There are some toys that are mysterious even if you owned them. In this installment of Military Sci-Fi Toys, we will looking at a mysterious military science fiction toy that I had back in the 1980s after a trip to my grandparents. My family is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I spent a great deal of time there as a kid. Back in the 1980s, there in Winrock Mall (which is now gone), there was very cool toy store called “Toys By Roy”. This was the first place I saw STARCOM: the US Space Force, the Matchbox ROBOTECH toyline and some other exciting toys from Europe. One of them was this collection of small (1/32) astronauts-soldiers battling all manner of evil red helmeted aliens. There were entire armies of these space soldiers and their foes, it seemed to cover a good portion of the store, and my grandmother (the best in the world) bought me several packages of toy space soldiers. I still have them to this day. Recently, my daughter dug them out of a box of old toys at my Mom's' house in Houston, and memories came flooding back. After an hour of searching online, I came across the proper name of my long-lost military sci-fi toy soldiers: Britains SPACE, and the genesis of this blogpost.
What is "Britains"?
Beginning in 1893 and founded by an brass clockmarker by the name of William Britains, this toy company is one of the world’s oldest that has been a favorite of generations of children and collectors. What set the W. Britains Company apart in 1893 was the hollowcast of toy soldiers that lower the price and increased the production that could finally unseat the German companies’ domination, especially Heinrich, of the toy soldier market in the 19th century.
However, W. Britains Senior could not enjoy the success of his company for long, he would die in August of 1907, but the company remained a family business until around 1983/1984. The first major challenge for the company came after the bloody First World War, in which millions were dead, Europe in ruins, and millions more traumatized by the spectra of modern warfare…not a great time to be in the toy soldier business. To prevent bankruptcy, Britains diversified into their “Farm” and “Zoo” toylines in the 1920’s. During the 2nd World War, they ended toy manufacturing for wartime production. Once the war was over and metal again could be used for toys instead of bullets, Britains returned to the toy business, but the era of metal toys was ending and plastic was on the rise.
In 1966 or 1967, Britains ended mainstream production of their metal hollowcast figures in favor of more plastics, but contained diecast vehicles. Their core business of toy soldiers began shifting due to the influx of cheap plastic army men, and the more expensive painted Britains soldiers were losing. At this time, the company was living on their Farm line. The Britains that I knew came about when a limited collectible diecast toy soldier line had done well in the collector/souvenir market.
This caused the company to market collector sets of famous units, such as the Coldstream Guard, more heavily in the 1980’s. Around this time, Britains would develop their “Super Deetail” 54mm line that featured Zamak bases for the painted plastic features to be fitted into, making them secure. This Super Deetail umbra line was developed to soldiers of all time periods along with the infamous Space series. The 1980’s would be time of expansion for Britains, but several of its new toylines, like Space and Hospital, would fail spectacularly, causing the company to be sold to Dobson Park Group around 1983/1984. They would hold on to the company until the American model maker, ERTL, would buy Dobson Park Group in 1997. Then ERTL was swallowed by the larger American company of Racing Champions. In 2005, a smaller company by the name of First Gear was able to buy the Britains name and toy soldier lines from Racing Champions. They would control Britains until 2016, when the company, was again sold, to the Ohio-based company of The Good Soldier LLC. We shall see if this where the hollowed Britains name will rest.
Overview of Britains Space Line
Seeing the hot trend of science fiction toys, the historic toy soldier company of W. Britains decided to jump in with both feet into this new frontier. From 1981 through the cancellation around 1987, Britains would re-develop the overall Space toyline twice in a vain attempt to gain traction in the toy market, but it was to no avail. At the heart of the Space toyline was 54mm static toy soldier-like humans, cyborgs, mutants, and aliens. Some of the 1/32 figures were designed to pilot various vehicles and spacecraft, while others were similar to standard Britains toy soldiers in a Zamak metal base with all manner of Space Age weaponry that resumed the classic ray guns of science fiction. One of the key selling points was the modularity that came from the interchangeable vehicles that could be interconnected across the entire line, allowing for some creativity, but not the level of Legos. The vehicles were all manner of space-based and ground-based futuristic vehicles with some monsters thrown in towards the end of the lifespan of the toyline for the mutant and cryborg characters. Besides the toys themselves and the Britians toy catalogs, there is no related tie-in products.
The Historical Context of Britains SPACE Toyline
The History of Britains Space toyline
We are going to start at a familiar place with the origin story of so many science fiction toys of my childhood: 1977's Star Wars. Due to the success of science fiction toylines in the late 1970s, Britains decided to invest heavily into a sci-fi space soldier toyline complete with modular vehicles that were up to the same quality as their other lines. The launch of Britains SPACE 1/35 (54mm) toyline in 1981 was virgin territory for the historic toy company and there was great risk at this time in the toy stores due to the sharp competition. From 1981-1982, there was just two lines release: the human Stargards and the Space Aliens, and while the human forces got a limited number of vehicles, the Aliens were only infantry until 1982. In 1982 and continuing into 1983, you could buy a massive boxset of the Stargard and Space Alien soldiers and vehicles that could be altered. These were sold separately, of course, with army-building figure packs. In 1983, the toyline was diversified with the new Cyborgs and the Mutants. Both were introduced with figures only and it wasn't until the "Star System" rebranding in 1985 that the Cyborgs and Mutants lines got a "vehicle" of their very own. From 1983-1984, only a new vehicle was added and it was during this time that the struggling family-owned company was sold to new owners: Dodson Park Group.
The Stargards (1981-1984)
These are the original human figures/faction for the line and were the only ones to get vehicles upon the initial 1981 release. Dressed in yellow accented with red reinforced combat spacesuits with “fishbowl” type clear space helmets and armed with laser pistols and rifles and had a red/silver sticker on the chest. Male and female Stargard members were released with various hair colors, with some being custom designed to pilot the various vehicles of the line. When it came to the vehicles of the Stargard forces, all of them were in yellow/red livery, all were modular and it seems like only a few were released: small bubble cockpit spaceship (9110), an landing pad (9116), a portable space DE cannon (9115), and a futuristic space car (9114).
These vehicles were either sold separately or in various massive boxsets. One released around 1982-1983 was packed with the Alien vehicles, these represented the bulk of the vehicles in the original line (set number 9146). Due to the limitations of the information available online, I believe that only two more vehicles was added, a heavy laser cannon hauling vehicle with two figures for both factions.
The Forcegards (1985-1987)
The Space Aliens (1981-1984)
The Star Raiders (1985-1987)
The Stargard Cyborgs (1983-1984)
The Forcecyborgs (1985-1987?)
The Alien Mutants (1983-1984)
The Mutant Raiders (1985-1986)
Much as was done with the other Britains Space line when switching over to the 1985 Star System rebranding, the Mutant line was repainted and renamed to the “Mutant Raiders” to fit under the new Star Raiders faction via the blue/orange livery. They were also given a “vehicle” in the form of a green dragon-monster called “mutantron”. It is believed that this line was cancelled in 1986.
Britains Space vs. Britains Star System
Why Did the SPACE Toyline Fail?
However, as someone who had some of these toys back in the early 1980's, I can see why this imported (and expensive) toyline failed due one important factor. That one important, but elusive, factor of any toyline is playability. This factor can greatly depend on the child themselves, how much of the toyline they can afford, availability of the toyline in their location, and the child's social nature, along with the intractability of the toys in the line. All that being said, I think one area that the Britain's SPACE toyline failed is in its playability due to the small, unposable nature of the figures themselves.
Toy soldiers are a staple of toys-aimed-at-boys since ancient times and Britain's was a historic manufacture of toy soldiers. My brother and I both had Britain's toy soldiers and when I spied these space soldiers, I bought them due to the name. While I enjoyed the regular toy soldiers from Britain's in a limited fashion, I was mystified what to do with these fishbowl space helmet wearing space soldiers. I cannot remember playing with them in any way and they rested at the bottom of an action figure plastic bin for over two decade. As with the Hasbro’s Air Raiders and Coleco’s STARCOM toylines, the figures of the Space line were about the size of a AA battery and they could not be used with your other 3 ¾ figure lines, and this limited play and interest.
The Legacy and Impact of the SPACE Toyline
I've said it before that the internet is a good measure on how a toyline is thought of today and its lasting impact from its original release date. During the research phase for this article, I reached out to a United Kingdom website devoted to all things Britian's and Ian was good to response and his answers informed on both of these elements. The current legacy of the Space line was fairly limited and even boxed figure sets and vehicles go for far less than other Britain's toylines. Ian told me that the majority of Britain's WWII toys sells for £50-£100 while the SPACE toys barely get a fiver on bid sites! A majority of the boxed items for Britain's Space line are decorated with all manner of reduced price stickers. Not a good sign.
Could Britains Space Toys Been a Success?
But, the die was cast. I think the biggest element that could helped the toyline be more of a success would have a tie-in product to soft sell the fictional universe. This did not have to be a cartoon series, but it could have a boxed wargame that could have used the figures and vehicles as the pieces in a tabletop future war simulation system. While I was thinking about how Britains could have saved their Space line from the bargain bin, I realized that Coleco’s STARCOM: The US Space Force attempted to undertake a more unified marketed MSF toyline complete with cartoon and it didn’t help either and Britains could have done what they never had done before, a massive marketing campaign, and it is likely that the toyline would have failed anyways.
Next Time on FWS...
Great article, very well researched and written. I was a huge collector of Britains toy soldiers as a kid and remember seeing these guys at my local toy store. Despite being a huge fan of Star Wars and toy soldiers this line held no interest for me. The main reason I remember passing on this fare was that the figures did not have a "cool" factor. The weapons they had seemed terribly designed and outdated by the 80's. Had they made the figures look more like Boba Feet or Stormtroopers I would have bought loads of them despite no cartoon or comic tie in.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the comment and I thought that could have been a reason behinds the slow sales. While "retro" may be cool, it is not to most kids, especially those of us in the 80s. Pity they did not look more like STARCOM or Boba...damn that would have been cool!ReplyDelete
Yes poor design seems to me one of the main reason this line failed. I would have been the key demographic for this sort of thing. I had hundreds of 1/32 scale toy soldiers ( Marx, Airfix, Britians) and having grown up in the 70's was a Star Wars addict. By the time this line came out I had more spending money and would have easily bought lots of these guys. By the way I just discovered your blog and have been going through it. Superb stuff keep up the good work.ReplyDelete
Oh man, I cant wait for the review on that wierdly accurate /unfaithful version of starship troopers.ReplyDelete
Great article, a friend of mine and I had several of these between us, including the green ships. I ended up swapping all mine with him for something else. The Britains soldiers line were always the soldiers that the richer kids had at our school, because as they came painted and were die cast, they were always more expensive than say a box of Airfix, which were affordable. I have the whole range of those now. Great article.ReplyDelete
This post is very professional and rigorous, depicting the evolution of British military science fiction toys in detail.ReplyDelete
I had a few of the original's as a kid, I bought them from a seaside toy shop one summer with all of my "holiday money savings". Many years later I saw a picture in a magazine that looked like a still from live action movie or TV show. The people were wearing the same yellow suites with glass dome helmets. They were against a grey rockface background and seem to remember some green plants dotted around. I often wondered if the "retro design" of the toy's ray guns etc was because the design was licensed from some 1960's si-fi movie, the colour made me think it was 1960 colour film. Maybe one of the many Italian one's that were churned out. Over the year's I've revisited the internet several times to try and find out what the movie was (I've just ended up here), if, it was a movie or TV show, what was it?ReplyDelete