Back to the Future

The Argos catalogue from 1985 is a fascinating historical document. The average kid?s Toy Bible, its contents freeze frame a moment in time. Jon Salisbury revisits the scene of his inaugural year in the toy business...
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1985. It seems like only yesterday to the more mature gentleman but it’s like viewing the Second World War from the distance of the 1970s. A lot can happen in 27 years and, boy, has a lot happened in toy terms. 

I’d inherited the editorship of a toy magazine in March of the year, but I’d had plenty of time to familiarise myself with the key toys that would be vying for Christmas success.

Of course, toys weren’t the only things in the news. The death of Rock Hudson in October marked the hysterical zenith of AIDS paranoia, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros for the NES, the best selling single of the year was We Are The World closely followed by Take On Me by A-ha, Back To The Future was top of the box office and Man Utd beat Everton 1-0 in the FA Cup, with Everton taking the Division One title.

At the National Association of Toy Retailers awards, Transformers was again Toy of the Year, with shortages of Optimus Prime, Waddington’s Blockbusters was Game of the Year. Boots announced it was to start the Children’s World chain, Hasbro purchased Action Man from Palitoy and Sindy from Pedigree (but both are missing from the 1985 Argos catalogue) and Hamleys was bought by Harris Queensway.

Leafing through the pages of that year’s Argos book, many facts jump out to remind you of a more innocent era with less sophisticated marketing of playthings to children.

Of all the products we have highlighted, only a few are still on sale today. Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit have stood the test of time in the games category, Barbie was sticking her chest out proudly, Lego had the construction toy market to itself, Star Wars was a licensed toy phenomenon and Transformers had just come to town – but that’s about it.

Licensed product in 1985 was very limited compared to today. Pre-school licensing was almost non-existent and Lego had yet to chance its hand. You can almost count the number of products on one hand: Star Wars, The A-Team, Postman Pat, Roland Rat, Spider-Man and Knight Rider.

The other noticeable difference between yesterday and today is how expensive toys appeared to have been. We have provided a price comparison with 1985 and what that converts to today. For instance, Trivial Pursuit would be over £50 at today’s prices when you can actually pick it up for just over £30. Very few other products still exist today, so direct comparison is impossible. The modern Barbie or Optimus Prime, for example, bear next to no resemblance to their antecedents. With other items, you just know that you wouldn’t shell out over £30 for a Casdon cash register. Even if it did boast an LCD display...

Prices - Then and Now

Game & Watch Mario Bros

Multi-screen handheld electronic game marks the first appearance of Nintendo’s video game plumbing characters in toy form.

Tomytronic Stereo Skyfighters

An electronic fighting game viewed through binoculars said to have an ‘amazing three dimensional effect’.

Peter Pan Master Challenge 5000

Described rather un-enthusiastically as ‘an electronic quiz game covering many subjects’.

Hasbro Hungry Hippos

Those of you old enough will remember its inventor, Fred Kroll (RIP), carrying his latest creations around toy fairs in a wheeled trolley.

Waddingtons Cluedo

One of the very few games in the 1985 catalogue that survives to this day.

Parker Bros Trivial Pursuit

People were obsessed with Triv. You just had to have a quick game when you went around to friends’ houses. It was a hot property, hence the premium price.

Duplo Town Set

Lego’s pre-school brand was quite new to the market and, as yet, quite primitive. This set ‘contained bricks to build houses and cars’.

Lego Technic Car Chassis

For experienced Lego builders over nine, apparently. The Technic products were often among the most expensive items in the toy shop.

Hasbro Transformers Optimus Prime

The must-have toy of 1985. Parents were fighting in the aisles to get hold of one. Via movies and CGI, Optimus Prime has come to mean as much to another generation of kids.

The A Team Mr T 12" Action Figure

The iconic character from the TV series. Rainbow Toys was the importer, from whence key figures in the Character Options team originated.

Palitoy Star Wars Millennium Falcon

The Return of the Jedi was the 1983 instalment and the toys were still selling until, legend would have it, landfill became the final destination for millions of Star Wars action figures.

IDEAL Knight Rider Racing Set

It seemed as though any action show could warrant a toy licence.

Mattel Masters of the Universe Snake Mountain

The biggest item in the range from the popular animated TV show.

Corgi set of 5 Lorries

100% British made in a Swansea factory.

Tonka Mighty Dump Truck

Made of steel and high-density plastic, apparently. It also came with a free hard hat.

Mattel Crystal Barbie

11 and a half inches of the finest plastic, plus fashion accessories.

Mattel Rainbow Brite 18" doll

‘Cuddly creatures with their own names and personalities.’

Hasbro Roland Rat

TVAM’s resident superstar. A one-year wonder. A great example of how transient novelty characters can be.

Hasbro My Little Pony Snow Stable

The biggest thing in girls concept toys at the time. Surely long overdue another relaunch.

Palitoy Tenderheart Care Bear

Another girls character with its own animated show.

Coleco Cabbage Patch Kids

Each with their own name and adoption papers, we Brits reacted less hysterically than our US brethren to these toy adoptees.

Fisher Price Cassette Recorder

It’s absurd now to think that you could command a premium price for a basic cassette recorder.

Bluebird Big Yellow Teapot

A playhouse complete with figures and accessories.

Fisher-Price Play Family Garage

The Play Family starred in a whole series of

Matchbox Activity Bear

An unlikely pre-school brand, Matchbox would eventually have numerous items.

Casdon Electronic Cash Register with LCD Display

Complete with LCD display. State of the art stuff.

Fisher-Price Activity Centre

Neutral colours with an emphasis on brown were the order of the day. A good example of how the pre-school market has livened up since 1985.

Merit Postman Pat Van

Pre-school licensing hadn’t really come of age in 1985. This is one of the only character items for under-5s in the catalogue.

Bluebird A La Carte Kitchen

Cooker, washing machine, oven and sink all in one. Literally an entire kitchen on wheels.

Dekkertoys Spiderman Playhouse

A flame ‘retarded’ tent. The proofreader at Argos must have been having an off day.

The prices next to each product are the 1985 price followed by the 2011 conversion.


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