Of the 1984 Autobot cars, perhaps no others have such a great disparity between toy design and character design.
In today’s Dungeon Review, we’re taking a look at these two mysterious figures and we’ll discuss how many of their play features didn’t quite work as intended within the Transformers mythos.
Two words of note: First, these versions are the “Encore” series reissues from 2007, and I’ll note any differences between them and the originals that I’m aware of. Second, since Ratchet and Ironhide are so similar, I’m covering both of them here.
Both Ratchet and Ironhide cruise the highways disguised as Nissan Onebox vanettes. As far as I know, these vans weren’t available in the U.S. in the 1980s, but are similar to a type of blunt-nosed Toyota van I often saw well into the 1990s.
The front windshield and side windows are translucent plastic. The bumpers, rims, and headlights are chrome, the wheels have rubber tires, and parts of the front and back of the van modes are die-cast.
Ratchet’s only parts difference between him and Ironhide is the presence of a translucent red/chrome light bar on his roof.
The translucent windows don’t continue to the unpainted rear windshields, and there’s a large chunk of plastic that breaks up the otherwise realistic rear bumper.
Both figures can store their “static laser gun” accessories in a port located on the underside of their van modes, representing a (very) rare weapon storage feature for an early Transformers figure. Unfortunately, this feature doesn’t really work on the Encore versions – not only are the peg holes too loose, the guns themselves protrude below the wheels.
The side of Ratchet’s van mode demonstrates two major changes for the Encore release: the red stripes as well as the patch of white between the wheels (the back of Ratchet’s fist) are painted detail. These were stickers on the original figure.
The various parts also seem to be slightly out of alignment compared to the original, but that may vary from copy to copy.
Early releases of Ratchet included a red cross symbol on the roof, but these were later removed to avoid conflict with the American Red Cross.
Like Ratchet, the Encore version of Ironhide has some new painted details, in his case the yellow stripes and the black sunroof.
The yellow/orange used on the stripe allows some of the red to pass through, making it a little less vibrant than the originals’ stickers.
Before transformation begins, the whole upper body of the van mode separates and is set aside.
In robot mode, Ratchet and Ironhide stand about 4 inches tall, and are among the shortest and slightest of all the 1984 Autobot cars. The feet are die-cast and the figures stand well. The big peg hole on the crotch plate has no function in robot mode, unfortunately.
The simplistic blocks that make up their arms and legs translated into a fairly simplistic animation model for the characters, but we’ll get more into that later.
Infamously, Ratchet and Ironhide have essentially no head sculpt. Behind the clear windshield is a small red tab with a sticker bearing a vaguely robotic face design. I couldn’t really capture the face behind the glinting windshield, but you can see it in ToyHax’s label sheet for Ratchet. The package artwork adds an embellished detail of the faces’ “eyes” reflecting on the windshield to make it seem more like these robots has identifiable heads. The face labels weren’t present on the original Diaclone figures.
Adding to the infamy is that these vague faces were not used as reference for the animation models: instead, the show’s artists designed entirely original heads and positioned them as if the windshield area constituted an upper torso.
For many who saw the cartoon or comic versions first (like me), the headless design of the toys came as quite a shock.
I love the back of the sticker, apparently implying that Ratchet and Ironhide have reel-to-reel film projectors in their heads.
The Encore versions of these toys came with punch-out cardboard inserts for the windshields with depictions of Ratchet’s and Ironhide’s animation model heads. It’s a fun idea, but the head poking up over the windshield makes the arms appear too low on the torso. Some photography “correct” this by rotating the arms up so the fists appear to be shoulders, but this is a pretty weak solution if you ask me.
I didn’t take photos of the cardboard bits, but you can see Ratchet’s over at TFwiki.
For an early G1 figure, these ‘bots have pretty decent movement, with two shoulder joints and swivels at the hands.
The arm joints are on die-cast armatures and look pretty crude if you stare too close. The ankles also pivot thanks to transformation, but this doesn’t allow for much meaningful posing.
Both Autobots come with the upper part of their van mode, a chrome “static laser gun,” a red gun mount, and three chrome missiles.
The upper part of the van mode converts into a mobile weapon platform, which also accommodates the rest of the accessories. Many of the sculpted details on these figures are concentrated on the platforms – there’s a row of technical greeblies along the inner shells, as well as a wealth of foil stickers.
The sticker details are slightly different between the two figures, but otherwise they only differ in plastic color. The front of the platform includes a clear plastic visor and a peg hole where the static laser gun can be mounted.
The sculpted details on the Encore versions feel a little softer than the originals, and the plastic feels a bit more “milky” in hue.
The platform “rolls” on three sculpted chrome tread units. The missile launcher is on an articulated arm that lets it aim up or down, and the little red button on top fires the missile.
The spring mechanism was weakened for the original American release, but it functions strongly on the Encore version.
Both figures can man the platform by sliding the feet into some grooves at the base of the missile launcher. The Encore releases added some additional plastic on the connection points to keep the figures from sliding off the platforms.
These platforms were only barely featured in tie-in Transformers media. The figures’ bios makes no reference to them, nor were they used in the TV show. The manual only refers to them as “platforms,” though Ratchet uses a device called a “MARB” in the Marvel comics that’s possibly based on the design.
The obscurity of the platforms in the mythos helped add to the mysterious qualities of these figures. The platforms feel vital to the toys’ design, but they also feel like they were missing something.
And they were!
In Diaclone, the robots that became the Autobots were mecha piloted by members of the Diaclone corps. Ratchet/Ironhide were the most mecha-like of all the Car Robot molds, but that didn’t stop Hasbro from incorporating them into the toyline.
I don’t have any vintage Dianauts, but the modern ones can illustrate the functions for us.
The face tab behind the windshield functions like a seat for one Dianaut.
Not only can the robots be piloted, but the weapon platform also becomes a mini playset for Dianauts.
There’s a spot to man the missile launcher…
…a command seat at the base of the launcher…
…and another seat that can be accessed if the laser turret is removed.
With the pilot aspect restored, Ratchet and Ironhide become more than just action figures – they become play environments. You can imagine a Dianaut piloting the humanoid component of Ironhide to a mission while the co-pilot stays behind in the base component to track enemy activity and provide cover fire.
It’s too bad that these cool features tend to get lost amongst discussions of “cartoon accuracy” and the like.
Both of these guys were favorite characters of mine from a young age. Ratchet was a frequent star of the Marvel comics, while Ironhide roughed it up with many a Decepticon in the cartoon.
So it was indeed a massive shock to me when I first saw the toys displayed in the 1985 catalogue. But somehow it wasn’t a disappointing shock – the strange look of the figures just increased the mystique of them to me.
When I got my hands on a G1 Ratchet in childhood some time later, I often imagined his platform was simply a mobile repair bay he took with him on missions. It only really fit mini-vehicles or Micromasters, but that was fine.
Ironhide was a little tougher – his bio describes weaponry that doesn’t translate well to his weapon platform, and he didn’t seem like a guy who needed to rely on an external object like that.
Nowadays I might think of it as something like a scooter Ironhide uses to get around since his legs aren’t what they used to be. He hates it and berates it all the time, but Ratchet and Hoist get onto him when he doesn’t use it.
Ultimately these creative thoughts are why I like toys like this. The figures don’t need to be cartoon accurate, they just need to stimulate my brain to create new scenarios.
And when that fails, there’s always a million cartoon-accurate versions to pick from.