What kid didn’t want to be a super spy in the 1980s? Growing up, I watched countless hours of James Bond movies with my dad at the dining table in our modest kitchen (Sure, Daniel Craig’s a great Bond, but he ain’t got nothin’ on Sean Connery!). By the time the ’90s rolled in, I was soon immersed in the animated James Bond Jr. TV series. Even cartoons like M.A.S.K. and shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider had elements of espionage in them. And we have to mention all the cool vehicles and gadgets Q would cook up for the famous British secret agent; they made my imagination run wild with wonder at the possibilities: what if I were a spy like Bond? I’d silently muse to myself as I shoveled another spoonful of Peanut Butter Crunch into my mouth before it was time to cut James Bond Jr. short and make the long (short) trek uphill to my school. What kind of devices might I have at my disposal?
Well, in 1989 and on into the early nineties, all of our 007 dreams came true. That was the year Tyco unveiled Spy Tech, a collection of snooping gear aimed at kids with a penchant for espionage and international intrigue. As Paul from the Bennett Media blog eloquently stated, Spy Tech toys “…would blur the line between science, magic, and imagination––all with a badass attitude.” Granted, Spy Tech wasn’t the first spy-centric toy line to hit the market. Walkie-Talkies have always been connected to the idea of being a secret agent, and if you were like me, you definitely had a pair of Fisher-Price walkie-talkies with the Morse Code decals on them. (And the first acronym we all learned to blip out to one another was “S-O-S.”) But Spy Tech was the first line to make a kid feel as though we were part of some secret organization of undercover neighborhood enforcers with special access to some top-of-the-line technology. I mean, just check out this iconic commercial. (“They have Spy Tech…they know!”)
Well, I was hooked as soon as I got my first Spy Tech toy for my birthday one year––the long-range microphone. Oh, the hours I would spend with those uncomfortable earphones plugged into my ears and eavesdropping on adult conversations in my brother’s house that I couldn’t care less about, but I finally felt included, and they would never know what I heard three doors down from my bedroom. At the end of the day, it was just a microphone, but its design––how you had to flip up the microphone itself to be able to hold it steady––and that serious dark gray color made it feel like more than another toy.
There were so many others in the line that warrant mentioning, like the foldable binoculars, rear-view glasses, walkie-talkies with clip-on microphones (that was a big deal back then, the clip-on mics!), and the periscope. Though, one of my all-time favorites was the hidden camera, which came with a box of Good & Plenty to hide the camera inside, as well as a mirror attachment that allowed you to take a picture from around a corner. As a self-professed super fan of this super fun toy line, I pretty much had all of the first wave of devices, including the Spy Tech-branded undercover vest, onto which you could snap, clip, and slide nearly every gadget in the line onto your person. (Which, all these years removed, seemed a tad silly since a large part of the art of espionage is being inconspicuous, and nothing screams “Spy!” like a vest loaded up with black pouches!)
If memory serves me right, I do remember a second wave of devices, of which I only had a few. They were a tad less exciting than the first, though in hindsight, some of them really upped the ante on spy gear and truly blurred the line between imagination and reality. One of the more interesting ones was the fingerprint kit, which came with a booklet that actually taught you how to dust and lift fingerprints from the scene of a potential crime, which I thought was pretty neat. It even came with fingerprint cards––like the kind they use downtown––and an ink pad so you could take someone’s fingerprints, too, and keep them on file for future reference, I guess.
These days, Spy Tech might seem like a precursor to a generation of creepers, but there are still lots of spy-centric toys out there (which look like toys, brightly colored and all that), from the Mission: Impossible line to the Spy Gear toys. But none of these had as cool a brand as Spy Tech, with that trench-coated, shaded (shady?) kid in a fedora on its logo. Different times, I suppose.
Truth be told, though, Spy Tech made quite an impact on me. I went through a phase (like many kids do, I guess) in which I wanted to be an FBI agent when I grew up. This was partially due to my obsession with all things Batman (comics, reruns of the sixties series, and of course, Batman ’89), but it was also because of Spy Tech. The gadgets made me feel like the Dark Knight Detective, only without a cape and cowl, and instead of a utility belt, I donned an undercover vest. It appeared that a mild-mannered toy company had given kids like me the means to solve crimes and other mysteries around our small towns all across the state of New Jersey, and the country at large. Perhaps… Perhaps Tyco itself was really a front for a well-kept secret network of spy kids (long before those movies ruined it all for me!) tasked with learning the tricks of the trade, and that one day, far in the future, maybe in 2023, even, we sleeper agents would wake and continue our work.
Who knows?! And who can really say?
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Thanks again for sticking around during another fine installment of Nostalgia’s Revenge! over here at Retrofied. In the next month or so, and in preparation for the autumn, we’re gonna have a look at the iconic Stephen King book covers from the ‘80s, since that art was a huge part of my growing up in and around bookstores. Until then, fans!
J.T. Trigonis is a published author, professor, and born-again collector of vintage action figures, comic books, and CDs.