Hot Wheels vs Johnny Lightning: Toys and Motorsports

Sports Illustrated 12-7-1970

In 1970, Sports Illustrated ran a lengthy article regarding Hot Wheels vs Johnny Lightning … not just about toy cars, but the two companies’ involvement in sponsoring real motorsports teams. This article appeared in the Dec. 7, 1970 issue.

HOT PACE IN A BIG MINI-RACE

Never mind Indy, the real drive is for a $150 million market in tiny cars, with a whole world of kids hanging on every high speed turn.

by Robert H. Boyle

It is a rivalry like no other. It has elements of GM against Ford, Army vs. Navy, Hertz vs. Avis, Macy’s against Gimbels, yin against yang, aspirin vs. Bufferin. The Great Toy Auto Race is on! In this lane, revving up with Hot Wheels and Sizzlers, is Mattel, Inc., the biggest toy company in the world, with an annual gross of more than $300 million. In the other lane, at the ready with Johnny Lightnings, is Topper Corporation. The prize at stake is a $150-mil­lion-a-year market composed mostly of kids from 4 to 14 reaching up to the toy counters at discount houses or Pop’s stationery store, dollar bills clutched in hand, saying, “Gimme that Hot Wheel” or “I want that Johnny Lightning.” On such decisions fortunes turn and companies retool.

Parnelli Jones and Johnny Unser play with Johnny Lightning

It’s Parnelli Jones and Johnny Lightning, previously known as Al Unser.

American youngsters, who may be the champion consumers of all time, have an extraordinarily wide choice of toy cars. Cars have supplanted the electric train sets that tootled around the Christmas trees of yesteryear. Like their adult counterparts, the kids want cars, cars and more cars. There are Aurora’s Model Motoring, Ideal’s Mini-Motorific, Kenner’s SSP, Strombecker’s and other so-called slot-car racing sets, but the big bonanza is in miniature die-cast cars with low friction wheels, such as Matters Hot Wheels and Topper’s Johnny Lightnings. Mattel has the biggest share of the market, with Topper a distant second but coming on fast in recent months.

The Great Toy Auto Race between Mattel and Topper is being fought on all sorts of fronts, involving the television screen, cereal boxes, buttons, patches, coloring books and other hoopla galore. Mattel spends more on advertising than such industrial giants as Standard Oil, Royal Crown Cola, Sun Oil, Delta Air Lines, Armstrong Cork or Ling-Temco-Vought, and Topper is not far behind. In fact, Topper goes in for the hard sell with such a vengeance that almost a quarter of its gross is poured back into advertising. In the field of auto sports Mattel and Topper are having a wicked go at each other. Both companies have discovered that kids like to identify with real-life race drivers. Mattel is big in hot rods. It is backing Tom (Mongoose) McEwen, five-time holder of the national-speed and elapsed-time drag records, and Don (Snake) Prudhomme, 1969’s hot rod driver of the year. It has tied in with Grand Prix models and the National Hot Rod Association and has sponsored the Hot Wheels Supernationals drag strip championships. Scratching and scrambling to stay in the race, the rival Topper Corporation is sponsoring the Parnelli Jones racing team and last May pulled off a fantastic coup by winning at Indianapolis with the Johnny Lightning 500 Special, driven by Al Unser. As a result, Unser has come to be regarded by kids as Johnny Lightning himself, and whenever he shows up at a store to plug the Johnny Lightning toy cars he is surrounded by a horde of boys. “East Paterson, New Jersey, two thousand kids!” exults Bob Perilla, Topper’s public relations man. “Two thousand!”

Sports Illustrated Johnny Lightning

Rated on scale, toy Johnny Lightnings race faster than the real car (No. 2) did at Indy.

All this causes some people at Mattel to groan quietly in a corner. Mattel had the first chance to get Al Unser for Hot Wheels, but turned him down.

Mattel has had promotional victories of its own, however. Last February the Chamber of Commerce and the Junior Chamber in Saginaw, Mich. sponsored a Hot Wheels Derby in a local shopping mall. There were more than 1,700 entries, and a crowd of 6,000 showed up to watch the finals in which Hot Wheels cars raced down 250 feet of track from an eight-foot-high starting tower. In May a Hot Wheels Derby in Niles, Ohio attracted 850 entries and a crowd of 10,000. As a result of all this, the Saginaw Chamber of Commerce, with happy cooperation from Mattel, is sponsoring a National Hot Wheels Derby championship for 1971. After local and statewide derbies are run off in shopping centers all across the country the finals will be held in Saginaw, with plenty of prizes. Never one to lag behind, Topper is involved in Johnny Lightning racing competition with the YMCA, which ordinarily eschews any activity smacking of commercialism. Boys’ interest in toy cars is so intense, however, that more than 900 Y’s have signed up, and each of them has been presented with two free Johnny Lightning New 500 Le Mans Raceway sets by Topper. There will be branch, citywide, regional and national finals, with the grand prizewinner and his family getting an all-expenses-paid trip to the 1971 Indy 500 as Al Unser’s personal guests.

This human touch, the signing of real hero drivers to promote toy cars, finally got to the Aurora people, who are anxious to join the race with their own Model Motoring setups. A few weeks ago, in a bold promotional stunt, they staged a mock race on the Ed Sullivan television show. Did any real kids get to play cars? No. There at the miniature trackside were racing greats Dan Gurney, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill, outfitted in newly bought Dunhill blazers and not the least embarrassed. Score one for Aurora, even though there was a tense moment when Gurney first agreed to appear but asked, innocently, “May I wear my Mattel jacket?”

Sports Illustrated Hot Wheels

Leading the Field, Hot Wheels perform like people-size racers, even to the parachutes.

At Mattel, Topper is considered a pestiferous copycat company, a Johnny-­come-lately, if you will, that happened to be struck by promotional lightning at Indianapolis. Mattel executives take pride not only in being on top of the toy industry, but in their company’s innovations as well. Mattel’s Research and Development department employs more than 400 people, ranging from physicists to hair stylists. Secrecy is the word. Mattel is already hard at work on its 1972 line—the 1971 line was decided months ago–and the company does not want any competitors, particularly Topper, to get an inkling of what’s new. Toy projects are given code names (“Zip” was the code for the Sizzler cars) and R&D prototypes are literally kept from prying eyes under wraps of purple cloth. It is impossible to enter Mattel’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. without signing in with a guard and receiving a badge and an escort. Every employee wears a badge of one color or another, the color of the badge depending upon the security clearance of the wearer.

By contrast, no one at Topper wears a security badge. Research and Development at Topper is behind the design chief’s office door, which opens after a knock. “Why would Topper need any security?” asks Bernie Loomis, the Mattel vice-president in charge of Hot Wheels. When discussing Topper, Loomis and other Mattel execs are fond of waspishly quoting Kipling:

And they asked me how I did it, and I gave ’em the Scripture text,

“You keep your light so shining a lit­tle in front o’ the next.”

They copied all they could follow, but they couldn’t copy my mind,

And I left ’em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.

Mattel began 25 years ago when Elliot and Ruth Handler, childhood sweet­hearts in Denver, began making picture frames in a converted garage in Los Angeles. After filling one large order the Handlers found themselves with leftover scrap plastic and wood. An industrial designer by profession, Handler converted the scraps into dollhouse furniture and, with Ruth doing the selling, they did $100,000 worth of business, $30,000 of it net profit. Since then Mattel has been one success story after another. In 1947 the company introduced the Uke-a­-Doodle, a small plastic ukulele, in 1948 a plastic piano with raised keys that was difficult for competitors to copy and in 1949 a revolutionary music box. By 1955 Mattel was doing $5 million a year gross. This was the year the Handlers gambled $500,000 to advertise their Burp Gun on a new television show called the Mickey Mouse Club. The response was staggering. Reaching the kiddies directly with TV had far-reaching implications, explains Handler. “Previously most toys were purchased by adults who would ask the retailer: ‘What do you have for a 5-year-old?’ Three or four products were offered as possibilities and the selection made. Neither the toy nor the manufacturer was identified in the mind of the adult or the child. With television both brand name and the product could be sold directly to the consumer. It was the beginning of a marketing revolution.”

The marketing revolution continued with Mattel’s introduction in 1959 of Barbie, a chesty doll named after the Handlers’ daughter, and later Ken, Bar­bie’s boyfriend, named after their son. (Topper now has Dawn, a Barbielike doll that sells for half the Barbie price and which, or who, zoomed recently to No. 1 spot on the toy hit parade. “Dawn’s just a gorgeous little broad, she really is,” says David Downs, Topper’s executive vice-president for corporate development, giving her a pat on the head in the showroom.) Mattel followed with other successes: Baby First Step (“The first doll to walk by herself”), Baby Tender Love (Topper has Baby Luv ‘N Care), Creepy Crawlers, Fright Factory and Incredible Edibles (all made from Plastigoop and Gobble­DeGoop; half the fun at Mattel is making up names), See ‘N Say educational toys and—roll of drums, blare of trumpets, unfurl all shopping-center flags—Hot Wheels!

Small cars have been a staple in the toy business for years, and collecting miniature cars is an old idea, going back to Dinky toys and beyond, but one day in 1967 Handler wondered if Mattel couldn’t come up with a new twist: speed. “Kids like things that go fast,” Handler says. Why not make miniature cars that would run fast, cars that would create what the Handlers fondly term “a play situation”? R&D at Mattel was unleashed and came up with a prototype gravity-powered car that could run at a scale speed of 300 mph downhill. The secret was low-friction wheels made of styrene hung on torsion bars. Recollections differ at Mattel but, according to the most common version, Handler took one look at this car and exclaimed, “Wow, those are hot wheels!” In 1968 Mattel came out with the first of the Hot Wheels line. Besides the cars, which factory wholesale for 58c apiece and generally retail for 98c, a buyer could purchase strips of plastic track on which the car could roll. Some of the cars were modeled on standard automobiles—Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, Corvette, ’36 Ford Coupe, Mercedes-Benz 280 SL, Continental Mark III—but others were way out, Mattel inspirations done in what the company calls California style, such as Splittin’ Image, Sand Crab, Hot Heap, Light-My-Firebird, Hairy Hauler, Power Pad and Nitty Gritty Kitty.

Instant success. Mattel was soon making more toy cars than all the life-size automakers in the world combined. In accordance with company custom Mattel began immediate work on improvements and additions that would enhance the Hot Wheels line, and new products have included a stunt-action set in which Hot Wheels loop the loop; dual racing tracks; the Super-Charger, a battery-operated device with spinning brushes that send Hot Wheels whirring down the track; the Lap Counter; a starter called the Rod Runner; the Tune-Up Tower, a parking garage with an elevator and equipped with a Dyno-Meter to check wheel alignment. Misaligned wheels can be corrected by—right!—the official Hot Wheels wheel wrench. There is the Mongoose & Snake drag racing set, complete with drag chutes. and the exquisitely detailed Gran Toros, built in Italy to a slightly larger scale and featuring such lifelike models as T’rantula, Lotus Europa, Lamborghini Miura, Porsche Carrera and the Ferrari P4.But the blockbuster came this year:  Sizzlers. These have plastic body shells and are powered by a nickel cadmium battery that can be refueled by the Power Pit or the Juice Machine. Kids can, according to the promotion, “race ’em. Charge ’em. Run lap after lap at super speeds. Recharge again and again for instant power. Quick pit work lets cars charge back into action in 24-hour endurance races like Daytona and Le Mans.”

Mattel is not standing still with the success of the Sizzlers, which are factory priced at $2.10 each. This January, to quote Mattel’s tease advertising, “the RRRumblers are coming!” The new RRRumblers are motorbikes built to run on Hot Wheels gravity tracks. That is just for starters; more RRRumblers innovations are in the works, shrouded by purple cloth. To get RRRumblers off the ground, Mattel is coming out with an offer that allows kids to trade in certain Hot Wheels buttons for the new product. The response is expected to be overwhelming. Last December, Mattel started a small campaign announcing the Hot Wheels Club. For $1 a youngster could get a Boss Hoss Hot Wheels and a collector’s edition of the Hot Wheels catalog. In little more than a month more than half a million youngsters wrote in. It took the company six months to dig itself out from under the mail, and if only Topper and Johnny Lightning would go away the world would be pure gravy.

Sports Illustrated Hot Wheels

“Kids like things that go fast,” so Mattel thought, why not make miniature cars that would run fast?

Topper Corporation headquarters in Elizabeth, N.J., composed of old brick buildings capped by smokestacks and surrounded by railroad sidings, is said to be the biggest single toy factory in the world. It looks more like an R.A.F. target in the Ruhr. The presiding genius is a first-rate table-tennis player, chess addict, sometime sculptor and former inmate of a German concentration camp named Henry Orenstein.

In 1969, a year after Mattel introduced Hot Wheels, Orenstein and Topper came out with the first Johnny Lightning metal cars, which could be rolled by gravity or propelled around a track by a catapult device called an actuator. Inasmuch as the actuator is hand operated, Topper says Johnny Lightning races are won by skill. From the very first, Topper made the claim that Johnny Lightnings were faster than any Hot Wheels car. According to Topper, the first Johnny Lightnings could achieve scale speeds of 400 mph. The secret was their wheel construction. The wheels are made of Celcon and hung on straight axles. This year Topper refined the wheels even more and improved the actuator, boosting the scale speed to an asserted 1,500 mph.

Initially, Johnny Lightning sales lagged far behind Hot Wheels. Then Henry Orenstein pulled off the masterstroke, or what Elliot Handler of Mattel terms “a desperate gamble.” Topper sponsored the Johnny Lightning 500 car that Al Unser drove to victory at Indianapolis last May. The resultant publicity gave credibility to the speed of the toy Johnny Lightnings and, as Ron Aaront, vice-president in charge of product development at Topper, says, “Speed is the name of the game.” Since then Johnny Lightning sales have jumped and figures compiled by Mattel show that for about every three Hot Wheels one Johnny Lightning is sold.

How Orenstein and Topper came to sponsor the Johnny Lightning 500 at Indy is an astonishing tale in the annals of capitalism. Much credit belongs to Jim Cook, a former Firestone flack who was trying to line up 1970 sponsorship of the Parnelli Jones racing team. Cook lives near the Mattel headquarters—in fact there are so many Mattel executives in his neighborhood that it is known as Mattel Hill—but he had no luck in getting Hot Wheels sponsorship. Mattel had a lot of promotions going, the Indy 500 was not on TV, and besides the idea was just too crazy. Undaunted, Cook took his pitch to Topper. Orenstein was intrigued, but was it really possible to pick a driver for the 500 and actually win with him the first time out?

At a memorable meeting in June 1969, 11 months before Indy, Orenstein asked Cook: “If your head were on a chopping block and your life depended on giving the right answer, tell me now, who is going to win the Indianapolis 500 next year?” Without hesitating Cook replied, “Al Unser.” With that show of confidence, Orenstein agreed to make a deal. For a sum believed to be $150,000 Topper was to sponsor five racing cars to be built by Parnelli Jones. They were to be called Johnny Lightning 500 Specials, and they were to be painted blue with gold lightning bolts. There were to be two cars for the Indy race, a starter and backup cars. Al Unser was to be the driver. Two other Johnny Lightnings  were for the dirt-track circuit. Moreover, the other members of the Jones team—Mario Andretti, A. J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Joe Leonard, Billy Vukovich, Roger McCluskey and Jones himself—were to do commercials for the toy Johnny Lightnings. Elated, Cook returned to California with the glad news for the team. He was greeted with profound depression. One mechanic muttered, “Now Andy Granatelli will say we have a 98c car.”

Al Unser himself felt let down. “I didn’t think they’d make a good sponsor, being a toy company,” he says now. “I thought we’d be kidded. But seeing what kind of a company Topper is, well, I knew if I won the race they would advertise it. They could capitalize on it. It’s worth money to them and to me. The more advertising I get the easier it is to sell me, and the easier I can make a living. ”

Jones went ahead with construction of the Johnny Lightning cars. They were built, Cook says with a certain righteous satisfaction, “within two miles of Mattel’s home office.” The first sweet taste of possible victory came last March in the Phoenix 150, when Unser, driving the Johnny Lightning, lapped the entire field with the exception of his brother Bobby—also under contract to Johnny Lightning. Before the race at Indianapolis, Orenstein was supremely confident. He gave a prerace party in Jones’ garage and set up toy race sets for kids who were invited. The day before the race Orenstein held a sales meeting in an Indianapolis hotel. The subject was: “What do we do when we win?” When Unser and the Johnny Lightning 500 took the lead early in the race Orenstein sought to head for the pits to celebrate victory. With 35 laps still to go Orenstein could be restrained no longer, and when Unser came in the winner Topper executives immediately slapped a sticker, JOHNNY LIGHTNING, WINNER OF THE INDY 500, on the car. “Where did you get that?” Jones asked. He was told that Orenstein had ordered several million printed before the race. “If we knew that, we would have killed you!” Jones screamed. Orenstein smiled, and Johnny Lightning has been rolling since.

After Joe Leonard won the Milwaukee 150 in the Johnny Lightning 500 he demonstrated the toy cars in a Topper exhibit at the Milwaukee County Fair last August. A youngster came in and offered to race his Mattel Sizzler against a Johnny Lightning. “We had done tests in our factory,” says Ron Aaront of Topper, “so we knew what would happen. We gave him a third of the way head start and beat him easily. Our car can cover a 30-foot section of track in 1.8 seconds. The kid was flabbergasted. We went out and got more Mattel Sizzlers and Juice Machines and put on exhibitions everywhere we went.

Recently Topper came out with a flyer that asks, “Boys, which are faster – the new Johnny Lightning 500s or the Sizzlers?” And Al Unser answers, “The new Johnny Lightning 500s running on their tracks are twice as fast as the Sizzlers on their tracks or any tracks. That’s a fact!” Topper recently ran an ad of this nature in Boys’Life, which prompted Mattel’s ad agency to protest to the magazine. “A Sizzler car is a different product,” says Bernie Loomis, the Hot Wheels veep. “This is like comparing oranges and bananas. It’s like saying a hack dash man can beat Jim Ryun in the 100. But Jim Ryun isn’t out to run the 100, he’s a miler. Our concern is that that kind ad to the kids isn’t going to do the toy business any good.”

Back at Topper, Henry Orenstein says, “Johnny Lightning has the fastest cars by far, and no single company can challenge that statement. In fact the indy 500 has set the speed standards for the entire industry. To say that we are copy-cats is ludicrous. It is common practice to try to improve on existing concepts.” (Then last week, while the two companies were still arguing –  and advertising – the Federal Trade Commission stepped up with formal complaints against them both, citing TV ads that “exaggerate or falsely represent” the toy cars, and asking both to cease and desist.)

Still, the rivalry shows no signs of lessening. Hot Wheels is getting ready to spring the RRRumblers and other surprises. Johnny Lightning is out to really cut the Sizzler down to size with a battery-powered trailer attachment called the Afterburner, which will be about one-third the price of a Sizzler. Will Hot Wheels hold on the lead? Will Johnny Lightning gain ground? Mattel and Topper have different opinions, but that’s what makes a horse race, or at least the Great Toy Auto Race.


Editor’s Note: Sadly, the prediction in the conclusion of this article turned out to be wrong… While Mattel and Hot Wheels continued to thrive, Topper would go out of business in 1971. However, Johnny Lighting would make a first return in 1995 by Playing Mantis, and has come back again in 2016 (read about it here).  So the race is back on! 

1 Comment

Daniel Vasquez

about 9 months ago

Certainly, this article is a treasure for me.
I like to look and search for Johnny Lightning cars, and some weeks ago I found up a Indy Formula car with the Johnny Lightining livery. Even being a re-edition, the car is complete and certainly is a fine piece.
After enjoying the 100th edition of the Indy 500 race few days ago, this article increased my interest in collecting, and in automobiles in general.
I would like to suggest to find something that talks about Mr. John Surtees and the days when he used to run with the Matchbox sponsorship at the Formula 2 back in the 70's

Reply

Leave a Comment

Please be polite. We appreciate that.
Your email address will not be published and required fields are marked