It’s a Review day here at The Lego Car Blog, and with much of LEGO’s latest product line-up covered we’re going to take a journey back to 1997, and to one of LEGO’s forgotten gems; the 8479 Technic Barcode Truck.
LEGO had successfully produced programable robotic models as far back as 1990 with the marvellous Control Centre and its mark II follow-up in 1995. Both sets allowed children to control a Technic model via a joypad and to program a series of functions into the system so that movements could be repeated. The only drawback was that the ‘brain’ control brick was a large black box that remained external to the models under its control.
For 1997 LEGO designed its first robot where the control brick and memory were integrated into the model itself, allowed by the continuing compacting of computer storage technology. Called the ‘Code Pilot’ it’s a neat handheld battery pack containing the model’s power source, memory, control buttons, and – rather inventively – a barcode scanner, just like you’ll find by the till in any shop. In short, this is LEGO Mindstorms’ genesis.
The Code Pilot allowed control of the vehicle in several ways; via the buttons on the unit itself, through the record function, or through the barcode scanner. The last of these three options was the set’s selling point, as it came with a large plastic sheet containing many ‘building blocks’ of possible functions; for example a motor direction, a time duration, or a noise command. The user could scan these codes in the order desired to build up a sequence of movements and sounds, which the model would then act out.
This is effectively the same process as today’s LEGO Mindstorms system, only it doesn’t require a computer to make the set operational. A wise move in 1997 when many children didn’t have a home PC, and one we actually think deserves a renaissance today: plug and play is always a winner.
So, to the truck: 8479’s main model is a large and quite good-looking European tipper truck, with a grab lift attachment fitted to the front. One of the first models to include the then-new and far more powerful 71427 motor, it also was also one of the first to feature the new design direction that used axels rather than solid beams for most of the bodywork. Hidden inside the truck are two touch sensors, which would become a mainstay of the early Mindstorms sets, and a gearbox to help multiply the functions available through the single motor. These include drive, the closing and lifting of the grab arm, and the tipping of the truck bed to unload the cargo.
These functions work extremely well, although the need to often switch the gearbox mid-way through a routine meant that the system wasn’t quite as automated as LEGO would have you believe. Blame this on the single motor – the set has capacity for two but the bean-counters probably vetoed a second one; even with one motor 8479 was a very expensive set in 1997. Besides the limitations of the single motor the only problems we’ve encountered in over a decade of use are the failure of one touch sensor and hand-of-God steering which isn’t always up to the job of controlling such a heavy vehicle. It’s stood the test of time then, which is not something that can be said about most other electronic toys from the mid ’90s.
In addition to the truck 8479 also included full instructions for second model (a slightly ugly buggy, but one that could reverse when it came into contact with an object, turn to avoid it, and then continue forwards) as well as ideas for many more, all within a single reassuringly chunky instruction manual.
As with all LEGO’s past flagship sets the Barcode Truck likely commands a high premium on eBay now. However, we think this set is hugely underrated when compared to others of the era. As a display piece it does the job as well as many of LEGO’s supercars, but using 8479 for this purpose alone would be a great shame. It’s easily as fun, and almost as capable, as a modern LEGO Mindstorms set, and because it requires no computer software the programming hasn’t dated at all – and there’s no need to find a Windows 95 PC to make it work.
A solid 8 out of 10 then, and a superb highlight in one of LEGO’s weaker years. If only they had fitted that extra motor…
You can find all of The Lego Car Blog’s past set reviews via the Set Review Library.