mr. T’s character, B.A. Baracus.
Galoob made a 6” and a 3.75” line of A-Team figures in the mid-80s, and for the smaller line they created a version of the van. What it lacked in action features–other than a removable top for access, it was pretty bare-bones–it made up for by being the freakin’ van from the A-Team. It also came with a B.A. Baracus figure, which meant that with one purchase you could own all the really important A-Team toys.
8.) TMNT Party Wagon (Playmates, 1988)
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the last great toy fad of the 1980s, sweeping He-Man, Transformers, G.I. Joe and the rest aside in their turtle-y conquest of the action figure market. The Playmates toy line debuted in 1988, just as the cartoon was becoming a hit.
The Turtles’ main mode of transportation was the Party Wagon, a.k.a. the Turtle Van. Like most of Playmates’ vehicles for the TMNT line, the Party Wagon was packed with features. It came loaded down with guns and bombs, featured a spring-out door and a flip-open top so that all the Turtles could be placed inside, and an armored windshield could flip down to protect the driver. The Van appeared in most episodes of the cartoon, and so it was the must-have vehicle from the toy line.
7.) Super Powers Batmobile (Kenner, 1984-5)
Many of the vehicles in Kenner’s Super Powers line, such as the “Justice Jogger” and the somewhat dirty-sounding “Delta Probe One,” were made up just for the toy line. But one indispensable vehicle was the Batmobile.
It’s interesting to note that twenty years after the end of the 1960s television series, the show’s famous Lincoln Futura-based Batmobile was still influencing the comics and toys: you can see it in the Kenner Batmobile’s sleek angles and twin bubble canopies. The toy also featured a pop-out battering ram, a grabbing hook on the back, and oddest of all, pop-up headlights. To many collectors, this is still the best toy Batmobile ever made.
6.) Ghostbusters Ecto-1 (Kenner, 1986)
Like the General Lee and KITT, the Ecto-1 was one of the most iconic cars of the 1980s. Built from a 1959 Cadillac Meteor, the Ecto-1 was the Ghostbusters’ trusty steed in their battle against the paranormal.
Kenner produced an Ecto-1 for their toy line based on the Real Ghostbusters cartoon. Unlike a lot of toy vehicles in the 1980s, Kenner’s version was a fair approximation of the film version, though it had a number of added features not seen the movies, such as a “blasting seat” on top and a claw that came out the back to capture ghosts. Like the Turtle Party Wagon or the Batmobile, your Ghostbusters toy collection just wasn’t complete without an Ecto-1 to get them where they need to ghost. I mean, go.
5.) M.A.S.K. Rhino (Kenner, 1985)
M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) was an interesting cartoon and toyline. It featured a special task force of real American heroes who drove normal-looking vehicles that could transform into weapons of war. So basically, Kenner was trying to cash in on the two big brands of their rival Hasbro by combining them into one Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of a toyline.
Most of the M.A.S.K. vehicles were pretty cool, but the biggest, baddest one of all was the Rhino. It was a big-rig truck that converted into a Mobile Defense Unit, complete with a battering ram bumper, smokestack cannons, an ejector seat, an ATV, and a freakin’ huge missile launcher. It also came with two figures, Matt Trakker (who was recently honored with a new G.I. Joe figure) and Bruce Sato.
4.) Masters of the Universe Dragon Walker (Mattel, 1984)
There was no shortage of innovative action features throughout the Masters of the Universe toyline, both among the figures themselves and the vehicles. But for many fans, the most memorable vehicle was the Dragon Walker.
This big green vehicle was powered by a small motor. While a MOTU figure rode in the “dragon head” on top, the head itself slid down a track until it got to the end, and then the entire bottom of the vehicle would swing around, advancing the whole thing forward. While this is obviously the most ridiculous, impractical mode of transportation ever conceived, it worked, and that’s what kids loved about it. The fact that the tiny motor emitted a constant, ear-splitting whine didn’t hurt its appeal to kids, either (though I imagine parents could have lived without it).
3.) KITT (Kenner, 1982-3)
Perhaps no other car says “the 1980s” better than the black Trans Am that played the part of KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand) on Knight Rider. There have been many toy versions of KITT over the years, but the best version in the ‘80s (and possibly of all time) was Kenner’s 1/12 scale version.
In addition to featuring open and closing doors, a movable steering wheel, and a 6” Michael Knight figure, KITT also spoke a number of phrases from the show. The Michael figure may have looked more like an albino tree frog than David Hasselhoff, but let’s face it, no one cared about the figure–KITT was what’s important here, and Kenner delivered in spades.
2.) G.I. Joe SkyStriker (Hasbro, 1983)
Jets are awesome. Little kids instinctively understand this, long before they watch Top Gun or Aces: Iron Eagle III. Jets were everywhere in kids’ toys in the 1980s, such as the well-known “Seekers” from the Transformers toy line (Starscream, Skywarp, and Thundercracker). But the mother of all jet toys was the SkyStriker.
The SkyStriker was based on the F-14 Tomcat, the same fighter jet featured Top Gun. This thing was huge: remember, a 4” action figure could fit in the cockpit. It featured retractable landing gear, removable bombs and missiles, folding wings, and a cockpit ejection seat. It wasn’t just a great G.I. Joe toy–it was probably the best jet toy of the era. And it sold for only $15! That’s $30 in 2009 dollars (though that’s only accounting for inflation, not rising costs for plastic and foreign labor).
In real life, the F-14 was retired a few years back; a new SkyStriker would most likely be an F-22 or an F-35. Are you listening, Hasbro?
1.) AT-AT (Kenner, 1981)
Hasbro recently released the mother of all Star Wars toys in their new AT-AT, which towers over the vintage version. However, it’s important to note that in 1981, that vintage AT-AT was just as impressive to young Star Wars fans as the new one us today.
It was huge, standing nearly a foot and a half tall. It was fully poseable, including the legs and neck. It had light-up guns and doors that could be opened on the cockpit and sides. It was a status symbol, the standard by which all young kids with Star Wars collections were judged; if you had an AT-AT, chances are you were the most admired kid on the playground.
NOTE: For this list, I came up with a few ground rules:
-I only selected toys from the 1980s, i.e., no toys made before 1980 or after 1989. So the Millennium Falcon and the X-Wing fighter are out (1978 and 1979), as is the TMNT Technodrome (1993).
-I excluded “animal” vehicles like Battle Cat, Tyrantisaurus or Dino Riders. They could make up an entire list of their own.
-There are no Transformers on the list, because most of them are vehicles, so it sort of defeats the purpose of the whole thing.
-After some thought, I decided to exclude “vehicles” that are really more like playsets, such as the G.I. Joe Defiant Space Vehicle Launch Complex or the U.S.S. Flagg. The Defiant and the Flagg have been on enough top ten lists.
My criteria for choosing each vehicle can be broken down into three categories:
-First, I tried to get a sense of which vehicles are most popular among the line-specific collecting communities as well as collectors at large. This was sometimes surprising–for example, while many G.I. Joe fans agree the U.S.S. Flagg was amazing, it was so expensive that very few kids owned one, so many fans were more fond of cheaper vehicles they’d actually owned.
-Second, I took into consideration the qualities toy itself. Using G.I. Joe again as an example, many fans are fond of the H.I.S.S. Tank, but many also love the SkyStriker, and of the two, the SkyStriker is bigger and has more accessories and features.
-Finally, there’s obviously an element of my own opinion here. It’s inevitable, but that’s what comments are for–to tell me how wrong I am, and why. In detail, please.
Poe Ghostal runs the toy-oriented blog Poe Ghostal’s Points of Articulation. He received his first toy, a Mighty Mouse figure, at age three. Thus began a lifelong interest (some might say obsession) with toys. A child of the 1980s, he grew up on Star Wars, He-Man & Transformers toys, as well as more obscure lines such as Power Lords, Robo Force, and Manglors.
Poe has written about toys for IGN.com and ToyFare magazine. He was a founder of OAFE.net and has been a guest reviewer for Michael Crawford’s popular review site.