Well, making those dolls male in gender, dressing them up in military uniforms and giving the more macho title of action figures certainly helped.
The phenomenon kicked off in the US with the Hasbro GI Joe range. The 12in (30cm) high figures launched in 1964 and became such a hit that UK manufacturers wanted a slice of the action – and in 1966 Action Man was born, courtesy of Palitoy, a subsidiary of Hasbro.
The UK figures with features such as gripping hands actually overtook GI Joe in terms of quality.
Accessories sold separately are now making impressive prices. In the Keys (20% buyer’s premium) Toys auction on July 7 last year a group of Action Man uniforms estimated at £40-60 sold for £1300 (ATG No 2452).
The latest whopping price came on October 30, over in Axminster, Devon, when a group of seven boxed uniform/accessories sets, plus seven Action Man equipment packs, came to Atkins (15% buyer’s premium) estimated at £50-80. They took £5500.
Success means imitation. Both GI Joe and Action Man inspired a wide array of lookalikes – which are also proving very collectable.
Atkins offered a Tommy Gunn boxed action figure plus nine assorted uniforms and accessories guided at £50-80 which ended up taking £3600.
Both the Action Man and Tommy Gunn lots came from the same vendor, a collector, and were bought via online bids by collectors. Phil Atkins from the auction house said: “The Action Man buyer said there was one outfit that he hadn’t ever seen carded in his 16 years of collecting and another that was almost as rare.”
Tommy Gunn, also launched in 1966, was produced by British company Pedigree which had competed against Palitoy for the GI Joe UK version deal. Such is the accuracy of the equipment, it has been suggested Pedigree’s designers had a contact inside the MOD.
However, they failed to gain the traction enjoyed by Action Man (perhaps because Tommy Gunn uniforms were based only on British regiments and equipment) and by 1968 the body parts were being used instead for a range of Captain Scarlet figures based on the TV show.
Another variant of the soldier doll was the smaller 6in (15cm) high figure by Spain’s Madelman.
Atkins offered a lot of five Madelman action figures (not just military themed) and six Combat Man Second World War figures which took £820 from a collector in Spain, against a guide of £30-50.
Combat Man was produced from 1976 by Mego using different names across France, Italy, Germany Austria, the UK, Australia and the US, often under Lion Rock branding.
They were not particularly successful either, although these small-scale action figures were the precursors of the Star Wars figure that emerged the following year.