It wasn't just toy companies that realised the potential of transforming robots; even petroleum giants had a go. The ExxonMobile company's UK wing, still bearing the company's old name of Esso, decided they were a good idea for turning punters over to their brand of fuel. I'm not sure what it was like in the rest of the world, but in the UK during the 1980s, there was something of a war going on between fuel companies, with one gambit being the toy that came free with your petrol to keep the bastard kids quiet on the way back from a bank holiday trip to Morecambe. The most fondly remembered example is probably BP's Smurfs give-away.
Esso roped in some cheap plastic transforming robots (with friction motors, a common lesser-line gimmick) under the name Robot Racer, given away carded with a certain amount of petrol. These seem to have come from a line named Change Robo (thanks to Chris Olsen for this factlet, and the image to the left). I think these also came out in America, but whether that was as part of some Exxon promotion or under different circumstances I don't know.
The figures were also common grist to the bootlegger's mill due to their simple, all-plastic construction. The figures had names, were numbered and even came on blister cards - sadly, the artwork routinely showed the toys mis-transformed...
Thanks again to Chris Olsen, here is a list of all eight figures in the range: -
4Runner figures all used the same red plastic base unit, with a different
yellow plastic "load" being attached to each. As a result,
the robot modes look identical from the front.
At the time of writing I only have three Robot Racer figures. I have, at some point or another, owned most of the 4Runner figures, but got rid of a while back.
The car mode is a rather squashed Mazda RX-7. Aside from the stickers, detail is rather low, and the colours are a bit bland. It doesn't hold together particularly well, but there is a friction motor. Woo.
The transformation is very straight forward, and results in a rather ugly-looking robot mode - Mighty-Man has a weird curved back, and thus rather concave body. The giant mono-foot just about keeps him in balance, but the top half of the body is so heavy most old examples lean forward about 45°. Oh dear oh dear... He doesn't look like a man, and he doesn't look mighty either. A pretty awful figure, though thankfully these are so common in the UK they probably cost more back in the day than they do now. However, if you have good memories of this chap, it's advisable to just stick with that rather than getting one and finding out the rather depressing truth...
It must have been some sort of law at some point to have a yellow VW Beetle in your transforming toyline - as well as the hugely popular Gobots toy Bug Bite, fans of obscure robot lines will also remember the minor Transformers figure Bumblebee...
However, the 2.5" long Surf-Finder has something pretty big going in his favour - he has a pair of surfboards on the roof of his alt mode. That's unique in this area of action figures, and adds to a very cute vehicle mode - the metallic windows are pretty sweet, and even the random stickers just add to the fun. Aside from the windows and stickers, it's all yellow plastic, rather cheap but also difficult to dislike.
The simple transformation leads to a rather awkward robot mode, sadly. The configuration is very similar to the Mazda RX-7 from the line, but the shape of the Beetle means it just doesn't carry it off very well, giving him a weird C-shaped profile and a massive, gaping hole between his upper torso and what passed for his feet. There's a small amount of bizarre charm to Surf-Finder's robot mode, but not a lot and it's difficult to reconcile him with the cute, offbeat vehicle mode. Gets half a point for the turning upper body, though.
Wagon-Master turns into a Honda City Turbo car, something of a motif for transforming lines of the time (also appearing in Diaclone under three guises, one of which became the Transformers figure Skids; in Robo Car, eventually becoming the Convertors Mini Bot City; and in Buddy L's RoboTron, where it doubled up as TurboTron and GasTron) - also possibly proof that the Robot Racer figures originated from a Japanese line, as outside its' native Japan the car wasn't particularly widespread.
While only 2.5" long again, the toy seems quite a bit larger than Surf-Finder, mainly because the same length means Wagon-Master is in a larger scale. It's not the most impressive representation of the City, lacking the crisp lines of other robot toys, but it gets the job done. Once again, the only paint apps are the windows, while there are a few stickers to stop him being just a sea of red. At least, I'm guessing that was the intention - he's still largely a sea of red regardless...
There's actually a really nice transformation in there for something of this order. I really rather like the unusual feet configuration, with the sloping rear of the car being titled to provide flat feet. Rather innovative. He looks good overall, in fact, with a good head design, plus the neck articulation is once again surprising for something of this order. While the quality still isn't quite there. With better quality plastic, some additional paint apps (coloured face, chromed thighs) and a less brutal shade of red, he could have been a minor classic. As it is, he's still worth keeping half an eye out for.
If anyone has any more information on Robot Racer, please contact me!