"Generation One" Penbots Toy Reviews
Release Date: 1987
Price Point: 380 Yen (about $3.49 in 2020 USD)
Retailer: Japanese Exclusive Release
In 1987, Takara released a series of Transformers mini-figures known as the "Penbots". These curious little Transformers were about the size of a Headmaster figure (a little over 1.5 inches/3.81 centimeters) and each could transform into a small vehicle. At the bottom of each was a port to allow you to attach the figure to a pen! The Penbots all shared common construction, featuring most of the vehicle on their back and unique head/torso plates. The arms and legs were the same between all three designs. The three designs were a Jet Fighter, a Submarine and a Tank.
From a color perspective, there were three potential variants for the Penbots. Based on the small blurb for the Penbots in the "Generations" magazine, there were three color variants for each Penbot. One combination featured grey and blue colors. Another combination featured olive green, bright red and a very light beige (or off-white) color. The third combination inverted the olive green and bright red colors but kept the light beige. The set being reviewed here is the olive green, bright red and light beige combination.
Interestingly, the Penbots do not seem to have any specific affiliation. The scan above and the three figures I have in hand do not reveal any Autobot or Decepticon symbols so I'm guessing they can be whatever affiliation you want.
While they each have different vehicle modes, all three Penbot variants have the same basic construction. Similar to the Headmasters, they have one large piece featuring the vehicle on the back, one large panel with the head and torso and two arm pieces. The arms can move up and down and the legs can swing up to transform the character into vehicle mode. For some odd reason, there is a spring built into the hips. That means on their own they cannot "lock" into vehicle mode. When you swing the legs up, they swing back into place very quickly. For the photos below I wound up having to put tape on the legs to hold them into place just long enough to get the shot! The arms can also move up and down, though on the copies of the figures I have these joints are tight so I was super careful about moving the arms up fearing they may snap off. This is 30+ year old plastic after all, and these were likely never made with the intention of still being played with 30+ years later!
Below I will go into the specifics of each type of Penbot.
The Jet Type Penbot features an interesting head sculpt. Round, with visor eyes and a mouth that looks like the mask pilots wear, the head sculpt looks like a human military pilot's helmet. The torso looks like it has a giant air intake in the middle with some nice line details on the chest. This mode mostly shows off the bright red head/torso and light beige arms and legs. The eyes on the head are painted silver.
Fold the legs up over the torso to form the jet mode. The jet mode is based on the F-15 Eagle featuring two vertical and two horizontal stabilizer fins in the back. It also features two intakes on either side of the cockpit section. The jet piece is olive green with silver on the cockpit. Of course, this is not a particularly convincing jet since it has a ton of robot kibble on the bottom but there's something charming about a figure that was intended to hang out with kids in a classroom or while they do their homework.
Update (3/20/20): Fans have pointed out that this Penbot is more likely based on the F-14 Tomcat given the design of the wings. I am leaving my original text above for posterity but I tend to agree with this assessment.
Much like the Jet Type Penbot, the Submarine Type features a head sculpt that calls back to its vehicle mode. The head looks like a diving helmet complete with a round shape, wide visor eyes and a mouth area that looks like a rebreather. I love this head sculpt. It is kind of goofy and cool all at the same time. The torso is a bit more generic, featuring a middle section with rows of horizontal lines and lines etched into either side of the chest.
Swing the legs up and that forms the submarine mode. The submarine has one oval shaped section in the center with two extensions on the sides. Small fins stick out to the sides and on the back with a tower section on top. This section is olive green with the top section painted silver. It could just be me but I actually see some design elements of the Thunderbird 2 vehicle in this one. One note: on my copy of this figure the spring in the hips has weakened enough over the years that this figure actually stays in vehicle mode without me having to stick tape in the middle.
The Tank Type Penbot has perhaps the most "generic" robot head design of the three Penbots. This head has an angular helmet section with visor eyes and a mouthplate. The torso is blocky with line details on the chest that look like a panel that can be opened. This Penbot looks like it could easily be some type of front line Vehicon drone. There are some nice details included hatches leading into the tank. The head/torso panel is bright red, the arms are light beige and the back piece is olive green. The eyes are painted silver.
Swing the legs up to form the tank mode. The way this figure is designed, it looks like the tank has no treads or we are supposed to interpret the robot parts on the lower half of the vehicle as the treads. The tank turret and body sections on top look like this may be meant to represent an M1 Abrams. It features a rear section that angles up then flattens out int he back. The turret also has an angle on the sides similar to the ones found on a real M1 Abrams.
The Penbots are very cool artifacts from another era. If they were made today I doubt they would have any articulation or deco. It is a very interesting look at non-mainline items from another time. Now, I spent more than I care to admit to get my hands on these guys so I cannot urge everyone to run out and buy a set. I will say that I love these little guys and I wish that in the 80's I had bought all the various color variations!