Because Masters of the Universe figures were produced over many years in a number of different countries, there is no shortage of production variants, some subtly different and some radically different from the norm. In my own collecting, I’ve always gravitated toward the earliest figures released in the US, particularly for the first wave of figures. They tend to have the nicest paint and plastic applications, in my opinion. All of the 1982 lineup was manufactured in Taiwan, except for Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Wind Raider, which were initially manufactured in the US. A common term for the very earliest figures in the line is “test market figures”, although the term isn’t usually used for the vehicles or Castle Grayskull.
Much assistance for this article was given by John Oswald. The research of Mantisaur82 and Tokyonever has also been invaluable.
The early Taiwan figures tend to have the sharpest detail and the finest paint applications compared to later reissues. Subsequent releases tend to cut down on the paint applications and sometimes on the sculpted detail. The earliest figures tend to have boots that are painted on using spray paint and a paint mask, which sometimes shows up as unevenness at the boot tops. Later figures seem to use a dipping method. Since this seems to apply to all the early figures (or at least those with painted boots), I won’t mention this when I talk about each individual figure.
On the lower backs of the figures (or in Teela’s case, the lower part of the back of the head) they are stamped © Mattel Inc. 1981 Taiwan. This stamp can also be found on the undersides of the male heads. These figure were released in 1982, but most MOTU figures are stamped the year before they were sold in stores, when the tooling was being created. However, as these Taiwan figures were released in subsequent years, they often retain the 1981 date, albeit sometimes with a slightly larger font.
The very first versions of He-Man tend to have a certain coloring – dark orange belt (later versions could range from light orange to mustard yellow to coral), brick-red boots and loin cloth, and dark gray accessories. He has a belly button, which was eventually removed from the mold starting in 1983 (although some 1983 figures seem to still have it). Some of the early accessories seem to be slightly blue-tinged. The straps on the back of his harness have short tabs on them – they were lengthened in subsequent releases to make it easier for children to hold when putting the armor on.
Early versions seem to have a tighter fitting latch in back as well, and intense yellow hair. It’s very common to see the boots not painted all the way up to the top in these early figures. If they are painted all the way to the top, there is usually some uneven overspray in some areas regardless. Later figures have the boot color applied by dipping the legs in paint.
His accessories are stamped with code numbers that indicate He-Man’s SKU number (5040), a number to indicate which accessory it was, and “© Mattel Inc. 1981 Taiwan.” All of them, except for the shield, include another number that is separated from the others. I believe it’s a batch number. So an axe marked 2 is from an earlier batch than one marked 7. That’s my theory – I don’t know this for sure. His shield lacks any code numbers, and is simply marked “Taiwan.”
Update: I’ve added some more detailed observations about the earliest Taiwan He-Man figures. The differences I’m noting immediately below are not from year to year, but within the first year of production of He-Man figures (1981, sold beginning early in 1982):
Hair: the early figures’ hair seems to be intense yellow, almost orange tinged. Slightly later in year the hair starts to be a lighter yellow color. I’ve found two main types of paint used – a glossy textured kind of paint, and a non-textured paint that seems almost like a dye.
Belt: the earliest ones are dark orange. The color is a bit lighter as you get later in the year, for instance on carded 8-back He-Man figures that have the warranty information added.
Belly Button: the earliest ones (sold on 8 backs without warranty) are a bit uneven looking. By the time you get to the 8-backs with warranty, the belly button looks anatomically correct.
Waist Punch Feature: the earliest versions have a stopper, so when you twist the waist, it swings back to punch, but stops in the middle. A bit later in the year that stopper was removed, so the punch action doesn’t stop quite in the middle, but keeps moving a bit beyond that. This is also evident in early Skeletor figures, as well as all other first release first wave figures.
Sword: the early ones seem to be marked 4 or 9. The earlier numbered swords tend to be a darker blue/gray color, although you can look at many examples and few will be the exact same shade.
Axe: the early ones are marked 2 or 7. The earlier numbered axes tend to be a darker blue/gray color, although you can look at many examples and none will be the exact same shade.
Harness: the early ones are marked 5 or 10. The 5s I’ve seen seem to be a dark gray/blue, with small oval tab on the latch in back. The 10s seem to have more of a almost multi-hue gray plastic, slightly brighter red paint, and a slightly elongated tab on the back. Both have short straps, and both seem to appear very early, although the 10s seem to persist later in the year. 15s look very similar to 10s and come later still.
I should say that I believe sometimes accessories with the markings outlined above did persist later than early 1982. In general, however, the trend seems to be for the numbers to go higher with time. I’ve seen numbers as high as 33 on later figures.
Shield: Early ones are marked Taiwan. The tabs on the back should be more or less intact. Slightly melted at the top, but not completely melted to the back of the shield, as happened later in production. The exact shade of gray varies quite a bit.
Here are some examples of four early He-Man figures. The two figures on the left are the earliest, although I couldn’t say which came first. The figure second from the right came later in the year (it lacks the stopper in the waist punch feature), and the one on the far right came later still.
And here are my two earliest Taiwan He-Man examples (below, and above on the left). Both have harnesses marked 5. The one on the left has some overspray on the chest emblem, which isn’t too uncommon. The one on the left also has weapons with the earlier number markings, and they are slightly darker gray/blue.
Here is an example (below) of a very early carded Taiwan He-Man, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back. This is often referred to as the “test market” card. This example of He-Man has boots painted closer up to the top and the darker blue/gray harness and shiny hair paint, similar to the loose example (above, on the right)
After 1982, the first substantive change to Taiwan He-Man figures was the lengthening of the straps, as shown in this comparison image:
The second substantive change to Taiwan He-Man figures was the removal of the “belly button”, as shown here:
The first Taiwan Skeletor is unique in the following ways:
- Orange marks on his “cheeks”
- Half-painted boots
- Purple trunks
- Light blue paint in his eye sockets
- Short straps on the back of his armor
The subsequent Taiwan release omits the orange cheeks. The next version after that has black shorts, and the version after that gives him fully-painted boots. Later still, he loses the light blue paint in his eye sockets. There are “mix and match” versions out there too, with odd combinations of these features. Perhaps this was from the factory mixing older leftover parts with newer parts. Later versions also omit the “belly button.”
The early Skeletor’s staff is marked Taiwan, and his sword is also marked simply as Taiwan (later versions of the sword add some code numbers on the underside as well). This early example has rather brittle accessories, so I won’t remove them to discover what codes are under his chest armor and belt.
Here is an example of a very early carded Taiwan Skeletor, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back.
The images below show the evolution of the face paint on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:
The images below show the evolution of the boots on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:
The images below show the evolution of the straps on the Taiwan figures, again in chronological order from top to bottom:
And finally, the images below show the evolution of the trunks and belt on the Taiwan figures, in chronological order from top to bottom:
There are at least three distinct very early Taiwan Battle Cats.
V1: Striped Tail Battle Cat
Only a handful of examples of this ultra-rare variant are known to exist. This version matches the color scheme of the original hand-painted prototype. Distinguishing characteristics include:
- Striped tail
- Orange around the mouth
- Teeth painted white front and back
- Stripes crisscross over part line on back
- Longer, rough-looking stripes on the left shoulder
- Extra stripe on right front leg
- Marked “© Mattel, Inc. 1976 Taiwan” on inner right rear leg
- White dots in eyes
- Marked “1” underneath saddle and helmet
- Textured “fur”
You can spot this variant in early catalog pictures of MOTU figures. The orange lines on this cat match the black lines on the original Big Jim Tiger the figure is based on. It also has finely textured fur (difficult to see unless it’s in hand), again like the Big Jim Tiger.
V2: Textured Battle Cat
The first mass-produced version of the Taiwan Battle Cat retains the textured “fur” of the first sample version (and the Big Jim Tiger), but omits the extra orange paint applications on the mouth and tail. The teeth are also only painted white from the front. Like the rare striped tail model, it is marked © Mattel, Inc. 1976 Taiwan. It also is marked “1” underneath the saddle and helmet.
V3: Non-Textured Battle Cat
The next incarnation of the early Taiwan Battle Cat is missing the texture from V1 and V2. It’s marked © Mattel, Inc. 1978 Taiwan. It also is marked “1” underneath the saddle and helmet, and retains the white dots in the eyes. The orange paint is somewhat lighter than previous versions. My particular example came from a damaged early 1982 Battle Cat box featuring only the 1982 cross sell art on the back. It also seems to have a brighter red saddle and helmet, although this doesn’t necessarily come across in the photos below. I’m not sure if the textured version was more likely to come in either the single Battle Cat box or the early He-Man/Battle Cat gift sets – it’s difficult to tell with mint in box examples whether or not the texture is present.
The first Taiwan release of Man-At-Arms has the following characteristics:
- Red dots on his helmet
- Blue belt, in the same color as his helmet
- Light to medium green body and light orange armor
- Short straps at the back of the armor
- Light red trunks/boots, similar to He-Man’s
On the example below, the chest armor is marked 5041-2289A © Mattel Inc. 1981. All the other accessories are unmarked.
The next Taiwan releases omitted the red dots, and have longer straps at the back of the armor. Later Taiwan releases feature a gray belt and much darker colors all around, and a helmet that is somewhat teal-colored.
Early Taiwan Beast Man figures aren’t dramatically different from later versions. The most obvious differences are that the first versions have white dots in the eyes (some of them, at least – I’ll get into that), light blue face paint, even and circular blue paint on the front of the armor, and a short strap around the back of the armor. I believe I have identified some differences between the “test market” G0 figures and the subsequent G1 release.
There are two variants available on the initial “test market” cards – a version without dots in the eyes, and a version with bright white dots in the eyes. I have now seen examples of both on the first release packaging. I really can’t say which came first, although the version with dots more closely follows the intended design, based on the look of a hand-painted Beast Man prototype.
I would also note that the whips on these first release figures don’t fit as well in the figures’ hands. That seems to have been corrected with later releases.
The second “G1” card release often has the dots on the eyes as well, but the dots are more of an off-white color, like the rest of the face. The armor also tends to be slightly more pinkish. On both G0 and G1 versions, the strap around the back of the figure is short. The G1 version often has no waist stopper on the spring waist feature.
Below is an example of a very early carded Taiwan Beast Man, which can be recognized by the lack of warranty and lack of SKU/character subtitles on the back. This version lacks the dots in the eyes. The off-white dots seem to be prevalent on G1 and G2 cards 8-back cards.
Olmo (catone82) shared with me some images he found of a G0 “test market” card for Beast Man (owned by MOTU Gefter), which does feature white dots. These do seem to be the bright white dots, although I’m going to try to get that verified with the owner of this figure.
Covered in part two: Stratos, Mer-Man, Teela, Zodac, Castle Grayskull, Battle Ram and Wind Raider.
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28 thoughts on “1982 MOTU Figures: The First Production Run (Part 1)”
What a great topic and so well researched, just what I want to read. Looking forward to the next part!
Thank you Mårten!
I’ll point out that for the most part (but not always) some of the smoothing and loss of finer detail is mould degrading. Even steel moulds, the more you use them, the more they start to degrade in various ways. sometimes they loose detail, get clogged up with mould release and bits of loose plastic, some can lead to increasing facial changes (one known to transformer fans is G1 Jazz. By the time it was reissued in 1991 (after the 1984 issue), the mouth had changed from a static pose, to more of a upset pose. when it got reissued later on around early 2000s, the mouth now appeared as an open gasp before the head mould was remade for later issues. loosing of joints is also another common issue with such toys because the require precise lengths and tolerances for there intended use. Also, as you have mentioned before, a retool often meant changing the mould physical more then making an new one (depending on the amount of retooling).
Very interesting stuff. I wonder if that had anything to do with the changes to Tri-Klops’ face mold? Of course those changes happened in a shorter amount of time, I think.
well, since they often had no moulds made after where the toy came from, Jazz, for example, was issued 1984-1985. wasn’t cast again tell a 87 release which was probably using a different mould cause it was given some minor changes (adding parts, removing parts) then it wasn’t till the 90s the mould was used again, so kinda less usage then a lot of the MOTU figures seamed to have, also the quietly of the moulds and storage also matter. I think, if I remember right, a lot of MOTU figures had pretty long shelf lives, where the average transformer had 1-2 years (some were lucky and got more) before the late 80s where shelf life was changed from being a good thing to keep popular toys on the shelf, to “It’s a sign that the toys aren’t selling well that year old toys are still on the shelf”.
slightly unrelated but… since I’m very tempted, are you sure that beast man on the card isn’t a knock-off or something more then original? like the second version you show outside the box, it appears to have a much lower quality cast of the head with a number of clearly visible air bubbles which seamed more common with newer versions with the thiner softer heads
You mean the bubble on his chin? It does look odd, but I’m not sure why anyone would bother to make a knock-off of a Beast Man figure – that would cost more than simply buying a nice mint loose figure. If someone were going to pull a fast one, it would be with that card. Figures on first edition cards (no warranty, no SKUs) are very valuable.
Wow, I love this kind of detailed research. Great work!
Thanks very much!
There is a wealth of info here. Reading over it I’m trying to place which versions I had way back when I was 5. I definitely didn’t have launch Skeletor as mine always had the full painted boots. Though I had a friend who did have the half painted boots, and we always thought it was weird. I think I probably did have launch He-Man as I remember seeing commercials for him, and being blown away, when I was 4. I had most of wave 1 before the toon was even on TV! I don’t know that they were all launch versions though. I’m sure many of the running changes happened pretty quickly between one another. Are the MOC toys in the photos yours? If so color me jealous. I was fortunate back around 96 to reclaim a carded Thunder-Punch He-Man. Card is not the best, but I’ve never opened it. Pretty much the crown jewel of my humble collection, as it’s the only vintage MOC I have. Anyway, as always, you’re a wealth of MOTU info!
Thanks very much! Sadly I don’t have any MOC vintage figures. Those photos came from Hake’s Americana (auctions). The loose figures are mine though. I feel fortunate to have them.
Growing up, I had the V1 versions of all the figures mentioned here except Battle Cat. I think that’s part of why I prefer them now.
Thanks for the kinds words!
This is handy, as I meant to do a bit of research and determine exactly which releases I had of my vintage MOTU figures. Just never seemed to get around to it these past couple of decades, heh. Having it all in one place, I’ve really got no excuse to put it off any longer. Seems most of mine are first releases, though a couple of them have armor from later releases that are not original to those figures. I’d never noticed the navel before, oddly enough. Now I can’t un-see it on any of them!
I have one the very early versions of Skeletor with the purple underwear. The sad part about my figure is that the weapon holding hand could never hold any weapons.
hello illya, thank you for all that amazing information. i just want to point out that i own a 1976 malaysia marked battle cat.
so there must have been not only taiwan GJ Joe tigers beeing recoloured around that time. that beeing said taiwan and malaysia had been the only 1976 countries i had been able to find. i read that there had been productions going on in france mexico usa and many other counrties, but i believe they had been all starting later with the production due to the big demand after its first release. what i wasn‘t able to find out is if the taiwan cats and the malaysia cats had been released on different markets. i noticed on sale platforms, that taiwan cats are mostly beeing sold in the north american market while the malaysia version is mostly to be found in europe. please let me know if somebody has more informations. thanks – chris
Chris, I have a 1976 Malaysia battle cat also but I can’t find any more information about it. I’ve got a picture of it on my Instagram williamtewretro. I also have a French variant (red plastic, blue eyed) panthor.
Any info you have on the battle an would be greatly appreciated.
I have a Panthor with purple plastic under purple fur from Argentina,never saw another,just painted purple no fur in Argentina,or black plastic under purple fur. Any ideas? Thx
First off, there is such a wealth of knowledge and information in this post, so excellent work! I’ve recently gotten back into collecting MOTU and I wanted to start with the first wave and what better way than to get the first releases of these figures (besides Blue Beard Stratos, for obvious reasons), and this post has been very helpful.
I just recently purchased a V1 Merman and V1 Man-at-Arms, and I was wondering if they released a V1 MAA without the waist-stop mechanism, or any V1 without it. The Merman I got has it, but not MAA. The figure I just got, when twisted and released, he swings without coming to an immediate stop, yet he checks all boxes of a V1 figure. Any information would be greatly appreciated, as I’m under the assumption I have a V1 MAA. Maybe the “test market” figures have the waist-stop mechanism and it changed quickly as the V1 run continued.
Anyway, awesome post and blog, I’m learning a lot and it’s bringing me back to when I was kid playing with all my He-Man toys. Thanks!
Glad you like the blog, thanks!! I’ve had two red dot Man-At-Arms, one with the waist stopper and one without. I believe the one with the waist stopper is earlier, but both are early. The same is true for Beast Man with white dots in the eyes. I hope this helps!
You’re welcome! Awesome, I appreciate the info. I’m content with having the one without the stopper, but down the line I will try to switch it with a figure that has it. I haven’t had any luck yet finding a Beast Man with the white dots, but that’s all part of the hunt. Would love to have as many of the first releases I can get. Thanks again!
was there an 8 back skeletor with black shorts and non half boots? if so, what comic would he have come with?
So I am currently in possession of a HeMan with waist stopper, NO belly button., then an opposite figure, with disfigured belly button and no waist stopper.
THEN his armor, actually has one notch on his short straps and a circular hole in the center. All Taiwan stamped.
Anyone experience this?
Has anyone had any experience in finding a regular He Man figure with a numeric stamping on the foot?
Mine is Tawian release, normal/no belly button , orange belt, darker boot, the left leg , you can see “1144L” stamped on the bottom of the foot.
I do love this page i think its really amazing.I do have a question more than a comment though. I’m trying to figure out the figures with just the co MATTEL INC 1981 in all caps how do you know where these ones are from? Both have hard heads not soft heads.