Mike Pigott looks at the the first series of revived Johnny Lightning models, produced by Playing Mantis in 1994.
Johnny Lightning was a brand of diecast cars produced between 1969 and 1971, made by American company Topper Toys. While the original run did not last long, the marque was revived in 1994 by a different toy company, Playing Mantis, producing exact replicas of the models first made in the ‘60s.
The Deluxe Reading Company of New Jersey was founded in the 1950s and produced mostly toys, which were sold under the Topper Toys brand. Early Topper products were cheap plastic toys sold in supermarkets and discount stores, but eventually the company began making a wide range of good quality playthings. Topper Toys aimed at boys were usually named ‘Johnny’ something, such as ‘Johnny Eagle’ (toy guns) and ‘Johnny Seven’ (military toys). Girls’ products had a ‘Suzy’ prefix, including ‘Suzy Homemaker’ (miniature household appliances) and ‘Suzy Cute’ (baby dolls).
In the mid-1960s, Matchbox cars became the best-selling boys’ toys in the USA. The big toy manufacturer Mattel reacted to this by introducing Hot Wheels cars, which were similar in size to Matchbox cars, but trendier… with custom styling, metallic colours and – most importantly – low-friction mag wheels. Also introduced were a range of track sets for the cars to run on, which they were able to do at extremely high speeds. Hot Wheels became an instant fad, and cut heavily into the sales of Matchbox and similar established car ranges like Corgi Juniors and Lone Star’s Impy. These companies responded by also introducing cars with various types of speed-wheels and tracks for them to race on. The same brands also began producing more custom cars and hot-rods to compete with those by Hot Wheels.
JOHNNY LIGHTNING IS BORN
Topper Toys did not produce diecast vehicles, but wanted to get in on the lucrative diecast racing market. A range of diecast vehicles were designed (mostly based on modified construction kits) and rushed to the market in 1969. The metal parts were produced by an outside diecasting company, while the plastic parts such as interiors, windows, wheels and engines were produced by Topper. They were assembled, painted and packaged at the Topper factory. As was the practice at Topper, the toy cars were given a ‘Johnny’ prefix, in this case ‘Johnny Lightning’, to indicate their high speed.
Quite clearly, Johnny Lightning cars were a rip-off of Hot Wheels. The majority of the cars were customized versions of American cars, and most had a name starting with ‘Custom’, similar to the early Hot Wheels models. They were painted metallic colours, like Hot Wheels, and also had mag wheels with red-stripe tyres. There was also a range of track sets released at the same time.
However, as the diecast market had become so competitive, Johnny Lightning cars needed to have an edge over the competition. The Topper cars were heavier than Hot Wheels ones, and had a faster-spinning wheels, meaning they could beat the Mattel cars on the track. Initially, Topper cars had more working features, and where applicable had an opening bonnet and two opening doors. However, the most innovative thing about Johnny Lightning cars was their ‘Accelerator Loop’. This was a metal ridge moulded into the base of the cars, which could be used in conjunction with the ‘Actuator’ launchers in the track sets. It was a lever-operated system where the Actuator, with practice, could hit the Accelerator bar on the car base and propel it forward, meaning the cars could race in a continuous closed oval circuit without batteries.
In 1969, the introductory year for Johnny Lightning, there were 11 cars released: five customised American cars, two customised European cars, a hot rod, a concept car, a dragster and a futuristic vehicle. As mentioned, the JL models had opening doors, bonnets and metallic paint. However this didn’t last; due to quality control and cost issues, the models were soon changed to having sealed doors. The shiny, vacuum-plated paint was expensive and subject to chipping or flaking; it was discontinued within months and replaced with different paints.
INTO THE 1970S
For 1970, there were 31 new models, although three of these were modified 1969 cars, and three racing cars used the same casting. The remainder of the new items were bizarre fantasy cars that were original Johnny Lightning designs. A new action feature called ‘Jet Power’ was introduced. Six of the new models had a small rubber bladder inside them that could be filled with baking powder or talc. When a switch on a track set was passed the powder would be discharged, making it look like the car had a smoking exhaust and also giving the car a speed boost.
A large number of new items were announced in the 1971 catalogue, but ultimately only five were produced. These were part of the new ‘Customs’ line, which were packaged with a selection of clip-on plastic parts such as engines, side-tanks and spoilers. These were the last diecast models made by Topper.
END OF THE ROAD
The company had gained publicity with its sponsorship of Indycar racing, but this did not translate into sales. Although Topper was the second-largest toy company in the USA (after Mattel) and its ‘Dawn’ fashion doll actually outsold Mattel’s ‘Barbie’, things were not all rosy. When the owner of Topper wanted to transform the business into a public company, a stock-take revealed that a great deal of ‘creative accountancy’ had been going on. Topper Toys was found to be in such a poor financial state that the company was put into liquidation and the owner reportedly served jail time. As a result, the Johnny Lightning brand disappeared completely from the market, and the diecast craze died down significantly in 1972.
Tom Lowe was the owner of a toy company called ‘Playing Mantis’ which produced a soft indoor football game. A toy collector himself, Lowe bought a collection old toy cars which included several Johnny Lightnings. These had been favourite models during his childhood, as the JL cars had proved much faster on the track than their rivals. After some investigation, he found that Topper Toys had been out of business for over two decades and the Johnny Lightning trademark was dormant. He re-registered the brand to his Playing Mantis company, and using his contacts in the Far East had reproductions of eight JL vehicles tooled up and put into production. The new models were packaged in original style packaging and went on sale in American toy shops in 1994. As diecast collecting was then at its peak, the models sold well and were reissued several times in different colours. The popularity of these ‘Commemorative Editions’ allowed Playing Mantis to invest in more new tooling, and the second line produced were original castings based on classic muscle cars. More Commemoratives were released in 1995, followed by a wide range of different diecast ranges, including Hot Rods many licensed properties.
Of the eight new releases, four were reproductions of 1969 models and four were from 1970; none of the bizarre 1971 items were re-issued in this or subsequent series. The new editions were not completely identical to the originals. They had slightly different wheels, albeit with red-stripe tyres. They were not painted in plated, mirror-finish colours, and instead had a mix of gloss, metal-flake and pearlescent colours. The 1969 models that originally had opening doors were issued with the doors sealed, but the bonnets could open. It has to be said that the JL models based on real cars were not particularly good representations of the actual vehicles. Admittedly they were heavily customized, but they were much weaker castings than Hot Wheels, and were not even in the same league as Matchbox.
They were packaged in fairly reasonable facsimiles of the 1969 blister packs, but of course they now had a Playing Mantis logo rather than a Topper one. Another difference was that they were now packaged with a ‘collector coin’. This was a silver plastic disc with a picture of the model and a unique serial number printed on it. The original Topper models did not have a coin packaged with them, and this was more akin to the tin badges included with early Hot Wheels cars. There were ten editions of the first series Commemorative Editions, which used the same eight castings but painted in a rotating range of colours. Also produced were white ‘bonus’ cars which were randomly – but very sparingly – inserted in cartons. These were the first ‘chase’ cars, which would later be known as ‘White Lightnings’; they become very sought-after by collectors. A common practice in the swap-card industry, the ‘chase’ concept would later be copied by several other manufacturers including Hot Wheels, which called them ‘Treasure Hunt’ models.
CUSTOM EL CAMINOThis model was based on a heavily customized Chevrolet pick-up. A very solid casting, it had a thick diecast base incorporating side exhaust pipes. It had an opening bonnet with two big scoops in it, which opened to reveal a rather basic engine. The rear bed was covered and had a pair of surfboard cast in; these were usually painted blue and orange. It was initially painted bronze, followed by metallic red, black, blue, pink (as shown), emerald green, yellow and purple.
CUSTOM GTOBased on a Pontiac muscle car, this model also had an opening bonnet that revealed a fairly rudimentary engine. It wasn’t particularly recognisable as a GTO, with only the protruding split grille being typical of the real car. The grille, which was painted black, looked nothing like that of real Pontiac. Like most of the Commemorative models, it had a black plastic interior and green-tinted windows. It was released in the following colours: black, blue, pink, green, yellow (shown), purple, bronze and red.
CUSTOM JAGUAR XK-EThe only British model in the range, this was based on an E-Type Jaguar coupe, called (for once) by its correct name, the Jaguar XK-E. It was easily recognisable as the real thing, but this was more to do with the unique shape of the car than it being a good model. The lower sides were rather wide, and the oval grille was blank. However, the most glaring error was the bonnet. Instead of tipping forward like a real E-Type Jag, this one had a rear-hinged, crocodile-style bonnet! It was released in the same colours as the previous models, with the purple one illustrated here.
CUSTOM ’32 ROADSTERThis little hot rod was the smallest model in the range. It was based on a customized 1932 Ford with open wheels and an open engine bay. As it had no provision for an opening bonnet, instead it had an opening rumble seat. The black plastic interior had an unusual central steering wheel. The grille and engine were made of chrome plastic, and were quite different to the original Topper version, which had gaps between the pipes and a black grille surround.
This and the following models are based on 1970 releases. As the name and shape would indicate, it is based on a Volkswagen Beetle, but a very heavily modified one. It had massive engines mounted in the open front and rear bays, and cut-away fenders. The B-pillars have been removed, leaving fully-open side windows revealing a single driver’s seat. There was also a twin-engined Volkswagen in the Corgi Juniors range, which was much better design.
Vicious Vette was a 1970 release that was modified from a 1969 model, Custom Mako Shark. It was based on the Corvette Mako Shark concept car, and had the opening bonnet replaced with an exposed chrome engine and black plastic pipes. It was a rather bizarre version, and unlike the real car – which was a convertible – had a split windscreen and glass roof. The interior was part of the diecast base and had a pair of bucket seats. This was also available in eight different colours, including our example in chocolate brown.
WASPThis was one of the weird creations from 1970. It was a bizarre looking vehicle, with a front-mounted bubble cockpit and a strange twin engine over the rear axles. The two ends were separated by a very narrow mid-section; this is the wasp-waist which no doubt gave the car its name. Wasp had a pointed nose, a rounded rear and semi-open fenders.
MOVIN’ VANThe last of our models is the weirdest…Movin’ Van. With a name that probably refers to how fast it moves, it is a strange van with an open cockpit and an exposed front engine. In fact, the profile looked less like a vehicle and more like a woman’s stiletto shoe! I suspect it was meant to be something along the lines of the retro hot rod construction kits designed by Tom Daniel, although it lacked much of the charm. The thick base casting also formed the interior and seats, and there was a green-tinted windscreen. The Playing Mantis version had an oval “Movin’ Van” label on the sides, which the original Topper Toys ones did not.
The Commemorative Series proved very popular, and led to Johnny Lightning becoming one of the major players in the diecast industry over the next decade. A second series of ten models was released in 1995, and there were further Topper reproductions produced in 2000 and 2001 (The Lost Toppers).
The concept of re-creating classic models caught on, and other companies also issued new versions of obsolete diecast toys, most notably the Hot Wheels Vintage Collection, and Matchbox Originals.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.
Text and photos (C) Michael Pigott 2019.