Vintage Action Man 1966-84

Action Man, Soldier 1973 outfit
Action Man, Soldier 1973-4 outfit

Action Man was a toy soldier doll popular in the 1960s and 1970s. He had a range of clothing and accessories. Although based on the American toy GI Joe, Action Man developed a British identity. He was most popular in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. His popularity waned in the 1980s, in spite of updated uniforms and sci-fi-style figures and outfits.

History

Hasbro in America launched GI Joe in 1964. In spite of misgivings about dolls for boys, GI Joe was a huge success. When Hasbro wanted to expand the concept they helped their associated business, Palitoy, launch a similar doll in the UK in 1966.

GI Joe was not a suitable name for the UK market. The name Action Man came from the popular TV series, Danger Man, which stared Patrick McGoohan as secret agent, John Drake.[1]

Action Man had competition in the UK. Pedigree, the makers of Sindy, launched Tommy Gunn the previous year. He was a very similar concept, but had British Army uniforms from the start. Tommy Gunn is collectable today and sells for £50 to £100 for a figure in reasonable condition.

In spite of being first and being more British, Tommy Gunn was quickly surpassed by Action Man. The range of outfits may have helped. Tommy Gunn surrendered without a fight; Pedigree withdrew the toy in 1968.

Action Man was an overnight success. By 1968 some children had twenty to thirty Action Man dolls. [2] Presumably the children had wealthy parents?

Although Action Man was immediately popular with boys, the concept was not fully accepted by adults. He was criticised on two counts. Some thought that boys would not play with dolls, but GI Joe had already proved this wrong. Others disliked the militaristic nature of the toy. In the US this proved to be the undoing of GI Joe. The unpopular Vietnam War diminished the appeal of toy soldiers.

The original Action Man had solid plastic hands and painted hair. He came in three guises: Action Soldier, Action Sailor and Action Pilot. They were all similar to the GI Joe equivalent. The range of accessories was also similar to the GI Joe range. The American-style uniforms were unfamiliar to British children.

The Action Soldier came with green combat fatigues, a plastic cap and boots. The Action Sailor had navy blue flares, a denim shirt and a white cap. The Action Pilot came with an orange jumpsuit and a navy blue cap.

Action Man won the Toy of the Year Award in 1966. Palitoy sold over one million Action Men by February 1967. By then you could already buy seventy-five different outfits and accessories. [3]

Palitoy developed Action Man separately for the UK market from 1968. The first major departure was the 'Soldiers of the Century' series, which started with a collection of six World War II outfits.

The Russian Infantryman and American Green Beret were short-lived. The German Stormtrooper and British Infantryman continued until 1980.

Palitoy upgraded the basic Action Man figure several times. In 1970 he got realistic (flocked) hair and in 1973 he was fitted with gripping hands. The figure was completely overhauled in 1979 with a new body.

The outfits were well made and the accessories were accurate reproductions of the real thing. The problem with Action Man was that many of the accessories were not designed for play. The rifles and machine guns were easy to break. Some plastic parts did not stand up to any kind of wear. This means that it is quite difficult to get complete sets today.

The Action Man range was relaunched in the 1980s with a smaller collection of figures. Action Man was withdrawn in 1984 when, according to Frances Baird in 'Action Man - The Gold Medal Doll for Boys', collectors were already snapping up the remaining boxed original items.

There was a reissue in 2006 to mark to mark the 40th Anniversary. Many of these sets have remained in their original packaging and are now very collectable.

Action Man figures

Initially the soldier, sailor and pilot dolls were identical apart from the clothing. There was a choice of blond, brown or auburn hair.

The figures had several changes over the years:

The gripping hands deteriorated rapidly. I remember sending off to Palitoy for new ones after only a couple of years for my 1973 Action Man. Today you can upgrade them with replacements.

Soldier 1966-84

The soldier figure, originally 'Action Soldier', was a key part of the Action Man range.

The original outfit had green combat fatigues and a plastic cap. In 1970 he had realistic hair, known as 'flocked hair', but with the original solid hands. He also got a new uniform and a Sten gun.

1973 brought gripping hands and another new uniform with a pullover and cloth beret. He got a rifle instead of the Sten gun. This was much closer to a UK soldier's uniform for the early 1970s.

The soldier had a hard plastic beret from 1975.

He continued until 1984, benefitting from improvements such as 'Eagle Eyes' (1977) and a dynamic physique (1979).

Sailor 1966-78

The sailor was part of the original Action Man line-up. He had his own accessories, such as a dinghy and a frogman's suit. He started out as a US-style sailor with a blue denim shirt and a white hat. Like other Action Man figures he got realistic hair in 1970. In 1971 he had a new British-style uniform and grew a beard.

Pilot 1966-70

The Action Pilot had an orange jumpsuit and a navy blue cap. Like the sailor, he had a distinctive range of accessories.

He survived as far as 1970 to get realistic hair, but was dropped from the range in 1971.

Commander 1969-84

Action Man Field Commander, 1974-6
Action Man Field Commander, 1974-6

Palitoy introduced the 'Commander' in 1969. He had a new smarter green uniform and a hard plastic beret. The original version gave eight different commands and was operated by pulling a string. The technology was also used in contemporary Barbie dolls, although the words were different!

In 1973 the Talking Commander was also upgraded to gripping hands. He got the same jersey as the soldier, but with the officer's cap from the 1972 British Army Officer's uniform. Instead of the rifle the Commander had a pistol and holster.

In 1974 the Talking Commander became the Field Commander. His voice now came from a separate field radio pack which took different discs.

The Commander disappeared from the range in 1977. He got his voice back in 1978 and became the new 'Talking Commander'.

Sportsman 1970-1

Criticism of the militaristic nature of Action Man led to two new figures in 1970, the Sportsman and the Adventurer. The Sportsman did not survive long as a separate figure. However, football strips and accessories continued in the range until 1973.

Adventurer 1970-80

The Adventurer was a modern-day explorer. He had jeans and a beard.

The Adventurer stayed in the range until 1980.

Values

Helicopter Pilot 1977-80

A late edition to the range in 1977. The Helicopter Pilot had a blue jumpsuit and a white crash helmet.

Other figures

Palitoy tried to widen the appeal of Action Man in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They introduced some Sci-Fi-inspired characters. There was also a black soldier called 'Tom Stone' who was new in 1977. In 1978 Palitoy introduced the budget-priced 'Desert Fighter' - he could not afford a shirt!

Values - Action Man figures

Boxed

Figures with their original boxes are the most valuable for collectors. Condition of outfit, accessories, box and figure are key to high values.

Unboxed

Unclothed figures can be bought for upwards of £20. The 1960s' version with painted hair and solid hands is worth £30 upwards. Figures with an outfit sell for more depending on the condition of the figure and the clothes.

Clothing and accessories

Each of the three original action figures had a range of additional clothing and equipment specific to the figure.

In the original range, the Action Soldier could have a field jacket similar to the US Army's M65 jacket, a Military Police (MP) outfit and a white sky patrol outfit with skis or snow shoes. He could also have backpacks, mess tins, sleeping bags, radios, machine guns, a parachute and a stretcher.

The Action Sailor could have a frogman's outfit, a life jacket and a dinghy. The Action Pilot could also have a dinghy, a different jumpsuit, a radio, a parachute and crash helmet.

You could buy complete sets with uniform and equipment and part sets.

Original range

The original range of clothing and accessories was very similar to the GI Joe range in the USA. It was largely based on contemporary US military uniform and equipment.

The deep sea diver and frogman outfits were waterproof. So your Action Man could have underwater adventures in the bath. It must have done wonders for the metal joints though!

Soldiers of the Century 1968-72

In 1968 Palitoy launched a series of new outfits based on Second World War Uniforms from Germany, America, Australia, Britain, Russia and France.

The original range was called 'Soldiers of the Century'. It was Palitoy's first departure from the GI Joe-style outfits.

The original line-up was:

Each outfit had appropriate firearms and accessories to go with it. You could buy the uniform and the accessories separately or as one set.

Palitoy changed the collection over the years. Two uniforms, those of the Russian Infantryman and the American Green Beret, were dropped after just one year. The Australian Jungle Fighter was also quickly dropped, but it was brought back in 1972.

Soldiers of the World 1973-6

Palitoy rebranded 'Soldiers of the Century' as 'Soldiers of the World' in 1973. Three uniforms continued from the original series: German Stormtrooper, French Resistance Fighter and British Infantryman. They added the French Foreign Legion and re-introduced the Australian Jungle Fighter.

In 1974 the German Staff Officer joined the line-up.

The range continued until 1977 in this form. The German Stormtropper and the British Infantryman continued as part of the Action Man range until the 1979.

Escape from Colditz 1974-5

Inspired by the BBC TV series Colditz, which broadcast between 1972 and 1974, Palitoy did a short run of Colditz outfits. They had a lot in common with the German Stormtrooper, German Staff Officer and British Army Officer outfits.

Values

Some of the Soldiers of the Century/Soldiers of the World are more collectable than others. German uniforms are worth more. They were also more popular at the time. Although the Russian Infantryman only ran for a year or so, you can pick up a complete set for around £20. A complete German Stormtrooper or German Staff Officer will cost twice that price.

Sets affixed to the original card packaging will be £100+.

Red Devil Parachutist/Sky Diver 1969-

The Red Devils formed in 1964 as the British Parachute Regiment's display team. Palitoy introduced the Red Devil jumpsuit and white helmet into the Action Man range in 1969. The kit contained a working parachute. You could throw your Action Man out of the bedroom window and watch him parachute safely to the ground.

Palitoy rebranded the kit 'Sky Diver' in 1978. It was dropped in 1979.

Values

The Red Devil suit was quite common at the time and it is not the most collectable today. You should be able to get a complete set for £20.

Famous British Uniforms 1970-84

Action Man Parachute Regiment Uniform 1970s
Action Man Parachute Regiment Uniform 1970s

This series started in 1970. The original line-up was:

The range changed over the years. New uniforms were added in 1971 and 1972. Only the Parachute Regiment uniform remained until the 1980s.

Values

The Parachute Regiment uniform was in the range from 1970 to 1984. It is popular with collectors and complete sets in good condition can sell for up to £80. Unwrapped and affixed to the original card packaging they can fetch between £100 and £200.

In 1973 Palitoy sold some special packs containing the outfit and the figure. These are very collectable today. Values are between £500 and £1000.

Explorers

In 1969 Palitoy introduced some non-military outfits for Action Man. In 1970 there were two new figures, Sportsman and Adventurer.

There was a range of outfits for Jungle Explorers, Polar Explorers and Mountaineers.

Sportsmen 1969-73

Sportsman outfits started in 1969 with the Cricketer and the Footballer.

There was a complete range of football strips for some of the more popular clubs from 1971. Football fans could dress their Action Man figure in their team's kit.

Other military outfits

The Internationals

In 1979 Palitoy introduced a range of outfits called 'The Internationals'. They were a budget range, possibly with a look back to the 'Soldiers of the Century' range.

Other outfits

Wild West

Emergency Outfits

New range 1980-4

From around 1980 Palitoy rationalised their range.

The Soldiers

The Officers

The Experts

As well as these figures, Palitoy also continued the Space Ranger series.

How much did Action Man cost?

To understand old money prices see - Introduction to pounds, shillings and pence

References

[1] 'Toys were us' by Nicholas Whittaker, published by Orion, 2001, page 142

[2] 'Tinned fragrance at the toy show' published in The Observer, 23 April 1968 page 23

[3] 'Monday merry-go-round - dolls for boys' published in The Times, 6 February 1967 page 13

[4] 'Dolls with outfits' published in Which? November 1969, page 361

By Steven Braggs, January 2021

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

20th Century History ★ Antiques & Collectables

Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

★ 20th Century History ★ Antiques & Collectables ★