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

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


My date, Linda, and I arrived at the annual Intex Recreation Corp. family picnic day in 1986. Dave Fisher photograph.

Here’s the drill on photographing a vehicle that is to be made as a die-cast toy. I’ve included a little about motorcycles but for this example, we’ll use Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Toyota off-road race pickup truck.

Briefly, one finds a flat, level location where the subject can be about a hundred feet from the camera. For a bike, an assistant is needed to support it vertically because the side stand holds it at an angle. I used a 35mm SLR with a 300mm lens and black-and-white film.

Mounted vertically on a tripod, the camera was set to be the same height as halfway between the lower frame tube and the top of the fuel tank. The camera was then located about 100’ away. Some careful eyeballing would determine placing it halfway between the front and rear at a right angle to the subject. Then, a line parallel to the bike was marked with items, such as pens or pebbles, at the camera position.

Lastly, markers were placed on that line every two feet to the left and right of the camera. So, for a bike, shots from five positions would be needed for each side plus another five for the top. The top views would be with the assistant leaning the bike toward the camera nearly on the ground on a tarp and the camera raised but angled downward to get true “straight down” shots. Single shots of the front and rear, again with the camera the same distance away as with the sides, finished it up.

Nearly every photo had a scale card with 10cm squares to provide a size reference. For larger vehicles, I’d find a building with a drive-through door then get up on the roof and shoot down as someone moved the vehicle through the doorway two feet at a time.

Perspectiveless images were created by carefully pasting strips cut from numerous photo prints each made from a negative shot from a slightly different camera position. At left, I captured Ivan Stewart roaring past at the Mint 400 in 1986 a month or so after I shot the reference photos at the race shop.

Next, a couple of dozen more photos were taken with a shorter lens such as an 85mm at various angles. Some would include the whole bike but most would be close-ups. Again, the scale card would be included so the model makers could have a size reference. Something a bit unusual was that I would also shoot details with color transparency film in a Kodak stereo camera from the 1950s.

When processed and placed in special double-image mounts they could be seen in 3D with a stereo viewer. So, one’s left eye would see one image and the right eye would see a slightly different one thus giving a three-dimensional view that would allow the model makers to better duplicate compound curves and items that would be difficult to understand from normal two-dimensional photos.

I’d shoot two of each view so after they were processed and mounted in special stereo slide mounts I’d send one set to Hong Kong and keep the other for reference at the U.S. office. There’s more to gathering and preparing the reference material for the model makers and tooling designers but this is enough for now.

While puller trucks didn’t take off at Zee Toys, monster trucks sure did in the ‘80s. I can’t claim any credit for bringing up the idea but I went crazy putting huge wheels on just about everything in the line from 3” Bugs to 7-1/2” big rig trucks. Even a few of my goofy ideas like a four-engined Firebird made it to the pegs.

Back in the pre-internet days of the 1980s and into the ’90s collectors would snail mail their recommendations for new styles they wanted us to make. Most were rational choices that we were already considering or would likely add while some requests seemed to be part of organized letter-writing campaigns for the same car from members of an owners’ group.

Then there was one fellow who sent a handful of pages, on both sides, of hand-written lists and photocopies of pictures from publications of seemingly random cars and trucks that had no chance of being made into die-casts. Every few months he would send more of these missives. Normally I would reply to every submission thanking the sender for their interest but I would be non-committal about what the prospects might be.

I put big wheels on existing items and also made up a few new ones using already-tooled bodies such as this four-engined Firebird in the 3” Renegades line. The tag on the left one shows that I approved the production sample on May 10, 1988. The one on the right is a later deco, done by someone else, I think. The monster trucks were not my idea, though.

For that one multi-page sender I stopped replying after receiving a few of them but it didn’t deter him. He continued sending them for years. Beginning in the 1990s, online die-cast forums would post collectors’ suggestions but I can’t think of any that were beyond the obvious ones that we chose.

Die-cast aircraft were an important part of Zee Toys. Dyna-Flites, with a 4” wingspan, were the first and most numerous. The slightly larger Super Dyna-Flites debuted in the 1984 catalog. My involvement with both lines was minimal. I do recall updating the Super Dyna-Flites F-18 Hornet to Blue Angels livery and making the art for the new F-15 Eagle in the 1986 line. At that time there was much speculation about a then-secret Air Force stealth fighter. Dave Fisher had noted aircraft expert Lloyd Jones create a speculative model of it that Zee Toys added to Dyna-Flites and Super Dyna-Flites in 1987.

The selection of what new items Zee Toys would manufacture was more influenced, in order, by the sales department, vehicle licensors and the design department (Dave Fisher and me). The salesmen and the manager were attuned to what sold the best in our lines and to what their big retail buyers were requesting.

The retail buyers were useful because they were privy to what our competitors were offering to them and they might want us to make the same thing but cheaper. Unfortunately, Zee Toys were sold mostly in assortments so the sales records showed the overall performance of a line and not a bit about which styles were more popular and which were less.

To counteract this, our sales staff conducted confidential in-store tests at a few of the highest volume locations around the country. In cooperation with the retailer and store manager, a line such as 3” Dyna-Wheels was put in with a significant number of facings (probably a dozen or two pegs with a half-dozen on each) with each style and its quantity carefully noted. At regular times, probably once a week for a month, the remaining styles were noted so that at the end of the test period there would be results of how many of which styles sold and how soon.

Decorations sometimes didn’t have a good appearance in production. I drew the art for these two. Problems with spray masks not fitting well, pad printing ink not being opaque enough and self-adhesive labels not sticking were fairly common defects.

It was a fairly crude measure because there were many variables that could not be known but it was all that we had. No consumer testing was done. One drawback of the sales department’s product recommendations was that they were mostly telling us what had sold in the past. The retail buyers were a little more useful in predicting what might sell a year or so in the future.

They might have a more-expensive category that was doing well, such as radio-controlled dune buggies, that they wanted us to make as pull-back 4.5″ and free-rolling 3″ die-casts so we did. I wasn’t directly involved with the research. I would get instructions from Dave Fisher about what the sales department wanted so I would make simple images for him so he would have specific vehicles to propose to the decision-makers.

This is the third of a multi-part series.

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