04 February 2019
Examining the history of some of Britain’s great toy makers - Action Man
Action Man: Best of British
My introduction to Action Man came way back in the summer of 1967, when my dear Uncle Jack presented me with a wonderful birthday gift. It was an Action Man Sailor with a few added accessories thrown in. Uncle Jack had a good job in marketing at Cadbury Bros and always bought me great gifts when I was a lad. He had a speedboat and an Austin Healey Sprite before trading it in for a brand new Ford Capri. Wow!
My Action Man was soon the envy of all my mates at school as most boys were pestering their parents for pocket money to join in the new craze for action fighting figures.
Action Man was first introduced to the toy shops of Britain by Palitoy in 1966 following a battle with the mighty Lines Bros for the production rights being offered by Hasbro of the USA. Palitoy manufactured Action Man for eighteen years.
Dating back to 1919 Leicestershire based Palitoy already had a long and successful history in the British toymaking industry before Action Man came along. Its first creations were made of celluloid hence the company’s original name of Cascelloid Ltd. Despite the slow development of the plastic moulding process here in Britain Cascelloid, led by its founder Alfred Edward Pallett, was able to establish itself and gain a foothold in the market by selling cheap toys, kitchen gadgets and fancy goods primarily to the Woolworths chain. Its first doll which was produced in 1925. Disaster struck in 1927, however, when a tragic fire not only destroyed the whole operation but also killed an employee.
Against the odds Pallett bounced back and refused to give in, eventually opening a new factory once again based in Leicester, which expanded rapidly during the late 1920s. In 1931 Cascelloid Ltd became a subsidiary of British Xylonite who had previously pioneered the use of injection moulding machines in Britain. Six years later further expansion saw Cascelloid develop a new factory in Coalville, Leicestershire, where it began making heads for soft-bodied dolls under a new subsidiary brand called ‘Palitoy Playthings’. Injection moulding was introduced to Coalville in 1941 and despite disruption to toy production during World War Two Cascelloid Ltd enjoyed great success in the post-war years making all manner of toys and games. It was around this time that Cascelloid Ltd took up the sole trading name of ‘Palitoy’. Growth continued through the 1950s and early 60s, a boom time for the British toy making industry. It experienced great success in 1965 following the launch of its revolutionary Tiny Tears doll. Greater things were to follow after the successful acquisition of the licence to produce and market Hasbro’s G.I. Joe in the UK under the name of Action Man in 1966. Interestingly, Palitoy had previously made a male figure with movable limbs in the 50s in the form a ventriloquist doll based on the popular radio and TV character Archie Andrews… but these figures were much different. G.I. Joe was a fighting figure with a gun!
Male dolls for boys was a completely new concept in the mid-1960s. The idea of a ‘boys doll’ seemed so odd to T. Eric Smith, then owner of Rosebud Dolls, that he flatly refused to get involved in the bidding and in so doing probably turned down the opportunity of making himself a small fortune. He reasoned that “…boys would not play with dolls!”
In February 1964 Hasbro successfully launched and patented G. I. Joe in the USA and looked to expand its distribution throughout the rest of the world. Hasbro always avoided the use of the word ‘doll’ to describe G.I. Joe and based its first figures on American servicemen. Early prototypes were given individual names ‘Rocky,’ ‘Skip’ and ‘Ace’ before Hasbro finally settled on ‘G.I. Joe’. One of the original prototypes has since been sold at auction for $200,000 - a measure of how the market for vintage figures has exploded in recent times.
It is believed that Hal Benton, Palitoy’s Sales Director, had discovered the early G.I. Joe figures whilst on a trip to the United States sometime around 1964 purchasing one for his grandson. The boy loved the action soldier and got great play value from it prompting Benton to take it to show Pallitoy’s General manager Miles Fletcher. Despite a few doubts as to whether or not it would be well received here in the UK Palitoy decided to give it a go. Following its agreement with Hasbro the first three Action Man figures appeared as Action Soldier, Action Sailor and Action Pilot each based on servicemen of the American Armed Forces. There were four original hair colours to choose from: blonde, auburn brown and black. Hair on the early figures was moulded into the head and painted on with the later flocking process being developed by Palitoy. The scar on the right cheek of the figures was a closely guarded copyrighted feature of both Action Man and G.I. Joe.
The first Action Man figures were marked on the lower back ‘Made in England by Palitoy under licence from Hasbro’ and came with a thin stamped steel dog tag. From 1970 onwards the tags were made of grey or green plastic with bullet holes passing through the logo. Between 1977 and 1984 figures were marked ‘GPG Products Corp 1978’.
Almost from the start of production Action Man had a rival to contend with in the shape of ‘Tommy Gun’. As previously mentioned Lines Bros lost out to Palitoy in negotiating a deal with Hasbro so it decided to launch its own fighting figure in 1966. It was produced out of the ‘Pedigree Toy’ stable. Unlike Action Man, Tommy Gun was based on a British Infantry Soldier suitably armed with a toy Sterling sub-machine gun. Tommy figures were extremely well made and had great detail – including real laces in his boots! Pedigree, however, were not able to produce such a wide range of accessories as Palitoy were capable of in partnership with Hasbro.
The demise of Tommy Gun in 1968 provided Palitoy with an ideal opportunity to switch the focus of its own figures to represent fighting soldiers of the British Armed Forces rather than those of the U.S.A.
Pedigree did not completely abandon its interest in action figures however. It cleverly converted them to figures of Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons in an attempt to cash in on the new demand for television related toys. Needless to say these figures are highly prized by toy collectors’ today.
In 1968, just two years after the launch of Action Man, Palitoy was sold to General Mills Inc of the USA. The 1970s became the halcyon days for Action Man with all manner of interesting figures and innovations launched following the introduction of the classic Eagle Eyed figures in 1976.
By the early 1980s, however, General Mills had acquired a large portfolio of companies under its wing including Denys Fisher, Chad Valley and Airfix but the British toy industry had suddenly begun to slump. Despite the introduction of innovative new figures like Captain Zargon the Space Pirate and ROM the Robot the writing was on the wall.
1984 saw the end of all of all GM’s European production including Action Man and the Coalville factory was finally closed in 1986 resulting in mass redundancies.
It was the end of a great British toy: A toy that now attracts a massive following of collectors’ eager to lay their hands on those elusive rare early figures and accessories.
How I wish I still had my 1967 sailor, sadly it was passed down the line to my nephew in the 1970s and never seen again! Replacing it now would no doubt cost a small fortune.
Car boot sales can be great hunting grounds for Action Men and their many weird and wonderful accessories and the prices of some of the rarer bits can be quite astounding.