Diecast Days with Zee Toys Designer Charles Hepperle, Part II of IV

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

Intex Recreation Corp. design department, circa 1985. Left to right: Me, Bridget Cardenas, Eva Worland, Dottie Leschenko, Ricardo Fong and Dave Fisher.

Since 1982 I had been recommending new products; photographing, measuring and preparing notes for items chosen for production; choosing colors and making deco art for my hand samples for management review; and doing “blue sky” ideas for possible new items that were beyond the existing toy lines.

The department was tiny: Dave was the director of design; Ricardo Fong was the art director and designer; and Dottie Leschenko was an artist creating die-cast decoration, catalog line art, catalog and package paste-up and vinyl item hand samples to name a few. When Bridget Cardenas, Dave’s administrative assistant, was promoted to graphic artist Eva Worland was hired as the administrative assistant. I was primarily the toy car guy but also wrote copy, shot a few fill-in photos and did paste-up for the vinyl inflatables catalog.

A part of my early years with Intex was to work on new variations of die-cast toy vehicles. One that went nowhere was having a truck carrying a car in which the truck would move along and in some way caused the car to accelerate off the back. Dave Fisher and I experimented with mechanisms such as clockworks and pull-back devices but without success.


I made these four race truck mockups at Dave Fisher’s direction to find new uses for the existing M. C. Toy 5” long friction-motored Power Rig tractors.


The motorized big rig racer project didn’t proceed but it did result in my creating a Kenworth racing rig using an existing body tool, left. It appeared in the 1984 catalog for the 3” Pacesetters line. The blue KW (right) was a re-deco I made for the 1989 year.


For new products, a 1950s stereo camera was used to take detail pictures that showed more depth than a regular camera. When the resulting left and right images were seen in a special viewer the toolmakers could see the object in 3D. Here’s a pair from a 1:1 Honda V45 Interceptor. If you look at the left image with only your left eye and look at the right image with only your right eye you may be able to see the 3D effect.


My first new product project based on a 1:1 was the 1983 Honda V45 Magna motorcycle for the Ridge Riders line. Dave Fisher handled the business side by getting the OK from the sales department and management at Intex and license permission from Honda.

The Magna didn’t go into toy production but a few months later I shot a Honda V45 Interceptor that did. I found a sympathetic Honda dealer who didn’t have one in stock but he arranged for a customer to bring his recent purchase in for me to photograph and measure.

Dave showed me the Revell model kit way of making perspectiveless photos. My first attempt wasn’t usable but I re-shot it successfully. The procedure was simple but required some diligence to execute because it required dozens of photos taken at a right angle to the subject from a constant distance. It also included shooting 3D photos with a 1950s stereo camera. I’ll describe the details in a later story.

Toys of militarized civilian vehicles were a little too new so these 1982 mock-ups I made went nowhere. These surviving upper bodies fit into lower ones (two with holes for rotating) that have since disappeared. I think that the lower bodies were adapted from Mini Macks construction vehicles — some wheeled, some with treads.

My adding military weapons and decos to regular cars and trucks seemed marketable to me but the sales department felt that the retail store buyers and children wouldn’t accept them because they were unfamiliar and there was no “story” to explain them. Decades later dystopian books and films like Mad Max brought the idea into the mainstream — my idea was just too early.

A rubber band powered dragster, hardly a unique idea, also went no further than this quicky mockup.


Trailers to make sets using existing 3” die-casts seemed like a safe bet but not these. However, the “pickle fork” racing boat and trailer in top photo did finally go into production for the 4.5” Grippers Race Team line in 1990. I designed that one as well as one with sail boards on a similar trailer.


For me, creating boys toys that were truly new was difficult and my ratio of “hits” to “misses” that went into production was pretty low. That’s the nature of product development.


In 1983 puller trucks captured my attention so I spent a day at a competition shooting photos that led to my building these three mockups from plastic model kits. The sport was an outgrowth of tractor pulls using high-powered 4×4 pickups. I included a big rig for variety.


My idea for puller truck die-casts should have been a slam-dunk. It seemed so to Dave Fisher, also, but it didn’t generate much excitement with the powers-that-be. The real pullers were sort-of popular for a year or two but didn’t go mainstream. Still, forty years later truck pulls are still held.

The exercise did lead to a production die-cast. My photo of a real puller on the left inspired my Ford Bronco puller truck made from an existing body tool. It debuted in the 1984 catalog as a 3” Pacesetters style.

The main business of making huge numbers of “regular” die-casts was what the company was best suited for. So, most of my time was spent on recommending new tools for existing lines. Or, like the puller and racing rig, making something “new” but not requiring new body tooling. Some new ones were replica stock and some I customized such as making a Baja Bug off-road racer from a plastic model kit of a production VW.

This is the second of a multi-part series.

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7 months ago

Very nice article. I enjoyed it same as the first one. Waiting the other two.

Isaac N
Isaac N
7 months ago

Great segment! I love seeing photos of prototypes and reading the background info. Excited for part three!

Sue Burden
Sue Burden
7 months ago

I did not realize the amount of work that goes into Diecast amazing

6 months ago

Thanks for the kind comments. I had a wonderful time that continued on until retiring from Maisto in 2017.

See Part 3 here: https://blog.hobbydb.com/2023/09/03/diecast-days-with-zee-toys-designer-charles-hepperle-part-iii-of-iv/ .

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