When I started Infinite Frontiers 30 years ago, the last thing I expected was for us to be associated with Transformers. I genuinely had no interest in the franchise back in the Summer of 1989. Quite the opposite in fact. I was a huge Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who fan, gamer and that was it. Mention the word Transformers and I was quick to dismiss it. The odds were greater for me to strike it rich from sport betting than to bother with Transformers in any way shape or form. So what changed and what lead to the birth of Auto Assembly less than a decade later?
Growing Up In The 80s
Unlike most Transformers fans, I was a child of the 70s and not the 80s. By the time Transformers burst on to the scene I was already a teenager. I’d amassed quite a large collection of the Palitoy/Kenner Star Wars figures but even then it was clear that the focus of my collecting was on gaming and I wasn’t going to be tempted by toys. With a Pong clone and various table top systems in my possession and being a proud Vic 20 owner, nothing else was going to take priority over them.
In fact, the only real encounter I had with Transformers was owning (and completing) the Panini sticker album after it was given away with the early issues of the G1 comic (I had a thing for collecting sticker albums so I got a few issues of the comic for the free album and stickers!). After that the only other thing I picked up was the game for the Commodore 64 by Ocean. But the less said about that the better.
The Transformers Connection
Infinite Frontiers itself was launched in August 1989, initially as a small-scale Doctor Who fan club. But when it came Transformers, that didn’t factor into our plans for several years later. Our club rapidly evolved and within a matter of months had become a general sci-fi club but within a year it had closed its doors for the last time. Not wanting to give up on our involvement with fandom, it was already apparent that we were a group that was on a path of constant evolution. Having reshaped ourselves into a geek organisation by that point, we decided that fanzine publishing was the way forward with those of us still involved.
After a false start with a failed plan for a paper fanzine, we changed gear and I decided to produce a 100% digital title. The Final Frontier was the world’s first fanzine on disk for the Amiga computer dedicated to Star Trek. That became our mainstay for most of the 1990s and built up a strong following across the globe and netted countless accolades in the press. It was through this that I had a chance encounter with Sven Harvey who was working in a local computer store at the time. A mutual love of the Amiga lead to him joining our creative team. At the time I had no idea what I was letting myself in for…
And So It Begins…
After a few years of producing the magazine it was clear that our readers wanted more from us. We were pioneers of a relatively new digital publishing era, long before the advent of the e-readers of today. It was a time before the online culture where people do everything from shopping, gaming and visiting the best sports betting sites in their spare time, so we still had to find out what people wanted the old-fashioned way if we wanted to try anything new.
We put the feelers out through our fanzine and in 1996 we took the plunge and held our first (and only) Star Trek convention. It wasn’t without its problems, but it marked the start of a whole new era for us. From that weekend we launched a new Star Trek fan club which went on to hold monthly meetings. We revived our plans to produce print based fanzines and gradually moved away from digital activities altogether (well, for a couple of years at least). It felt like it was time to embrace a new audience of fans and move back to a more traditional approach.
The Birth Of Auto Assembly
We had branched out from Star Trek previously, releasing a general sci-fi and fantasy fanzine and a magazine dedicated to the Amiga. Sven suggested that we should try doing the same for Transformers. I was skeptical. Truth be told, I still had little or no interest in Transformers at the time. This was 1997 and it just wasn’t my “thing”. Sven had been trying to persuade me for as long as I could remember but I was having none of it. However, seeing his enthusiasm, we decided to give the fanzine a go, and in January 1998 the first issue of The Cybertronian Times was released. It was a small A5 publication but it was a hit and entered several re-prints, each selling out.
Now, prior to the release of that Sven had arranged gatherings of like-minded fans at his home but we got thinking… Could we take the skills we had developed over the last few years and apply it to the Transformers fanbase? To find out we asked readers of The Cybertronian Times what they thought. We wrote an article to find out if they wanted a UK Transformers convention (bearing in mind the fact that no-one else had done anything at this point in the UK).
A Slow Burner
While it was clear following that article that people did want to see an event us, in the end we weren’t the first. BotCon Europe were the first, taking place in London and another also beat us to the punch. Instead of our original proposals to run a full-scale convention, we opted to go for a mini event, along the same lines as our Star Trek club meetings. Auto Assembly was born. Our Star Trek club, Alpha Quadrant, was quite an informal affair. While we held meetings each month it was more a social gathering of fans. We had a small club merchandise table, quizzes and other competitions but the main focus was for fans to gather and watch new episodes of Star Trek together.
The big question was whether we could adopt the same format and apply it to Transformers fans. We didn’t want to go for a monthly format – that was going to be too much work for us to undertake. But on a creative level we already had access to equipment for producing a fanzine to go with the meeting, AV equipment including a screen, projector and sound system and ample experience. We wanted to go further though…
The First Auto Assembly
Sven emptied his house (almost) and took along a huge portion of his collection to put on a massive toy display. With a great Beast Wars beat-em-up being available in the shape of Beast Wars Transmetals, it made sense that we needed to have some sort of video games area and we contacted some Transformers dealer to offer them table space. Finding a venue was easy – we used a function room in the same hotel we had been booking for Alpha Quadrant for the last few years previously. We chose a Sunday to make it easier for people to attend and running a longer event made it feel like a mini convention that a meeting. It was all set and possibly the most ambitious thing we had done for several years so on 22nd October 2000 we made way to the Ibis Hotel in Birmingham.
We had low expectations and only thought that about a dozen people were going to join us for the inaugural day. Even with that many we would have been happy. I was quite apprehensive personally. Even though my interest in Transformers was starting to grow by that point, being introduced to the wonders of Beast Wars two years earlier, I was still anxious about meeting a group of other fans for the first time. In the end I needn’t have worried. The turnout was far better than we could have ever imagined with 31 people present. Everyone enjoyed the day, meeting up with friends old and new.
Even the technical problems we had on the day didn’t spoil things for anyone. It was my first foray into the world of Transformers fandom and it was thanks to the friendliness of everyone, and to all of those who were so welcoming to a complete beginner that we are still here 19 years later catering for Transformers fans worldwide.
As for the other Auto Assembly events that followed? That’s a story for another time…