While there have been thousands of LEGO sets released in the last 50 years, a few were objects of tangible lust for me, prompting much begging and crying when the gift giving season would approach. While I didn’t get all of these sets, these were the ones that I would spend hours looking at in catalogs, dreaming of the creations I would make with their pieces. And because of my own personal biases, they tend toward Space and Castle sets.
While I had gotten a handful of the newly released Space sets before (including the great Rocket Launcher (462) set with its useful hinge, sloped fins, and saucer pieces that found their way into most of my spaceship models), the Galaxy Explorer was the first set of which I remember being painfully desirous. I was one-years-old when it was released, which serves as a reminder of how infrequently LEGO updated their sets back in the early days, as I can’t have gotten mine before I was four or five at the earliest.
What a great set, though, with its rocket engines, tons of sloping bricks and beams, transparent bricks (!), and those amazing cratered and painted pads which have now seem to have gone away in modern sets. Oh, and the attitude adjuster elements, so common on early, astrophysics-aware space models, but which I haven’t seen in years. (They also make a decent loudspeaker for internment camp models.)
I never actually had the yellow castle with its knights astride horses made of bricks. My cousin Greg did, though, and when his family would fly back from Germany we would take its bricks, roughly reassemble the castle without instructions, and blow it up with firecrackers. Then we’d stick those swords in the center console lock of my uncle’s Porsche 928 to give them real battle damage, filling the lock with little flakes of LEGO plastic. As far as I know the lock continued to work.
By the time I was old enough to get my first Castle LEGO sets, this original castle was already off the shelves.
Space LEGO continued steadily apace through the ’80s, with the addition of hinged cockpit elements, flexible hoses, and the then-shocking update of the astronaut minifigs to include alternating color schemes and flip-down visors. Those visors rocked my LEGO world. I could barely stand to use any of the older Space minifigs, knowing their yellow skin was now exposed to the harsh vacuum of space.
I could never weasel this monorail system out of my parents, but Lord did I try. It was one of the most expensive sets out at the time, but included those big transparent greenhouse pieces as well as the 9-volt motor. I did get a contemporary set from this era later that included the 9-volt battery case, plates with metal undersides to transfer power, a flashing light element, and this awesome little 2 x 2 brick that had a knob on the top which, when turned, would emit one of two siren sounds. I wish I could find that set, but I don’t remember if it were a ship or a wheeled vehicle or what. That 9-volt box and light became the center of most of my spaceship designs from that point forward.
LEGO’s tribute to the Moorish conquest of Spain, Black Monarch’s Castle was one at the time the largest castle yet produced. I ended up getting other Castle sets as the years went by, but this was the set that ended up forming the basis for most of my medieval work. It did use those unfortunate castle wall pieces that were pretty much useless for anything other than building castles, but I ended up finding lots of great things to do with its wedge elements and arches over the years. The horse barding was a nice touch. Note also the torches that are unlit. It wasn’t until later that LEGO released transparent flame elements that would fit inside.
I continued to collect Castle sets after this, but more and more ended up building the models from the instructions and leaving them on my shelves. I remember especially the ninja and samurai sets, which I spent hundreds of dollars collecting, but never ended up using for much at all.
LEGO had a real thing about black in this era, but understandably so: the new black bricks made for some of the most badass models yet seen. I mean, just look at the Renegade, the largest spaceship in the then-new “Blacktron” Space line, designed to descend from the sky like a vengeful bird of prey. Some sort of black raptor. A crow, I guess. A giant, jet-powered crow.
The Blacktron sets brought two first to LEGOland: black, flip-down visors, which still cause a tangible chill to flicker across my chest cavity; and evil. The Blacktron characters were supposed to be the enemies of the Futuron space police. Or at least that’s how I parsed it. Now that I think about it I’m not sure LEGO explicitly said they were bad guys.
Although LEGO had released ships before, including a Town set with weighted bottoms that could actually float in water, they were no match for the new Pirates system ships, which may have used giant brown hull bricks that were mostly useless for anything other than ships but made for beautiful models. Plus: monkeys!
As luck would have it, I ended up getting both of the ships released that year, including the Black Seas Barracuda and the smaller blue non-pirate ship. These typified LEGO’s new direction, full of pieces that were difficult to use in other models, but were attractive all the same. Early Pirate sets had spring-loaded cannons that actually shot elements, but were soon replaced by far-less-appealing cannons that had to be flicked to launch the cylindrical shot.
Was this really $110 in ’89? I have no idea how my parents afforded that.
One of the last LEGO Space lines that really appealed to me, the M:Tron line had two distinct hallmarks: magnet-pieces that were used to attach payloads and removable vehicles; and day-glo yellow transparent pieces. I never ended up using the Mega Core Magnetizer’s outsized wheels as much as I had anticipated, but most of the rest of the pieces ended up finding their way into many of my models. I spent about six months building a series of outlaw morlock cyborgs who had wheels for feet. Much of the red and stenciled pieces made for good post-apocalyptic fodder. (This was before there was much brown to be had in LEGOland.)
While I kept up with LEGO a fair amount through high school (including those aforementioned Ninja sets), I had come to a shocking realization that I was spending an unhealthy percentage of my annual income on LEGO. (Something like 10 or 15 percent.) And I was buying sets mostly as a collector, assembling whole product lines and putting them on my shelves, never building any new models. Even though I was young and didn’t have any real expenses, I knew that I was wasting money and resolved to start blowing my limited funds on something more productive, like beer.
Then LEGO announced the Star Wars line.
I had given away much of my LEGO already, cleared out my small bedroom of sets so as to better impress the ladies. I actually remember the day I first saw the sets in the toy store and knew that I had to have every single one. And for a couple of years I did buy them all, until in a fit of pique I gave them all away again to a young kid I knew, boxes and all.
Since I tend to build mostly spaceships and mecha these days, I still tend to pick up Star Wars sets here and there. (Including that giant Millennium Falcon set that just came out, which a kind reader sold to me used. That was a fun couple of weeks.) But none of them have the same meaning for me that the first LEGO Star Wars sets did, back before the prequels had dampened my love for the franchise.
This was the first X-Wing set. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. LEGO R2 unit!
This set is a little different than the others. I actually just noticed it today. But I included it here because it did the same thing to me that LEGO sets continue to do after all these years: add just enough new elements and ideas to captivate me. I would have this set winging its way here already if it weren’t already out of stock. It has orcs and trolls and mine carts!
There are at least a couple dozen more sets I could have listed that have gotten me excited in the past, but these were definitely the most memorable to me. Later Space sets didn’t juice me the same way (Ice? Mars?) and I pretty much stopped working with Castle or Town. But rather than listing every set I’ve ever been excited about, I think I’ll take a little time to dig out the Tupperware tubs just under my desk here and try to make a model or two to celebrate LEGO’s Golden Jubilee.