Marlboro Transformer No More…


This is Wheeljack.

He was part of the very first wave of Transformers toys released in the USA in 1984.

He transforms into Lancia Stratos Turbo, and because the industry was… let's call it "different" back then, Hasbro didn't have a license to use the vehicle.

Note how the sponsor decals are slightly altered, from the real "Alitalia" to "Alitalla" because, apparently, that was all it took back in the day.

The earliest Transformers toys were originally released in Japan in 1982 and 1983 as part of different toy lines, most of them by a Japanese company named Takara. Hasbro acquired a license to release the toys in the USA and other markets outside Japan, rebranded them as "Transformers", had Marvel create a new backstory and make the robots themselves into characters, and had a cartoon produced. And because the brand became so popular, Takara in turn acquired a license from Hasbro to release the "Transformers" brand in Japan as well, with some degree of localisation. The partnership between the companies continues to this very day, Takara (now "TakaraTomy" or simply "Tomy") handles the Japanese market, Hasbro the rest of the world, many figures are developed as collaborations between both companies, blah blah.

WheeljackMalboro1cWheeljack's Japanese predecessor was released as part of a line named "Diaclone". The toy was mostly the same as the later Transformers version, but there was also a variant, sporting a different head but also a different deco (paint job), also based in real life (right).

Now, obviously the figure nicknamed "Marlboro Wheeljack" (or rather "Marlboor", as the toy's decals say) was never released as a Transformer for obvious reasons, so he remained one of the many quirky oddities from the Transformers brand's roots that are mostly known to hardcore collectors. He had a brief cameo in a Dreamwave comic as a crowd-filler, but that was only an easter egg.

Now, Hasbro and TakaraTomy develop most toys intended for worldwide release together. But there are also some primarily collector-oriented figures developed by TakaraTomy for the Japanese market, which might or might not be picked up by Hasbro later.

In 2003/2004, Takara (as it was still known back then) launched the "Masterpiece" line, which features "perfect" versions of the original characters with authentic alternate modes (often more authentic than the original toys), robot modes primarily based on the cartoon designs (which differed from the toys in many cases) and modern toy engineering. While the line was first considered a one-off deal, with a new version of Optimus Prime for the brand's 20th anniversary in 2004 (released as "20th Anniversary Optimus Prime" by Hasbro), it was later continued with sporadic new releases, many of them redecos of previous toys as different characters, much like the original toy line. Some of the figures were also released by Hasbro as store exclusives (usually Walmart) under various then-current lines such as "Classics" (2006), "Universe" (2008) and the secondary-title-less 2010-onwards "Transformers" line.

In 2011, TakaraTomy released a smaller version of Masterpiece "Convoy" (Optimus Prime's Japanese name prior to the Michael Bay movies), which marked a new direction for the Masterpiece line, changing it from an assembly of sporadic releases to a fully-fledged collector line with multiple new releases per year. (By this point, it has become the longest ongoing Transformers sub-line in Japan!) Hasbro eventually released some of the figures as Toys"R"Us exclusives in the USA and the rest of the world, since 2013 also as their own numbered "Masterpiece" line.

r_mp-20-wheeljack-033One of the (thus far Japan-only) Masterpiece figures was Wheeljack, who came out this September.

The alternate mode is still a Lancia Stratos, but now officially licensed by the Fiat Group. Even Alitalia apparently gave them permission to use their logo, now without deliberate misspelling.

And then TakaraTomy thought "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we also homaged that pre-Transformers variant?"

Enter Masterpiece Exhaust, a new Transformers character (a Decepticon, of course!), scheduled to be released in February 2015.

Now, TakaraTomy have already taken precaution to avoid possible trouble. The characteristic "Marlboro" shape is slightly rounded off, and the name is omitted altogether.

mp-233_1410198275In Japan, that's apparently all it takes. And because this figure is primarily intended for the Japanese market, that's all fine.

Buuuut then there's the problem with US-based online retailers who stock Japanese toys. That previously already caused problems with Masterpiece Megatron, who turns into a realistic (although oversized) firearm and had to be stuffed with an orange plug for the barrel.

Big Bad Toy Store, one of the largest US-based online toy stores, recently received a C&D letter from Philip Morris. They told their customers,

Hi – We wanted to update you about a new development in regards to your preorder of the Transformers Masterpiece MP-23 Exhaust figure from Takara. We were just contacted by a law firm on behalf of Marlboro & Phillip Morris USA. They informed us that the MP-23 Exhaust figure infringes on their trademark and trade dress for products marketed and sold in the USA.

The mark is generally shaped like this:


This mark is found on the hood/roof of the MP-23 car in red, and also in smaller green shapes on the left and right fenders.

They are concerned because these marks cannot be used on products that could be intended for children as dictated by the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (

We must comply with the requests they have made in order to avoid legal action with Phillip Morris. We have removed the MP-23 listing from our website. Your preorders have been transferred to a generic unpublished listing in case the product is changed or modified before release. If the product is not changed, we will be forced to cancel all preorders and we will not be able to sell this product.


Citing the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which prohibits tobacco companies from advertising in a manner that could even be construed as appealing to kids, they are pre-emptively asking Big Bad Toy Store to remove their preorder listings for the figure that uses their trade dress. Even though the figure has never been sanctioned by Philip Morris, even though it's primarily intended for a foreign market, even though it is mainly aimed at older collectors and is supposed to homage an older Japanese-only toy, the mere possibility of this being construed as "appealing to children", the mere possibility of this being construed as a case of Philip Morris violating the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, is enough to make Philip Morris doing everything in their power to try and prevent any legal repercussions.

Currently, Big Bad Toy Store are the only online retailer to have received such a notification.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt might have something to do with the fact that they apparently also offered pre-orders for third-party sticker sets to "upgrade" the figure into a full Marlboro advertisement complete with names and logos, which they were also asked to take down.

Hasbro released their own little homage to "Marlboor Wheeljack" under the "Transformers: Prime" line only two years ago, named "Hyperspeed Wheeljack":

Now this figure obviously has the red and white shapes severaly altered so the colors still make it an obvious homage to the older toy without being a dead ringer for Marlboro.


Thanks to Torsten Abel

About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.

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