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Why Do You Do The Scale You Do? How Collectors Decide on a Model Scale

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Someone recently asked a question on one of the Facebook pages we follow – “What makes you pick the model scale you do?” Seriously? You have to ask? Because the answer is obviously… ummm… Actually, that’s a great question!

This query was from a gentleman in the UK regarding Airfix model kits. Airfix is a long-established, highly regarded company best known for their military models. Mostly planes. In certain scales. And eras. And nationalities. But that’s not all they make. So there’s some wiggle room in there. Which means the folks who chimed in on this question likely had a common core interest, but with some variances due to… well, what, exactly?

Airfix facebook

It all started with a simple question…

Let’s break it down.

  • Who’s responding to this question? The question was about what scale you “do.” Not just collect, not just build, but invest your time and money into. Could it be modelers, or collectors? Is there a difference? Well, yes, as it turns out. When someone is building and detailing a model, the factors of what is possible and what is practical are a bit different from someone who is purchasing pre-built miniatures.
  • Do you have a split loyalty? Do you have multiple scales you work on/collect?
  • Are there scales you love or don’t like for some particular reason? Maybe some scales that just feel too small to be appreciated for quality over quantity? Or too big to be appreciated at arm’s length?

There’s so much to unpack here. So let’s look as some of the factors that influence the decision and how they relate to modelers versus collectors. These were all cited by folks who responded to the original question…

Shelf space – Usually, this skews towards smaller sizes like 1/64 and 1/43. Unless someone only wants a few key models, in which they might go bigger.

Cost – In general, smaller models should cost less, but that’s not always the case. There are plenty of very high-end 1/43 models that can easily break the bank more than similar models in larger sizes.

Airfix spitfire

A lot of models come in multiple scales. Which do you choose and why?

Availablity of a Specific Model – For collectors, this is strictly about what has been made of the cars or planes you like. For modelers and customizers, there is more flexiblity with such things, depending on how much you are willing to scratchbuild.

Availablitiy of certain parts – For someone scratchbuilding a car, tires are one feature that they will most likely acquire preformed from some other source. So tire size is an important attribute when figuring out how big or small to go. A lot of people don’t think about it, but when designing a model in Lego, the wheels and Minifigs are the two most likely factors in determining the scale..

Brand loyalty – Some companies specialize in one particular scale, and that’s that.

Airfix interior

How much detail? How good is your eyesight? How crazy do you want to be? All play a part in scale selection.

Eye hand coordination – This is of interest for modelers and customizers. Generally, bigger is better, up to a practical point.

Taking satisfaction in crafting tiny details – In this case, it’s all about the challenge, eyes be damned! A tiny N scale train with accurate details is an amazing sight (for those who can see it!)

Pride in crafting a humongous tribute – On the other hand, if you have a lot of room or work in a museum, you might want to create an impressively giant model. The bigger the kit, the more you can mimic real materials and assembly techniques. Why create rivet patterns, when you can have actual rivets holding parts together?

The bigger the scale, the more detail you can work with.

How big is this scene? – If you’re making a diorama, do you want to show an complete, enormous battle in one small space? Or do you want to focus on a small vignette in great detail?

Other modeling interests – Airfix makes a lot of airplanes at 1/72 scale, but tanks and ground vehicles at 1/76. Why the small difference? The plane scale came first, and at 1/72, a 6 foot person is exactly one inch tall. 1/76 matches OO scale trains, so when they made land-based vehicles, it made some sense for them to match the trains. (1/48 planes go well with 1/43 model trains) or minifigs. (By the way, if you’ve ever wondered why certain scales even came to be in the first place, we covered that a while back.)

Airfix boeing 727

Large commercial aircraft are usually done an really small scales like 1/144 (half of 1/72).

Wide range of models – If your interests are broad, and you want to stick to one scale, 1/64 and 1/43 are most likely your best choices for model cars. For planes, it could be 1/72 for most small military planes, or 1/144 or even 1/400, if you’re into jumbo jets. Large warships are often rendered in 1/1,200 scale, resulting in a still pretty big finished model.

airfix bismarck

For really big flotillas, scales as small as 1/1,200 are common.

Popularity – You got into this hobby to be popular, right? Maybe not, but working in the more common scales will present more opportunities to trade, share, and otherwise connect with fellow hobbyists. For model car kits in the U.S., 1/24 or 1/25 are far and away most popular choices. Is it because the market spoke and the manufacturers listened? Or do modelers just buy what’s available? Strangely enough, this scale is not nearly as popular for pre-built cars.

Going Against the Grain – Some modelers just dare to be different. Pocher/Rivarossi makes a series of 1/8 scale cars that are quite frankly enormous. They contain some colossal detail, and sometimes require building components such as wire wheels. And they are pretty expensive. But if you only plan to build a few models in your life, that may add up to your cup of tea..

pocher mercedes benz

Pocher makes a series of 1/8 model cars, which are huge, hyper-detailed, and pretty expensive.

It’s sort of made up – For many fictional vehicles, such as spacecraft, it can be hard to nail down a scale. You can sort of figure out how big it’s supposed to be, but accuracy is loose. Models of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek are often listed at 1/1000, as it makes a plausible ratio for a decent sized model. 1/6,250 is about the smallest size, suitable for a model of, say, the Death Star.

Airfix Space 1999

Some fictional creations like the Eagle Transporter from Space:1999 don’t have a scale, some do.

Love at first sight – Did you get a model as a gift at some age that you just loved? Maybe you just found a particular brand or range, and whatever that scale was, it stuck with you forever.

Whatever’s going – Several modelers in the forum said they build whatever strikes their fancy in any scale, feeling that a lack of dedication to one scale or brand can be liberating and fun. And isn’t this whole collecting thing supposed to be fun?

We’d love to hear your stories of how you decided on a particular scale or scales for your collection… Let us know in the comments.

Math, Science, Randomness: The Origins of Model Scales

One of the key attributes of collectible vehicles is the scale in which they are reproduced. Most collectors know about 1/64 scale cars, such as Hot Wheels, as well as other popular sizes such as 1/18 and 1/43. But have you ever thought about HOW and WHY these particular model scales became the standards in their hobbies?

Buick Riviera scale models

1:43 and 1:64 Buick Rivieras

There are many reasons why model companies gravitate towards certain scales. As it turns out, a lot of scales are the result of simple math involving division by 2 or by 10. But several scales are the result of scaling down model trains, or more specifically the track they run on, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

So put on your thinking cap, get out your calculators, and let’s hop into the hobbyDB Shrink-O-Matic to discover the origins of the scales! (All images are approximately to scale.)

1/1 through 1/6 – The scales in this range are simple ratios, easy to calculate. These are of course, large scales, so they’re usually reserved for real items that are not particularly big. Of course, there are some larger objects modeled at full size.

1/8 – Hey, we skipped 1/7! It turns out you don’t get into a lot of prime numbers outside of single digits. Seven is hard to divide by. But 1/8 equals half of a half of a half, so the math is pretty easy. This scale has become popular in recent years for super detailed model car kits. 1/8 scale is often used for replicas of race car driver helmets as well as standalone models of engines.

1/10 – Not that commonly used, but, the math is pretty easy when you multiply and divide by ten. Think metric!

1/12 – Here, one inch equals one foot. This is very common in the world of action figures, as an “average” person of six feet tall scales down to six inches. 

1/16 – Not really used all that often, but it equals half of a half of a half of a half, so the math is pretty easy to convert.

1/18 – This is a widely used scale for model vehicles, but has only been in use since about the mid 1970s. It translates to two thirds of an inch equalling one foot, which is a weird ratio. In this case, its origin likely lies in model cars measuring in at a pleasing size technically known as “big enough for lots of nice detail but not too big to fit on your shelf.”

carousel1 jim clark lotus

Carousel1 Jim Clark Lotus F1 racer in 1:18 scale

1/22.5 – Wait, what? Perhaps you recognize this as “G scale,” popular for large scale outdoor model railroad equipment. It’s based on a measurement of 1.75 inches between the rails, yielding a strange ratio. G scale is often mistakenly referred to as “LGB” or “Lawn-Garden-Basement” scale, which are common locations for such layouts. However, LGB is just a brand name that has nothing to do with those words.

1/24 – This is a popular scale for model car kits, particularly in the U.S. But why? It’s pretty simple if you don’t live in the metric world… one half inch equals one foot at this size. Meanwhile, in other countries…

1/25 – On the other hand, this is a popular scale for model kits everywhere else in the world, as it divides nicely into 100, which is great for the metric system.

1/32 – This size shows up in cars meant as toys as well as some brands of model kits. Its use in toys probably comes from being small enough for little hands but not so small as to be a choking hazard. As with several scales we’ve visited before, the math is easy to calculate, equalling half of a half of a half of a half of a half.

1/36– This size shows up in cars meant as toys as well as some smaller model kits. Corgi popularized it as an alternative to smaller scales because it resulted in larger models without too much extra material, so it felt like a good value to the consumer. It’s also half of 1/18 scale, which may shed light on how that scale came to be.

1/40 – A scale divisible by four and by ten would be ideal for metric and English, perhaps: It never really took off, so who knows? Diapet is one company that used this size.

1/42 – Not familiar with this scale? It’s not really used that often. Tri-Ang, a British toy company settled on this size for their model trains and were consistent when adding model cars and trucks to their line. The standard railroad track measurement of 4-feet, 8.5 inches (don’t get me started on where that oddball measurement came from!) reduced to 33 millimeters, then rounded down slightly equals 1/42. For some reason, other companies settled on a different scale…

scalecomparison

1/43 – Honestly, this one’s a head scratcher. It’s one of the most-used scales for models of all kinds, but the ratio makes very little sense. It does come out to 7 millimeters per foot, but that’s a weird juxtaposition of measuring methods. The standard track measurement reduced to 33 millimeters, rounded UP slightly equals 1/43. Or close to it, anyway. Confusing? You bet. And having to multiply or divide by 43 all day will make your head hurt. Many theories suggest that 1/43 originated as a rounding error that went too far to fix. While popular for cars and trucks, this scale never really caught on for trains soon and was eventually replaced by yet another scale, which is not too much smaller…

lionel o scale catalog

Chewbacca lego minifig1/48 – This is technically the exact definition of “O Scale,” the size popularized by Lionel trains among other brands. It rounds out to 1.25 inches between the rails, which makes some sense. And 1/48 works out to .25 inches per foot, which makes for some easy math. When we get to smaller ratios like this, the difference of a few points is hard to notice, which is why 1/43 cars go along with 1/48 trains and no one seems to complain. This is sometimes called “O27” scale (that’s a letter O, not a zero), meaning an O scale train capable of handing a 27 inch radius curve.

Fun fact: a Lego Minifigure is equal to about a 1/48 six foot tall person, so this scale plays nicely in Legoland, too.

1/55 through 1/63 – You know what? we’ll come back to these seemingly random ratios in a minute. But first…

1/64 – This scale serves so many purposes in the hobby world. In its earliest uses it became known as “S Scale,” or “Standard Scale,” the size of American Flyer brand trains. The distance between the rail is .875 inches, but more importantly, 1/64 is basically half of a half of a half of a half of a half of a half. Whew! 

Of course, this is probably the most popular scale in the diecast world, representing most offerings from Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Johnny Lightning and countless other brands. But hold on a second… Many of these cars aren’t really 1/64. They’re all about 3 inches or 10 centimeters long. Even though the vast majority of them fall well above or below this exact scale, “1/64” it has become a convenient shorthand for vehicles around that size. So what gives? Well…

majorette jaguar xke

1/55 through 1/63 and 1/65 through 1/80 – Back to those larger scales we skipped a moment ago, plus some smaller ones. Many cars called “1/64” size are really smaller or larger than that. The key is that the model companies often use the wheels as the basis for what size the model will actually be. A toy Mini Cooper model might use the same wheels as a Hummer H2 and therefore be about the same length, but their scales will be radically different. Majorette is one brand who puts the proper scale on the bottom of their cars, usually falling in the ranges listed here. Tomica is known for this practice as well. Which brings us to…

3-Inch Scale – The wide range of 1/64-ish vehicles we just discussed ultimately fall under this umbrella, all about three inches long. This could include anything from a 1/30 scooter to a 1/2,000 model of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

1/72 –  Popular for many military kits such as planes, tanks and helicopters where the more standard kit scales produce very large models. They don’t look too out of scale when placed on an HO scale model railroad. The ratio itself is kind of a mystery, but Tri-Ang used it for many trains and accessories, similar to the way they used the “almost but not quite” 1:42 scale.

1/76 – Also known as OO, EM or P4 scales, this is a popular size in Europe. The exact origin of this number doesn’t relate to any particular ratio that makes sense mathematically. OO rails are 16.5 mm apart, which isn’t accurate to that ratio. Truth is, it’s a mishmash of a one scale of rail (the equivalent of HO, which you’ll see in a moment) and a slightly larger body. According to many sources, the larger body was to accommodate wind up clock mechanisms that were just a tad to big for smaller bodies back when this scale started. Got all that?

1/87 – You probably recognize this as the most common scale for model trains in the world. 1/87 is better known as “HO scale,” an abbreviation for “Half of O scale.” But it’s not precisely half, it’s just sort of close. HO represents .625 inches between the rails. Technically, the ratio is 1/87.0857142, rounded to 1/87.1 if you want to be a tiny bit less precise. The names “HO” and “OO” are often used interchangeably or as “HO/OO” since their appearance is close and they use the same track.

ho and n scale locomotives

Athearn HO scale and LifeLike N scale locomotives

1/120 – Also known as TT Scale, this is popular in Russia.  The ratio would be easy to divide by 12 or by 10, so it’s handy for English or Metric scales. TT stands for “Table Top,” by the way.

1/148 – 1/160 – 1/160 is known as “N Scale,” or more accurately “N Gauge,” which sets the distance between the rails for a standard train at .375 inches. Confused? In model railroading, “gauge” refers only to the rails, while “scale” refers to the size of everything else. There’s some wiggle room in that some models might be built to slightly larger sizes (all the way up to 1/148), but regardless of the discrepancy, the rails and the wheels that run on them must be exactly 1/160.

While we’re on the subject of “N Gauge,” this track is sometimes used on HO scale railroads. See, in many steep, mountainous locations around the world, railroads were built with rails much closer together than the standard width. If you were to create a narrow gauge railroad in HO scale, it would conveniently use N-Gauge track but with the height of the rails in HO and HO scale bodies.

1/220 – Also known as “Z Scale.” In this case, the track is .25 inches between the rails, which is tiny, about as tiny as a working electric train can be without needing a nanotechnolgy. As with the other train sizes, only the rail gauge is perfectly accurate, while many objects and details are slightly larger, especially the couplers that connect the rolling stock.

Gemini Jets Boeing 757

This Gemini Jets Boeing 757 doesn’t look so huge at 1:400 scale

1/400 and beyond- We’re getting into some really tiny scales now, best used to make manageable models of enormous objects like airplanes, ships and buildings. These scales simply take nice round numbers in multiples of 100.

1/1,200 and 1/1,250 – Somewhere in the vast range of tiny scales we should mention these two. Both are used for models of large warships, the first being a traditionally British model scale, and the latter being German.

There are many more scales of course, some of which are rarely used. If you know how any other scales came to be, let us know in the comments.

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! 

:)