Johnny Lightning Posts

Johnny Lightning Strikes Again!

This interview originally appeared on the DiecastX magazine blog. Special thanks to them for letting us reprint it here.

By Matt Boyd

Johnny Lightning Tom Lowe

The Johnny Lightning brand is near and dear to Tom Lowe. Having resurrected the brand once back in 1994 with Playing Mantis, he is doing it again with his current company, Round 2.

Johnny Lightning (JL) is a brand name with which all fans of 1:64 diecast will be instantly familiar. Introduced originally by Topper Toys in 1969, quick on the heels of Hot Wheels’ launch, JL focused from the outset on speed above all. To raise brand awareness and further emphasize its association with speed, JL sponsored Al Unser’s race car in the 1970 and ’71 Indy 500s, capturing victory both years. The victories raised the brand’s profile and greatly boosted sales, but even that was not enough to weather the financial difficulties of its parent company, which went under in 1971.

Fast-forward 22 years, when Tom Lowe, CEO of Playing Mantis, acquired the rights to the brand name and revived production of many of the original castings, soon to be joined by a host of all-new vehicles. Fans of the original Topper JLs were drawn in by the nostalgia, while a new generation of fans was attracted by JL’s commitment to the accurate portrayal of real vehicles. The brand thrived and eventually caught the eye of RC2, who purchased Playing Mantis from Tom in 2004. The JL brand soldiered on under RC2’s stewardship, but the company gradually shifted its focus toward its more lucrative preschool markets and JL, while still rolling, got less attention. RC2 itself was bought by Japanese toy manufacturer TOMY in 2011. It initially continued to rerelease versions of RC2’s JL castings, but in 2013, it suspended JL production.

Enter, once again, Tom Lowe and his current venture: Round 2. The producer of the Auto World brand of 1:18 and 1:64 diecast, Round 2 was uniquely positioned to understand the current market conditions and also the value of the JL brand. This past September, Round 2 made the big announcement that it had acquired the rights to JL and would be resuming production of the beloved brand. So we went straight to the source and asked Tom how it all came about and what collectors can expect from the new generation of Johnny Lightning.

[MB] With this announcement, you are in the unique position of having twice brought the Johnny Lightning brand back from the brink of extinction. Have you been watching JL’s fortunes over the last 12 years? At what point did you feel the calling to play that role again? Did you approach it the same way the second time?

[TL] Sure, I’ve been following Johnny Lightning since I sold the business in 2004 to RC2. I have a good relationship with a couple of executives at RC2 (now TOMY), and I have been talking to them about the possibility of me taking over JL for a few years now. The approach had to be different because it is not an abandoned brand without any tool bank, like it was in 1994.

Johnny Lightning Playing Mantis

By the time RC2 bought Playing Mantis, JL had amassed quite a tool library. The challenge for Tom and the Round 2 crew is deciding which ones not to rerelease!

I heard you brought back several of the core team that was with you at Playing Mantis. How did that come about? Was it difficult to “get the band back together,” so to speak?

Well, two of the team members were already working for Round 2 (Tony Karamitsos and Mike Groothuis). I reached out to Mac Ragan this past summer, and he was excited to join the team, so I hired him. He started in November 2015. So yeah, it’s pretty amazing I have the same core team in place to bring the brand back.

It appears that there is a deliberate effort to recapture the Playing Mantis era—down to the logo and the initial product lines you’ve announced. What is the thought process behind that?

We will utilize the Playing Mantis logo on the front of the package and also go back to the original sharp “edgy” JL logo. I prefer this logo and the recognition it brings to the Playing Mantis era. And it will let collectors easily know that the product was developed and produced by me and my team.

The first releases should all be available in stores by late January. And collectors will find them in the usual places. Walmart, Target, and Toys“R”Us are onboard. Joining the national stores is Meijer, a large regional chain. And of course, we have our loyal hobby stores and online retailers.

The Johnny Lightning website will be the go-to place for the latest information on current and upcoming releases as well as feature stories and information on where to find specific cars. Plus, we’re developing an interactive garage designed to make cataloging your collection not only useful but fun. And we’ll live-feed our news to social-media outlets, like Facebook, where collectors can talk with us about the latest news, comment, repost it, and so on.

Johnny Lightning VW Surf Bus White

White Lightning editions were among the rarest and most collectible JLs. Look for those to return, as well.

Why did you choose the cars you did?

Well, the JL tool bank is very large. With all the variations, there are nearly a thousand different vehicles to choose from. Of course, we know that some of the earlier tools are not up to the current level of detail, especially the cars that were tooled from 1994 to 1996. Playing Mantis was just getting started and was learning how to make quality diecast from the school of hard knocks!

So what we do is get the team together (pizza and beer help!) and just start choosing castings that we think might make sense. They need to be solid castings and can’t be released more than three or four times over the past five years. Many of the cars we choose have only been produced a few times, and I think you will be pleased with our first selections.

What was the most difficult part bringing the cars to market?

Actually, it was the time and effort it took to move the tools from RC2’s factory to the factory we will be using. I think we moved more than 200 tools in just 60 days. That’s a lot of steel moving around.

We hear you also acquired Racing Champions. Tell us about your plans for that brand.

Yeah, we did! RC2/TOMY was not marketing any product under Racing Champions. It’s an incredible brand that is very well known. The tool bank is awesome, too. No Racing Champions products have been mass-produced for a number of years, which is incredible, to say the least. So our plans are to bring the brand out of extinction and start making great diecast again!

We’ll start early next year with the relaunch of the Racing Champions MINT line. These are cast from the original Racing Champions and Ertl molds. Collectors will recognize the familiar black packaging and display box for each car. If the model had a diecast chassis in the MINT line, we include that again. But this time around, we amp up the painted details to give every car a new level of authenticity.

Round 2 also produces Auto World. Now that you have JL, how will that affect Auto World?

We continue to support and produce Auto World True 1:64-scale diecast. Round 2 now has three brands: JL, Auto World, and Racing Champions. Three great brands with one of the largest tool banks in the world. We plan on doing everything possible to create a large variety of exceptional products and bring the passion back to our hobby.

If you were speaking directly to JL fans, what is the one thing you most want them to know about the return of their beloved nameplate?

That we are very passionate about the brand and will do our best to make the product that collectors will love and put smiles on their face. If I or the guys on the team would not personally buy the product, then we won’t make it!

Johnny Lightning returns 2016

Key to recapturing the magic of the Playing Mantis/JL days was getting the band back together. Mike Groothuis (far left) and Tony Karamitsos (far right) were already at Round 2. Tom approached Mac Ragan (center right) this past summer, and he signed on, too.

Mocking Up the Mach 5

This article first appeared online at diecastxmagazine.com

Speed Racer Mach 5

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

As diecast collectors, we seldom consider the amount of effort that goes into creating a miniature version of a real car, especially one with working features. Rolling wheels are a bare minimum, but when a vehicle also features opening doors and hood, working steering and even suspension, it’s really a miniature marvel of engineering that we often take for granted. But what if that car only existed as two-dimensional animation? How hard would it be to make a convincing 3-D replica? How about one with a lot of unique, imaginary working bits as well?

Let’s then take a moment to appreciate some of the models of the Mach 5 from the Speed Racer cartoon that have been released over the years. Until about 20 years ago, such replicas were few and far between—usually simple, small-scale plastic cars available mostly overseas. They were cute, but none of them fueled the imagination as much as they could have with functioning bits. After all, there are six buttons on the steering wheel of the Mach 5, fans know they all have a purpose! Thankfully, several later models addressed the gadgetry with different approaches.


JL Speed Racer Mark 5

In 2000, Johnny Lightning retooled and released their second series of Speed Racer vehicles, with an even better detailed Mach 5, this time featuring different snap-on accessories in different packages. So if you dared take them out of the package, you could pose the car with saw blades extended and resting up high on the auto-jacks. Heck, the hood even flipped open to reveal the engine. Not bad considering the size! There was also a very limited edition of the car in bronze as the Mach 4.

rare Speed Racer Mach 4 Johnny Lightining

Shortly after that, a company called ReSaurus got really ambitious and created a large scale Mach 5 along with 6-inch action figures of Speed and the gang. Assuming Speed is about 6 feet tall, this car would be roughly 1:12 scale. In truth, it looks a bit bulky when he stands next to it, but you forgive that when you see the features.

ReSaurus Speed Racer playset

The car came beautifully packaged with snap on gadgets visible: Auto jacks (with springs), saw blades, bullet-proof/water proof canopy, pop-up periscope, and homing pigeon (but no opening hatch for the bird to hide in). That’s five out of the six buttons represented, which is pretty impressive. (Alas, bullet-proof belted tires are just not available in any scale). The hood didn’t open, but the trunk lid did, which anyone who watched the show would appreciate… this car came with figures of Spritle and Chim Chim as well as a picnic basket, all of which could fit comfortably in the trunk.

But the most impressive Mach 5 has to be the 1:18 scale version from American Muscle. The overall intricacy of detail is better than the ReSaurus model, which to be fair, was designed as a toy instead of a display piece. But instead of separate snap-on gadgets, the folks at Ertl managed to hide these elements within the car when not in use.

Mach 5 open Ertl

The auto jacks retract into the chassis, as do the saw blades. The periscope pops up, and the homing pigeon tucks into a hatch on the hood. There is no canopy, but other features make up for it… it has an opening trunk (early releases came with a Chim Chim figure, but he won’t quite fit in there), opening doors, working steering, and an opening bonnet. The entire front end flips open to reveal a 12-cylinder engine with some wiring, and exhaust pipes that extend to the convincingly detailed chassis.  Just like the real car… oh, wait.

Considering that there was no real version of this car to model the technical details after, the creators of all of these did a fantastic job bringing the Mach 5 to life. Now if someone could just get working on an affordable 1:1 replica, we could complete our collections!

mach5lead1 copy

Johnny Lightning’s Back in Town

Johnny Lightning is coming back Under the Playing Mantis brand! Here are a cool new cars we snapped at Nuremberg…

Johnny Lightning

1970 Ford Mustang Mach 1 and a 1971 GTO

Johnny Lightning 1970 AMC Matador Rebel Machine

1970 AMC Matador Rebel Machine

Johnny Lightning 1963 Nova

For those who prefer things zingier, a 1963 Nova.

Johnny Lightning 1958 Plymouth BelvedereAnd a 1958 Plymouth Belvedere