History of the Subbuteo Football Figure
Probably the most asked question by curious visitors to the site who have unearthed their old Subbuteo collection from the loft is for me to explain the differences between heavyweight and lightweight figures. Although not an expert and dates are approximate, the images below should guide you in the right direction as to if you are in possession of a heavyweight, lightweight, zombie, walker or scarecrow!
The first Subbuteo figure was the flat two dimensional cardboard figure first seen around 1947. A stronger celluloid version followed which was still available in the shops until the early 1970's and covered the references 1-55
The three dimensional heavyweight oo scale figure was introduced in late 1961 on two tone coloured bases. These early figures are known as vintage heavyweights by most collectors and saw the start of the 'Continental Range' of teams and accessories. Available teams were numbers 1-54 in the catalogue plus some special World Cup teams for the 1966 finals. Interestingly, this innovative new figure along with the ever expanding accessory range was probably one of the main reasons that in 1963 Subbuteo's main rival, Newfooty, ceased production as the company was still plodding away producing the now dated flat figures that had remained largely unchanged since 1929.
In 1967 probably the most loved and memorable of all the footballing figures was released, the Classic Heavyweight, which was more than likely designed by the sculptor Charles Stadden who was also responsible for other accessories in the Subbuteo range such as the World Cup trophy and various stadium figures. This highly detailed player was available until around 1980 increasing the range of teams to some 330 in total. Today, this is the most sought after figure type of all by collectors.
During it's long reign, the Classic Heavyweight remained the standard figure for the growing number of available kits in the catalogue but other designs of player were used in the boxed starter sets and also for the eight 5-a-side Football Express teams. These differ in that the figure is moulded onto the white disc which fits into the base, rather than being on a bar. These figures types have gained the name 'Moulded' but each version has been given a further tag for identification purposes. From left to right... The Walker, The classic Moulded Heavyweight, The Scarecrow and finally The Winged Shorts. Technical stuff and I am particularly fond of the Scarecrow and remember getting a set of these in red with my first Club edition, painting all the white in the kit with red Airfix paint to create a makeshift Liverpool until I got the 'proper' thing for my birthday. Although mainly found in generic red and blue kits only, or references 1 & 2, a moulded version of England reference 154 is often seen in larger World Cup and International Edition sets.
Very occasionally and in limited reference numbers, another type of heavyweight can be found. Known as the 'Dwarf' the figure stands slightly shorter and stockier than the classic heavyweight.
By the late 1970's, Subbuteo Sports Games Limited were selling so many teams the painters couldn't keep up with demand and a new figure was needed that could be machine painted for the growing home and overseas markets. The 'Zombie' was born (named so after it's likeness of a Zombie from a long forgotten 'B' movie or Michael Jackson video) and I remember well the fights at the toy shop as the last of the classic Heavyweights were snapped up, leaving the shelves of Zombies to gather dust. If you've just gone up the loft for the first time in 25 years and found a hoard of mint Zombies and thinking of booking a long haul holiday, don't. I know two people who collect Zombies. Having said that, the early hand painted ones are quite nice as seen in the reference 81 Liverpool away on the left. The Zombie also saw the introduction of the 'plug' style fixing into the base for the first time, rather than the bar fixing on the original three dimensional figures.
With the Zombie conceded as a near fatal mistake for the game, 1980 saw a hastily redesigned new figure suitable for machine painting, the Lightweight. With the machines pumping out up to 10,000 sets of teams of the popular kits in one run, it is odd that some of the lightweights can be found hand painted. Machine printing doesn't seem to be in full flow to around 1981 so probably explains why the first of the lightweights were hand painted along with the left over stocks of unwanted Zombies for a year or two. I should image also that some teams didn't require huge amounts of stock and it would have been more cost effective to hand paint the kits that sold in lower numbers. The Manchester United 2nd (reference 325) on the left is a nice example of a hand painted lightweight and these teams have become quite desirable in recent years. With the machines came the more intricate kits and by the middle 1990's it was possible to buy Premiership teams, still on the two colour bases with sponsors logos, very fine detail and for the first time since the one off Heavyweight France team in the late 1970's, mixed race teams that included three dark skinned players. The final incarnation of the lightweight comes on the single colour Hasbro one piece base on the far right, the figures are very slightly thinner and less well made than the first lightweights but for actually playing the game seriously, the new lower flat bottomed bases were a vast improvement, although lacking in fancy two tone colour combinations.
With Subbuteo production at a halt, Hasbro granted license to an Italian firm, Edilio Parodi in 2002 to manufacture a new range of teams which was short lived and ceased in late 2003. A new generation of figure, known as the 'Parodi 2003 figure' saw a return to the hand painting technique with only some machine work on the more intricate kits. The Jamaica team pictured above is hand painted, with the shirt detail printed afterwards. The 2003 teams also brought a new flatter 'professional' two tone base, much the same as the Hasbro one piece in profile, but with a beveled edge for easier chipping which has gained many fans amongst the players.
The 2005 Figure
After much speculation and anticipation, Hasbro released a new figure and two base designs in early 2005. They say things go round in circles and it seems that the Subbuteo footballer is no exception with this latest offering, which has reverted back to a flat two dimensional style similar to the early celluloid 1960's figures.
The photo real players are no longer sold in single teams and are now sold in sealed packets containing a random selection of players from different clubs, which means there is the extra enjoyment of 'swapping your doubles' during lunch break to make up complete squads so that you can eventually play a game. For the more mature collector like myself, who just wants to own complete teams, this does prove a little tricky and have only just escaped being arrested on two occasions while hanging around school playgrounds attempting to swap one of my fifteen Ze Maria's for that elusive Michael Owen.