Shopping: Toys for the boys

I Want To Own... Dinky Toys, Kiss Dolls and a Triang Railway Set
After rummaging in a box of used and abused toys on which 50p has been scrawled in blue felt tip, my four-year-old son emerges, triumphant, clasping a purple plastic car with The Joker at the wheel and a red motortrike with Robin astride it. To my untrained eye, both had a street value of 49p when they were used as McDonald's child-bait in 1993.

"Those are collector's items," I am informed by the smiling middle-aged owner of the car boot and its loft detritus sprawled in front of us. "Or they would be if you had the whole set."

I am sceptical, but am happy enough to spend a quid for the five-minutes of happiness it will impart. A fortnight later, I realise that I am more enamoured with the Robin motortrike than my son is. I am first won over by its mechanics. The three-wheeler is not only propelled forward, but manoeuvres randomly and magically when friction is applied to two black back wheels.

Plus, the green front wheel is colour-coordinated with its rider, who is dressed in his old school green and yellow circus outfit, rather than the vulcanised maroon to which he upgraded for Hollywood. I even like the clumsy, big yellow R on the windshield but, more than anything else, I love Robin's unfathomable grin, and the fact that the Chinese worker who applied the finishing touches in white paint, bothered to put a delicate brush stroke between Robin's lips.

One of the great things about having children is that there is no shame involved in appreciating and playing with toys. When a friend turned up on our doorstep with a huge Millennium Falcon he'd been given, the joy I felt was not for my children but for myself. It was matched by the devastation when my offspring proceeded to wreck the said spacecraft in slightly less time that it had taken me to stick on the decalcomanias, while regaling them with how my parents had never been able to afford such luxuries when Star Wars first came to town.

The annoying thing about toys is that, when you can afford to pay half a day's wage for a piece of plastic with flashing lights and electronic gunship sounds, peer pressure and common sense dictate that you shouldn't be so foolish as to blow it on something so childish. Thus, the majority of the grown male population of Britain harbour secret yearnings for Star Wars toys or Scaletrix track they never owned.

I know I do. I can still remember my mate Tim Potter tinkering with the transformer of the latter and cursing over the worn brushes when they no longer made a good contact with the track, and the arguments over who would have the unpredictable Mini and who would have the more reliable Datsun.

Of course, they still make them a bit like they used to, but they're rarely as good - authentic detail is generally sacrificed for the sake of profit margins. I'm sure, for instance, that Hamleys stocks a Robbie The Robot - or at least his cousin from Lost In Space - but not one that would come close to Nomura's 1956 "Mechanised Robot", a sleek-limbed, black-and-red sentinel with a transparent plastic dome in which battery- operated pistons pump.

This would look as good on your shelf as any antique, and Miller's Toys & Games Antique Checklist estimate it will set you back roughly pounds 200- pounds 500. It's not, though, the most expensive toy money can buy. If you want something which says "toy connoisseur/rich kid", and have more than pounds 10,000 to spend, then consider 19th century tin-plate toys. Something like the George Brown & Co-manufactured "Charles" hose reel, a delicate, hand-painted carriage with two bronze bells, or a Cinamon Steiff teddy bear: Christie's recently sold one for a record-breaking pounds 110,000.

However, there seems something morally dubious about investing in a toy that will never get played with, and at best will be stored in a glass box under lock and key. If you want a toy that says something about you, rather than your bank balance, then get the one you've always wanted and then invite some pals over to play.

Recently, a friend confessed that he'd spent pounds 100 on an original Subbuteo table-football game. When he showed me it, I knew his field of dreams was well worth the expense. It even inspired me to go home and root around in my mum and dad's loft.

What I found was, personally, worth more than a 1963 boxed Triang railway (pounds 500), and a 1948 Aveling Barford diesel roller (pounds 500), and a 1936 Fisher- Price Pop-eye (pounds 500), and a 1950 Dinky Toys Oldsmobile 6 Sedan (pounds 500), put together.

In the attic, covered in dust, was my own Subbuteo. I'd forgotten the extent of my collection, and was shocked to discover that it was vast: a Test Match Edition Table Cricket game, with an extra box of West Indies players, an International Edition of table rugby, with a spare All Blacks team, and a Continental Club Edition of Table Soccer, in which were squeezed 16 teams, including England teams in the old Admiral home and away kits: Spurs Away - the scrawled team sheet reads: Kendall, Naylor, McAllister, Holmes, Lacy, Perryman, Pratt, Ardiles, Lee, Hoddle and Taylor - and Arsenal Away, which I had sensibly repainted as Nottingham Forest.

Additional paraphernalia includes trophies, spectators, throw-in figures, flat-capped goalies and Set JJ, a ball-raising chute, which cost 15p from Whites Sports & Toys, and was never used in anger. Why? Because it was crap.

The game was last played with in 1979, the year when thinking about girls overcame the desire to flick-to-kick. How do I know? Because inside one of the boxes was a 1972 FA Cup centenary coin - Bolton Wanderers - similar to the Sainsbury World Cup '98 jobs, plus a Smiths crisps "Football Crazy" football league table for 1978/79, complete with all the team cards.

Incidentally, while I was researching this article, I happened upon a copy of Hake's Price Guide To Character Toy Premiums (Gemstone, pounds 24.95), an almanac of toys sold in conjunction with burgers. There, in the Batman section, is my, or rather my son's, Robin on his bike. The price: $100 (pounds 60).

Just when I started thinking that this car-boot toy was the best investment I'd ever made, I noticed that the quote related, not to the actual toys, but to the plastic advertising panels used to promote them in-store. I didn't feel cheated, though. You can't play with a plastic panel, can you?

Shaun Phillips

Hot Premiums

THEY COST burger all at the time but now...

Spider Enamelled Metal Ring (1939): Not Spiderman, but pulp-author R T M Scott's Thirties' crime fighter. This magazine giveaway may be worth up to pounds 5,000.

Buck Rogers Cut-Out Book (1934): Worth about pounds 2,000.

Century Of Comics (1933): A comic apparently worth more than pounds 10,000.

Wonder Woman pin-badge: Valued at more than pounds 1,000. Worth a check down the back of Great Uncle Ernie's sofa.

Superman Leader (1940): How many US pilots went down with one of these patches on their jackets? Tons, judging by the five-figure price tag.

Pop Tarts

AQUA MAY have made millions singing about Barbie girl but most pop stars are keener to get dolls in their own image on the nation's shelves.

Kiss: Sid Vicious's mum bought the Sex Pistol a set of four jointed, platform-booted Kiss dolls while he was on remand in 1978.

Sonny & Cher: Dolls with more than a dozen changes of clothes sold for pounds 176 at Phillips in London in August 1988. Do we need to make a joke about expensive plastic surgery?

Take That: The Jason Orange doll was on the shelf in Woolworth forever.

Madonna: Starred in her own sex fantasy, and had two dolls created for Dick Tracy.

Relative Values

THINK YOUR boxed Hornby might be worth a few quid?

Well, your local book shop may well stock books giving estimated values of products, but these vary vastly according to condition, and whether you've been a sad case and kept the packaging.

Some periodicals also provide estimated values of toys, including Collectables (pounds 2.60), and Collect It (pounds 1.95), which has a kids' section and a regular column dedicated to McDonald's offers. That tiny Dalmatian puppy with an umbrella? pounds 45, assuming, that is, you never let your kids take it out of the packet. All prices given are estimates, and should only be used as a guide.