Action Force, Red Shadows, SAS, Z Force, Q Force, Space Force... we love them all!
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The History of Action Force
The 1980â€™s saw an explosion of new boys toys as diverse as transforming robots to fantasy warriors from all corners of the universe. The UK saw the launch of an updated version of the pocket toy soldier - Action Force. Globally, Action Force is generally perceived as the British cousin of GI Joe, The Real American Hero, which in part is true, but its influences stretch beyond that to include Action Man, Star Wars and multi-national corporate dealings. The story starts almost 20 years before the toys were launched, but itâ€™s important to understand the heritage to appreciate what happened with the toy line.
The story begins in 1965 with a meeting between a British company called Casselloid and an American company known as Hassenfeld Brothers Inc. Casselloid approached Hassenfeld Brothers Inc (later to become Hasbro) for the UK rights to manufacture its new 1/6th scale boys â€˜dollâ€™, known as GI Joe. A licensing deal was struck and Casselloidâ€™s toy division, Palitoy, worked fast to re-brand and launch as Action Man in time for the Brighton Toy Fair in January 1966. Action Man was an instant hit and Palitoys fortunes drew the attention of the American foodstuff giant, General Mills, to buy Palitoy in 1968 as part of its diversification into toys. Action Man went on to develop away from Hasbroâ€™s GI Joe and Palitoyâ€™s Design Department introduced many new product innovations from Realistic Hair to Gripping Hands.
By 1980 Palitoys efforts were rewarded when Action Man was presented the highly prestigious â€˜Toy Of The Decadeâ€™ award by the National Association of Toy Retailers, however by this point the toy market landscape had changed, thanks to the introduction of Star Wars two years earlier. Star Wars toys introduced a new scale concept which allowed for a greater range of products to be produced. The action figures were 3 3/4â€ compared to the 12â€ height of an Action Man. More toys to accompany the action figures could be created, allowing for vehicles, accessories and play-sets, which were too big or expensive to create at a 12â€ Action Man scale. The investment in production was lower and this passed down to consumer level too, allowing a greater level of affordability. Star Wars toys were designed by Kenner, a US based toy company also owned by General Mills, and allowed Palitoy the rights to distribute Star Wars in the UK. All too aware of how he new scale of toys were changing the marketplace, Palitoy began to develop Action Man in a new format, however they were not the only ones; Hasbro had began to develop their own range too.
August 1982 saw the launch of a new scale Action Man, code-named Action Force. Designed and manufactured in Coalville, Leicestershire, the first 12 figures were very much smaller scale versions of Action Man, including representations from WWII to Modern Military to a new â€˜High-Techâ€™ fantasy range of soldier. The packaging even carried the Action Man logo to help build recognition and acceptance. The launch range included vehicles as well as an adapted Star Wars Death Star to give Action Force a cardboard Headquarters play-set. Just like Action Man was at its launch, Action Force was an instant hit. The line rapidly expanded and over a million figures were sold in 6 months from launch, achieving 10% of the UK action figure market. Similar to Action Manâ€™s â€™Starsâ€™ promotion, Action Force introduced a â€™Medalâ€™ loyalty scheme for mail-away promotional figures, not available in toy shops. Stateside, Hasbro launched their new scaled version of GI Joe, also as a 3 3/4â€ action figure line with roots as â€˜A Real American Heroâ€™.
1983 saw the opportunity to diversify from the Action Man line, just as Action Man had with the original 12â€ GI Joe. A new storyline united the range into a waging conflict against a common terrorist enemy. Figures and vehicles were repainted into new organisations and teams. The good guys were the strike team SAS, infantry backbone Z Force, nautical operations Q Force and the â€˜eyes and ears above Earthâ€™s atmosphereâ€™, Space Force. The Red Shadows formed the bad guys, intent on world domination, led by the ruthless Baron Ironblood. Palitoy struck a deal with IPC Media to incorporate Action Force stories into its weekly Battle comic. Palitoyâ€™s external relationship with Hasbro through Action Man allowed them to include some of Hasbroâ€™s new product into the range, re-branded and re-coloured. This allowed the range to expand considerably for 1983 and saved Palitoy expensive design and development costs. General Mills distributed its toy brands amongst its toy companies, the US market was closed off to Action Force by rivals Hasbro, so it quickly set distribution through Europe via its French, German and Dutch distribution companies.
The year resulted in Â£10 million in sales at retail and became the number 2 selling toy brand in the UK after Star Wars. The readership of the new weekly Battle Action Force comic reached over half a million and membership to its club over 20,000 (including myself!). All indications were pointing to a huge success, however the following year would bring about massive changes on how the future of the toy line would continue. General Mills were beginning to scrutinize all costs as they began a global reorganisation of its toy interests. Palitoys start to 1984 began with the crushing news that development on the 12â€ scale Action Man line was to be halted. The demand for smaller and cheaper products coupled with ongoing licensing payments to Hasbro, led General Mills to order the closure of the line. Action Force continued to grow, introducing further Palitoy designed and re-branded Hasbro GI Joe products. However by August of that year, mostly thanks to the demise of Action Man, most of Palitoy Design Department was redundant. This impacted on any further development of UK designed Action Force products.
With the wind knocked out of Palitoy's sails, the 1985 range reflected what had happened within the company. The Action Force Teams and The Red Shadows were no more and the entire line was replaced with re-packs of the Hasbro GI Joe action figure toy line. The Battle Action Force comic aided the transition by suggesting Baron Ironblood abandoned his terrorist movement to start a new one, named Cobra. All the Action Force Teams had to reorganise into a new unit to combat the Cobra threat. Action figures were all Hasbro products under a distribution agreement, along with a few repacks of the previous Palitoy designed vehicles. Even though the toy line was rapidly moving away from its roots, Palitoy still carried the Action Man logo on the packaging as one last act of defiance, or perhaps a salute to the fallen.
By 1986, General Mills decided to abandon all foreign product development outside of the US, reorganised its toy divisions and almost overnight Palitoy, along with Action Force, ceased to exist. Action Force did not die there, through the relationship, Hasbro picked up the torch and re-launched the toy line again in the summer of 1987, repackaging its GI Joe All American Hero action figures for the European market. All that remained the same was the name Action Force. Whilst new partnership deals were made with Marvel for a new Action Force comic and US cartoons re-dubbed, it took only a few years for Hasbro to lose the Action Force identity completely.
Hasbro eventually bought out most of General Mills toy interests and GI Joe continued to sell in the UK into the 1990â€™s until, almost ironically, Action Man came out of retirement and was resurrected for the UK market by Hasbro. Many of the toy lines created by all the companies mentioned have seen a comeback in recent years; GI Joe, Action Man & Star Wars have all seen resurgence from both children and nostalgic collectors alike. With the efforts of Action Force collecting websites like http://www.bloodforthebaron.com and projects such as the Complete Works collection of comic book stories, perhaps Action Force will one day live again too.
I for one, sure hope so!
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