All photos by the author.
The Transformers toys, animated TV show, and live action/CGI movie franchise has been around a while, since the early 1980s. Heck, original Transformers toys are now legitimate antiques. These clever toys were ostensibly robots from another planet that transformed into disguises are ordinary, average Earth-bound vehicles.
In the past dozen years, the franchise has been revived by a series of big-budget blockbuster movies. And once the movie-ticket-buying public gets tired of sequels, what do we get in our explosion-filled movie franchises? That’s right — a prequel!
While the movie franchise had the iconic Bumblebee character portrayed as a Camaro — at first a ’77 and then later various fifth-gen models — all with the yellow-with-black-stripes look, the original depicted Bumblebee as a Volkswagen Beetle, about as iconic as a car can be. Now that Bumblebee has his own origins film, the story takes him back to his original form as a Beetle. Since the Transformers franchise was originally a toy line, owned by Hasbro and the Japanese company Tomy, the movies make for a good tie-in with the toys. That means lots of Bumbebee transforming Volkswagens at your local toy store.
On a recent trip to Mexico City, where the Vocho remains as iconic as anywhere else, even 17 years after the final cars rolled off the Puebla, Mexico, production line, I saw a display like no other in a department store: a fullsize yellow Volkswagen Type 1 sedan, rendered in fiberglass and mounted on real wheels and tires, and built as a shelf stuffed and filled with toys.
In Mexico, the big gift-giving day for children is typically not Christmas, but el Día de Reyes, Three Kings Day, celebrated January 6 on the 12th day of Christmas. Like the men with white beards who dress up as Santa Claus in the U.S., there are men in costume posing as the Three Kings — Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar, aka the three wise men, for kids to snaps photos with. Children in Mexico write letters to them and instead of leaving out cookies for the fat Nordic guy to eat, they leave straw in their shoes to feed the animals that purportedly carry the wise men across the desert. Hey, when you can’t find eight reindeer, I guess camels and elephants will have to suffice.
More than the religious significance these days, Three Kings Day for kids is the day the toys arrive. And the department stores in Mexico pull out all the stops and make a big display of their toys in the weeks leading up to January 6, typically with a special section, sometimes an additional temporary building or tent outside the main store. These venues are often done in coordination with the toymakers who also have special displays, but the fullsize vocho is unusual even by those standards.
The Bumblebee Beetle (“Bumblebeetle?”) looked real enough at first glance, with its correct, later-model wheels (think: 1990s Beetle), real headlamps with chrome rings, and real taillamps. But just a few steps closer and the non-glass, blacked-out windows quickly revealed the rest of it as essentially a rolling shelf…well, assuming those wheels roll. The bumpers were held on with zip ties and the car appeared to have some sort of wooden buck underneath it to support the body and the shelves inside.
Transformers came about after I had aged out of the action-figure phase of my life, but the idea of a robot that conveniently changes into a car, truck, or plane (well, mostly conveniently — some of them can be, ah, a bit complicated to properly transform) seems a pretty solid one for a toy. With 35 years or so of staying power, apparently plenty of kids still get the message. Hats off to Hasbro for tying in a real-looking Volkswagen with a few genuine parts for authenticity.