50 Years of LEGO: Nine Sets I Have Known and Loved


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.

Galaxy Explorer (497) – 1979

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.)


Castle (375) – 1978

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.


Futuron Monorail Transport System (6990) – 1987

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.


Black Monarch's Castle (6085) – 1988

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.


Blacktron Renegade (6954) – 1987

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.


Black Seas Barracuda (6285) – 1989

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.


Mega Core Magnetizer (6989) – 1990

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.)


X-Wing Fighter (7140) – 1999

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!


Dwarves' Mine (7036) – 2007

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.

Join the Conversation


  1. I wanted that Blacktron ship so badly when I was 8. I sort of still do, looking at it now.

    Two sets I actually did have and loved were a newer version of the monorail set and a Castle set that was a wizard’s hideaway, sort of a little house built into a tree that had a hinge so the whole thing opened up and you could see the rooms inside.

  2. Always a huge fan of the “Johnny Thunder” sets- Indiana Jones with a bad-ass mustache and a evil colonel with shoulder pads, monocle, hook and top hat. I’m now wondering where they’ve gotten to, those set could make some nice steampunk models…

  3. I still begrudge my folks (and this is now twenty years after the fact) for not caving-in and buying me the Futron monorail. I may carry that bitterness to my grave…

  4. I remember being somewhat mollified when a girlfriend bought me a ninja Lego set my first year of college. I wanted it, but had nothing to do with it after it was built nor a place to display it (in the cramped confines of a dormroom shared with a international student who played basketball).

    I’ve tried to channel the fascination I had as a child many times and failed, yet you echoed many of my fascinations (“Hinges! Tubes!”) in such a way that is making me really wish I had access to a set right now.

    A moving tribute, truly.

    1. You know, I was super excited to get a Technics set back in the day, but I ended up making spaceships with flashing lights way more than I ever ended up making models with gears and such. This is very much a subjective list!

  5. Hey, cool! I was a LEGO model designer back in the eighties, and I designed the Blacktron Renegade (6954) and co-designed the 6990 Monorail. I was twenty years old at the time. Still play and build with LEGO Space etc. with my two boys, and it’s still a lot of fun. Thanks for posting this, made my day.

  6. Joel,

    My brother and I were huge lego fans as kids. We have dozens of sets of all types (although space was our favorite theme, and we have pieces from all the space series you listed). We still have them all in a couple of rubbermaid bins in a closet somewhere, in hopes that we will someday pull them out again to vicariously re-live the fun we had when we have children of our own. Sadly I lost interest in actually buying new Legos as a teenager in the early ’90s due to a combination of being more interested in video games, computers, more realistic plastic model kits, and being disappointed by the explosion of overpriced Lego kits with huge parts that were useless for making things other than what was pictured on the box (e.g., the pirate ships). I totally missed out on the Lego Star Wars series as a result 🙁

    Anyways, I remember we have that siren piece as well – I think it came with an ambulance or something. It worked off a 9V battery pack with special brick studs that had metal in them, and there was also a piece with flashing lights with colored caps to change the color.

  7. Sweet! I totally had the 6085 set, among other castle sets in the same period. I built some really ridiculously ornate fortresses in those years…

  8. I spent half my childhood dreaming of owning the Galaxy Explorer, but I never got one of my own. My first LEGO set wasn’t a set at all, but a brown paper bag filled with late 70s, early 80s LEGO, which was followed soon after by my acquisition of the Yellow Castle.

    20+ years later my collection now occupies dozens of plastic bins and several of 20 gallon steel drums. LEGO still owns my soul to this day.

  9. is it sad that I knew exactly what your list was going to be because those are EXACTLY the sets that I would have chosen? Just sayin’.

    We used to take the cannons from the pirate ship and use them for arm-cannons for lego mecha. Complete with legs that walk and a cockpit for a driver. So cool.

  10. OMG! We got 7 of those for the kids. Needless to say I spent way more time than them building fleets of Starwars speeders.

    I think there should be a special shout out for the motorized R2D2 as well. The last project we did with all the bits was a powered 6 leg walking insect.

  11. I spent so much time with my brother playing with (or fighting over) our Legos. I loved the blacktron stuff! It makes me kind of sad now to see the Lego aisle so small and pitiful in the store these days. I swear when I was younger (and shorter) that the Lego aisle was huge and went on forever.

  12. The day I got Galaxy Explorer remains one of my strongest memories of being nine years old. My god, that thing was beautiful. I probably have most of the parts still – and now that my own boy is 3.5 and utterly fascinated with Lego – I’ll be breaking the small stuff again soon.

    Honestly, I teared up looking at that thing again.

  13. At the risk of angering the rest of the commenters, I’d like to raise my hand and say that I had the Futuron Monorail set. And it was BADASS. I remember making my own track shapes and bringing in Blacktron evildoers (I didn’t have the Renegade, but I had a custom ship built from multiple small Blacktron kits) to destroy a piece of the track, etc.

    The monorail set was awesome because it was totally modular. You didn’t have to shape the track in the way on the box because all the stations and stops could be repositioned anyway you like.

    I also had the M-Tron lifter that you listed. I was a Lego Space fiend. I dropped out of it before Star Wars came out, but there’s a piece of me that would love to bring it back. Maybe if they built Star Trek lego sets with character minifigures. That would be cool.

    I would love to see an interview with the designer fellow. I hope he emails you! Thanks so much for this post, it was wonderful.

  14. I had the Black Monarch’s Castle (so awesome!) and I begged my mom for the monorail, but never got it. Now, I’m begging my wife to let me buy some of the Indiana Jones stuff. They would be the first Lego sets I’ve bought in at least a decade.

  15. I had the Blacktron as well as the Magnetizer. As far as the Magnetizer goes, I remember LEGO trying, every year or so to do some idea or another to redo their space lines so that they were wierder and wierder. The Magnetizer was part of LEGO’s big line involving magnets, which was the lamest feature ever.

    The Blacktron combined really well with a set of non-LEGO bricks that were intended to make an SR-71 Blackbird. I think I combined the two well enough to make an X-15 as a youngster.

    Also, the coolest thing ever when I was a kid was the LEGO space shuttle sets, actually designed after NASA stuff and all.

  16. “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.”

    I did the same thing–buy them, put them together from the instructions, and display them–for years. I bought castle and pirate sets anywhere I could find them. I got the biggest castle set available at the time for Christmas, from my parents, in 1996–when I was 23.

    I was active on the alt.lego (and, later, rec.toys.lego) newsgroups. I participated in text-code-driven auctions by email through AucZILLA to buy specific fascinating parts. It was wondrous.

    But when I finally realized about two years ago that I hadn’t recreated the displays after my last move, I started thinking hard about what to do.

    As it happens, I sold all my Lego sets on a site called BrickLink, and as it happens I made a profit. Some sets I’d bought on clearance or even at overstock stores in the early- to mid-90s went for three and four times what I’d paid, sometimes for hundreds of dollars.

    I really miss my Lego some days. I miss the way all those castles and pirate ships looked lined up on glass shelves in front of a window, and I miss the sense of accomplishment that came from finishing a large set.

    But I know–I *know*–that all those sets are now in the hands of people who wanted them more than I do. The online adult-Lego-fan community is more active and better-equipped than ever, and I really like knowing that I made some people’s days when the boxes arrived with sets they’d never put together before.

  17. Oh jeez, I loved Lego. I believe I still have it all in the basement, too. The Galaxy Explorer was one of the first sets I bought with my own money. I saved a long time as a little kid to get that! It had been out for a long time at that point, apparently, but it was still awesome to me.

    I liked Technics, my favorite creation from it being a car that would turn left-right non-stop while going forward. That was fun. I also made a huge transformer out of all the pieces I had; it would convert from a passable spaceship into a not-very-convincing standing robot.

  18. Ohh, man. I am damn near drunk on nostalgia.

    I, too, never got the monorail, but I had the Blacktron and M-Tech kits, as well as a bunch of the “Space Police” kits that came out around the same time as M-Tech with the wicked red cockpits.

    I’ve got a feeling a surprising amount of my next paycheck is going to buying lego kits.

  19. Awesome! Like many others, I had the Galaxy Explorer. I don’t even remember it being a space ship really but seeing those parts reminds me of all the things I built with them. What a fun walk down memory lane. My favorite memories are my brother and I using every Lego we owned to try to build a structure that could contain our cat. It never worked, we would put him in there and he would explode out of it like the Hulk smashing a brick wall but it was always fun.

    Quite a few years back I found myself in Denmark, realized Legoland was there, and insisted on burning a day to take the train/bus to get there. It was disappointing, though. No factory tour or anything like that – just the theme park which is fun for kids. They did, however, have these giant bus-sized Lego bricks laying around the grounds of the Lego headquarters which is neat.

  20. I had the little 2×2 block with the two different siren sounds.
    It came in a spaceship kit, it had a 2 1×2 single light blocks with covers that changed the color, 1 1×4 light block, the 9v battery box, siren, and a number of the circuit plates.
    Shuttle had a transparent blue “wedge” shape canopy, and the whole “cockpit” detached from the body of the shuttle using one of the little snap-in-the-hole tubes.

  21. Great list, Joel! Whether I had them or not, these are indeed some of my favorite sets — right up through 7036 Dwarves’ Mine. The preliminary pics of the new Castle sets for 2008 look like they have a lot of the same cool stuff going on.

  22. Wow, sends shivers down my spine.
    The summer of 1977 was the best 4 months of my life. Got my first skateboard, but also got a Lego technics Farm Tractor set for my birthday.

    We had shit loads of original bricks. still do, all mixed up in a huge big hessian potato sack awaiting my 4 years to get past the ‘swallow everything smaller than his fist’ stage.

    That Technics set I kept just for me though. Every single little tile and brick and gear. Instructions too. I get it out every now and then and marvel.

    God bless those cheaky Danes.

  23. Galaxy Explorer, Blacktron, the castle, MY GOD MAN, you have the insides of my brain splayed about right there!

    I was also born in 1978, yet had all of those sets. Such incredible imagined stories grew up out of those sets, and of the new things I put together using those sets as the base parts.

  24. Finally, bless my parents for the wisdom of giving me an allowance. I had to save for a solid month to even consider buying a serious kit like the Galaxy Explorer. That long lesson in patience took years to burn in, but I think it was a great experience.

    Money doesn’t grow on trees, and boy did I know it.

    Hell, one christmas I asked my parents for a toy (an RC car) that was so expensive that they had to say no, because they couldn’t afford it. *I* felt bad for having asked them to spend too much!

  25. “I was a LEGO model designer back in the eighties”

    *Jaw drops to the floor*

    “We are not worthy we are not worthy”

  26. I won the Monorail set in a contest when I was a kid. I still remember walking home from the post office carrying the huge box.

  27. Add me to the list of people rendered insensible with nostalgia this morning. I remember the Galaxy Explorer so well.

    Thrusters! Transparent yellow windscreens! Cratered moonscape! Ah, memories…

  28. Joel, you’ve just brought a tear to my eye. Winning the Galaxy Explorer in a local paper’s competition was the high point of my childhood.

    Can’t wait to buy my (hopefully) son-to-be some Lego. He’s going to love it. (but not as much as I will!)

  29. So I just got all misty about the Castle. When I was about 5 or 6 there was absolutely nothing in the entire world I wanted as much as that damn castle. Swords! A working drawbridge! At about 50 bucks, it was well beyond my folks’ largesse. I suppose a year of pining and whining eventually did the trick, because my grandfather hatched a plan: once I managed to save up $25 he’d pony up the other half and all of my dreams would come true. Somehow, however, the exercise never did teach me how to save. Grampa would kick down a buck or two each time I saw him (about once a week) and I guess other relatives hooked me up too here and there, but I never did reach the $25 mark. I assume this was rather frustrating to a dude who commuted from the Bronx to work in a factory in Williamsburg nearly every day for 60 years, but he never showed it. I think I had scraped together about 15 bucks around the time of my birthday, at which point the two of us proudly marched up to the neighborhood toy store. I so vividly recall him pulling his glasses out of the old vinyl case to count out the cash at the counter, none of which included my paltry savings. Damn I miss him.

  30. My dad only bough me legos as a kid, which Im glad he did. But I still have the monorail system somewere. My dad bought it for me when I put my head under water at the local YMCA, hey what can I say I was like 6. Legos just arent what they used to be…. The sci-fi sets like the ice ones were much more of a creative design than some of the sets I see now.

  31. I used to collect the Town Legos. I had a whole city of them at one point. I was never really into the whole sci-fi thing. I think my brother had some pirate and castle sets, but I always preferred the town.

  32. Great post! I remember the Blacktron Renegade well, I had it and really enjoyed it. The only problem I had with LEGOs is that I couldn’t stop putting a set together mid way, I had to finish it so I could play with it and then take it apart to use the cool blocks on my own creations.

    That was normally OK but presented a real problem on the bigger sets. One I remember in particular was the only Castle set I had, number 6080 “King’s Castle” (http://guide.lugnet.com/set/6080). That one took me about 12 hours to put together when I was 7 or 8, and the year I got it for Christmas I wasn’t allowed to start on it until after the visit to the in-laws. Mom made me go to bed at 9 but I snuck back out of bed and finished it before sunrise 😀

    Thanks LEGO for a lot of fun years!!


  33. Per my 12-year-old: “This post totally rocks, and I want every one of those sets.”

    Sadly, it’s lost on me. Legos were the province of my younger brothers.

  34. I had the galaxy explorer and have passed it along to my nephews. I need to get around to having some kids so that I can play with these again. I had some of those ugly apce lego sets that you posted too.

  35. I also had a set with the 9V siren and flashing lights – it was a paddy wagon, set 6450, and I remember spending a lot of time as a kid licking the contacts.

    I still think that someone should make a potato chip that tastes like that.

  36. Ahh.. I remember a christmas long ago when I got this set from my grandparents, and me and my grandad built it on the floor in the livingroom, great times.

    Also, living in scandinavia, we went to Legoland when I was about 12 and I have lots of fond memeories of that trip..

  37. I loved the Star Wars line too. I won the X-Wing in a prize-draw on the official lego website, then I bought the Millenium Falcon. I get pangs of nostalgia just thinking about it 🙂

  38. Galaxy Eplorer rocked! I’m looking forward to building it with my daughter.

    Did anyone else have the Coast Guard set? That seems to be a bit of a rarity. But it had great pieces for space building! 😉

    So when did Lego jump the shark for you? For me it was when I bought a castle set (don’t remember which one — one of the later ones) and instead of dozens of nice pieces for the walls I got exactly two pre-molded wall pieces.

  39. #12: I saved my week money for like an eternity… And some SOBWDBSAD stole them. :/ So I stole one. Big helluva box for a 89-year old to carry under a jacket, but I got away with it. 😀

    (SOBWDBSAD = Son of a bitch who deserves to be shot at dawn)

  40. That pirate ship was $110?? I had one too, and I can’t imagine my parents spending that kind of cash. Jeez.

  41. Oh man, I always liked the space stuff, particularly the tram. But I had this Robin Hood set with a hidden base under a tree – best thing ever. I got it and built it on christmas, and later that day, my little cousin smashed it.

  42. I’m a fellow child of ’78, but I remember most of these sets, particularly the monorail. I didn’t have it, but my buddy did, which was almost as good.

    My biggest sets were the King’s Castle and the Airport, both from the mid-1980s, but I must’ve had millions of bricks and thousands of hours of fun. Lego is truly the ultimate toy. My best friend and I used to have an ongoing rivalry to try to out-do the other’s Lego town (mostly buildings of our own design–some taken from various idea books).

  43. Oh, my parent’s loved me. Had the Monorail, the original Airport and some of the other various early space bases among many smaller sets. Sigh… endorphin rush.

  44. OMG i’m so blown away… When I was a child all i did was swim and play “legos”.

    The first two sets you mentioned almost made me spit up my coffee from the shock of the flash back.

    I remember getting the castle set and incorporating the set into my space fantasies as my living room turned into a harsh and desolate planet where the denizens rode robo-horses and shot lasers out of their lances. My intrepid space explorers crash landing in spectacular fashion on this planet was the opening line in many a childhood space opera.

    My sister to this day still laughs when she relates the tale of asking me why I always turned the faces of my lego men around… my reply was
    “because when they die i don’t like them smiling”. LOL.

    What memories you stirred. Bravo sir, I think I may start a collection myself now…

  45. This reminded me that in my kindergarten class, the teachers had set up different stations containing different things you could play with. The areas were: lincoln logs, mini oven “play house” area, plastic polygons that you would make patterns with, computer/oregon trail area, and legos. There was never enough time for me to play with the legos. I would always try and find these 4 divided pieces that made a circle, but I could never find them all. I loved to make up my own buildings and space ships. Ahhh, what nice memories! I hated the “play house” area, though. I think I was a feminist at 5, ha ha.

  46. I, too, coveted the space and castle lego sets when I was a kid. I think my various relatives thought it was more appropriate for me to have the town sets, since I’m a girl and all. Regardless, I played with my lego town constantly, rising at dawn when everyone was asleep to assemble all of my sets, playing with them throughout the day, and then disassembling all of the sets before bedtime, only to rise and begin anew the next morning. My first lego set: a gas station, I think it was maybe Exxon or Shell. Then I got the police station, complete with tiny jail cell. Sweet.

  47. Wow! that’s all I did back in the seventies I had set 400 a house with a tree and grass and the nex t year I recieved 911 a jail and station with road and a new way to build cars, one of the lego striaght 6 white had a decal that said POLICE I thought that was cool. I had a coulpe of exrta road pieces too, that I would draw tire marks on like Roscoe chasing the dukes. Of course my favorite modification was slipping em in sideways and upside down to produce a way to watch marbles travel through the flews that I had made, using the red/blue window hinges from 400 I created a well at top for the marbles then opened the hinges and watched and enjoyed! Great memories.
    LEGO Fan!!

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