The Top 10 G.I. Joe Vehicles/Playsets From 1982 - Present

by Jay Cochran
September 26, 2016

For people who aren’t diehard G.I. Joe fans, there’s something that might come as a bit of a surprise to many of you, especially those of you who have latched onto timeless characters like Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Duke, and Zartan.

You ready for this?

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was never designed to be an action figure line.  From day one, it was all about the vehicles, and the action figures were only developed to compliment those crazy vehicles.  So if you ever wonder just how G.I. Joe got so many beautiful toys, it’s because that’s what Hasbro wanted to do from the beginning.
But a funny thing happened and Larry Hama ended up crafting a universe of actual physical people that drew an audience, then the Sunbow animated series put a richness of character and a gorgeous tapestry of 80s animation around it and the rest was history.

All that being said, looking back through the years, because of Hasbro’s laser focus on vehicles, there’s a wealth of fantastic tanks, jeeps, mobile command centers, planes, and other good stuff that takes the foundation of great characters and dials it way up.  It’s an amazing and impressive line up the size and scale of which will likely never happen again.  So, looking back over the past thirty-four years, can I possibly pick and choose only ten vehicles to fawn over?

I guess we’ll find out.

Keep in mind, my idea of a cool vehicle may be different than many others.  I like play features and fun value, so something like the COBRA HISS, or G.I. Joe VAMP while iconic for sure, may not make the list, because they’re essentially angular pieces of plastic with movable gun turrets.

Let’s get this show on the road.

#10 – COBRA Moray Hydrofoil

Growing up there was no doubt that whatever paper route money I set aside was going to be going mostly towards G.I. Joe (with the occasional Transformer thrown in there for good measure).  I liked getting the most bang for my buck, so I tended to stick with figures.  However, in 1985 I made my first “big”purchase with my own cash, and it was the Moray Hydrofoil.  I never regretted it.  Sleek, angular, and crammed full of detail and play features, the Moray was a fantastic COBRA attack watercraft that could either launch missiles, torpedos, or wreck you with several different gun emplacements.  It had room for a number of COBRA Troopers or Eels throughout its deck and was the first large vehicle in the G.I. Joe arsenal that I dropped a significant amount of my own money on.

#09 – G.I. Joe Killer WHALE Hovercraft

While I didn’t buy this off the shelves when it was released in ‘84, I managed to get it from a friend a few years later after he was “too old for toys” (what a poser).  It was, of course, missing most of its pieces, but I still loved the WHALE, a solidly built tank that could move on water or land.  Like the Moray, it had a ton of offensive firepower, not to mention an opening troop compartment, sea sled, and tiny little removable motorcycle.  When I started aggressively rebuilding my vintage collection in the late 90s, the WHALE was one of the first vehicles I dove into.

#08 – G.I. Joe Patriot Grizzly Tank

Wait, what?  The Patriot Grizzly?  Not the MOBAT?  What about the Mauler?!  Yep, Patriot Grizzly wins out for a few reasons.  First of all, the overall design feels a bit more science fiction than reality, and I dig that about G.I. Joe.  Don’t get me wrong, I loves me some MOBAT’s and Maulers, but why would a “ten minutes in the future” special forces team be using hardware from the 60s and 70s?

The slanted wheels, the extended barrel, the more sleek look and overall size all put this G.I. Joe tank above the competition, not to mention the fantastic extendable rear handle which activates the rotating turret and lets you shoot spring-loaded missiles from the tank barrel.  Really fantastic play features which didn’t interfere with the overall aesthetic.  Perfect.

#07 – COBRA Rattler

While my friends were all gaga for the Skystriker, especially after Top Gun’s release in theaters, I was always all about the Rattler.  Even as a kid, the chin-mounted gatling gun and the separate gunners turret added a whole new level of play value that the Skystriker didn’t have.  Looking back on things, us cranky adults are free to wonder how a sluggish old bomber could possibly be a foil for a swift-wing fighter like the Skystriker, but back then all I knew was that the Rattler was an awesome plane with a ton of missiles and a great red-suited pilot.  Even the replaceable armor plating complete with bullet holes was awesome.  An all time great COBRA jet fighter.

#06 – G.I. Joe Eaglehawk (2012)

It certainly seems as if vehicles hit their golden age from 1984 - 1986 and the original Tomahawk is only further proof of this.  A dual-rotor transport helicopter fully equipped with chin turret, gunner stations at the cargo area, a ramp that flipped down and room for a ton of figures, this vehicle never ceased to impress.

So I spent the first paragraph talking about the Tomahawk, because the design of that original vehicle truly influenced the great version released in 2012.  Using the classic as its canvas, Hasbro released the updated Eaglehawk with drastically improved tooling and more modern play features, and it manages to capture the greatness of the original with some nice modern updates.  For that reason, I give the 2012 Eaglehawk the edge over the 1986 original.

#05 – Rhino

I am an unashamed Sigma 6 fan and while I would never presume to say that any of the Sigma 6 branded vehicles would be considered one of the 10 best (though I argue if they had scaled a Dragonhawk to 4” it would be very damn close) the Rhino released in 2005 is a spectacular Direct to Consumer vehicle which also happens to have a place in Sigma 6 continuity.

Of course it helps that the vehicle is amazing as well.  Styled after the Aliens Colonial Marines APC, the Rhino is low to the ground and stacked with layered black armor, looking downright mean.  With rocket launchers and gun turrets that can be mounted in several different places, doors that open to reveal concealed troopers and an absolutely incredible secondary helicopter that slowly rises from the body cavity, this vehicle has a ton of play value and is an aesthetic beauty to boot.

#04 – G.I. Joe Rolling Thunder

Ohhhh baby.  Released in 1988, the Rolling Thunder was one of a crop of spectacular vehicles released in that same year that fully proved that Hasbro was still on their “A game” as the 90s approached.  A long and powerfully armored assault tank, the Rolling Thunder was a marvel of ingenious toy design and almost endless play value.  Two massive rockets rose from the center with lowering ramps, a great separate surveillance vehicle, and cannons crammed pretty much everywhere.

This huge and excellently crafted G.I. Joe powerhouse should be a staple in anyone’s collection, especially those who think that A Real American Hero effectively ended after 1986.

#03 – USS Flagg

What can I say?  Seven feet long, the infamous G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier is the showcase of many people’s collections and it rightfully deserves to be.  It’s far and away the largest playset ever made, can hold a squad of vehicles and hundreds of figures throughout its massive bow and three level superstructure.  Opening doors, several computer consoles, a fully functional loudspeaker, and all sorts of amazing bells and whistles, the USS Flagg is a showcase of just how brilliant, innovative, and daring Hasbro designers and marketers were back in the day.

Rumors persist that the tooling for the Flagg was the size of a Volkswagon, and that the mere guts of Hasbro presenting the vehicle immediately captivated retailers and convinced them to commit to the G.I. Joe brand in 1985 when lagging sales had all but signaled its potential demise.  It’s an amazingly crafted and designed toy.

So why is it number three?  Well, for all of its size and history, I like a little more play features, and in all honesty, in some ways the size is a negative, not a positive.  While it deserves to be a showcase in everyone’s collection, the fact remains that its huge size prevents that in many cases (including my own).

#02 – COBRA Terror Drome w/ Firebat

My continued admiration of G.I. Joe playset design carries on to number two in the list in the form of the COBRA Terror Drome.  While many folks think the Terror Drome was COBRA’s main headquarters, in both the Sunbow series and the Marvel Comic, this is not the case, they are separate installations devised for nefarious purpose.  In the Marvel Comics, the Terror Dromes contained concealed electronic equipment developed to transmit electronic waves that induce psychosis in the population.

As for the playset itself, it’s a rounded structure, which is a stroke of brilliance, as it manages to weave a ton of play value into a base that is pretty well concealed thanks to its rounded shape.  An intricate series of hallways connects several different chambers with a prison cell, Firebat launch mechanisms, and fold down gun turrets.  With room for dozens of figures inside, even if the Terror Drome was just the rounded piece it would be great.  But then you get to the top, where footpegs allow for the placement of dozens more figures as well as two massive cannons, computer consoles with reclining chairs, and of course, the launch tube.  Each Terror Drome came with an actually working launch tube that pulled open the blue dome and extended a red Firebat from the tube, allowing it to launch into the air to defend the installation.  It’s a unique and incredible design idea that continues to be innovative thirty years later.  The Firebat itself is an amazing assault aircraft  in its own right, and the beauty of both pieces of the Terror Drome elevate it to the second spot in my top ten.

So what’s the first?  Devoted G.I. Joe fans should already know the answer, though many more casual observers might be unaware of the next piece of engineering brilliance I’m going to talk about.

#01 – The Defiant Space Shuttle Complex

In 1987 the G.I. Joe and COBRA conflict escalated and moved from the surface of the Earth into the stars.  While COBRA wouldn’t join the Joes up there until 1988 (with the Stellar Stiletto and the Astro-Viper) and the battle wouldn’t truly escalate until Star Brigade in the 90s, the Defiant Space Shuttle complex absolutely revolutionized the toy world in ‘87.

A massive gantry crawler embedded with several different gunner stations and awesome cockpits carried the Defiant around relatively flush to the ground.  But when it came time to launch, a massive red handle could be turned, slowly elevating the shuttle, bringing it up to a 90 degree launching angle.  At that point, the shuttle could be removed and “launched” into space, leaving a vertical gantry with platforms, elevators, and all sorts of play features even without the shuttle intact.

Then you get to the shuttle itself, which actually is two separate pieces, a booster and a shuttle.  They can separate and the booster can open up, then rotate an inner section out, revealing even more levels of play inside.  The shuttle can open cargo bay doors, extending a claw, as well as containing a great cockpit with room for all sorts of G.I. Joe astronauts inside.  Every single element of the Defiant complex is crammed full of places for figures to pose, interact, and play and when you bring the whole thing together it’s one massive and impressive vehicle that manages to take more play features than the Flagg and work it into a smaller footprint.  Far and away it’s the absolute showcase of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero vehicles.

Like with my list of top ten figures, this was an almost impossible task.  Over the past thirty-four years of toy production, G.I .Joe has managed to develop an army of fantastic, fun, and exciting vehicles and playsets the likes of which will never again be matched.  It was truly a golden age of action figure design and marketing, and it’s truly impressive just how well much of it stands the test of time.

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Last 10 comments - ( Read All Posts )
sonic360 - 2016-10-06 @ 3:38 pm

Cool List. I also would remove the Patriot Grizzly and the Rhino, and replace them with the original Joe Headquarters and Night Raven.

littlewolvie - 2016-10-05 @ 6:43 am

Great list! I don't mind the mix of vintage and newer vehicles. Two other favorites of mine are the 1987 Mobile Command Center, which may not be as impressive as the Flagg of Defiant, but which is a lot sturdier and time resistant (and no yellowing over the years!), and the 2005 R.O.C.C.

JoeRhyno - 2016-10-01 @ 2:22 pm

I think it is a good list and I like how it covers almost all parts of Joe toys, and not just vintage. The Patriot Grizzly tank is an awesome tank.

It also seems like some of the smaller vehicles lost out on just because of the size... I'd love to see one for the small 1-2 man vehicles, heck... it was Joe, 1-5 man smaller sized vehicles, lol.

DarthJoe - 2016-09-29 @ 1:12 am

Ya the General was a great toy. My cousin got it for Christmas one year, and I remember being very envious. Lol

Roadpigmaster - 2016-09-29 @ 1:08 am

The Destro Razor Back can also make the list...

The GI Joe General

Roadpigmaster - 2016-09-28 @ 11:14 am

That is a very solid list... I would add some vehicles from the 90's and the end of 80's to it...

The Marauder Equalizer

SKYWARP - 2016-09-27 @ 3:49 am

Pretty solid list.

I would replace the Patriot Grizzly Tank and the Rhino with the Night Raven and Skystriker.

I agree replace those two with the Night Raven and then maybe the Havoc.

What a great list, and what awesome vehicles!!!

AtROSSitus - 2016-09-26 @ 5:26 pm

Man I miss my Hydrofoil from when I was a kid... Hope to see some of the vehicles/playsets here get reissued some day.

yojoebro82 - 2016-09-26 @ 5:04 pm

I don't have the Defiant but I do have the Crusader which is pretty fun in itself. I have a Galloob Captain Picard figure at the helm along with my GI Joe space dudes. I love it!

DarthJoe - 2016-09-26 @ 4:49 pm

Pretty solid list.

I would replace the Patriot Grizzly Tank and the Rhino with the Night Raven and Skystriker.

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