Welcome to the very first part of what will become a 10-part series of articles on a very specific and, in my very humble opinion, very interesting part of vintage G1 (Generation 1) Transformers collecting: the MB (Milton Bradley) Transformers!!
1985 MB Transformers Dealer catalog
Now, why write so much about such a specific part of Transformers collecting? Well, first of all, because I like to! In 1985, when I was 10 years old, the very first Transformers that I found in my local Intertoys toy store in my birth place in the Netherlands were Transformers by MB. I distinctly remember seeing the MB logo on the packaging. At that young age I was already very perceptive and noticed that there was no Hasbro logo to be found anywhere on the box, while the commercials that I saw on weekend mornings on Sky Channel told me they were made by Hasbro (a name that I would continue to associate with kick ass toys for years to come). I did not think much more about it and basically forgot about the MB Transformers when Hasbro started releasing Transformers under their own name a year later in Europe in 1986. After having casually collected G1 Transformers since 2002 or so I got reacquainted with MB Transformers in 2009 by reading Maz’s excellent article “Milton Bradley and the TF Red Tracks”. The article had tons of information on this under lighted segment of G1 collecting and featured lots of photos of MB Transformers in their packaging, which sparked something in my brain that caused the nostalgia flood gates to open in earnest this time. I decided that I would collect all the MB Transformers that I could find! In the two years that have passed since, I have already amassed quite a few MB Transformers that found their way into my collection. It is this passion and nostalgia that I feel for this toy line, combined with my having a rather obsessive and neurotic personality, that makes me want to know as much as I can about this subject matter and makes writing an article about it my idea of fun!
1985 MB Transformers Store catalog (back and front)
The second reason that I feel is validation for wanting to write such an extensive amount of information on this subject matter is that, because of my afforementioned passion and obsessiveness, I have done a lot of research. I’ve looked at promotional material that MB released for the toy line in detail, I’ve examined all the packaging of the MB Transformers in my collection, noticed similiarities with a certain other toy line, correlated, cross referenced, theorized, pulled some levers, tweaked some controls and in the process came to some interesting conclusions and, what I believe, solved some long standing mysteries about the toy line. Here’s my chance to collect all this information in a structural manner and to allow other, fellow enthousiasts, or even casually interested collectors, to read about the MB line and reference it for their own collecting needs whenever they want, as I have thankfully done numerous times with Maz’s afforementioned article.
MB Autobot cars (from my personal collection)
Now, I don’t want to imply in any way that I am an absolute authority on this subject, nor would I like to imply that every bit of information presented herein is irrefutable or not open to discussion. Some of it is just my interpretation of how, why and what happened, based on the information that I have gathered myself or gotten from other sources. I will make an endeavour to keep the information in these articles up-to-date whenever new information surfaces or whenever standing theories are proven wrong.
OK, ready? Grab yourself a beer, a cup of Joe or whatever your beverage of choosing is and join me as we begin to take a long walk into the world of the Transformers, Hasbro, Milton Bradley and Ceji Joustra set in a funky period called the mid-1980′s!
“More than Meets the Eye”
In 1984 Hasbro released a new toy line called ‘The Transformers’ in the United States and it took the country by storm. Aided by a popular Marvel comic and an animated series it was a runaway hit and the start of a toy line that continues to exist to this day. That’s a fairly exceptional thing in the world of toys, where most succesful toy lines run for only a few years. It was no surprise that Hasbro decided to export this succesful product to other countries around the world and Europe was a logical target. Europe has always been a fragmented market and this is certainly reflected in the way that the Transformers line was introduced in 1985 in Europe. For various reasons different companies and brands were tied to the marketing and distribution of Transformers in Europe. The UK had regular Hasbro branded Transformers, Italy saw GiG branded Transformers and most of mainland Europe got MB branded Transformers. This situation was ultimately consolidated to Hasbro-only branded Transformers for the whole of Europe by the end of 1986.
Promotional photo from 1985 MB Transformers Dealer catalog
These European MB Transformers were often the exact same toys as were available in the US, but of course the packaging was different and there are enough variants and mysteries in this line that make it very exciting to collect! It is these variations that make the early European releases interesting from a collector’s point of view and this has not seemed to have gone unnoticed of late. In the past year specifically (2010) the MB releases have exploded in value, going for insane prices on the collectors market. An MB Jetfire sold for 600 euros, the mythical red MB Tracks has gone for more than 900 euros twice this year, both on eBay, and it looks like there’s no slowing down yet in the line’s popularity. It will come as no surprise that the MB releases are most popular in the countries they were originally available, being the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Spain and (most likely) Austria, but there is increased interest from the US as well from collectors who have long completed their US and Canadian G1 lines and are looking for something different. Another category is that of collectors who are looking to collect every single worldwide release of a specific G1 character. Very often they get stuck on obtaining that elusive MB version of their favourite character. So let’s take a look at how and why the initial waves of Transformers in these countries were released under the MB brand! To do that, we will first delve into the past of MB…
MB stands for Milton Bradley, which is the name of the man who founded the company. The beginnings of MB can be traced way back to the 19th century. Milton Bradley was born on the 8th of November 1836 to craftsman Ottis Bradley and his wife Fanny Lyford in Lowell, Massachusetts. After working as a technical draftsman for several years Milton was unsatisfied with his current job and taught himself lithography and print-making. He founded his company in 1860 in Springfield, Massachusetts, simply called “Milton Bradley” and did well for himself selling a lithograph of Abraham Lincoln, which he created during the presidential campaign of that same year.
As fate would have it, the image of Lincoln that Milton Bradley sold was of a Lincoln before he decided to grow a beard. After Lincoln grew his iconic beard, the lithograph became obsolete and sales plummeted. Instead of simply creating a new lithograph of the bearded Abe Lincoln, Milton Bradley set his sights on someting new. Inspired by a board game given to him by a friend, he created “The Checkered Game Of Life” (precursor to the “Game Of Life” a.k.a. “Spiel Des Lebens”, “Destins” and “Levensweg”) and arguably ignited the board game industry in the United States. The Milton Bradley company became synonymous with board games and went on to become the biggest and most well known board game manufacturer on the planet in the 20th century, responsible for such memorable games as “Connect Four” (“Vier Gewinnt”, “Puissance 4″, “Vier op een rij”), “Battleship” (“Schiffe versenken”, “Bataille Navale”, “Zeeslag”) and “Yahtzee”.
MB's "The Game of Life" (Dutch and French versions)
“1984 Takeover by Hasbro”
After 124 years of standing on their own, the Milton Bradley Company announced in April of 1984 that it was holding talks with an undisclosed party about “a possible business combination”. That undisclosed party turned out to be a firm originally called Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc from Pawtucket, Rhode Island founded in 1923 by two brothers, renamed in 1968 to the shorter name: Hasbro. On Friday, May 4th 1984, Stephen D. Hassenfeld, CEO of Hasbro Industries, Inc. announced Hasbro’s intent to take over the Milton Bradley Company. Two giants in toy manufacturing would become one.
Various U.S. newspaper articles on the Hasbro MB takeover in May 1984
(retrieved from Google News Archive)
The takeover seemed to be a perfect fit. The Milton Bradley Company was the uncrowned king of puzzles and board games, a market that Hasbro wasn’t really that active in. But even more important, MB was a major player in the European market. Hasbro, up until that point, was only active in the US, Canada and the UK. Besides a presence in the UK, Hasbro did not have any production facilities or distribution networks in place in Europe. Taking over MB would mean that Hasbro would establish itself as a major European player nearly overnight.
And so it was that about half a year later, on September 7th, 1984 a shareholder meeting was held simultaneously in New York and Springfield (the latter was the home base of MB), where an overwhelming majority of shareholders of both companies voted for approval of MB’s takeover by Hasbro Industries. The Milton Bradley Company was now owned by Hasbro and Hasbro Industries renamed itself to Hasbro Bradley, Inc. to emphasize the new cooperation.
Hasbro's logo during the 1980's
“Hasbro calling the shots”
Given what we now know about the date of the takeover (September 1984), it puts the first year of Transformers released in Europe by MB in 1985 in a whole new perspective. It is often assumed by Transformers fandom that MB was still an independent company when they released the first Transformers in mainland Europe in 1985, that they were then taken over by Hasbro afterwards, who then proceeded to rerelease the line under their own name after their takeover was complete. In fact, by the time Transformers were introduced in Europe in 1985 under the MB brand, MB was already fully owned by Hasbro and had been for about a full year. So it was Hasbro who actually introduced Transformers in mainland Europe in 1985 themselves, albeit through their newly acquired subsidiary MB.
My take on this is that Hasbro had deliberately chosen to use the MB brand for the introduction of Transformers in mainland Europe in 1985 and not their own brand. Why? Well, I think that the most important reason was brand recognition. MB already enjoyed significant name recognition in Europe back then. Hasbro was virtually unknown. Hasbro could probably easily have used their own brand name in 1985 and only have used MB for the distribution process (as they actually started doing from 1986 on when they started to use their own name for all Transformers products in Europe), but they obviously decided not to in 1985.
“Hasbro Bradley makes way for… Hasbro!”
The name Hasbro Bradley, Inc. did not last a long time. On June 7th, 1985 Hasbro Bradley announced they were consolidating all their operations (Hasbro, MB, Playskool, Parker Brothers) under a new name: Hasbro, Inc. The name Hasbro Bradley did continue to pop up on copyright notices on European Hasbro product that was distributed by MB for some years to come.
“Next Up: The Pre-TF era in Europe”
That’s it for our first part on MB Transformers where we had a short, introductory look at MB’s history and its takeover by Hasbro. In the next part we will examine the pre-Transformers era in Europe, just before the Transformers were unleashed properly by MB. Transformers hadn’t reached mainland Europe before 1985, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have our share of transforming robots here! This pre-Transformers era contains some important developments that will explain a lot of the hows and why’s of MB’s Transformers line up in 1985! Hope you enjoyed the first segment of this 10-part series and hope to see you back in about a week, when the second part will be published right here!