Tonka Play People Rapid Deployment Team
By Past Nastification
Some of you hate Coke and love Pepsi… or vice-versa. I respect that. As someone who simply appreciates sugar-laden carbonated liquids for the delicious empty calorie beverages they are, I’m happy to drink either one. In terms of holding a larger spot in the public’s nostalgic heart, it’s hard to not see Coke as the winner.
Pepsi is always there, in the background, like a spouse about 10 years into a dulling marriage.
Fisher-Price Adventure People are to Coca-Cola products what Tonka Play People are to Pepsi products. Coca-Cola is delicious, and so is Pepsi, but for whatever reason Pepsi products seem to go unnoticed compared to the Coca-Cola juggernaut. Likewise, Tonka Play People are often cruelly lumped in with Fisher-Price Adventure People by collectors and eBay sellers as if they were the same toy line. At a first glance, this faux pas makes sense. Tonka’s Play People line, introduced in 1978 as a sort of “me-too” take on Adventure People, even down to the package style, aren’t as widely remembered. Both figures are in 1:18th scale and feature only five points of articulation. The haircuts and the clothing sculpted on the figures indicate that either Carter or Reagan was in the White House. Even the same “Can I interest you in an unwanted shoulder massage?” position is part of the arm sculpture on many figures.
This particular set of figures is from the Rapid Deployment Team (arguably a Tonka Play People sub-line). These figures were recolored in olive drab in 1982 under the “Rapid Deployment Team” banner. Since the Rapid Deployment Team sets were released in 1982 it would have obviously been an attempt by Tonka to jump on the GI Joe wagon. A respectable and reasonable move.
Tonka Play People live in the shadows of Fisher-Price Adventure People. But just because something is getting the limelight doesn’t mean it’s really the best. The design work on the Tonka Play People is crisper than that of the Adventure People. The proportions are more a tad more realistic. The clothing is sculpted with wrinkles at the joints and bunching at the edges. The faces look more like real people and less like stylized mannequins. The molded-on accouterments, like hats and ear protectors, have more fine detail. The differences are subtle, but they add up to create more nuanced figures.
Mold those Tonka Play People parts in olive drab and it creates wonderful, and intentionally utilitarian, soldier figures. As another plus, they were generally sold along with Tonka’s traditional tough metal vehicles.
I can’t even find the proper names for the figures on any packing or ads, but we’ll go with “Army Pilot”, “Army Mechanic”, and “Army Captain”.
“Army Pilot”. The body was, I believe, first used as a racecar driver, but with a different head. The fire suit of the racecar driver makes for a passable flight suit. The entire figure, including the sunglasses head, was also used for a civilian aviator figure before getting the green plastic treatment.
Army Pilot is my favorite of the three. The silver aviator sunglasses and rusty hair add just a bit of personality to the figure. The figure was a precursor to GI Joe’s Wild Bill. I also remember the figure in association with a green/camouflage Tonka Hand Command Turbo Prop aircraft, which my younger brother owned. If the figure was released with the aircraft or if my brother simply permanently added the figure to it, I can’t remember.
Army Pilot also gets a few bonus points for looking like the unnamed pilot in Marvel Comics’ GI Joe #2, making it an “Easter Egg” figure for me. He didn’t have a speaking part, but he did fly the Joes to their first encounter with Kwinn. We never saw him again. The unnamed pilot also flew a twin prop plane, which also looked a lot like Tonka’s Hand Command Turbo Prop, too.
“Army Mechanic”. The civilian version of this figure was originally released as a pit crew mechanic. I’ve seen it called an “Indy 500 mechanic” figure, but I’m not certain if that’s just what some sellers have gone with to get more eyes on it.
The uniform translates nicely into the utility uniform worn by the US Army around the time of the Korean War until 1981 (according to a quick internet check). It was still showing up in television shows like the A-Team as the daily wear uniform of soldiers in the mid 80’s, but I don’t know if that’s pop culture taking artistic license or not. Given the size of the US Army, it seems possible that it would have taken a few years to transition out the olive drab uniforms. Anyone know?
The middle age jawline-turning-into-jowls of Army Mechanic is great sculpting. It’s a realistic depicting of a less-than-flattering sign of aging, but without going cartoony. Artistically, it’s difficult to portray a flaw without exaggerating it, so the sculptor had a lot of skill to keep from going overboard. The flipped up sleeves also indicate that he’s really going to enjoy giving someone that unwanted shoulder massage.
“Army Captain”. The entire figure was originally released in different civilian color combinations, but without the hokey mustache. As with Army Mechanic, Army Captain’s body also looked like a decent translation of the utility uniform.
There are captain bars on this figure’s collar, so I’m calling it “Army Captain”. It’s as if this figure, despite what appears to be a nicely ironed uniform, exists only to be as generic and bland as possible. Even the mustache gets no street cred. Good detailing on the undershirt, though.
In terms of GI Joe goodness, Tonka’s understandably low-key Rapid Deployment Team figures would have made for good standard soldiers compared to the highly specialized GI Joe characters and their fancy uniforms and spiffy gear. The RDT figures have a “background character” feel like Remco’s Sgt. Rock figures, but without the stubby T-Rex arms and the constipated facial expressions. Admittedly, hinged knees would have been nice, but the figures are obviously the design descendants of the Adventure People and Star Wars lines. Should you really want more “background character” military action figures with hinged knees, check out Tristar International’s MASH figures.
The RDT figures have no weapons, no backpacks, and no accessories. They don’t need any. They don’t even have backback holes or foot peg holes. The RDT figures are there to make Joes look cooler by comparison. Thanks to Tonka’s use of a more flexible plastic than Hasbro’s rigid plastic, RDT figures could have held GI Joe gear without breaking their thumbs. I also wonder if the flexible plastic is also why there is no discoloring 35 years later, whereas the rigid plastic used for Joes is prone to it.
The RDT figures even beat the Joes in one obscure category: micro-printing of lettering. If I correctly understand the mighty internet, this is a form of tampography, the process of printing onto irregular surfaces. The RDF figures had the words “Tonka” (all three figures) and “US Army” (on Army Mechanic and Army Captain only) printed in a ridiculously small font on their uniforms. Hasbro always did a nice job with logos, but stayed away from micro-printing lettering. Micro-printed lettering eventually showed up on GI Joe figures like Backblast, but that wasn’t until 1989.
I’ve found an RDT radar set with figures and vehicles, but were there others? The green Hand Command Turbo Prop plane I remember, is it an RDT aircraft? Was the generic Tonka female figure released in an RDT uniform? If anyone knows the correct history/names of these figures, or other figures included in the RDT, please let me know.
I was already working on this article when I saw Rob’s recent post for the Tonka “Steel Brigade” vehicles from 1993. I was aware of the missile truck and the MP truck, but not the rest of the vehicles. If ever there was a time for Tonka to dust off the “Rapid Deployment Team” banner, it was then. By 1993, Tonka and Hasbro were under the same roof, so it was probably smarter to use the GI Joe banner. It would also be interesting to see Tonka take some of its 1:18 figures made over the last two decades (trash truck drivers, helicopter pilots) and give them the olive drab treatment.
Nice work on the RDT, Tonka. Simple is best. And I’m thirsty for a Pepsi right now.