Sunday, 20 March 2005

Join the space race - but batteries not included!

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by Christopher Proudlove©

It's almost time … but not yet. According to the countdown clock on the BBC website, the invasion begins in . . . well, click on the link and see for yourself. Doctor Who is back - almost … and with Billie Piper as his sidekick. Coo!

The news was enough to send a nanostream of nostalgia coursing through my neurones.

I felt suddenly compelled to vector in to the loft and teleport my collection of tinplate space toys from the bottom of the tea chest.

They've been lurking up there for as long as the Doctor has been off our screens and experience tells me they have suddenly surged as hot property on the collectors' circuit.

I just wish I owned a Dalek like the one pictured here, at the same time one of the most popular - and most feared - robot villains in the history of British television.

It was made in the 1960s by the British toy firm Cowan-de-Groot and marketed under their trademark "Codeg".

Today the clockwork contraption, in unplayed condition and with original box, would be worth £200-300.

Fact is, I was a teenage sci-fi junkie. It started with Saturday matinees at the local picture house ... Buck Rogers and Captain Marvel and all that.

Come secondary school and a constant diet of Dan Dare's Eagle comics exploits and rainy lunchtimes spent devouring science fiction books in the school library sealed my fate.

Sadly today it's all become too much like a Hollywood blockbuster as special effects departments and make-up specialists try to outdo each other.

Give me Blake's Seven, Lost in Space and Star Trek in the days of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy any day. I'm just horrified when I realise that's 35 years ago!

Which probably goes some way to explaining why I started to collect the tinplate toys connected to the programmes.

So did a legion of others, and the toy manufacturers responded accordingly. Among the diehards, interest never waned.

Already, top people's auction houses Sotheby's and Christie's have staged specialist sales devoted to nothing but tinplate space toys and Saturday collectors' fairs usually have something to tempt cash from wallets.

The strike force chez nous currently stands at four tinplate and plastic robots (easily my favourite space toy).

Each is battery-operated and cost very little from car booters clearing out their unwanted toys.

Manic messages of goodwill

Two are particularly clever little fellows who recite manic messages of goodwill to mankind each time buttons on their heads are pressed.

A third does very little, basically because the battery compartment is missing one set of connection terminals, so he remains inert.

My favourite, though, is the one whose torso lights up with a clever moving panorama of space ships, shooting stars and planets as he trundles towards you in menacing fashion.

Sadly, none is worth much more than what I paid for it. All bear the ubiquitous Made in Hong Kong mark and are not really in the frame when it comes to the Investments For My Retirement stakes.

But as the ardent robotiana freak I've become, they're great fun and very much part of the family.

My ambition is to find a robot made by either of the two best Japanese toy manufacturers in the business, Taiyo and Horikawa.

When new in the 1950s, such a gem cost about £8-£10. Today they can fetch four-figure sums, and they show no sign of going down in value.

Shortly after the end of the second war, and after years of imitating others, Japanese manufacturers gave full rein to the creative talents of their designers and that, combined with the rapid advance of technology, saw the country attain dominance in the production, among many other things, of tin toys.

The appearance of the robot coincides with the advent of Space travel which began in earnest in 1958 with the first Sputnik orbiting the earth.

With typical oriental panache, innumerable Japanese toy makers flooded the market with brash but brilliant robots, as well as space rockets, ray guns, spacecraft and moon landing vehicles, spurred on by the American and Russian exploration race.

The result was a rapidly changing array of toys that were obsolescent almost as soon as they hit the toy shop shelves.

Fortunately, some farsighted adults had the sense to rescue examples and prevent their offspring from ruining what today are worth anything up to £1,500 apiece for the more rare examples that remain in mint condition and complete with their original boxes.

The joy of collecting robots is the naivety of some of the once futuristic designs and the wonderfully inventive names they were given.

Robbie the Mechanical Robot is probably the most famous of all. He starred in the film Forbidden Planet, and his pals include Sparky; Mr Machine; Laughing Robot; the tongue-twisting Silver Ray Secret Weapon Space Scout; Television Spaceman; Mego Man, Mr Mercury and many more.

There's still time for collectors to join the Space race. With some careful shopping around, you'd be surprised at what turns up.

The key is having the knowledge to spot the earlier, more rare examples from the stuff being turned out today.

Research styles and makers and, as always with toys, buy the best you can afford and preferably those with original boxes.

Watch out for rust and metal fatigue, always the twin problems with tinplate, and don't forget to take along a selection of different batteries to try out potential purchases ... they're never included you know!

Names to watch out for

Names and their respective trademarks to watch for in addition to the two aforementioned include: Nomura (TN in a diamond); Yonezawa (Y on a leafshaped reserve); Yoshiya (KO on a diamond); Ichida (bunch of grapes design on roundel); Bull Mark (running bull with the name); Sconosciuto (N in triangle with diamond at apex); Yoshiya (SY in diamaond); Shudo (name); Ohta (K in circle); Masudaya (TM monogram in diamond); Aoshin (ASC in diamond); Toplay (three fingers in salute Girl Guide style and TPS on 'bangle'); Bandai (old English 'B' in box); Daiya (name in diamond); Alps (name in mountain line drawing); Daishin (DSK in diamond); Linemar (Line Mar Toys in circle); Mastutoku (MT); Asahi (Father Christmas with ATC on sack); Mansei ('HAJI' in oval); Usagiya (rabbit head).

Japanese wind-up walking robotSpace TankWalking Space Man Robot

Pictures show

Top: The Dalek made under licence from the BBC in the 1960s by Cowan-de-Groot. Condition and the original box boost values considerably

Above, left to right: One of the earliest Japanese wind-up walking robots. His eyes flash with sparks as he walks

A 1960s Space Tank by the Japanese company Nomura. Power is from batteries carried in the compartment between the spring-loaded rear bumpers

This tinplate wind-up Walking Space Man robot was made in China. As he walks, the doors in his chest open to reveal his electronic works

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