Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Piston Action Robot, a.k.a. "Pug Robby" (Nomura / 1957 / Japan / 8.5 inches)

Piston Action Robot. This relative to Robby the Robot gets his name thanks to the pistons in his head. But among collectors, the toy's small stature and stumpy legs have earned him another nick-name: Pug Robby.

This is one of those robots that I dreamed about owning when I first began collecting. It's a fun take on a common design theme, with strange proportions and an bold, metallic paint scheme. The toy's got so much going on: The pistons in his head light up and pop up and down -- using compressed air, believe it or not -- while the toy walks forward. Those pistons also happen to make a wonderful clacking noise; it's not enough to drive mom crazy, but the toy definitely announces itself to whoever's in the room.

The arms on the Piston Action Robot can swing side to side. But not very much.

The body design clearly pulls from Nomura's flagship Robby-based toy, the Mechanized Robot (discussed here). The basic shape, the neck stamping, the mechanism inside the dome -- Nomura recycled it all, and still managed to create a toy with its own unique identity.

Part of the robot's charm comes from its walking mechanism, which uses a system similar to the one found on Yoshiya's Jupiter Robot (discussed here). The feet and legs are molded together, and move back and forth. Inside the feet, though, are wheeled "skates," which are positioned on a pivot. As the legs swing forward and back the skate stays flat on the ground. This all combines to create an illusion of heel-toe walking but without destabilizing the robot and sending him toppling to the ground. Ingenious!

You can see the ratchet mechanism on the back wheel that helps propel the robot forwards.

The Pug Robby was available in three basic configurations: gold body/blue legs/red chest panel; silver body/red legs/chrome chest panel; and silver body/red legs/red chest panel. Each of these toys was powered by two C-cell batteries. While the latter is slightly rarer than the first two, generally speaking, they're all fairly common.

However, a rare version of the toy, powered by D-cells, featured rotating antennas. This variation came in two colors: gold body/black legs; and metallic robin's-egg blue body/dark red legs. Both of these are extremely rare, and generally sell for three or four times what a regular Pug Robby gets.

I feel kind of lucky to own my toy. I'd originally bought a silver Pug, and when it arrived, it was definitely not in the condition described by the seller. Not only was it missing two tabs, but it also had a replaced remote control wire. The piece of cardboard inside the remote control was nowhere to be found, either. The auction clearly said "no returns," and the seller refused to even return my emails. With nothing else to do, I put the toy on my shelf and chalked it up to a learning experience.

Then, about a year later, a beautiful gold version of the robot and its box appeared on eBay with a ridiculously low buy-it-now. The only problem: Its dome was a mess. After giving it some thought, though, I decided to buy the toy anyway. Why? Because I knew I could swap the messed up dome for the clean one on my silver Pug, and then list the messed up toy on eBay. Which I did. But unlike the original seller, I carefully pointed out all the flaws -- including the screwy dome. (Not that there was any way to miss it!) When the auction ended, I'd gotten back about two thirds of what I originally paid for the silver one.

Then, after some careful consideration, I decided to sell the box that came with my gold Pug. It's a rare, desirable box, and it sold for almost as much as I paid for the toy and the box together! In the end, I think my gold Pug Robby cost me about a quarter of what the toy normally gets.

The moral of the story? If you slip up when collecting, don't freak out. Yeah, mistakes can be costly. But with some patience and a little careful planning, most mistakes can also be corrected.


  1. Great photos of a great toy! And a nice story behind it.
    I didn't know that the pistons were actually powered by compressed air Wow!

  2. Yep. Little blasts of air make them bounce up and down. I always imagined they were powered by some sort of belt mechanism or something, but these toy manufacturers liked to keep it as simple as possible.

  3. Kind of a factual miracle that the tubes/vents/whatsoever-inside aren't corroding and that they keep work all over the years ...

    Doc Atomics lesson for today: Go for pneumatics, if you have to do any mechanism that has to last for the next 50 years ... :-)

  4. You know, I maybe misspoke when I wrote "compressed air." I don't think it's compressed -- I think the internal mechanism just puffs some air up into the pistons which makes them bounce around. I need to run the toy again and see what's happening. I suspect I'll correct my original article...

  5. Very "Lost In Space" design. Sweet addition to your fantastic collection!

    And being able to turn a not-so-good purchase into something good...? Excellent. =D

    Your photos are always the best!


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