Johnny Lightning Posts

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! 

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.