The Cobra Combat Set MSV was a Sears exclusive released in Canada in 1983. It combined two iconic GI Joe toys in the Vamp and MMS, cast in black plastic with dark grey wheels and Cobra decals. Unlike the two toys it was based on, the MSV was devoid of any driver. A Cobra Officer is pictured on the box art, driving the black Vamp, while a Cobra Soldier, Destro, Major Bludd or another Officer make for excellent, natural pairings, like chicken and waffles.
People have astutely pointed out that since the MSV wasn’t in the Canadian GI Joe catalog, and the box art felt more imitative than official, there might have been a perception amongst children that it was not a real GI Joe product, or that it was not up to the usual Hasbro standards. I agree that for a lot of kids this would have been the perception, and the MSV’s obscure nature and questionable artwork doomed it for me.
At the time of its release, my parents hadn’t yet financed an army of Cobra figures and vehicles. In fact, at one point, my lone Officer was outnumbered 10-to-1 by Joe soldiers. And I never felt interested in acquiring the MSV. I didn’t own the Vamp or the MMS, toys that were clearly Hasbro official, so they were higher on my want list. And with so many amazing 1983 vehicles and playsets out there that I didn’t own (Headquarters, APC, Hiss, Wolverine…) the list of toys above the MSV was substantial.
Newer GI Joe vehicles and playsets would always be prioritized first, followed by the newest Cobra vehicles, and the classic GI Joe vehicles and playsets from the previous year. Repaints would always be last in line. I might have even had more interest in the Pac Rats – though small and silly – and the Falcon and Viper gliders – though big and flimsy – than the MSV set.
It was a shame, but that’s just how I felt at six years old.
I seem to remember a childhood friend, David, had received it as a birthday present, and I have the faintest memories of being there at the moment he opened it. Whether it was David or another friend, I must have seen someone receive it, because the bargain basement artwork – a poor mimickery of Hector Garrido’s work – is so memorable. David lived on a corner lot in our neighbourhood, with a large ditch beside his house, and I remember spending a lot of time down in that ditch, working on diverting water by digging trenches in the mud, and that memory is much more vibrant than us actually playing with his MSV.
David had two other notable roles in my life. He was the creator of Mercenaries and Monsters, the knock-off version of AD&D my friends and I played when we were 10 years old. And, later still, it was at his house in Yellowknife, after both of our families had left Fort Smith, that I first remember seeing the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MuchMusic. While I was heavy into rap at the time, that band, that song and that video had an undeniable impact on life as a teenager in the 1990s.
Those memories were much more impactful than whether I had seen David receive the MSV for his birthday when I was six years old. It’s entirely possible that I simply misremember his connection to the MSV, that he simply had the Vamp and MMS, and one of my other friends might have received the MSV for their birthday.
I also have these other weird associations with him, including my first time playing a dungeon quest-style video game, and him owning the toy car from Robocop. But who knows what is true and what is simply me sewing a bunch of random things together in my memories of him?
Regardless, I do remember wondering if the MSV was a knock-off, since it was common for Sears to put GI Joe figures together with other military toys in the catalogs. The artwork certainly didn’t inspire confidence in its status as an official Hasbro product.
As a toy, the MSV was of identical quality as the Vamp and MMS.
The Vamp was one of the most rugged toys out there. It could be raced off any height of jump with minimal damage. That ruggedness didn’t go any further than the jeep portion of the MSV, since its missile system was as fragile as the MMS. The trailer was solid enough, but parts always went missing, the power cord to the computer was often cut and the missiles were fragile, as the fins often cracked or snapped clean off during play. In that way, the combination of Vamp and MMS created a dichotomy: one of the most rugged Joe vehicles paired with one of the more fragile playsets.
Both had an abundance of pieces that would go missing – the Vamp’s steering wheel, gas cans, cannon and cannon mount, and the MMS’s computer stand, legs and missiles – despite the best efforts of careful children. Without the cannon on the jeep, the Vamp became purely transport, and without the missiles the MMS became a boat anchor. So a lot depended on whether you could keep certain pieces, and this is a part of why the MSV is such a valuable toy today.
As an adult collector, I believe the MSV is incredible. Seeing two vintage toys cast in black plastic with Cobra decals is unbelievable. It makes me long for a black Flak, Hal, Jump and Ram. It’s also attractive and unique in a way that I didn’t appreciate as a child. The kitsch value of the artwork on the Canadian box is both hilarious, and on-brand for a foreign exclusive Joe product in a way that you might never expect in the stodgy Canadian market.
Did the designers at Funskool fly from India to do an early test case in Canada? No, but that’s how it feels.
Hasbro’s Canadian operations were headquartered in Longueuil, Quebec. For years, residents of Quebec have petitioned for recognition as a distinct society, different from English-speaking Canada. And I could see why they would be looking for that distinction, as my various trips through Quebec, over the years, have been eye-opening.
“La belle province” is influenced by both Canada and France, and has evolved over the past hundreds of years in different ways than either. The fans at hockey games whistle and sing, and in a place like Edmonton I’ve seen Habs fans drown out the Oilers fans entirely. The main cities – Montreal and Quebec City – have old centres with historic buildings and cobblestone streets, bastions of old, European culture. Quebecers invented poutine and considered leaving Canada before a narrow vote to stay in 1995. While driving across the country on a roadtrip, after graduating university, I stopped at a McDonalds in Quebec where people were smoking in the restaurant, presumably the only province in Canada that was still allowing smoking in fast food restaurants in 2003. Dating a girl from Quebec served as its own education, after I moved to the Yukon. And I actually love Quebec for all of this.
That the quirky MSV grew from this unique cultural hotbed is entirely on-brand.
My first opportunity to acquire an MSV was in May 2017, one month before Forgotten Figures posted a review of the vehicle. I had joined a group of GI Joe collectors in Victoria, BC, and was meeting one of the members in Metchosin, an hour away. At the time, I was buying a complete SMS from him, another Sears exclusive vehicle, this one available in both Canada and the US.
While there, he told me that one of his prize possessions was the black Vamp from the MSV, which he had found at a swap meet at the Western Speedway race track in Langford, BC. I had only been to that venue once, on an overcast Sunday morning, with every vendor set up twenty feet apart from each other, and the only toys I had found were packed away inside a Rubbermaid container, underneath one vendor’s table. The wonder of finding something Joe-related in that venue, and recognizing it as a rare, Canadian exclusive version of the iconic Vamp, would have been life-affirming for a serious GI Joe collector. If it was me, that’s the kind of past glory I would still be reliving.
But when he showed the MSV to me, I was disappointed that it had been repainted with glossy black and yellow, an homage to the UK SAS version of the Vamp, possibly.
“Apparently, you can use a solvent to remove the paint,” he told me. “But I’m not anxious to try.”
I felt similar, that the effort might not be worth the risk of damage, that, even if successful, the finished product might still have traces of the poor paint job. I would probably never undertake the effort, even if I bought it, so I passed. I wasn’t really looking for a project.
At the time I didn’t care about rare variants – I couldn’t buy everything – and was instead focused on the mainline vehicles and playsets that appeared in Mark Bellomo’s guidebook. Everything else was just noise. And I had recently splurged on that SMS and some MOCs, and was trying to curve my Joe spending.
But a month later, acquiring an MSV became a priority for me, and that first MSV was no longer an option, sold off by my friend on eBay.
The MSV review on Forgotten Figures came a few days before my twins were born in 2017. It might have been my introduction to Forgotten Figures, and Forgotten Figures was my introduction to Joe blogs, so that MSV review brings me back to an important time in my life.
I also watched the Youtube video by Formbx257 to familiarize myself, once I decided my quest was about to get real.
As a collector, I always had an ongoing list of the next highest priority items, and the MSV catapulted onto that list after those reviews, eclipsed only by the Steel Brigade V1A. My friend had lucked into an MSV, after all, and I could have acquired his.
Sure it was rare if you lived in the States, where there are so many more collectors and the border provided a barrier against finding one in the wild. But north of the border? Sears was one of the main retailers for GI Joe in Canada and put a lot of toys in homes during the 1980s.
So why did it become such a priority? A combination of ingrained feelings of actual connection to the toy, some intrigue because it was notably rare, some feeling of pride because it was a Canadian exclusive, and the thought that it was something old and vintage, hard to find, but also something that would feel new to me. I had acquired most vehicles and playsets up to 1985. The MSV was something that fit within that envelope, that not everyone had, and that might be fun to track down.
Every collector needs a white whale. Maybe two.
About six months later, on a Sunday morning, an auction of GI Joe parts caught my eye on eBay. An MSV missile was obscured by a pile of neon 90s missiles. So for $20 Canadian, I suddenly had my first MSV part. Then, that summer, I picked up a Tiger Sting at Toy Traders in Langley, BC, on my way home from vacation. Under closer inspection, the two black gas cans appeared to have different gloss. The shinier one belonged to the Tiger Sting, whereas the duller one was an MSV gas tank.
I was like, what!?
And four months after that, I had a near miss on a near complete MSV.
Apparently, someone had donated their GI Joe collection to the Kamloops Community Living Association and it had been broken down into four separate lots and placed on eBay: the black Vamp in one, the black MMS in another, the computer stand and cannon mount in another, and the missiles in another one, still. When I saw those lots on eBay, I immediately started scheming to acquire all the parts. I went so far as to contact the foundation to offer to buy everything with a large donation, but I was politely rebuffed. For a week after that, waiting for the auctions to close, I planned my bidding strategy.
In the end, a smarter collector swept in and pursued the parts lots more aggressively than me. I won the Vamp portion only, and the vehicle I received was missing the bumper, steering wheel, cannon mount, cannon, gas cans, and gas can basket. And I learned a hard, hard lesson, because I had been so focused on the Vamp portion, I didn’t appreciate that the small parts were harder to find and more valuable.
Another six months passed. I was in contact with a guy through Facebook who wanted $1000 for his. I wasn’t that invested, and walked away. Instead I placed an ad on Used Victoria, hoping to find one locally. And I watched eBay listings, and I saw a complete one sell for $700, which was more than I was willing to pay.
A month later, in May 2019, a dealer put up another black Vamp on eBay for a fraction of the complete vehicle. It was missing a lot of pieces (the roll cage, most notably) but it had some of what I was looking for so I bought it to merge it with mine, selling the remaining shell, moving toward the goal of building a complete MSV. In the end, I only used the front bumper and the gas can basket piece, and everything else went in a pile marked “to sell”, which is still kicking around, two years later.
Around that time, I was contacted about my ad on Used Victoria and worked out a deal to buy a near complete MSV locally. I set my offer at 60% what it was worth, which I thought was fair, given that my ad was geared at alerting people who were unknowingly sitting on a golden ticket, and that we would share the benefit of their increased knowledge. They might otherwise sell their MSV for $10 or $20, and instead I was offering them a lot more than that for a vehicle I intended to keep in my collection, not flip and make money off.
Win-win, I thought…
In the end, he backed out, and his reason to hold onto it was that he had such a high emotional attachment to it, and I respected that and never contacted him again, but I saw him part with that MSV through Facebook, 18 months later.
A third black Vamp came to me three weeks later, also in May 2019. There was a fire downtown, at a run-down, local hotel which had also been the home of one of Victoria’s two strip bars. The fire had been big news, locally, the destruction of a well-known building, across from MEC, and it brought with it the mystery of a missing person – the caretaker – who was presumed dead. The videos of that fire were incredible, it took a long time to get under control, and the threat of spreading to surrounding businesses was very real.
One of the hardest hit businesses, was on the back-side of the building, Victoria’s local vintage collectible store, Cherry Bomb Toys. The ongoing smoke – which lingered downtown for weeks – and ran rough-shod over their business, caused so much damage that they were forced to close-down for more than a month. Closing down for an extended period seemed to be unsustainable, so a Kickstarter was set up by friends of the store, and I made a donation, feeling invested in their success, since it was my favourite store and my only ongoing source of new toys, outside eBay.
A few months earlier, the owner, B, had sold me some MOC figures. We had been down in his stock room, looking through GI Joe inventory together, when he showed me another black Vamp. I already had one, at the time, and his had a scratch along the front hood, and significant damage to the hole where the cannon mount attached, so I didn’t make an offer. But it also had pieces I was missing, so I told B to let me know when he wanted to part with it.
(He frequently held onto things, either hoping to amass more of the missing parts and sell it complete, or just to keep in his collection, since he was also a collector.)
Fast forward a few months, to when the hotel across the back alley was still smouldering, to when Cherry Bomb was temporarily closed and at risk of closing permanently, to the days after I had made a donation on Kickstarter. B asked me to stop by the store, that he had something for me, and when I came by, he handed me a bag with the MSV inside. He had been touched by my donation, and I was beyond touched by his gesture.
Again, I merged vehicles and picked off the missing pieces I needed, including another spare missile. And when I sell the remaining Vamp, I plan to pay it forward and put the money towards a charity.
I don’t know what it was about MSVs that was happening, why they were popping up everywhere, but I remember seeing someone post on Facebook that they had scored a big lot of GI Joes up-island, including the missile system for the MSV, complete with ultra-elusive computer stand. The sharks were circling, of course, and the level of PMs behind the scenes must have been off the charts, with all these collectors thinking they’d spotted something valuable in the photos that he hadn’t yet recognized.
This guy and I had done enough deals that I had his number in my phone. I texted him congratulations on the find. I didn’t even make an offer, although the parts he found were exactly what I needed to complete my MSV, because he told me he wanted to hold onto everything he found. He asked me what I thought the value was, and I gave him an honest response. As far as I know, he is still sitting on those parts.
I finally found the missile system on eBay in June 2020, three years after a complete MSV had become my priority. The price was reasonable, but, heartbreakingly, the missile mount was glued in place and didn’t rotate. I fought with it for a while, trying to loosen the glue, but eventually gave up, not wanting to break it apart.
I had some of the remaining, missing Vamp pieces in the original green, and I decided I would eventually paint them all black to use as substitutes. And once I added an original Vamp cannon, identical to that on the MSV, I decided to retire from my pursuit, the Vamp portion missing the steering wheel and cannon mount, with a glued in-place missile system whose mount wasn’t pointing right, and missing one of the front legs, the computer stand and a missile. Three years of pursuit and that was what I had to show for it. That, and two bare-bones, black Vamps that I didn’t have the heart to sell.
But that’s not where this story ends. Although I was resigned to never completing my MSV, I lucked out again and moved closer to that goal in 2021.
I found not one, but two MSV missile systems, incorrectly identified as the 2009 Heatseek Missile System on eBay. Suddenly I had my last missing leg and a rotating missile mount.
Then, after I won that auction, Attica Gazette traded me the final MSV missile in exchange for an Outpost Defender playset. Suddenly my missile system was only missing the computer stand.
At the same time, Mr. Gazette pointed out that the Funskool Indian police and fire fighter versions of the Vamp had glossy, black Vamp steering wheels, similar to the glossier Tiger Sting gas can. Few would ever notice that two of my parts were substitutes.
The cannon mount continues to be the key piece I’m missing, and I now use the Vamp’s (currently) unpainted, green, cannon mount as a substitute.
The computer stand will likely never be acquired, but it is one of the least important pieces on the whole toy. I’m also missing the steering wheel and one gas can, but I don’t worry about finding those as much anymore, since I have reasonable substitutes. I am never going to pay the $1000+ that the complete MSV commands, but I have been able to eek out a near complete version, plus two black Vamp shells and missile systems over the years through luck and a splash of guile. And for that, I feel a strong sense of success in hunting my white whale.
Interestingly, I had been incorrect in thinking that my MSV collection started with a missile I had lucked upon on eBay in January 2018. I had been carrying a box of parts from my childhood for years, and one of the only unrecognizable pieces was the hub cap of an unknown vehicle. It has been sitting in a small Ziploc bag of unidentified parts for years. I knew it was a genuine GI Joe part – it had that feel of real Hasbro plastic, and some familiar markings – but I had no idea what it went to.
This year, I looked at it one more time, and thought about how the shape reminded me of the Vamp’s hubcap. But it was black… how could it be from the Vamp?
Cue: light bulb!
Somehow, I had been carrying this MSV hubcap for 35 years and I have no flippin’ clue where it came from. Possibly it was a part of my friend, David’s, MSV, but who knows for sure? It just adds to the mystique about the MSV for me, and although my remembrances of my friend’s birthday party in 1983 might have just been a trick of memory, this hubcap was concrete proof that I’ve always been connected to this toy in some deep way.
Sometimes, that type of connection is everything you need to justify the ups and downs of your quest.