Channel Surfing with 1980s TV Show Trading Cards
Those growing up in the 1980s had a lot of choices when it came to collecting cards of their favorite television shows. The sets were simple but so was the hobby. 1980s trading cards offered a ton of variety as far as choices went. Whether your parents let you stay up late to watch The A-Team and Knight Rider or you spent your afternoons following He-Man and Transformers, there were sets to collect.
Topps was the main company to make TV show trading cards during the 1980s, just like they were with movies. But there were others, most notably Donruss during the early part of the decade. Common elements among most of these sets include a mix of regular cards, puzzles and stickers.
Just like 1980s sports cards, the majority of TV show trading cards remain a cheap piece of nostalgia or way to reconnect with one's collecting roots. A few pricier exceptions exist, but not many.
For those looking to go back to the 80s and buy wax boxes, it is worth noting that it's common for Topps boxes from the era to have a black mark or 'X' across the front. These are simply retailer returns. There is nothing wrong with the cards inside. However, if you're collecting unopened boxes, expect to pay a premium for unmarked boxes.
To get a glimpse at the types of trading cards made during this period, we look back on 11 totally awesome sets based on TV shows that hold their place in 80s pop culture history. It's by no means exhaustive but it does cover a lot of favorites.
1980-1983 Donruss Dukes of Hazzard
Between 1980 and 1983, Donruss released two sets of Dukes of Hazzard trading cards and one set of stickers. Both the 1980 (blue border) and 1983 (white border) card sets follow a simple formula of pictures on the front and puzzles on the back. The 1981 Donruss Dukes of Hazzard sticker set has 60 basic stickers and six unnumbered die-cut stickers. Backs of the full 66-sticker set forms one massive puzzle. All of these sets remain strong sellers, particularly the stickers, which seem a little tougher to find.
1982 Donruss Knight Rider
A talking car and a heroic David Hasselhoff wearing leather jackets instead of lifeguard shorts -- simply put, Knight Rider was awesome. While not quite as cool as a talking KITT car, 1982 Donruss Knight Rider is a straightforward 55-card set. Card fronts have a shot from the show (often blurry) while card backs work as puzzle pieces.
1983 Donruss Magnum PI
Donruss' design team didn't stray much in their entertainment trading card sets released during the late 70s and early 80s. 1983 Donruss Magnum PI is further proof of that. Switch the photo and the logo and you've got Knight Rider and something very close to Dukes of Hazzard (not to mention a couple of other sets not mentioned in this piece). To be fair, there is one fairly significant difference with 1983 Donruss Magnum PI that can be found on the back: write ups. Not nearly as iconic as Tom Selleck's mustache, prices on boxes and sets remain reasonably low.
1983 Topps A-Team
Another fun, cartoon-like action series from the decade, The A-Team became pop culture icons that survive today. On the surface, the 1983 Topps A-Team trading cards set is easy to dismiss. The bold blue borders and blurry action shots aren't exactly attractive. However, there are some fun promotional shots. And it is The A-Team. That's got to be worth something. Complete sets of 66 cards and 12 stickers are fairly easy to find for under $20. The full checklist and detailed info can be read here.
1984 Topps Masters of the Universe
"By the power of Greyskull, I have the power!" was the playtime mantra of millions of young boys growing up in the 80s. A semi-ripoff of Conan the Barbarian, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe were a multi-platform behemoth. Both the toys and cartoon remain popular today. 1984 Topps Masters of the Universe trading cards remain somewhat overlooked. The 88-card base set has shots from the show and is arranged like a comic retelling a handful of episodes. There are also 21 stickers (22 if you count a puzzle back variation) that offer different artwork.
1985 Hasbro Transformers Action Cards
1985 Hasbro Transformers Action Cards is one of the most popular entertainment trading card sets of the decade. A somewhat non-traditional release, at least for the time, packs came in blister packs and the cards have rounded corners. The 192-card checklist mixes character cards with key art from toy packaging with shots from the cartoon. Every pack also comes with one of 24 different mini stickers. You can get more info about 1985 Hasbro Transformers and get a full checklist here.
1986 Hasbro GI Joe Action Cards
Almost identical to the 1985 Hasbro Transformers set, 1986 Hasbro GI Joe Action Cards mix toy images and cartoon shots. A full set has 192 cards and 12 mini stickers. Like the Transformers cards, packs were hanger blister packs and cards have rounded corners. Check out our profile for in-depth details and a full checklist.
1986 Topps Max Headroom
For the most part, 1980s trading cards aren't known for their rarity. That said, 1986 Topps Max Headroom is actually fairly tough to find, especially if you're looking for the complete set including foil cards. Like a lot of pop culture fads, Max Headroom had a relatively short shelf life. A complete set of 1986 Topps Max Headroom has 33 regular stickers and 11 foil stickers.
1987-1988 Topps ALF
Topps released two sets based on ALF, the sitcom about wisecracking alien who liked to snack on cats. Both sets came with three parts: base cards, stickers and Bouilla Baseball cards, which spoofed traditional sports cards. Base cards have shots from the show and a mix of captions and voice bubbles, giving it a comic book feel. Stickers have some amusing promotional shots, particularly if you're looking for holiday-themed trading cards. A third ALF set, The United States of ALF, mixed bad jokes, comics and American geography.
1988 Topps Growing Pains
Yup, the Seaver clan got the trading card treatment back during the peak of Growing Pains' popularity. With Kirk Cameron not garnering the heartthrob headlines he once was, this set has attained junk wax status with boxes readily available for less than $20. The set includes 66 base cards and 11 stickers. Card captions enter the territory of "so bad they're good," making this a fun set to flip through and make fun of. Seeing a Seaver family portrait on the wax wrapper is one of the strangest sights of the 1980s trading card landscape. Perhaps not as strange as a bewildered Kirk Cameron holding a snake, though. Sorry Leonardo DiCaprio fans. While the high-profile actor had a gig on Growing Pains, it came after these cards were released.
1988 Pee Wee's Playhouse Fun Paks
Once upon a time, kids and adults used to talk openly about Pee Wee Herman. Pee Wee's Playhouse was one of the most delightful strange shows to air in the 80s. But when your show airs on Saturday mornings and you're arrested in a dirty movie theater, things change. Before all that, 1988 Topps Pee Wee's Playhouse Fun Paks offered fans and collectors one of the most eclectic trading card sets of all-time. It's got regular cards, stickers, tattoo sheets, lenticular mini cards and jumbo activity cards. But Topps didn't make it easy to finish a master set. Collation on the activity cards was horrible with most 36-pack boxes coming with piles of duplicates. Today, the set is a fun novelty set that's just as loud and wild as the show it's based on. A full collection has 33 base cards (unless you go for the full border variation), 44 stickers, 22 activity cards, 12 tattoos and 12 lenticular Wiggle cards.