Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pre-Production Space Trooper (Yoshiya/1959/Japan/6 inches)

Most collectors have "holy grails." You know, the pieces we dream about even though the odds say we'll never, ever, ever get our hands on them. The ones that keep us away long into the night, dreaming impossible dreams of glory through astonishing acquisition.

Well... This robot's one of mine. And right now, it's sitting on my desk in front of me.

You're looking at a Pre-Production Sample of a Robby the Robot knock off called the Space Trooper. It was made by Yoshiya way back in 1959.

As toys go, your basic Space Trooper isn't terribly complicated. Turning the crank engages a flywheel system, which causes the robot to roll forward while the multiple antennas in its head rotate in different directions. The wheels in its feet are off-center, which makes the robot wobble side-to-side as it rolls. It's simple, it's primitive, and frankly, I think it's completely awesome!

As I said, this is a Pre-Production Sample. I know, I know: "Doc, what the heck is a Pre-Production Sample?" Gather 'round, kids, and I'll tell ya!

Pre-Production Samples were one of the last stages in toy production before achieving a finished product. They were used by the toy companies for catalogue photos, as salesman's samples, and as display pieces at industry events like Toy Fair in New York City. They share most of the traits of a final production toy -- the one that ends up on toy store shelves -- but they also differ in many significant ways.

In the case of the Space Trooper, there are four major differences.

The production models of the Space Trooper only came in red or black. A similar toy by Yoshiya that replaces the robot dome with an astronaut's head was also sold in dark blue. The Pre-Production Sample is a classy silver with black and red accents.

The few sightings we've uncovered in toy catalogues from 1959 all show this silver version. In fact, Pre-Production Samples of other toys have shown up over the years and they're also silver, as are the catalogue photos for these other toys. It makes me think it might be some sort of industry standard thing; perhaps this color scheme works better when rendered as a high-contrast, black and white catalogue image. There's no conclusive evidence that the colors were chosen for this reason, though -- I'm only thinking out loud.

As I mentioned earlier, Space Troopers feature off-center, reciprocating wheels. The silver Pre-Production Sample, however, has wheels with a centered axle. They roll normally. The wheels are also larger than those found on a production toy. This is really one of the most important differences between the two versions as it illustrates a major development of the toy from one stage to the next. It shows Yoshiya attempting to inject more play value into the toy -- but in the cheapest way possible. I'll tell you what, though. Those wobbly wheels on the final version are definitely pretty neat! Good job, Yoshiya!

Given how rare all Pre-Production Samples are, they were most likely done in small batches. Remember, these weren't meant to reach the public so the toy companies didn't need nearly as many pieces. It's likely that they were also not held to the same level of quality control. See, while all tin toys have wrinkles in the metal around the more complex folds, they're much more prominent on this early version of the toy. Also, the smooth, rounded parts have a little bit of unevenness to them that you don't see on the final, production robots.

Basically, Yoshiya spit out these samples so they could have something to show off the toy. Production lead-times being what they were, there was ample opportunity to clean up and refine the manufacturing process before shipping out the robots.

The strip of chrome running up the side of the toy is supposed to fit tightly, conforming to the robot's curves. The strip of chrome on the pre-production sample looks like it was assembled by a blind monkey. It's kind of a mess. But as I've argued in the past, that's a big part of the charm of pre-production toys and prototypes. These aren't perfect, and they should look a little rough around the edges. Pre-Production should look like Pre-Production!

There are only two or three known examples of the Pre-Production Space Trooper. Or so I've been told -- I'm sure some others are floating around... maybe.

But this particular Space Trooper is very important to me. See, I helped uncover it many years ago. A woman from Kansas had listed it on eBay back in 2004, and found herself inundated with questions from potential buyers demanding to know why it was silver. She quickly realized she was out of her depth, so she did some checking online and ended up finding my old web site. She sent me an email asking for help.

Of course, I had no idea what it was, either. But I did some digging and discovered that there was -- at the time -- only one or two other silver Space Troopers, and that they all might be a Pre-Production pieces. Whatever it was, it was valuable. Valuable enough that I couldn't come close to affording it.

However, I was able to hook the woman up with a friend of mine named Pat Karris. Pat had, at the time, the world's most complete Forbidden Planet/Robby the Robot collection. However, he didn't have this piece. Happily, Pat and the seller were able to work out a deal and the robot ended up on his shelf.

I was there the day he got it in the mail, and when I finally saw the toy up close, I fell desperately in love. I wanted one -- badly. But I knew it wouldn't happen. However, I consoled myself by remembering that Pat lived in NYC, which meant I could have visitation rights.

Fast forward a number of years. Pat decided to sell off a bunch of his robots (for a variety of reasons) and they ended up going to a man named Al Rosen. Rosen made a name for himself buying and selling baseball cards, and he's a legend in that hobby. When he caught the robot and space toy bug, he pursued the toys with the same passion -- and deep pockets. Soon, he had nearly everything. Every. Thing.

And then he decided to get out. His toys were auctioned off about a year-and-a-half ago by Smith House Toys in a two-part auction that I can't even talk about without my head exploding.

And yes, this little Space Trooper was on the block with everything else.

And no, I couldn't afford to buy it at the time.

But another friend of mine, Steve Jaspen, was able to snag it. He lives in New York, too, and it was nice having the robot "come home." Besides, my visitation rights were restored.

And then, about a week or two ago, I got a call from Steve. It turned out he had decided to sell this robot. He knew my history with the toy and wanted to offer it to me first. We discussed the price a bit, did a little back and forth, and then let the dust settle. "So," he asked. "Do you want it?"

Dumbest. Question. Ever. Just tell me where to send the check.

So here we are, one more Holy Grail crossed off the list. I've waited a loooooong time for this one. I never thought it'd shake lose, and now that it has, I feel like it's come full circle. I'm a very, very happy camper.


  1. Congrats on finally getting this Robot Doc and you must be just over the moon about it too. What a great story behind it too.

  2. Oh gee!!

    Such a long wait, but it's yours!!!!


  3. I think what makes this more special is the history you have with it, it's like you have both lived this life together that nobody knows about.

  4. jboypacman:
    Thanks! Yeah, I've been walking two inches above the ground since getting my hands on it. Just a great, great feeling.

    The wait makes it more sweet. Good things, and all that...

    Heh. You make it sound so... sordid. "He was a collector who had gone. Too. Far!

    But you're right, the history is part of what made this pick up so sweet.

  5. Hey, congrats! Now that's premier league!
    And: Only *2 inches above the ground*? Should be 3 at least! :-)

  6. Am having trouble pricing the red one mentioned in your blog. Can find info about it, but no price. Where can I find assistance with this? No box, still works.

  7. Hi, VintageSeeker. I don't generally like to discuss prices on my blog, but if you email me directly, I'd be happy to discuss it with you. At the top of my blog you'll see an "Email Doc Atomic" button -- click it and it'll take you to my email address.


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