Charles Hepperle worked in product development from 1982 at Zee Toys then at Maisto until retirement in 2017. In the fourth of a four-part series, Charles takes us through his history with Zee Toys and beyond.
I occasionally shot fill-in photos for the sales department or catalogs with a makeshift photo studio in the warehouse. Here is a self-portrait circa 1988. Barely visible being photographed is a 5” free-rolling Earth Shakers compactor made by M. C. Toy. My setups were so basic that you might notice the yellow skateboard hanging as a counterweight on a lamp.
Vehicle licensors were often an excellent source of future die-cast ideas. Of course, every time a newly styled 1:1 Corvette or Mustang was in the works they would also be must-do choices for many of the Zee Toys car lines.
These are the only two concept cars that I recall Zee Toys making in the ’80s. Both were made by sending plastic model kits to the toolmakers so that left little for me to do but make the deco art. The Nissan MID4 (left) got fantasy graphics while GM insisted on a realistic deco for the Oldsmobile Aerotech (right).
We would usually get advance information about them that we had to keep confidential. Sometimes the real car manufacturer would order die-casts for their own distribution at the same time as the real one was revealed to the public.
Normally, product designers were only allowed a limited number of deco “hits” per item. However, sometimes I was allowed some labor-intensive ones like these two: Chris Eash’s sprint car in the 1990 3” Pacesetters line has a multitude of pad prints and two self-adhesive labels. The Olds funny car was intended to be in Pacesetters but instead debuted as a new Wild Cars in the 1991 catalog with multi-colored mask-and-sprays and numerous pad prints. I initiated both cars and their decos.
Color-changing paint was introduced by others and Zee Toys offered it, too, on 3” die-casts in the Color Splash line. I think that the Zyll Hong Kong office used existing decos and chose the colors while Intex in Long Beach created the Zee Toys packaging. I proposed and drew this big rig style box for the 6-pack under Ricardo Fong’s direction. The color-changing toy items were about twice as expensive as regular cars so they needed something special like this.
Wild Cars and Wild Flites had extra paint and deco steps that made a much more appealing product than the color-changers when seen in the package yet cost less. I created the art and chose the colors on about half of them. Intex Recreation Corp. photograph (right).
Wild Cars and Wild Flites were the idea of Tony Zee, the Intex Recreation and Zee Toys principal. He came up with it upon seeing my hand samples of Color Splash cars depicting both colors made with regular paint for display at a toy trade show. I then made some Wild Cars with similar bright decos using mask-and-spray florescent paint and pad prints for production. They were so well received that we soon did the same with fantasy decos on aircraft.
A major part of the Intex business was vinyl inflatables so the design department was a part of that, too. I shot a few packaging photos including the front of this one in 1989. After the location shooting, an additional in-use picture was wanted for the back panel so I set up the camera on a tripod using an employee with the company van in the parking lot. We didn’t have a male model so I jumped into the picture while someone else tripped the shutter.
Flip Cars were originally in the 3” Pacesetters line when introduced in 1990 (left). A separately-applied glo-orange sticker explained what they were. In 1991 they were a separate line for both Intex and Zylmex (right).
An idea that did make it into production was my rejuvenation of a 50+ year-old gimmick: a two-sided vehicle. We started with two styles in the 3″ Pacesetters line in 1990. For each, I designed the body on one side and Dave Deal designed the other. He was better known as Dave ”Big Deal” who created the line of Deal’s Wheels caricature model kits made by Revell. He was primarily an illustrator whose work included the Viking figure on ArmorAll packaging as well as many Zee Toys packages. I enjoyed his many visits to Intex in Long Beach and my one visit for a few hours at his studio in Vista, near San Diego, California. He was also a pilot who took me up for a quick flight in his tiny ’50s ex-California Highway Patrol plane.
The pair of two-sided cars moved to their own line called Flip Cars in 1991 and two more styles were added. Also in 1991 May Cheong (M. C. Toy) turned both of the styles into 6-1/2” long battery-powered cars. They had a large wing on the front mounted on a pivot. When the Power Flipper car was turned on and aimed squarely at a wall it would speed toward it, flip up and over upon impact and come speeding back on the floor. The pivoting front wing helped it flip and would also change the polarity of the motor so it would return to the child with the “new” car body revealed.
By the time of this November 1993 photo of the Intex design department, die-cast was completely out. The company was focused on vinyl inflatables waterbeds and above-ground kiddie pools. The final Intex Zee Toys catalog was dated 1992. I had been freelancing for the Zyll office in Hong Kong since 1991 by using vacation time to go there and working from home in California. Intex was gracious in helping by granting me a leave of absence for several years — unpaid but covering my health insurance — and allowing me to take away die-cast catalog photos and product development materials. From left to right: Peter (last name not identified; from the Intex Taiwan vinyl products office), Dave Fisher, Dottie Leschenko, Dena Bixler, me, Ricardo Fong and Doug Kindle. Photographer not identified.
This is the fourth of a multi-part series.
See the first three blog posts here: Part 1 https://blog.hobbydb.com/2023/08/20/diecast-days-with-zee-toys-designer-charles-hepperle/ Part 2 https://blog.hobbydb.com/2023/08/27/diecast-zee-toys-designer-charles-hepperle/ Part 3 https://blog.hobbydb.com/2023/09/03/diecast-days-with-zee-toys-designer-charles-hepperle-part-iii-of-iv/
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