Collecting through the decades - the 1980s

28 July 2022
Continuing our series, we take a look at popular children's toys through the decades.
Collecting through the decades - the 1980s Images

From Transformers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Cabbage Patch dolls to Care Bears, the 1980s saw an abundance of toys of all types. Some had just a brief life span, others went on to become classic collectors’ items.

The four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle characters were created in 1983 by US cartoonist Kevin Eastman and writer/artist Peter Laird. In 1984 they brought their quartet of anthropomorphic teenage turtle superheroes to the public’s eye with a 40-page black and white comic book. They funded the project with a tax refund and a family loan. They then put a press pack together which they sent to various media outlets – and incredibly, their characters, and the comic book, were a huge success.

Initially, they planned on a print run of around 3,000, but their next issue of the comic saw advanced orders for 15,000, meaning they could keep on producing their Ninja Turtle stories. Later that year they went along to their first comics convention. Thirty-seven years on, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a hugely successful franchise, with youngsters having their own particular favourite Ninja. There’s the leader, cool-headed Leonardo, fun-loving Michelangelo, studious and deep thinker Donatello and hot-tempered and fearless Raphael.

Following the Ninja Turtles first film, Playmates created figures of the heroes and the villains they came up against, with countless numbers being sold over the years making the Ninja Turtles one of the most successful toy-lines ever. Recently a 1988 Donatello figure sold at auction for $325 (£234).

Youngsters of the 1980s – and their dads, soon became fans of Transformers when they appeared in the shops and catalogues of 1984. These weren’t just impressive and colourful robots, they quickly and almost magically transformed into something entirely different. Maybe a car, a weapon, an animal – almost anything. The film, The Transformers: The Movie which came out in 1986, featured the voice of Orson Welles as Unicron.

While Transformer models are still massively popular today, for the toy collector, not surprisingly, the original, or Generation 1 toys, are the most sought after. If you happen to have a G1 Defensor Gift Set (Italian) in your loft, then it might just fetch you a small fortune. One sold for $13,797 (£10,078) at auction. It was an incredibly rare Italian version of an already rare Japanese Transformers gift set.

For little girls in the 1980s, we saw the arrival of the ultra-cute Care Bears. These adorable multi-coloured bears were originally painted by US children’s illustrator Elena Kucharik in 1981, intended to be used on greetings cards from American Greeting. However, two years later they were made into plush teddy bears. They went on to become superstars with their own TV series, Care Bears, which ran from 1985 to 1988, and three feature films. Each bear is a different colour with a special ‘belly badge’ indicating its personality. Their family extended to product a range of Care Bear cousins in the shape of other animals.

Should you still have a Care Bear – and it’s one that collectors are after, they have been known to fetch hundreds, even thousands of pounds. A vintage Care Bear Cousin, Pink Monkey, one of a kind 1983 prototype plush animal sold for US $10,000 (£7,187) recently.

Also having the ‘cute’ factor for little girls was My Little Pony. These magical ponies had a brushable mane and tail plus accessories. Created by Hasbro, having been developed by Bonnie Zacherle, these toys are as popular today as they have ever been. As for collecting them, some rare ponies will sell for hundreds. Mimic the Twinkle Eye Unicorn Pony for example would set you back $200 (£144), however a Sweet Scoops Mail Order Pony would demand an asking price of around $850 (£612), while a very rare Rapunzel with its incredibly long curled mane and tail would set you back around $900 (£648).

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Far from being lovely and cute in the normally accepted way, Cabbage Patch Kids were kind of ugly, cute and cuddly all at the same time. Little girls adored them and around 3 million of them were ‘adopted’. They were created by art student Xavier Roberts in the 1970s, and originally made entirely out of cloth. They hit their peak in 1983 when you could adopt your very own unique kid which came with its own birth certificate, for anything between $10 to $250 (0.72p - £188) depending on who you fell in love with! Cabbage Patch Kid, Teresa Ann, made in 1985 and sold at auction, fetched $2,000 (£1,441). And an original doll made by Xavier Robert in 1979 before production began fetched $1,544 (£1,122).

Great TV series to hit our screens and films all had a massive impact on what people were collecting and playing with in the 1980s. And it certainly was a time for some fantastic entertainment to enjoy. I mean who wouldn’t want a scruffy yellow Reliant Regal 3-wheel van with Trotter’s Independent Trading on the sides after watching Only Fools and Horses? From September 1981 until December 2003, we were enjoying 64 episodes of this iconic comedy written by John Sullivan and starring David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Del Boy and Rodney Trotter.

Other series that had us glued to the sofa were The Professionals with Body and Doyle. This British crime action drama featured Martin Shaw, Lewis Collins and Gordon Jackson, agents in the fictional C15 – Criminal Intelligence 5 department. That Ford Capri manufactured by Corgi saw a lot of action as our heroes rounded up the baddies in 57 episodes that ran from 1977 to 1983.

A series that the kids loved was of course, The A Team. This American action series ran from 1983 to 1987 and featured a group of former commandos, now mercenaries, led by Lieutenant Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith – played by George Peppard and  Lieutenant Peck (Dick Benedict) nicknamed ‘Face’ – a smooth good-looking con man. Then there’s ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock (Dwight Schultz) who is quite proud of being declared insane. And last but not least, is Sergeant First Class Bosco ‘B.A.’ or ‘Bad Attitude’ Baracus – known as Mr T in the programme. A set of ten action figures spotted on eBay recently had an asking price of just over £2000.

December 1984 saw the Ghostbusters movie hit the big screens, soon gathering fans worldwide – and a host of merchandising and collectables to keep fans happy. Also, on the big screen we sat in terror as we came face to face with more of those Aliens. 1986 saw the sequel to the first sci-fi horror film, Alien. Since then, collectables, artwork, posters, even an Alien Museum have been created.

Throughout the 1980s, as well as the new toys coming out, youngsters hadn’t forgotten the old favourites from earlier decades: Meccano which had begun in 1898 by Frank Hornby was still popular, but Meccano saw lots of changes in the 1980s with General Mills buying up Airfix Products in 1981 and what was left of Meccano Ltd UK. All the existing Meccano sets were scrapped and a new range of sets were designed for production in Calais, France. Meccano was later sold to Mark Rebibo who in 1989 sold what was left of Meccano to Dominique Duvauchelle.

Slot cars also grew in popularity. The first slot cars were introduced in 1912 by the Lionel Train Company as an accessory for model train sets. Intended to travel on their own roadways rather than racing. However, the idea of competing against one another soon took over. It’s said that the 1980s were a golden era of innovation for Scalextric who produced some memorable sets including Mighty Metro, Le Mans and the four-lane World Championship. Slot cars are hugely popular worldwide to this day.

But while many toys, TV series and collectables were taking off, one iconic series came to a halt at the end of the 1980s. Four actors played the role of Doctor Who during the eighties and these were; Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Having begun in 1963, it was axed in 1989, and didn’t start again successfully until 2005. However, love for this show, its characters and adventures has never stopped, and fans happily continue to watch and collect – with the role of the Doctor being played, for the first time ever, by a female – Jodie Whittaker.