Johnny Lightning Posts

Meet Mac Ragan, Diecast Collector, Historian (and Industry Icon)

Mac RaganOver the past couple of months, hobbyDB has been featuring the stories of some of the folks who bring you the diecast cars you know and love. Mac Ragan is well-known for his work in the diecast vehicle industry over the last couple of decades (he was inducted in the Model Car Hall of Fame, then still called Diecast Hall of Fame in 2010), but he got his start as an avid collector and historian of the hobby.

Many collectors know him as a Johnny Lightning designer and Brand Manager (with Playing Mantis and RC2, from 2003 to 2007. He was also GreenLight’s New Casting Director from 2007 to 2008. His life with toy cars goes back to the 1990s when he became a book publicist in New York City.A background in art history helped me secure a job at the exclusive art-book publisher, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,” he said. “My responsibilities included getting new books reviewed and featured in magazines, plus securing spots for authors on television shows.”

After a few years, he decided it was time for a change in his career. He was already a long-time collector of toy cars, so he decided he wanted to photograph them. His mother bought his first camera in the late 1990s.These were the final days of film, and the camera was a fully manual Nikon FM2. My idea was to photograph cars from a child’s vantage point, and treat them as objects to be played with by children and admired by adults,” he said. By this time, he was on the road to creating his own books.

Johnny Lightning 1955 Chrysler C300

Johnny Lightning 1955 Chrysler C300 (Photo courtesy jlcollector.net)

From 2000-2004, he published 5 books on various diecast brands. Titles include Diecast Cars of the 1960s (2000), Hot Wheels Cars (2001), Tomart’s Price Guide to Johnny Lightning Vehicles (2001), Matchbox Cars: The First 50 Years (2002), Hot Wheels: 35 Years of Cool Cars (2003), as well as a pair of Hot Wheels Car-a-Day Calendars (2003 and 2004).

Given his tight connection to JL, the Matchbox and Hot Wheels titles may come as a surprise. “You need to make contacts at the brand, no matter what kind of toy-car book you’re creating. I wrote all of my books before I worked in the industry, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of current and past employees.”

Mac Ragan booksMac would have a second career at Johnny Lightning. The brand disappeared for a while, but Tom Lowe revived it at his new company, Round 2. Mac returned to meet up with much of the original crew in 2015.This time I was Director of Social Media for Johnny Lightning, Auto World, and Racing Champions Mint. My photography skills came in handy on the new websites as well as the Facebook and Instagram pages.”

GreenLight 1971 AMC Javelin Police Cruiser

GreenLight 1971 AMC Javelin Police Cruiser (Photo courtesy Wyatt Davis)

He left Round 2 in 2017 to focus on his collection, and feature it on Facebook (@macragan) and Instagram (@macragan500). “I primarily collect 1/64-scale toy vehicles from around the world. My favorite toys replicate everyday cars we see on the streets. Four-door sedans and station wagons are favorites, from the 1960s to present day.”

Among his favorite JL creations are the 1955 Chrysler C-300 Mexican Rally Racer, 1936 Hispano-Suiza, and the 1959 De Soto Fireflite Police Car. He is also fond of the Johnny Retro series, with colorful tinted transparent lacquer over brushed bare metal, and the later Holiday Classics assortments from 2004 to 2007.

At GreenLight, Mac is proud of a change he helped institute for the overall brand. In 2008, they went to smaller, more accurate tire and rim molds for many models. “I consider this my most valuable contribution to the GreenLight casting bank,” he said. “It was priority number one from my first day, as I felt that the pre-2008 wheels and tires were often too large.” His favorite designs from that brand include the 1971-1974 AMC Javelin and AMX, and the 1960s Dodge D-100 Pickup casting and over-the-cab camper.

Auto World 1970 Dodge Challenger TA

Auto World 1970 Mercury Cougar (Photo courtesy awcollector.com)

Even before he was on staff at Round 2, he helped develop several early castings. Among his favorites are the Auto World 1970-1974 Dodge Challenger and 1970 Mercury Cougar (“My chance to improve on the old Johnny Lightning Convertible version!”)

“My parents told me that I played with toy cars from the age of two,” Mac said. “That was in Auburn, Alabama. My favorite real car, at three years old, was apparently the Karmann Ghia. The first toy cars I remember was a set of plastic European vehicles, all about four inches long. I soon graduated to Matchbox toys and then Hot Wheels cars.”

Johnny Lightning 1936 Hispano-Suiza

Johnny Lightning 1936 Hispano-Suiza (Photo courtesy jlcollector.net)

Surprisingly, JL was not his initial inspiration as a childhood diecast fan. “Although I’m closely associated with the Johnny Lightning brand, my first love will always be regular wheels Matchbox cars,” he said. “I played with them in my early childhood, and these happy memories remain with me to this day. From the modern era, my favorites are Johnny Lightning, Tomica, Siku, Norev, and Auto World.”

Like many collectors, he is attempting to recreate the lost collection of his childhood. “I gave all my cars to a younger neighbor when I was 11 years old,” he said. “I began truly collecting after college. Although I have a few models from the late 1950s, the core of my collection begins in the mid-1960s.”

As a child, he collected other things as well… rocks, seashells, coins, and stamps to name a few.As an only child and the final member of my family’s branch on the tree, I ended up with many inherited ‘treasures,'” he said.Paintings by my mother and a close friend cover the walls of my home. I’m a casual collector of art pottery and contemporary ceramics. However, I don’t consider myself a serious collector of anything other than toy cars.”

GreenLight 1965 Dodge D100 with Camper

GreenLight 1965 Dodge D100 with Camper (Photo courtesy Wyatt Davis)

The collector and designer come together whenever Mac wanders over to the toy aisle at a store that carries diecast. He can’t help but scan the pegs looking for his handiwork. “I always do that,” he exclaimed. “I did that when I was designing and I still do. Castings have long lifespans, and I continue to find GreenLight models with wonderful new deco schemes on castings I created over ten years ago.”

Auto World 1970 Dodge Challenger TA

Auto World 1970 Dodge Challenger TA (Photo courtesy awcollector.com)

Clearly, he has been fortunate to turn a lifetime passion into a successful career. “For me, my toys tell the story of the automobile (and more broadly, popular culture) for the past 60 years. It’s something to pass to the next generation after I’m gone.” He finds the hobby relaxing as well. “I know that when I enter the die-cast aisle I’m transported to a calmer place. I forget about all the stress of everyday life.”

“It’s not always easy to know why you collect. But if you think about it sometime when you have a quiet moment, you’ll probably learn something important about yourself.”

Christmas Presents of Past Become Toy Collection of Present

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of memories of Christmas that have shaped me in ways no one would have ever guessed when I was a little kid. While Santa is to thank for much of that, I should probably also thank my parents who at least took lots of photos along the way. So many fond memories.

Alas, a lot of those toys are only photos and memories, as they went away in the Great Yard Sale of 1974 before we moved from Wisconsin to Tennessee when I was eight. But some of those toys survived in my custody… and I still have a lot of them.

christmas race trackHot Wheels galore – Orange track. Maroon tongue connectors. And those oh so colorful cars. I was only two when these debuted, but had quite a few of the originals by the time I could start remembering those things. The track showed up under the tree a couple years later. I still have an original Rally Case full of my Hot Wheels cars that survived the sandbox well enough to still be recognizable.

Johnny Lightning cars – Speaking of track, one year I got the Cyclone 500 track set. JL made a surprisingly wise calculation on how to add speed to tiny diecast cars. Hot Wheels relied on gravity and motorized boosters, but the folks at Topper put hooks on the bottom of the cars that could be snagged by the drivers and slingshotted around a track and into towering loops with a flick of a lever. Yeah, I had that set. I don’t have it anymore, but a few of the cars are still along for the ride.

christmas tonkaTonka Crater Crawler – Tonka’s large scale construction vehicles are staples of many fond childhood memories. Like a lot of kids, I had several of them. But my favorite vehicle of that scale was a bit less utilitarian… it was the Crater Crawler, a moon buggy molded with gray tires and sparkle blue plastic body panels. Doesn’t sound Tonka tough? I still have it in remarkably good condition despite the fun play heaped upon it.

christmas sspKenner SSP cars – I’ve written about these several times for hobbyDB. I had about six different models of these gyro-wheeled racers, all of which got scraped and bashed on driveways and basement walls. I still have one original, the Sidewinder, from then. About twenty years ago, I worked on completing the collection… right now I have about 85 different models of them. I guess that got out of hand.

christmas tyco trainTyco Spirit of ’76 train set – My father had American Flyer trains since I can remember, and I wanted my own train set for just as long. To celebrate the American Bicentennial, I got this Tyco set with the very patriotic livery that Seaboard Coastline had applied to one of their real locomotives. And yes, I still have every bit of that train, although it hasn’t been set up in decades. Maybe it’s time to fix that.

comic book christmasPeanuts “Speak Softly and Carry a Beagle” – A surprisingly non-transportation related present. When I was a kid, Grandma Ruelle worked for a comics publisher, Gold Key, who did the Disney, WB, Walter Lantz, and Depatie-Freleng comic books. And I relished them, copied them, actually got sort of good at it. So my parents… I mean Santa gave me a copy of the latest “Peanuts” book by Charles Schulz. Mid-1960s to late ’70s Peanuts is about as good as comic strip writing gets. Yeah, I still pull that one out and flip through it every now and then.

christmas legoLego Auto Chassis (Set 853) – Hard to believe the Lego Technic sets have existed since the late 1970s. This was game-changing stuff from Lego, a set with axles, universal joints, pistons, cams, and gears. The car was a huge model of a front-engine, inline 4-cylinder, 4-passenger car. I still have it, but, over the years, the parts got rearranged into this…

christmas lego indy carFive years ago, I brought a few of these toys to an interview for a role on the hobbyDB project. Let’s just say I almost didn’t need a resume after I pulled them out of my 1969 Hot Wheels lunchbox (which was not a Christmas present, so it doesn’t count here).

Those toys were great. Those memories were great. It’s especially great to still have both in some cases.

christmas toysWhat are your favorite toys you got for the holidays as a kid that you still have? Post some vintage pics in the comments if you have them!

What are We Thankful For at hobbyDB? A Lot, Thank You!

Ron Ruelle

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

As we spend our long weekend preparing the turkey (or the tofurkey) while enjoying football and avoiding politics (or avoiding football and enjoying politics), this is the perfect time to reflect on the things that make life great. Here at hobbyDB, we have much to be thankful for.

Geek Culture. (And Nerd Culture, Fanboy Culture, Collector Culture…) It’s what drives the collectibles world. But the best part is when we talk about the things we go crazy for, we don’t judge each other. What’s the real difference between someone who collects vinyl art figures of obscure cereal spokes characters or someone who tries to snag one of every vintage Hot Wheels Redline button ever made? They’re the same person, really (Okay, that person is me. I do both. Along with license plates, lunchboxes, Star Wars action figures…).

thanksgiving collectiblesThe companies that keep making all those wonderful toys and collectibles. Some of us collect toys from old, defunct brands, which results in a finite set of items and variants to find on the road to “completion.” Reaching that final destination can be bittersweet. So thanks to companies like Mattel, Kidrobot, Funko, Hard Rock Cafe, and thousands more who ensure that our hobby of collecting never really has an expiration date.

Architect Charles Haertling. He was the Frank Lloyd Wright of the Denver area, known mostly for his wild mid-20th-Century commercial buildings and churches as well as some very unconventional house designs. In 1969, he created a strange, curved, multi-level, rounded building for an eye surgery clinic in Boulder. That building is now known as Tatooine, the home of hobbyDB’s global headquarters (and other fine companies as well). The walls are loud primary colors, very few of them are parallel or perpendicular, and it’s the perfect space to feel creative and playful at work.

Al Gore (or whoever invented the internet). At least, he sort of claimed he did on the campaign trail in 2000 (but let’s avoid politics, right?). Regardless of who deserves credit for our online world, hobbyDB couldn’t exist the way it does without it. Heck, we even have a European office and a South American office, and the camaraderie with those friends thousands of miles away is the same as it is with the person sitting at the next desk.

thanksgiving collectiblesthanksgiving freddieThe hobbyDB family. That includes you, our Users, our Curators… In addition to the fine folks who work here, none of this is possible without those of you who log in daily and make hobbyDB even better. From the Users who add to our database, to the Curators who expertly ensure our data is correct and complete, to our Advisory Council who shine their experience like a guiding light, you have helped build an amazing resource for collectors. And of course, our Marketplace has become a great place for Buyers and Sellers to come together. So, thank you all!

The holidays themselves. As much as we enjoy coming into the office at hobbyDB, there’s something to be said for the occasional long weekend. We love to celebrate various holidays around the calendar, and what better way than to look at some of the holiday-related collectibles out there?

As for my family, it’s turkey meatloaf, football all day, no politics allowed, and lots and lots of slots! Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Interested in becoming an even bigger part of the hobbyDB family?  Learn more at our Wefunder profile. We thank you!

Meet Tony Karamitsos, Car Designer: 1/64, 1/1 and Scales In Between

As hobbyDB grows into new collectible territory, diecast remains one of our most important core categories. Over the years we’ve had a chance to talk to a lot of legends and heavy hitters in the industry to find out what makes them tick. Tony Karamitsos has been a designer for several important brands over the last couple of decades including Johnny Lightning and Round2.

Tony KaramitsosTony’s first job in the industry was with Playing Mantis in 1999. The company had recently started reissuing some of the original Johnny Lightning Topper models and was fairly new to creating fresh diecast designs for a new millennium.

Tony Karamitsos camaroTony KaramitsosHis career is a natural fit for someone who has had a lifelong passion for cars. “I’ve always had a huge passion with small scale and 1:1 scale cars since I was a kid,” he said. Though it’s not his job, he builds real 1/1 scale cars in his spare time. In fact, several of his own cars have been the basis for scale models over the years. His ’69 Camaro became a Johnny Lightning casting, although it has since been modified to more of a pro-street look. It’s one of the perks of helping to decide what cars get produced in scale. (We’ll cover some of his other Chevy cars in an upcoming article)

Tony has been designing die-cast cars non-stop since those days at Playing Mantis. When the JL brand was sold to Round 2, he went along in 2005. As diecast Brand Manager, “ I oversee the employees, layout specs for 1/64 & 1/18 die-cast programs,” he said. “I’m responsible for all tooling development and graphic design for numerous programs.”

Auto World BuickThat makes him responsible for AutoWorld models, known for their accurate models of mostly stock automotive offerings. They are also known for taking chances on cars that haven’t been oversaturated in diecast, such as mid-1970s Buick wagons and quirky but interesting early 1960s Chrysler designs.

Over the years he has had a hand in designing hundreds of highly detailed die-cast replicas for numerous scales for other well-known brands including, Racing Champions, American Muscle, Legends of the Quarter Mile, slot car replicas, as well as other resin models & model kits which are all currently owned by Round2.

For all his efforts, Tony was inducted into the Model Car Hall of Fame in 2017.

He has never forgotten his childhood roots in his hobby… er, career. “The oldest model I have is an original Topper Toys Johnny Lightning Mako Shark,” he said. “I also collect GI Joe, He-Man, and Thundercats.” His other non-automotive interests include being a DJ (you can follow him on Instagram @DJ_Grind1).

Tony Karamitsos

Tony always draws a crowd at diecast conventions.

In the meantime, He’s on the lookout for interesting cars that haven’t been overexposed in the diecast market. “We have a lot of new 1-64th tooling in the works,” he said. “We’ve announced a couple so far… a Dodge Stealth and a Chevy II Wagon. But I’d like to keep the others under wraps for now.”

 

Interested in joining forces with hobbyDB to take charge of our collectible destiny? Learn more at our Wefunder profile.

Tomica Diecast Returns to North America

tomica UOS 2019Tomica packagingAfter a long absence from the U.S. and Canadian market, Japanese diecast giant Tomica is coming back. An initial wave of 6 models recently started showing up at Walmart stores, followed soon by half a dozen more.

Tomica has been in the diecast business since the early 1970s, and are the biggest brand in Japan as well as many other countries. Since the U.S. market was originally a big part of their plans, their offerings have included a lot of American marques and models. The relaunch includes specifically modern Japanese cars and trucks.

tomica opening features

Most Tomica cars feature opening doors, hoods, or hatches.

Tomica is generally known for well-detailed, realistic models of actual cars, as opposed to unlicensed fantasy designs or extreme customs and hot rods. Their cars are around 1/64, but are usually scaled to take advantage of existing wheel sizes. So they might range from 1/50 to almost 1/100 for something like the 1970s Winnebago camper. Tomica cars are marked on the packaging and on the baseplate with the exact scale. Despite the scale differences, Tomica’s well-proportioned, sensible vehicles have been popular as scenery on model railroads.

Tomica gtr

From Wave 1: Nissan GT-R, Subaru BRZ, Suzuki Swift.

The first wave of cars to hit the pegs at Walmart include a Nissan GT-R, Subaru BRZ, Suzuki Swift Sport, Mazda CX-5, and Toyota Prius. The second wave includes a Mitsubishi Outlander, Toyota C-HR, Lexus RC-FNissan Note, and Subaru Impreza. These should be familiar to U.S. buyers as they most of them are offered in 1/1 scale.

tomica cx5

Wave 1: Mazda CX-5, Toyota Prius.

The new release also includes a pair of Japanese trucks: in wave one, a Isuzu with a payload of giant french fries, and in wave two, a Hino with a family of pandas sitting on the back. So they do get whimsical sometimes. (Other fun past offerings have also included vehicles similar to the Hot Wheels Character Cars, based on such Nippon legends as Godzilla.)

tomica panda truck

These trucks are part of Tomica’s 2019 return to North America.

Their cars also feature premium features like working suspension and opening doors long after those features have disappeared with other brands. There are usually lots of painted details such as lights, trim, and even elaborate grille badges and nameplates. The packaging has a very international feel with lots of Japanese text, and inside the blister is a box reminiscent of the designs the cars have traditionally come in over the years.

Wave 2: Mitsubishi Outlander, Toyta C-HR, and Lexus RC-F.

The cars are set to retail for around $5 slotting them in between Hot Wheels premium lines and Johnny Lightning’s latest offerings. The initial dozen will be followed by more of their other current castings as Tomica celebrates their 50th anniversary in 2020.

Tomica subaru

Wave 2: Nissan Note, Subaru Impreza.

What’s your favorite Tomica diecast? Let us know in the comments!