Diecast Days with Zee Toys Designer Charles Hepperle


Charles Hepperle worked in product development from 1982 at Zee Toys then at Maisto until retirement in 2017. In the first of a four-part series, Charles takes us through his history with Zee Toys and beyond. 


 

Zee Toys and Zylmex were brand names of toys from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. Nearly all were die-cast metal boys’ toys but there were some plastic ones and even a few girls’ toys, too. The details can quickly become complicated and I am not aware of all of them so I’ll write about what I know. In addition, records were not kept for historical purposes so much of the story is dependent on memory.

Still, I have a fair amount of material to refer to.

Here I am a few months before joining Intex Recreation Corp. (Zee Toys) in 1982. Wayne E. Hallowell photograph.

My career in die-cast toys began in 1982 when I responded to a classified ad in an advertising trade magazine. An unnamed toy company was looking for a model maker and only a person’s name and a mailing address were provided.

As was the practice in those pre-internet days I mailed my resumé and a brief cover letter that resulted in an interview about a week later at Intex Recreation Corp. in Long Beach, California. There I met with Richard “Dave” Fisher who had formerly had the positions of sales manager and product manager at Revell, the famous plastic model kit manufacturer. He was there in the glory days of the ’60s when he interacted with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and the other car builders and racers on the Revell team along with illustrator/designer Dave Deal.

My photography, graphics and writing skills gained during my high school and college years along with experience in typesetting and paste-up for a printer and back-room skills for an art director favorably impressed him. My 1:1 car knowledge and a stack of published model car how-to articles didn’t hurt, either. I’m not sure if he noticed my custom van in the parking lot that day. I do recall him not asking me about playing with die-casts as a child because apart from a couple of slush-cast Tootsietoy trucks I can’t recall having had any.

My “driveway customized” 1969 Ford Econoline van in 1978 when it was cool to have a van. I drove it until 1987. It was red-orange and white with a 240 six hopped up with Clifford headers and dual turbo-muffler exhausts. I gave it a performance look instead of a custom one.

 

Dave Fisher gave me a handful of 3-inch die-cast cars to repaint and deco as a first freelance project. I disassembled the die-cast cars and painted each a different “custom” color, probably with Testors spray cans, and applied handmade dry transfers. I had the luxury of using a graphic copy camera, darkroom and rubdown-making equipment at the art director’s studio that I freelanced at in North Hollywood, Calif.

The director, Wayne Hallowell, was a high flying creative in the 1960s who designed logos and advertising for Southern California Edison, Laura Scudder’s potato chips and drove a Corvette. By the time I met him as a fellow model railroader in the late 1970s his career was in decline and he operated with only one assistant.

I began doing freelance backroom work for him about 1980 that included creating Max Factor perfume package mockups, shooting a photo for a B. J. Thomas ad in a music industry magazine and making type for the credits in a bad Hollywood movie. It sounds glamorous but business was slow and Wayne was a good friend who encouraged me to take advantage of any opportunity that might come along.

Check out our logos –

Intex Recreation Corp., based in Long Beach, Calif., typically used the Zee Toys brand for all of the toy items it imported although it was also used by the Hong Kong manufacturer Zyll. Zyll’s own brand for the rest of the world was Zylmex. Products branded Zee Toys but made by May Cheong usually had an M. C. Toy logo on the baseplate but never on the Zee Toys packaging.

 

Intex Recreation Corp., based in Long Beach, California, typically used the Zee Toys brand for all of the toy items it imported although it was also used by the Hong Kong manufacturer Zyll. Zyll’s own brand for the rest of the world was Zylmex. Products branded Zee Toys but made by May Cheong usually had an M. C. Toy logo on the baseplate but never on the Zee Toys packaging.

At the interview, Dave Fisher at Intex loved my magazine how-to samples and wanted to hire me full time but I decided to stay freelance. By 1984 work at Wayne’s had slowed to a trickle so I moved from North Hollywood to Torrance to be closer to Long Beach. In 1985 I switched to working full-time for Intex instead of freelancing full-time.

Intex Recreation Corp. was the North American importer of Zee Toys but it was more than that. The majority owner and president, Tony Zee, was also the co-owner with his brother and others of the Hong Kong-based manufacturer Zyll Enterprise that sold the Zee Toys and Zylmex items to the rest of the world.

Zyll typically made all of the die-cast toys but also sourced other items such as plastic friction cars and cap guns from other suppliers.To further complicate things, Intex also sold vinyl inflatables such as pool toys and later expanded into inflatable boats, air and water beds, above-ground pools and, briefly, patio furniture.

Most of the vinyl items were made in Taiwan, Republic of China. So, for an American look the Long Beach Intex design department worked about half the year on mostly die-cast toys and the other half on the outdoor vinyl line — both included product, package and catalog design. The Zyll office in Hong Kong handled the engineering and production work at Intex’ direction as well as its own product, package, catalog, engineering and manufacturing for items offered to their customers elsewhere.

In the early years of Zyll production was done in Hong Kong then expanded to Macau (then still a separate country near Hong Kong) and then to China. Until the end in 1995, some production continued in Hong Kong but the raw castings were sent to China for painting, assembling and packaging.

Not all of the Zee Toys die-casts were manufactured by Zyll. A few of the lines of pull-back and larger cars came from MC Toys, the brand of May Cheong based in Hong Kong and originally made there. I’m not 100% sure, but I think that Tony Zee was a quiet investor in the Ngan family-owned and managed company.

Like Zyll, the Intex design department provided product for M. C. Toy that also appeared in their own lines sold outside America. This explains why collectors find some identical castings from what appear to be made by two separate companies before 1991. Later, as Intex eased out of the boys’ toys business in the early ‘90s May Cheong created the Maisto brand and opened their American office and warehouse in Fontana, Calif., along with one in France for Europe.

This is the first of a multi-part series.

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Karl
Karl
9 months ago

I always wondered about the Zee Zylmex connection. a fascinating behind-the -scenes look – can’t wait for part II.

Joschik
Admin
9 months ago

These are some of the parts I enjoy most working at hobbyDB – hearing about those backstories. Thanks for the write-up!

Charles Hepperle
Charles Hepperle
9 months ago

Thanks, Joschik and Karl. This first of several posts has a lot of text to get things started. Be sure to check in later as additional ones are posted with photos that include products that didn’t make it to production, “how to” steps about providing 1:1 info and much more.

Charles Hepperle
Charles Hepperle
8 months ago
Vivian
Vivian
8 months ago

Great work!

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