Metal Joe is a line I know very little about. It was made by Bandai in the mid-1980s, and judging by the dearth of online content, wasn't a big success.

The catalogue I have (which is basically about all I've got giving me information... this potentially isn't a problem until you consider that I can't speak Japanese) is copyrighted 1984, around the same time as Machine Robo was in production. There were six figures in all, with the first four joined by two later figures - the fifth is shown at the bottom of the page, and the sixth and final was a white figure. The toys also bear the stamp of someone called Tokio - I'm guessing this was a design studio of Bandai's, much like Plex.

Some seem to assume a link between the two series (for reasons fair or foul, 'Machine Robo' often features in ebay listings text for the figures, anyway), but aside from being made by Bandai at the same time and both being transforming robot lines, there seems to be no connection. The line more-or-less simultaneous with two lock-based figures issued in Takara's Microchange line in 1984 - I have to say Bandai's efforts seem much neater.



MJ-01 is Fighter Lock, MJ-02 is Dial Lock, MJ-03 is Armor Lock and MJ-04 is Chain Lock.

I recently found out (though it may be common knowledge to the world at large) that Metal Joe did have a Western release, or at least an American one. In 1985 Bandai issued at least the first four under the name Padlock Robot, on blister cards. The packaging played up the practical uses of the figures with the line "It really works - protect your valuables". In 1985, with Transformers-mania sweeping the world, there was quite a market for this sort of 'add transformation to any object', with transforming pens, digital watches, water pistols and more all coming out, so it must have seemed like a sound move.

Judging by there being even less coverage of Padlock Robot than of Metal Joe, I'd say it went not so well. Indeed, the most prominent Western release of a Metal Joe figure was probably Four Star's line of knockoffs . A hefty price of around $8 per figure probably didn't help matters.


MJ-01 FIGHTER LOCK
HEIGHT:
3.8m
WEIGHT:
5.2t
[INSTRUCTIONS]

Metal Joe MJ-01 Fighter LockThe lock mode is a very sturdy padlock, almost entirely made from diecast metal - a small panel on the top and the chunky dial being the exception. He possesses possibly the trickiest transformation from the range, as sliding back the top section is tricky without the silver bar getting in the way. It's easy enough from lock to robot, but the other way round is trickier.

Metal Joe MJ-01 Fighter LockThe figure stands 4.7" tall, though best part of an inch is due to the metal bar protruding from his head. Despite having unusual proportions (around twice as deep as it is wide), the robot looks remarkably good - the snappy dark blue with red detail colour scheme being a bit of a factor. The bar isn't that much of a problem looks-wise, while the combination lock on the chest looks good, a nice unusual detail.

There's also some useful articulation in the arms and legs, though the weight of the figure limits the use of the latter. While the transformation can be a little frustrating, the lock feature is easy to get at, the durability can't be faulted, and the robot mode is nice and unique.


MJ-02 DIAL LOCK
HEIGHT:
3.6m
WEIGHT:
6.5t
[INSTRUCTIONS]

Metal Joe MJ-02 Dial LockDial Lock has an all-metal shell (though the robot does contain more plastic than the other three 'first wave' Metal Joe figures). The metal is painted gold, which means it doesn't photograph particularly well - I eventually managed to get a shot of the lock that's pretty close to reality, but the robot picture has a little too much light playing on it. As the name suggests, the figure locks through a safe-style dial on the front - a very neat device, though the instructions aren't particularly clear - bear in mind the tiny arrow needs to start off at 10 O'clock. As with the other figures, the unlocking mechanism has to be used for the transformation as well as for using the toy as a lock, so I had a crushing five minutes from first securing him in padlock mode to finally deciphering the instructions... Once this bit is out of the way, the rest of the transformation is quite close to that of Gold Lightan, with the shell of the lock opening up, the limbs extending from within, and then the shell clipping back in place again. It's a fairly straightforward transformation, though extending the feet is something of a fiddly process.

Metal Joe MJ-02 Dial LockAt 4.6" tall, Dial Lock is slightly shorter than 'Combination Lock' - however, you could argue he's really the tallest, as the latter's head comes up to Dial Lock's shoulder, with the bar on top making up less of the height. Dial Lock is one of the more conventional Metal Joe figures, and thus ever so slightly disappointing. Aside from the striking gold/silver/blue colour scheme, he's a bit vanilla and lacks punch, despite some efforts at detailing.

There are joints in the legs that theoretically give articulation; however the metal torso means he unbalances fairly easily. The limbs actually look a little weedy compared to the body. If Dial Lock was the only figure in the line, he might be a little less disappointing - however, compared to some of the others he's rather ordinary, despite the fun (eventually...) dial mechanism.


MJ-03 ARMOR LOCK
HEIGHT:
2.8m
WEIGHT:
7.0t
[INSTRUCTIONS]

Metal Joe MJ-03 Armor LockArmor Lock is rather similar to 'Combination Lock' in overall look and construction; however, the metal hoop is a lot smaller and thicker, and the overall result is a lot sturdier - this time, the combination dials are metal as well. On the downside, the edges aren't too easy on the fingers. The transformation is one of the more straightforward - it's innovative still, but isn't as tricky as some of the others. Armor Lock's mechanism is also one of the easiest to actually use as well. The toy is almost solid diecast - only the head, the feet and the elbow joints are plastic on the whole thing.

Metal Joe MJ-03 Armor LockThus the 3.3" tall robot weighs in at 150g. This was the first Metal Joe figure I got, and it's still my favourite. The size variance in the line might be quite big (his head proper comes up to Dial Lock's waist), but the heft of Armor Lock means you don't feel like you're getting short-changed. The squat robot is rather charming too - he looks armoured all right, but cute at the same time. Like a friendly Dalek.

The nearly-all-metal construction means Armor Lock can actually make good use of his articulation as well. In common with the ST Laserion and several Machine Robo figures, there are actually ball-joints on this guy's arms, and the stiff metal joints mean he has a fair degree of poseability.


MJ-04 CHAIN LOCK
HEIGHT:
2.8m
WEIGHT:
5.5t
[INSTRUCTIONS]

Metal Joe MJ-04 Chain LockChain Lock is probably the most different of the Metal Joe figures in lock form. Rather than a padlock-style metal bar, he uses (shock, horror) a long metal chain to be secured to objects - a bar attached to the chain goes into one side, and then the combination dials lock it into place. The dials are a little tricky to get at, but aside from this it's one of the simplest mechanisms to unlock. It just looks rather weird, though. The transformation is simple to handle as well - initially he's something of a relief compared with the other, more intricate figures, though he soon loses interest, especially as you begin to master the rest.

Metal Joe MJ-04 Chain LockThe robot, a little smaller than Armor Lock (2.8" tall) has a distinctly simian profile. The wide shoulders, the long arms, the low head... Indeed thanks to the moving ring the latter is mounted upon, you can actually put him down on all fours and go the whole way, and have a little metal monkey to caper around. It's certainly different... Sadly, while making the metal bar vaguely resemble some sort of weapon and fit in Chain Lock's hand s a nice touch, the chain is far too long to work in this mode, just being a particularly awkward piece of kibble.

The upside is he's got good articulation, and the balance to make good use of it... The knee joints actually go both ways without being so flexible Chain Lock can't hold a pose, while the shoulders rotate and bend - being able to move the head up and down slightly helps make the poses more natural too. An odd one, with a poor lock mode, but not without his diverting points.


MJ-05 SWORD LOCK
HEIGHT:
?
WEIGHT:
?

Metal Joe MJ-05 Sword LockSword Lock comes from a second batch of Metal Joe (just two figures, it would seem - MJ-06 is a white lock with a prominent bar along the top; I don't have him). While he's still stamped 1984, Tokio's mark is now missing. The Japanese release had a slightly different style box to the first four, and I don't think the last two figures were part of the American Padlock Robot. Sword Lock has a lot more plastic on him than the previous releases, only being around 40% diecast. This gives him a somewhat less sturdy feel. Also, unlike the other figures, he has extra accessories - a pair of keys for the simple lock mechanism. These are still used for "unlocking" the robot mode as well.

Metal Joe MJ-05 Sword LockThe robot is a pretty decent thing, a nice height (4.5") with a good design - and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Bandai's Machine Robo Missile Robo. While, like Dial Lock, it suffers a little from being conventional compared to the more interesting, unusual other designs, the result here is more coherent. Bandai seem to have made a shift towards concentrating on the robot for this figure - it's less a working lock than can turn into a robot, more a robot that turns into a lock (in the same way, say, Megatron turns into a gun - more as a disguise than as a practical use).

The articulation is, once more, pretty good - across the line it's very good for such small figures, especially as designers regularly use any sort of action feature (in this case, that would be the functioning lock mechanisms) as an excuse for shortcuts on the basics. And those keys really do look rather good as swords... While the whole tone of Sword Lock is subtly different from his predecessors, he's still an enjoyable figure.


So, there we have most of Metal Joe, doing for locks what Lightan did for cigarette lighters. As with that series, while some figures are better than others, the variation Bandai got from such a restrictive area is worthy of not-inconsiderable praise, and anyone who likes cute twists on the transforming robot idea - not to mention high quality manufacturing and some good, compact designs - should keep an eye out for these little guys.

If anyone has an example of MJ-06 to sell or trade, more information on the figure or just some pictures to share, please contact me!