Johnny Lightning Posts

Hot Wheels Blister Cards Influenced Diecast Packaging Forever

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Otto Kuhni, one of the great American artists of the last half century, passed away recently. If his name isn’t familiar, you surely knew his work. He was the artist who created the overall look of the new Hot Wheels brand in 1968 and continued to work for Mattel on and off until just a few years ago. He did the art for the carrying cases, advertisements, lunchboxes, and most importantly, the packages those toys came in. The fiery orange-yellow-red blister cards instantly created an identity for the whole brand, and influenced diecast packaging ever since.

Hot Wheels Otto Kuhni lunchboxPrior to his designs, diecast packaging was generally plain and not terribly interesting (although there were terrific exceptions). Most diecast cars were sold in boxes, such as Corgi, Dinky, and of course, the company whose name comes from those boxes, Matchbox. A few cars were offered in blister cards, however. Here are some early designs as well as later cool blister cards where companies realized that toy cars are fun, and they should be packaged that way too. Much credit has to go to Otto’s ideas.

This Dinky Alfa Romeo really looks pretty amazing on its rather basic package. The layout is simple, and colors are very limited due to printing technology at the time. Even the effort required just to change the name and model number was something of a pain in those days. One odd touch is that the car is mounted so high on the card, something you don’t see today.

Husky, an early attempt at 1/64 models by Corgi, also featured simple, not terribly colorful blister cards. This fire engine is unique in that someone got a little creative and added the silhouette of the cherry picker as if it were rising from the vehicle itself. But most featured identical base art to keep costs low. Another neat thing… if you see this era of Husky card, there is often a hole punched in the circle where the price is located, like on the fire engine. Presumably, that happened when a store wanted to charge a different price.

hot wheels blister cardBut then along came Hot Wheels! Brightly colored, dynamic graphics, a custom cut shape, and even a bonus in the blister in the form of the collectors button. (Note the off-center hole punch, arranged to allow the asymmetrically weighted card to hang level.) Not only were the free wheeling cars revolutionary, but the Hot Wheels blister cards themselves created a stir with consumers – and with other toy companies.

matchbox superfast blister cardCompetitors responded quickly. Matchbox began retooling their cars as the SuperFast series, with similar speedy wheels and wilder designs on their new cars. The packaging moved to blister cards, though the art was not quite as exciting as what Mattel was offering. Hedging their bets, Matchbox still included the traditional box inside the blister as a bonus. In fact, many of their cars were still available right in the box, same as always, as if the company saw this new fangled packaging as a fad. The combination of old versus new wheels, and different packaging options has created a colossal number of variants for collectors.

johnny lightning blister cardJohnny Lightning was a new startup from Topper Toys in 1969. Thematically, they represented the closest competition to Hot Wheels, with cars ranging from crazy fantasy designs to mild customs, all built for speed. The packaging had a chaotic, exciting design to match. Curiously enough, they had to make a design modification early on… the “BEATS THEM ALL” tagline ran into a legal challenge, as it could not be proven that JL cars could indeed do that. It was modified to “BEAT THEM ALL” to imply possibility, not fact.

johnny lightning jet power blister cardA later line of JL cars, the Jet Power series, featured their own bespoke card design, with a very energetic illustration of one of the cars in action. Sadly, these new cars underperformed the promise of the packaging and were a flop. More sadly, Topper ended the entire Johnny Lightning line (and just about everything else) after only three years due to company wide financial difficulties.

corgi rockets blister cardCorgi tried to compete in the high speed 1/64 market with their Rockets series. Note the two hole configuration on the card, requiring double pegs to hang the car from. The folks who stocked the stores couldn’t have been happy about that. Cool graphics, fast cars, but no match for the Hot Wheels marketing behemoth, at least in that scale. Corgi remains a major force in diecast, but wisely decided to focus more on their main market of 1/43 and larger cars.

tomy tomica blister cardTomy (Tomica) had a lot of fun with their packaging as well. Their Pocket Cars series was printed on a card that looked like denim, complete with stitching and buttons. Such designs really stood out from the pack and looked impressive together on the pegs at the stores. Many of their later series like the Series 60 also had playful graphics.

woolworth peelers zee toys pacesettersMinor brands like the Woolworth’s /Woolco Peelers cars saw the benefit of an exciting package, even if the vehicles themselves were a notch below in quality from the big brands. Or consider what Zee Toys was doing with this Pacesetters blister, mounting the car in a position to go along with the lines of the graphics.

It’s hard to say where modern diecast packaging would be today without the influence of Otto Kuhni’s designs for Hot Wheels, but it’s safe to guess playtime would be little less exciting (also read Otto’s Diecast Hall of Fame Obituary). If you have a favorite diecast blister design, let us know about it in the comments!

Painted in a Corner: Castings That Look Strange in Different Colors

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Henry Ford supposedly said you could get a Model T in any color, as long as it was black. And even though you could easily paint one any color, it sort of looks weird when you do.

Toy companies have to think long and hard about dedicating time and money to creating a mold for a new car model… in order to get their money’s worth, they need to be able to offer a model in multiple versions. The easiest way to do that, of course, is by releasing it in Different Colors.

In some cases, the company might paint themselves into a corner with certain design decisions however. Here are some model vehicles that just sort of look weird in anything but the original hue:

hot wheels red baron

hot wheels dodge lil red express

Red Baron: Based on Tom Daniel’s World War I flying ace hot rod, there’s really no other color this car could logically be. For the original release and the Flying Colors variant, Hot Wheels honored that commitment. Eventually, when the car was reissued for Hot Wheels’ 25th anniversary, they opened up the paint booth and offered it in a bunch of different tones, even painting over the silver hat in some versions.

1978 Dodge Li’l Red Express Truck: This vehicle is based on a real version of the 1978 Dodge truck, and it had that name for a reason. Hot Wheels took some liberties with the colors after the initial release. When you see one on the road, the stepside fenders, loud graphics, and working smokestacks are awesome to see… and they are always red in real life, darn it!

hot wheels purple passion

Purple Passion: There wasn’t a compelling reason to call this car “Purple Passion” aside from that being the color of the first version. Despite different future colors, the name has stayed the same except in a few cases… For example, the Treasure Hunt variant was renamed “Gold Passion,” the Pearl Driver series called it the “Pearl Passion,” and the Steel Stamp series was known as the (wait for it…) “Steel Passion.” A few other odd ones just dropped the color altogether. The woody wagon version retained the color in the name, but the convertible was called “Passion Too.”

hot wheels golden arrow golden submarine

Hot Wheels Golden Arrow (left) and Golden Submarine

Golden Arrow, Golden Submarine: These are both fairly modern castings sharing a colorful name. At least the Submarine initially came in gold before embarking on a rainbow journey; the Arrow has to this point never been released in gold. Okay…

hot wheels chaparral

Hot Wheels Chaparral 2G (left) and Chaparral 2

Chaparral racers: No, that’s not a color. But to see a Chaparral in anything but white is kind of weird. The original Redline Chaparral 2G came in a surprising range of solid colors, and the newer Chaparral 2 has showed up with all kinds of graphics on it.

hot wheels jack rabbit special

Hot Wheels Jack Rabbit Special (left) and Sand Witch

hot wheels deloreanJack Rabbit Special: This one is kind of strange… the Jack Rabbit Special was the star car from the Hot Wheels animated series, and as such, kind of needed to be seen only in white, preferably with blue stripes and maybe side graphics like on the show. That is, until the casting was renamed the Sand Witch, allowing designers to do whatever the heck they wanted.

DeLorean DMC: You could get a real DeLorean in any color as long as it was brushed stainless steel. Some people have painted theirs, and while they do look nice, that just ain’t natural! Hot Wheels has released a few differently colored DMCs as well, but most of their variants are related to different time travel options instead of colors.

corgi james bond aston martin

James Bond Aston Martin DB5: While a DeLorean is supposed to be unpainted, the folks at Corgi felt that the silver tone of James Bond’s DB5 was too close to unpainted Zamac and would look unfinished on a toy. So for their model of the most iconic of all the Bond cars, they went with gold instead. Later versions were done in the correct silver, but the gold version is so well known that it almost looks right.

kenner ssp blue monday

Blue Monday: Moving to a different company and a larger scale, Kenner’s SSP cars originally came molded in six colors: red, purple, orange, magenta, lime green and light blue. Honoring  its name, the Blue Monday dragster was only available in that blue tone at first. When subsequent series were released, such as the Ultra Chrome cars and the Monster series, it became available in all sorts of colors (including a very nice chrome blue).

kenner ssp black jack

Black Jack: As mentioned above, the initial SSP cars were only available in 6 colors, but the Black Jack was the first to come in black. And only black. Toss in the molded red hourglass shape on the nose, and the car is often mistakenly called the “Black Widow.” As with the Blue Monday, the later chrome cars came in all colors (and the red bits were changed to black). The Monster series still came in black, this time with green spider graphics on it.

kenner ssp copper cart

johnny lightning blue max

Copper Cart: Okay, this might be a bit of a stretch… the SSP Copper Cart was a Ford C-cab paddy wagon hot rod with a police driver figure, and it was available in all of those original colors. It looks most natural in blue, which seems to be the most common version. Sadly, this design was never offered in the chrome colors, one of which could be described as… copper.

Blue Max: Johnny Lightning’s Dragsters U.S.A. series featured miniature versions of many famous funny cars and Pro Stock racers, including the famous Blue Max Mustang. Most of the cars in this series were first offered in a color close to the real dragster, but were eventually produced in multiple colors, even the Blue Max. Bonus Fact: Another car in the series was called “Color Me Gone,” which should by logic be invisible. It was not.

johnny lightning mach

Mach 5: If you’re going to make a model of the world’s most amazing animated race car, it can only be white with red and yellow graphics, right? Both Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning did limited editions of Speed Racer’s car in chrome silver as well, which looks sharp and not too jarring. JL also did a bronze version calling it the Mach 4, which was available only by mail after cutting up half a dozen blister cards for proof of purchase seals. Many collectors were reluctant to damage their packaging, so the Mach 4 is fairly rare.

There are of course, many other TV cars such as the Batmobile or the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine that have presented similar limitations. I, for one, will be curious to see what Hot Wheels does to jazz up future releases of the Yellow Submarine.

Electable Collectibles: Political Memorabilia Gets Our Vote

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

As the 2016 election nears its conclusion, it’s time for us at hobbyDB announce that we officially endorse… collecting political memorabilia!

Over the course of U.S. history, elections have resulted in a side industry that has created buttons, hats, posters, signs, bobbleheads, stickers… if it can promote a candidate, someone will make it. Some of them were created as giveaways, some as fundraisers, some as third party cash-ins. But however they came to be, election-related items can be an interesting batch.

muscle machines 57 chevy 69 chevelle vote

johnny lightning vote 2000 plymouth fury

Diecast cars – Johnny Lightning produced some “Vote 2000” cars around election time that year, but stayed very noncommittal by adorning them with basic stars and stripes themes. In 2004, Muscle Machines created a series of very American hot rods including a ’69 Chevelle, ’57 Chevy and ’49 Mercury, each adorned with either Donkey or Elephant logos on the roof. What’s strange is they painted the Democratic cars red and the Republican cars blue, the opposite of the standard colors used by most news outlets these days to color electoral maps.

ronald reagan inflatable

Inflatables – In 1984, voters could purchase this awesome life size inflatable Ronald Reagan caricature/figure. Based on the packaging, which simply called it an “Inflatable House Guest,” it was not authorized by Reagan, his party, or anyone involved in the election. There was a separate chamber in the bottom of the body that could be filled with water or sand to make him rock and stand like a Weebles figure. With that weighted bottom, the inflatable Gipper could be used as a pool float, a punching bag, or a passenger in your car to sneak through high-occupancy lanes. So essentially, the makers of this item didn’t care about your political leanings, as long as you voted for their toy In fact, the company also offered similar inflatables of Richard Nixon and Mikhail Gorbachev.

jim beam 1964 election decanters
Decanters – Do elections sometimes make you want to hit the bottle? Jim Beam has had both sides of the aisle covered for years with their election decanters. For several years, the distillery designed a ceramic 750 ml bourbon bottles representing Democratic Donkeys and Republican Elephants. Unfortunately, there is no data on which party was more popular each time, or what consumption of whiskey actually meant in relation to actual likability of each candidate.

political buttons taft eisenhower obama perot johnson

Pins and Buttons – These are among the oldest election memorabilia, and are often rare because of their easy to lose small size. Early items like this William Taft watch fob quickly gave way to simple pins and buttons that we have come to know in modern times. As they have become easier to produce, really specific buttons such as this Obama pin started to appear.

trump clinton hat

Hats –  The traditional porkpie hat with a candidate’s name wrapped around it started as a real straw hat, eventually giving way to plastic or styrofoam lids. Folks very rarely wore these in public, of course, except at rallies or conventions. In recent years, baseball style caps have become more prevalent. With the advent of inexpensive, quick embroidery processes, candidates can respond with their own hats in an instant. Since Halloween falls just before the presidential election, knock-off costume and parody hats are also produced in great quantities.

reagan obama poster

Posters and Signs – These were generally designed for single use, glued or stapled to a wall or telephone pole. Over the years, they started to become collectible enough that freshly preserved, rolled copies became more common. So if you went to college in 1980, your roommate may have had this iconic Reagan poster on the wall. Or, 28 years later, this famous Obama sign.

willkie compact agnew watch

Jewelry and Other Bling – Some of these items can get a bit expensive to produce, so they can be kind of rare. Take, for instance, this Spiro Agnew wristwatch. He didn’t make it out of the primaries, so it’s quite rare. It appears to be based on a Mickey Mouse watch, by the way. Or one can assume Wendell Willkie was pursuing the women’s vote with this makeup compact and mirror.

Barry Goldwater bumpersticker

Stickers and Decals – Bumper stickers became fairly prevalent starting in the 1950s and beyond. Since the average expectancy of owning a car before trading it in was fairly short back then, it was unlikely that someone would have more than one election cycle’s worth of stickers on their car. In later years, it has become more common to see four, eight or twelve year old stickers proudly proclaiming the driver’s allegiance. On a side note, these stickers (originals and reproductions) are sometimes seen on restored cars as a fun period correct detail, such as this sweet “McGovern/Shriver ’72” decal on a vintage Buick.

mcgovern bumper sticker

Bobbleheads and Other Figures – Bobble heads and nodders were generally pretty complimentary towards their respective candidates until marketing forces realized unflattering characterizations of the opponent could be a good fund raiser too. With the advent of 3D printing, models can be quickly produced to fit the news cycle, so more custom, up-to-the-minute models are available, including action figures and vinyl art toys.

clinton bobblehead trump funko pop

Magazines and Other Publications – Major periodicals such as “Time” or “Life” magazines from election years are highly collectible. The “TV Guide seen below is pretty cool because it included third party candidate John Anderson on the cover along with Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. For those of you too young to remember, in 1980, Anderson was not invited to the main debates, but one channel ran the debates on tape delay and allowed him to respond before hitting play again.

The Chicago Daily Tribune famously printed a large number of “Dewey Defeats Truman” editions before realizing their mistake. An original of that would be worth a fortune today. Modern technology made such changes much quicker to implement, so in the the 2000 election, you might have seen “Gore Defeats Bush,” then “Bush Defeats Gore,” followed by “Now Just Hang on a Minute” editions of one paper in the span of a few hours.

mad magazine 1968

Alfred E. Neuman, the spokesidoit for “Mad” Magazine, has launched a joke candidacy for every election since 1956. The humor has been relatively nonpartisan in that every candidate gets skewered at some point. Things almost turned very dark for Mad’s cover in 1968, however… if you look at the cover of October ’68 issue, Mr. Neuman is about to pop several balloons with the images of major primary candidates including himself. The original illustration had Robert F. Kennedy on one balloon, but his assassination came just before the magazine went to press. Mort Drucker, the cover artist, quickly modified the design to put Alfred in his place. For a magazine known for its bad taste, this was a classy move.

Ironically, collectibles such as these might be harder to come by in future elections. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have become the popular choice for campaigns to get the word out to a large audience efficiently and flexibly. As a result, yard signs, bumper stickers, buttons, and other physical campaign items are already decreasing in use.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at political collectibles… We’ve done our best to be as neutral as possible here, so if you think we’re too biased towards one party or the other, you know what to do… Politley comment and add stuff to our database! And remember, no matter how you vote, you can’t spell collection with election (well, maybe you can, but who’s counting besides the folks at the ballot stations?)

John Oliver Shows Some Toy Cars on “Last Week Tonight” *UPDATE*

last week tonight john oliver diecast cars

If you watched “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver this past weekend, you may have noticed an interesting graphic on screen during one segment… He was discussing the epidemic of shady, even predatory, used car financing, and this image appeared over his shoulder several times:

last week tonight john oliver diecast cars

As you can see, the cars are clearly some sort of small models. Regardless of your politics or interest in the story at hand, this is a pretty neat sight for diecast collectors. So, we’re going to toss this one out there to you hobbyDB Users… can you identify the brand, scale, and make/model of the cars in the graphic? (We’ve identified several of them already, but we want to leave the fun up to you!) As a handy helper, here’s the graphic again with each car numbered. Respond in the comments below, and we will publish them later!

last week tonight john oliver diecast cars

Also, we know that some of these cars are already in our database, but if you can identify any that aren’t, would you mind adding them?

And if you want to watch the segment, you can find it here. It’s on HBO, so there might be will definitely be some salty language. So, maybe watch the clip after work or with your headphones on. Enjoy!


UPDATE! Several folks have emailed us with at least part of the answer… let’s see if you can fill in the rest. First of all, these are all Johnny Lightning 1:64 scale cars, as most people figured out.

Here are the ones that have been correctly identified so far…

1.

2.

3. 1971 Buick Riviera (Big Boats Series)

4.

5. Studebaker Golden Hawk

6.

7. 1960 Ford Country Squire Wagon (Big Boats Series)

8.

9. 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado

10.1963 Ford Galaxie

11. Dodge Monaco Taxi  (Big Boats Series)

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!