Friday, August 28, 2009

Guest Article: Vintage Space Toys From Down Under

A few months back, Australian space toy collector Steven Baker contacted me with some information about the manufacturing date of my Pow'r Pop Ray Gun. We got to chatting, and I discovered that Steven isn't only a space toy collector from Australia, but his collection is actually focused on space toys from Australia and New Zealand. Since this is an area of the hobby about which I know absolutely nothing, I invited him to write a guest article about his collecting and these little known (here in the States, anyway) toys. So take it away, Steven... 

I suppose my interest in space toys stems from my fascination with space travel as a kid. Where other Aussie kids could tell you the specs on a Holden Monaro I was more at ease with the specs of the Saturn V rocket. My interest was no doubt also helped along by my uncle who worked at the Carnarvon tracking station in Western Australia during the Apollo program, so I would get posters, badges, and stickers about the space program. 

However, even with this interest and the discovery of science fiction, I didn’t really get into collecting space toys until this century. It came about from a junction of events, the first of which was moving to the United States as part of my job. The second was the discovery of eBay shortly thereafter while searching for medieval archer’s thumb rings (another collection and another story). Eventually I discovered space toys and found that these were fascinating items. Mostly I collected rockets and vehicles made of tin. It wasn’t until I bought the book Blast Off and came across a description of an Australian toy rocket, the Z-010 Space Ranger, that I became interested in Aussie space toys.

The Z-010: A beautiful space ship! (All photos courtesy of Steven Baker, unless otherwise noted.)

I started finding some toys that were made in Australia but they seemed few and far between, which made it slightly disheartening. However after reading an interview by Alan Griffiths of the Australian Museum Of Childhood where he mentioned that in America a company might produce a million toys of one type whereas in Australia a company might produce just five thousand, I realised that collecting these toys would be a challenge and an exciting trip into Australia’s recent past. Along the way I decided to include New Zealand toys because that country also had at one stage a thriving toy industry, supplying a small population just like Australia -- as well being our neighbour and good natured rival.

So what toys and games have I come across? Most of them are moulded plastic and in a lot of cases made using forms from the U.S. or the U.K. Some have been rebadged or retooled to give an Australian and New Zealand identity. An example of the former is the Flash Gordon Rocket Ship and for the latter the Atomic Jet ray gun. In some cases, like the Z-010 Space Ranger they were made to a different scale.

This can cause a degree of confusion with the “originals” and in some cases a strong degree of uncertainty, particularly where no maker’s mark can be found. I have a few toys that I’ve bought from Australian dealers but I can’t be certain they were made here; these end up in my research category. There are a number of toys which seem uniquely Australian as I can find no precedents in other countries. An example of this is the Glenn Atomic Pow’r Pop gun, but there is also the Speedline Ute (Pickup) from Playmate Toys.

Pow'r Pop Gun (Glenn, 1951). From the collection of Doc Atomic.

Speedline Pickup

The oldest example I have of Aussie design is the Marquis racing car. The Powerhouse museum in Sydney has an example of this car still on the sprue and donated to the museum in 1941. 

These locally designed and made toys are, to me at least, the most intriguing and exciting. There is something in their lines, plus the fact that they were designed and made locally for local kids, that gives them something extra. The ones made from overseas forms interest me mostly because they raise questions like: How did they come to be here? Why were they chosen? And what made them of interest to the manufacturer -- was it the design, the cost or something else?

I should say at this point that I collect toys, not collectibles. While I try to find the best example I can of each, I also want a toy that has been played with. The reason is that to me a played with toy not only imbues it with the imagination and desires of its creators, but also that of the child who played with it. Did they go to other worlds, were they vanquishing villains, hunting monsters or rescuing people in danger?

New Zealand starts to really make an appearance in the games department -- they seem to have largely concentrated on space games rather than space toys. Most of the games are from the Sixties, and then a number from the Eighties and Nineties. The period in between seems particularly vacant and may reflect either the increase in imported games or the decline in interest in things spacey during the Seventies, which then resurged on the release of movies such as Star Wars and ET.

Whatever the case, as with the toys, some of the games were made under license from a U.S. or U.K. company, while others were made by overseas companies with local manufacturing facilities. The ones from the Eighties and Nineties, however, appear to be either self published or an out growth from companies making RPG games.

The ones that stand out in my mind amongst all of the games are Rokeeto and Moonshot. Moonshot by Vic-Toy of New Zealand I find intriguing because it’s a small game at 16cm x 16cm (6in x 6in) and the game board is actually the back of the box. I keep wondering if this was meant to be a travelling game -- one to take with you on long trips -- or was it made to meet with a set manufacturing cost or retail price. 


Rokeeto was made by Murfett and has the strangest concept for a game I’ve ever seen. Basically you place the “rockets” on the board and then roll a die. Whatever coloured dot shows up determines which of the rockets you'd then take and load onto the launch pad (a piece of cardboard with a groove). You'd then blow on it to launch it, with the hope of knocking over the remaining rockets of the same colour.


So who are the companies that made these toys and games? While most of the games were made by dedicated games manufacturers, most of the toys were made by plastics companies as a means of reaching a greater number of customers. Some of the game makers are Crown and Andrews, Tanner Couch Ltd, Murfett, and John Sands. The toy makers are companies such as Lincoln International, Vic-Toy, Triang Pedigree, Moldex, Moulded Products Australasia, Toltoys, Comet, Visual Toys, and Glenn. 

Some of these companies were large by Australian and New Zealand standards, and you can find business records, etc. online, and track how they changed and developed. Other companies, however, were small and very local, which means going to the places and hunting through libraries and museums. An example of this sort of small company is Visual Toys, which was associated with the Captain Atom comics (this is the Australian Captain Atom not the one from either DC comics or Charlton). You would send in the coupon clipped from the comic along with your money and you would get the pistol and some “movie” reels. However, when you look at what you got the box is monotone, no artwork and the instruction sheet is run off on a roneo machine (pre-photocopier) rather than a printing press. 

Having collected these toys and games I now find myself having to go deeper. I need to hunt up ads, magazines, comics and catalogues which show these toys and games and to start searching the state and national libraries for business records and the like.  


Space Cadet Gun

I originally bought this because it was made of diecast metal and was a match for a design of ray gun I really liked. However, when I received it in the post I found on the Saturn under the “Space Cadet” wording a company name of Brentoy. This turned out to be an Australian company which also had a New Zealand subsidiary called Brentware. Brentoy produced mainly diecast vehicles before Matchbox, Corgi, etc. moved into the market. It was most likely made to capitalise on the Tom Corbett: Space Cadet radio series which started broadcasting in 1954. Alternately, it could be related to the locally printed Tom Corbett comic -- one of those "send in the coupon and a certain amount of cash" deals. The other thing that makes it interesting is that it’s a cap gun with a concealed cap mechanism.

Duperite Aero Car

This is a copy of the Plas-Tex Aero Car. Where it differs from the Plas-Tex (at least as far as my research shows) is the spring driven mechanism you can see on the underside photo. It’s not anything special but I wonder why it was included. Did the Australian makers decide they needed to include some mechanism to make it move, or did they have a load left over from another toy that they wanted to use up?


This game positively intrigues me as there is no maker’s mark to indicate who made it and it has a combination of Australian primary industries and futuristic possibilities that beggars the question: Why? I would date it in the early to mid Sixties based on the fact that in Australia, we moved away from pounds, shillings, and pence in 1967/68. 

Vic-Toy Moonshot

This one dates from around 1973 and is just fun. It has a combination of graphics which show both real and imaginary space vehicles. Given its small form factor and the use of the back of the box as the game board more and more suggests to me that it was designed as a simple travel game to keep kids amused on long car trips. This game also gives me a feeling that we have space travel now but there’s still a way to go, hence the mix of space vehicles. 

Fethalite Atomic Jet Ray Gun

This ray gun interests me mostly because of its association with the Rocky Starr radio show. Plus, the ad featuring this gun got me started focusing on Aussie and Kiwi space toys. It was made in the late 1950’s as a reward for raising 30 shillings for charity. I like the lines on it  -- they’re simple and clean.

Marquis Racing Car

Again this is one that I love for its lines and style. I also enjoy the fact that it seems to have been designed in Australia as I haven’t found any overseas examples. As for its age, the Powerhouse museum has an example they received for an exhibition in 1941. In addition, I have a copy of the September 1947 Australian Plastics journal with an article on toys which shows this car in a couple of photos.


  1. Thanks for the informative and well done
    information. I've GOT to get down to your part of the world one of these days. Leslie Singer

  2. The Space Cadet gun is a thing of beauty, and shares many design characteristics with another toy from that period, the Space Control gun by Pyro Plastics. An interesting example of the cross pollination between two countries.


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