Formidable Gang of 5 rules the toy robot realm

A boxed Machine Man toy robot soared to $159,900 and set a world auction record in so doing. It sold in September 2020 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Toy robots have been popular for decades, and nobody built them better than Japanese manufacturers of the 1950s and 1960s. Several Japanese toymakers achieved global market dominance by pioneering technology that powered tinplate toys with batteries.

Japan’s oldest toy company is Masudaya, also known as Modern Toys. During the post-World War II era, its golden era of toy production, the firm produced a series of big, boxy robots that came to be known as the “Gang of Five.” According to verbal lore within the toy-collecting hobby, the Gang of Five monicker may have been invented by pioneer robot enthusiast Robert Lesser as a humorous play on “Gang of Four,” the Chinese Communist political faction that came to prominence during the Cultural Revolution.

While popular in their day, Gang of Five are in far greater demand more than half a century later. Today’s collectors of sci-fi toys will pay big money for Gang of Five robots in very good or better condition, especially those retaining their original boxes.

A Radicon robot toy earned $7,000 in May 2021 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

According to the Antique Toy Collectors of America (ATCA), Masudaya earned renown for its five “skirted” robots (so named because they have solid all-around bases rather than “legs”) issued during a seven-year span. The first robot in the series rolled off the assembly line in 1957. Dubbed the Radicon, it was the first radio-controlled robot toy offered by Masudaya. Radicon was a challenge to manufacture, and at 15 inches tall, it was one of the largest toy robots on the market. Its lithographed and stamped panels of grainy gray metal similar in appearance to old office filing cabinets. Its design was complex and ahead of its time.

A Non-Stop Robot, nicknamed Lavender Robot because of its coloring, realized $3,539 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2018 at Antico Mondo Auktionen. Photo courtesy of Antico Mondo Auktionen and LiveAuctioneers

Masudaya’s next entry in the series, the Non-Stop Robot, appeared in 1959. It has the same body mold as Radicon but was equipped with the extra function of what Masudaya called “non-stop” (or “bump-and-go”) action. If it bumps into a wall or object, it corrects itself and proceeds in another direction. Non-Stop Robot’s body sports a light lavender color, earning it the nickname of Lavender Robot.

A special order from an American importer spurred Masudaya to make the Giant Machine Man (better known simply as Machine Man) in 1960, a bright red robot that was similar to the Non-Stop. Unlike the other robots in the series, the third member of the Gang of Five never appeared in a Masudaya toy catalog. It shares the same catalog number as the Lavender Robot and its overall shape is nearly identical, save for the coloring on the panels, mouth and body. Some estimates say only 12 dozen examples of Machine Man were made for that one American special order. Owing to its limited production run, and perhaps its gargantuan size, it is the rarest of the Gang of Five. 

A fine example of a Machine Man set a world auction record in September 2020 at Morphy Auctions in Denver, Pennsylvania, when it sold for $159,900. It showed very little wear and came with its extremely rare original box. The bizarre artwork on the box lid depicts a huge red robot against a lunar-like landscape with a rocket in liftoff position in the background. Inexplicably, the robot is greeted by a grinning man holding a coffee cup, and a waving child, both looking like they should be in an ad for a ski resort. At the upper righthand corner of the box are the words, “With mystery non stop walking action /Eyes and ears light up /Arms swing as he walks forward and backward.”

This example of a Giant Sonic Robot brought $2,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2017 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Giant Sonic Robot, aka Train Robot, debuted in 1962. It shares the generous size and bright red coloration of Machine Man, as well as non-stop action and a “supersonic” sound effect that resembles the “whoo-whoo” whistle of a train. 

Masudaya released the final entry in the Gang of Five series either in 1964 or ’65 (sources differ). True to its name, Target Robot came with a dart gun and suction-cup dart. If the fired dart hit the target on the robot’s chest, it would emit a screaming sound to indicate a bull’s-eye. 

A Target Robot with dart gun and suction-cup dart attained $11,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Milestone Auctions. Photo courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Interestingly, a robot shown in a 1965 toy catalog advertisement looks a lot like the Target Robot, but was given the name “Shooting Giant Robot.” No physical examples boxed under this name have ever been seen on the market, so it evidently did not leave the prototype stage.

Chris Sammet, president and co-owner of Milestone Auctions in Willoughby, Ohio, sells Gang of Five robots whenever he can, but says they don’t come to market that often. He also personally collects robots and has two from the Gang of Five series. He’s a fan, and he’s not the only one.

 “I think it was just the space and rockets and the technology of robots,” he said, explaining the appeal of the toys, which date to the middle of the 20th century and the early years of the space race. “They are almost timeless. That’s why I like them. Robot boxes are always gorgeous compared to a lot of the other toys that were produced around that time.”

Given that toy robots were designed to be played with by kids rather than admired by grownup collectors, it’s a wonder that any have survived unscathed. Original packaging was even more perishable than the toys they held, which is why attractively printed boxes with vibrant graphics add to a vintage robot’s value.

The market for toy robots is strong. Robot collections are not often consigned as a whole, which means choice examples appear here and there at auction. Of those, few are in textbook mint condition. The best examples tend to be new/old stock (products meant for retail sale but discovered years or decades later, unopened, in storerooms or warehouses) or toys that were barely played with and stashed away in attics or basements along with their original boxes. Vintage robots fitting those descriptions are scarcer than unicorns, so collectors often accept examples that are in the best condition they can find, whatever that may be, in hopes of one day upgrading. “You just want them all complete and with good colors, that’s what is really important,” Sammet said. “If you could find one that was new/old stock or never played with, it would command such a premium … the sky’s the limit.”