Guest Posts Posts

Designer Notes: Heller/AMT Renault R8 Gordini

Lincoln Futura Philippe de LespinayPhilippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.


Renault R8 Gordini
Heller AMT Renault R8 Gardini

After a minor dispute with Heller, I designed this Renault 8 Gordini racer for a company called Verneuil. But Verneuil did not have the capability of production and I was offered a better deal at Heller and returned. So the kit was eventually produced by Heller.

Heller AMT Renault R8 Gardini instructions
Here is a kit I assembled for factory pictures and the 1969 catalog. I added some decals from an American slot car decal sheet. The kit was simple and did not have opening doors, but had plenty of engine detail. The Delta Mics aluminum wheels were a typical upgrade from the stock steel wheels.

Heller AMT Renault R8 Gardini

Heller AMT Renault R8 Gardini

AMT negotiated with Heller for the distribution of the car kits, and issued 4 different “double” kits in 1971. The injections were packed in clear plastic bags and sent to the American company that repackaged them in large boxes with their own illustrations, that unfortunately paled compared to those of Paul Lengellé. The Gordini was packaged with a version of the Heller Renault Alpine A 210 as one of the sets in this series.

Heller AMT Renault R8 Gardini Alpine A 210

Designer Notes: The 1960s French Slot Car Racing Scene

Lincoln Futura Philippe de LespinayPhilippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.


We recently looked at one of the large scale slot cars that Philippe de Lespinay designed for Cox in the 1970s. As he was beginning his career as a professional model designer, he was also a member of a growing community of slot car racers in France who actually raced for money in the 1960s. Here are some recollections and his cars and the French racing scene…


In the 1960s, slot car racing hit France in a big way. I was caught in the fad and spent much of my time on this new hobby that I loved. I’ve never stopped since, save for an interruption of 21 years between 1973 and 1994.

I began as a simple amateur in Paris, first using Revell cars since, working for the Heller plastic kit manufacturer, I had access to some samples they were thinking about importing. Quickly I found that they were not up to the job and began making my own. 

vintage mirage slot car 1960s philip de lespinay

There were two main raceways in the city, one by the Opera, one in Neuilly, a chic suburb near the Etoile plaza. That one was my “home raceway” and was located on Erlanger Street, and was simply called by the fans, “Erlanger.” The raceway had four huge Revell tracks, the largest having over-and-under passes that made the car invisible to the driver for what seemed like an eternity. The raceway was extremely clean, well appointed and run by Raymond Ami, a person who later became Honda France’s racing manager. Every evening, the Erlanger center had “money races” where the racers would pay a 10-Franc (like 2 bucks) entry fee and the winner collected actual cash in the amount of 30 to 45 Francs ($6.00 to $9.00) depending on the number of entrants.

Those races, run on the “smaller” tracks, were my favorite hunting ground… many evenings for a period of a little over two years, I would show up with a contraption built from Dynamic bits and a Russkit Lotus 40 body, later a highly-chopped Lancer Ferrari 350 Can-Am body. The early cars had an inline motor, generally built from a Mabuchi or Hemi can, an armature rewound by Yours Truly with Mura silver wire, epoxied and tied with very strong fiberglass thread, and a Tradeship commutator. Later cars had sidewinder-mounted Mabuchi FT26 motors de-wound by Hot Slot.


This well-used Ferrari was one of those evening prowlers that kept me cash-rich to purchase the parts needed to build more of them as well as a good dinner at the raceway’s cafe and the gas to go home in my Peugeot 404 wagon.

vintage ferarri slot car 1960s philip de lespinay

The chassis was standard Dynamic fare with hinged brass tongue, my own body mount, and my own version of a Hemi can, fitted with one of my arms (generally a double 27 wind) and Mura Magnum 88 magnets. The endbell was from a Cox TTX150 motor. The pretty front mag wheels were from a Dynamic Super Bandit, while the rears were Cox aluminum screw-on with Classic gray sponge tires (now fossilized!)

vintage ferarri slot car 1960s philip de lespinay


vintage hand made slot car motors

My later cars used hand-built wire frames with brass-plate drop arms and Dynamic guides. This Ferrari 350 has Riggen wheels, a rewound FT26 motor using a Champion 601 can and endbell and one of my rewound arms. The chassis uses pillow blocks with large ball bearings, and is not soldered but… brazed with bronze welding rod. With a Mirage body, it finished in third place at the 1000KM of Paris in 1967, and was pictured in the French magazine “Champion” reporting the race.

My motors were assembled as best as I could with the limited means and technology available to us then, but these have survived quite well. One has a Champion “507R” endbell, I must have been a millionaire that day!  Right: Some of the surviving armatures. All are double or triple wound on Hemi blanks, epoxied, tied, and statically balanced (there were no dynamic balancers available in France)

pdl-1967-armatures


This car, another 350, has quite an interesting story: it won the 1000KM race in Bad Godesberg, Germany, in 1967. A team of six French drivers and this machine defeated nine other teams from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the UK and Sweden on a 10-lane speed-bowl in that city.

vintage hand made 350 slot car motors

The track was a huge 10-lane elongated figure 8, not the least challenging, and it was a true speed bowl. Most of the foreign teams quickly gave up on their own cars and did like the locals, purchasing new Fleicshmann Lotus 40 kits as they ruled the track. Well, we (the French team) stuck to our guns, and while slower, we gained on reliability and inflicted a huge defeat to the other teams.

vintage hand made 350 slot car motors

The car had a built-up wire frame, (See photo at the top of this article) a Swiss-built Buhler can with a genuine Mura silver-wire #26 arm (we used two to win the race, that lasted 53 hours!), and multiple sets of homemade rear tires on home-machined extra-wide hubs. The rubber used was by Classic and was doubled to get enough width.


As time passed, brass became the material of choice and brass rod and tubing became more available, so I built this Lancer-bodied Chaparral that was quite an effective car.

vintage hand made lancer slot car motors

The fenders on the Lancer body were flared using the American pro-racing technique taught to us in the few slot car racing magazines we were getting from the USA by our idols, Morrissey, Steube, and cohorts. We used to devour those publications as soon as they arrived, then we would rush home and copy the latest chassis design, or rewind our motors following the latest specs… We were totally addicted. Those were the days!

vintage hand made lancer slot car motors


vintage hand made russkit slot car motors

This one, I remember well and it was inspired by the early Team Russkit cars. The main difference with the American cars is that I used a can-side drive for the motor to get more weight onto the rear wheels and could not understand why the Americans were using the endbell-side drive system… all that was to change in early 1968 when we heard of the angle-winders.

vintage hand made russkit slot car motors


 Somehow, some of my old cars survived all these years and were acquired a few ago by Scott Bader for his museum in Los Angeles.

Designer Notes: Heller Alpine-Renault A210 Le Mans

Lincoln Futura Philippe de LespinayPhilippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.


Heller Alpine-Renault A210 Le Mans

Renault Alpine a210 kit Heller

The first kit I designed was that of an Alpine-Renault A210 Le Mans car.  I traveled to Dieppe to the Alpine factory and was able to take all the measurements, pictures and information as a personal guest of Alpine’s founder  and president, Jean Redele. He also loaned me an Alpine A110 Berlinette 1300S, and I had great fun with it for several weeks. It actually pushed me to purchase one, that I raced until I smashed it comprehensively while trying to avoid an errant car.

Heller Alpine-Renault A210 Le Mans Instructions

I tried to do a good job on the new model and introduced some new features that were not present in any available kit, such as separate rim sections for the racing wheels, real rubber safety belts and suspension springs made of steel wire that one could form over a nail, a trick I learned from a great model maker long passed away. I even tried to get a windshield rubber seal to work but it did not, and I had to revert to the standard method of gluing the windshield in place. The kit was well received in the period magazines and sold extremely well to a public welcoming a French racing car model, something that simply did not exist then.

Not much has survived of the Alpine A210, except for the assembly notice of which I drew the images, and assembled the old-fashioned way, by gluing the text blocks in place. Those were the days!

There were plenty of “firsts” in this kit, including that one had to make his own suspension springs wound over… a nail! The wire and nail were supplied in the kit. This system worked very well and was reconducted for most of the kits I designed for this company.

Philippe de Lespinay Renault Alpine

Soon after I had a Alpine-Renault 1300S, here in 1968 in Paris (before the turmoil that hit the country and caused a near revolution). This car was unfortunately destroyed when I hit a snowbank while the car was fitted with Dunlop racing tires for dry pavement.  A year and a half later, was on my way to Los Angeles, California.

AMT negotiated with Heller for the distribution of some car kits, and issued 4 different “double” kits in 1971. The injections were packed in clear plastic bags and sent to the American company that repackaged them in large boxes with their own illustrations, that unfortunately paled compared to those of Paul Lengelle. The Alpine was packaged with a version of the Heller Renault R8 Gardini as one of the sets in this series.

Johnny Lightning Strikes Again!

This interview originally appeared on the DiecastX magazine blog. Special thanks to them for letting us reprint it here.

By Matt Boyd

Johnny Lightning Tom Lowe

The Johnny Lightning brand is near and dear to Tom Lowe. Having resurrected the brand once back in 1994 with Playing Mantis, he is doing it again with his current company, Round 2.

Johnny Lightning (JL) is a brand name with which all fans of 1:64 diecast will be instantly familiar. Introduced originally by Topper Toys in 1969, quick on the heels of Hot Wheels’ launch, JL focused from the outset on speed above all. To raise brand awareness and further emphasize its association with speed, JL sponsored Al Unser’s race car in the 1970 and ’71 Indy 500s, capturing victory both years. The victories raised the brand’s profile and greatly boosted sales, but even that was not enough to weather the financial difficulties of its parent company, which went under in 1971.

Fast-forward 22 years, when Tom Lowe, CEO of Playing Mantis, acquired the rights to the brand name and revived production of many of the original castings, soon to be joined by a host of all-new vehicles. Fans of the original Topper JLs were drawn in by the nostalgia, while a new generation of fans was attracted by JL’s commitment to the accurate portrayal of real vehicles. The brand thrived and eventually caught the eye of RC2, who purchased Playing Mantis from Tom in 2004. The JL brand soldiered on under RC2’s stewardship, but the company gradually shifted its focus toward its more lucrative preschool markets and JL, while still rolling, got less attention. RC2 itself was bought by Japanese toy manufacturer TOMY in 2011. It initially continued to rerelease versions of RC2’s JL castings, but in 2013, it suspended JL production.

Enter, once again, Tom Lowe and his current venture: Round 2. The producer of the Auto World brand of 1:18 and 1:64 diecast, Round 2 was uniquely positioned to understand the current market conditions and also the value of the JL brand. This past September, Round 2 made the big announcement that it had acquired the rights to JL and would be resuming production of the beloved brand. So we went straight to the source and asked Tom how it all came about and what collectors can expect from the new generation of Johnny Lightning.

[MB] With this announcement, you are in the unique position of having twice brought the Johnny Lightning brand back from the brink of extinction. Have you been watching JL’s fortunes over the last 12 years? At what point did you feel the calling to play that role again? Did you approach it the same way the second time?

[TL] Sure, I’ve been following Johnny Lightning since I sold the business in 2004 to RC2. I have a good relationship with a couple of executives at RC2 (now TOMY), and I have been talking to them about the possibility of me taking over JL for a few years now. The approach had to be different because it is not an abandoned brand without any tool bank, like it was in 1994.

Johnny Lightning Playing Mantis

By the time RC2 bought Playing Mantis, JL had amassed quite a tool library. The challenge for Tom and the Round 2 crew is deciding which ones not to rerelease!

I heard you brought back several of the core team that was with you at Playing Mantis. How did that come about? Was it difficult to “get the band back together,” so to speak?

Well, two of the team members were already working for Round 2 (Tony Karamitsos and Mike Groothuis). I reached out to Mac Ragan this past summer, and he was excited to join the team, so I hired him. He started in November 2015. So yeah, it’s pretty amazing I have the same core team in place to bring the brand back.

It appears that there is a deliberate effort to recapture the Playing Mantis era—down to the logo and the initial product lines you’ve announced. What is the thought process behind that?

We will utilize the Playing Mantis logo on the front of the package and also go back to the original sharp “edgy” JL logo. I prefer this logo and the recognition it brings to the Playing Mantis era. And it will let collectors easily know that the product was developed and produced by me and my team.

The first releases should all be available in stores by late January. And collectors will find them in the usual places. Walmart, Target, and Toys“R”Us are onboard. Joining the national stores is Meijer, a large regional chain. And of course, we have our loyal hobby stores and online retailers.

The Johnny Lightning website will be the go-to place for the latest information on current and upcoming releases as well as feature stories and information on where to find specific cars. Plus, we’re developing an interactive garage designed to make cataloging your collection not only useful but fun. And we’ll live-feed our news to social-media outlets, like Facebook, where collectors can talk with us about the latest news, comment, repost it, and so on.

Johnny Lightning VW Surf Bus White

White Lightning editions were among the rarest and most collectible JLs. Look for those to return, as well.

Why did you choose the cars you did?

Well, the JL tool bank is very large. With all the variations, there are nearly a thousand different vehicles to choose from. Of course, we know that some of the earlier tools are not up to the current level of detail, especially the cars that were tooled from 1994 to 1996. Playing Mantis was just getting started and was learning how to make quality diecast from the school of hard knocks!

So what we do is get the team together (pizza and beer help!) and just start choosing castings that we think might make sense. They need to be solid castings and can’t be released more than three or four times over the past five years. Many of the cars we choose have only been produced a few times, and I think you will be pleased with our first selections.

What was the most difficult part bringing the cars to market?

Actually, it was the time and effort it took to move the tools from RC2’s factory to the factory we will be using. I think we moved more than 200 tools in just 60 days. That’s a lot of steel moving around.

We hear you also acquired Racing Champions. Tell us about your plans for that brand.

Yeah, we did! RC2/TOMY was not marketing any product under Racing Champions. It’s an incredible brand that is very well known. The tool bank is awesome, too. No Racing Champions products have been mass-produced for a number of years, which is incredible, to say the least. So our plans are to bring the brand out of extinction and start making great diecast again!

We’ll start early next year with the relaunch of the Racing Champions MINT line. These are cast from the original Racing Champions and Ertl molds. Collectors will recognize the familiar black packaging and display box for each car. If the model had a diecast chassis in the MINT line, we include that again. But this time around, we amp up the painted details to give every car a new level of authenticity.

Round 2 also produces Auto World. Now that you have JL, how will that affect Auto World?

We continue to support and produce Auto World True 1:64-scale diecast. Round 2 now has three brands: JL, Auto World, and Racing Champions. Three great brands with one of the largest tool banks in the world. We plan on doing everything possible to create a large variety of exceptional products and bring the passion back to our hobby.

If you were speaking directly to JL fans, what is the one thing you most want them to know about the return of their beloved nameplate?

That we are very passionate about the brand and will do our best to make the product that collectors will love and put smiles on their face. If I or the guys on the team would not personally buy the product, then we won’t make it!

Johnny Lightning returns 2016

Key to recapturing the magic of the Playing Mantis/JL days was getting the band back together. Mike Groothuis (far left) and Tony Karamitsos (far right) were already at Round 2. Tom approached Mac Ragan (center right) this past summer, and he signed on, too.

Diecast – There’s more to it than you think…

I remember setting up and taking the first few 1:64 scale diecast pictures that I shot back in 2009. My desk was by a window in my office. I would shoot pictures on a piece of white printer paper only when the sun was shining. At that time, it was all that I had. We had an old Polaroid ‘point-and-shoot’ that we used as a family camera – I would borrow it and burn through countless AA batteries…

hot-wheels-datsun-bluebird-510-gulf-custom-1

I began participating on a few forums and was floored by some of the images I was seeing from others. Quickly, I upgraded my setup. I have always been interested in the whole DIY (Do It Yourself) thing so I decided to build myself a lightbox. Halfway through 2010, I purchased my first DSLR and tripod. This enabled me to do many more things than what the trusty old Polaroid was capable of. I could go on and on about equipment and lighting setups but let’s talk about the subject. Diecast.

I started collecting redlines back around the same time I started the whole photography thing. History has always been an interest of mine and that led me to think….very few of my redlines are in ‘mint’ condition, but each one has a story to tell.

classic-32-ford-vicky-ig

At one time they were new. Brilliant. Perfect. Hanging on the pegs at the local store, various hues shining bright in all their glory. Since then, days and days of play have taken their toll. Their magnificence is now long gone. ‘Beaters’. ‘Junkers’. ‘Fillers’. ‘Perfect for restoration’. These once loved toys are now referred to as many different names. The paint may be scratched, faded, and dull. The axles are bent and a wheel or two may be missing. The beauty – long faded away – but yet these toys are survivors.

broken-daytona

The damage they wear is unique to their history, similar to how a scar is to you. That scar happened in a specific place and time. It can be linked to an event. When you look down on that blemish you tend  to remember what you were doing and where you were when you got it. These toys have a similar story to tell, yet they have no voice. In their silence, all they can do is lend themselves to our imaginations and ask for us to interpret their exclusive story in any way we’d like.

kid-paint-DCP

Photography has taught me to see everyday things in a whole different way. I challenge you to take a minute and really look at your collection. If you are fortunate enough to still have some cars from your childhood, step back and remember those moments and listen. I bet quiet a few of them have a story to tell.