Mike Pigott looks at this range from 1997 that was based on real American street rods.
When the Playing Mantis toy company revived the Johnny Lightning marque, dormant since 1972, the first models made were reproductions of those from the 1960s, called the Johnny Lightning Commemorative Series. However, soon a range of new castings were introduced, including classic muscle cars and American dragsters. One of these early ranges was a set of ten street rods which was first released in 1997. Unlike Matchbox and Hot Wheels, which produced mainly fantasy hot rods, the Johnny Lightning Hot Rods were all based on real cars that were well-known on the American street-rod scene and had won awards in custom car shows. Some were quite famous cars built by big-name customizers. The vehicles modelled ranged from the 1920s through to the mid-’80s.
As was the custom at Playing Mantis in this era, the models were released in several ‘waves’, with each wave in different colour schemes. In the case of the Hot Rods, there were five separate waves, with the fifth and final release being in the authentic colours of the real car. After the third release, Johnny Lightning seems to have improved its tampo-printing process, and the last two waves have additional printed designs, where applicable. The first three waves had wheels with a triangular ‘turbine’ design and separate black low-profile tyres. The fourth set had five-spoke mags with whitewall tyres; the fifth release had the same wheels with Goodyear tyres.
Frankenstude is a very heavily-modified 1948 Studebaker Starlight Coupe designed by Thom Taylor and built by Greg Fleury of Minneapolis. The car was assembled from parts of several different Studebakers, including the bullet-style nose from a 1951 Starlight; hence the name ‘Frankenstude’. Finished in 1990, it had scissor-type doors, a lowered roofline and a very luxurious leather interior. Under the bonnet was a Chevrolet V-8 engine, and an all-wheel drive system was fitted.
Johnny Lightning’s version of Frankenstude captured the bizarre lines of the real car very accurately, including the lowered roof and swept rear fenders. As with all Johnny Lightning models, it had an unpainted diecast base. The interior was in grey plastic, although this should have been beige. The grille and lights were touched in with silver paint, while the indicators and tail-lights were picked out in orange and red respectively. The first release was in black, followed by teal blue, metallic red and yellow. The fifth release was in the correct shade of pearlescent deep purple.
BAD BIRDAlso designed by Thom Taylor was Bad Bird, a street rod based on a 1962 Ford Thunderbird. A much less extreme modification than Frankenstude, it largely kept the handsome profile of the original T-Bird Sport Roadster, a version fitted with a fibreglass cover over the rear seats which turned the car into a two-seater with fairings behind the seat headrests. Bad Bird had a modified front end with slimline grille and headlights, and most of the shiny chrome trim was removed.
The model was very accurate, with a grey plastic interior and the grille, headlights and tail lights touched in with paint. The first release was in pearlescent green, followed by pale blue, metallic red, and gold. The final release was the correct teal blue, although fitted with a black interior rather than the actual white.
BUMONGOUSThis car was created by Troy Trepanier using a Buick he found in a junkyard in California. The car was a 1950 Buick Sedanette, a variant of the Buick Super with a two-door fastback body. Troy fitted the car with a big-block Chevrolet engine, custom interior and lowered suspension. It was given a three-tone paint job, with the toothy chrome grille and bumpers in body colour. Troy named the car ‘Bumongous’, presumably because it was a humongous Buick. It won the ‘Hot Rod of the Year’ competition in 1992.
The Johnny Lightning model of Bumongous was an excellent replica, capturing the unusual shape of the Buick Sedanette and the big grille. The first three versions were painted in a single colour with a black roof; these issues were in burgundy, pale green and yellow. The fourth release had extra detailing like the real car; this included the whole roof in burgundy, and a thick tapering orange stripe running from the grille to the windscreen and around the waistline, although the rest was painted silver. The final release was in the correct peach colour. The model illustrated is similar to the fifth release, but was a later version with extra detailing; this was made especially for Troy to sell as a souvenir at custom car shows.
RUMBLURAnother Troy Trepanier creation, Rumblur was built from a somewhat less-exciting vehicle: a 1960 Nash Rambler two-door station wagon. The small estate was fitted with a V-8 engine and lowered suspension, and given a custom paint-job with red sides and roof, and the bonnet and side sweeps in black.
The model of Rumblur was a very accurate rendition of a rarely modelled car. It featured a detailed interior, plus the grille and lights were highlighted. The first three releases were painted a single colour with a flat black roof, the colours were metallic gold, dark metallic blue and turquoise. The fourth release was in the correct style but painted green and black, while the final issue was in the correct red and black.
FLATHEAD FLYERPosies, Inc is a Pennsylvania-based company that specialises in parts and accessories for hot rods, as well as repairs, restorations and servicing for classic cars. Posies also manufactures hot rods to order, and has made a huge number of wild designs over the years. One of these was Flathead Flyer, a conventional-looking street rod based on a 1933 Ford Coupe. The name came from the car’s motor, a V-8 engine block nicknamed the ‘flathead’, a popular choice for hot-rodders.
The model had a one-piece body casting, including the fenders, with the bonnet sides cut away and a chrome engine visible. The grille and headlights were made from a separate plastic part, which was painted body colour with touched-in silver details. The first version was in yellow, followed by black and bronze. The fourth version was metallic tan and came with whitewall tyres. The final release was in the correct shade of red, but without whitewalls even though these were fitted to the real car.
1929 CREW CABThe earliest model in the range, 1929 Crew Cab was designed by David Rounds. It was constructed by cutting and connecting the bodywork from a 1929 Ford four-door sedan and a Ford pick-up, as the crew-cab had not been invented at that time. However, the vehicle was powered by a Chevy V-8 engine.
The model was very solid and had a quite a long wheelbase. It had a two part body; one part comprised the cab and pick-up bed, and the other casting included the floor, fenders and bonnet. Combined with the diecast chassis, this made for a heavy item. The grille was a separate plastic part, and was painted body colour with black radiator and silver lights. The pick-up tonneau was painted matt black. The first wave was bright red, then metallic lime, tan, olive green and finally the real colour of teal blue. The last two issues had pinstripes printed along the sides.
BEASTMOBILEThe aggressively-named Beastmobile is a modestly-customized Chevrolet Monte Carlo built by Keith Eickert, a Florida-based manufacturer of performance parts for cars and speedboats. Based on a 1987 Monte Carlo, this is the ‘youngest’ car in the Hot Rods range. Beastmobile was almost stock-standard, except for the huge engine protruding from the bonnet and the chrome racing wheels. It was painted pearl pink without any form of stripes or decals.
The model was a good replica, and like its real counterpart was a fairly normal coupe except for the chrome engine. All waves were painted a single colour, with only the grille, headlights, indicators and tail lights touched in. The five releases were metallic green, red, black, dark blue and pink.
1966 PRO STREETThe last three cars in the range were all ‘Pro Street’ hot rods. Pro Street cars are regular cars modified to look like Pro Stock drag racers, fibreglass-bodied dragsters with huge front air scoops, massive rear wheels, and large, flat rear spoilers. The difference between Pro Stock and Pro Street cars is that the latter are modified street cars rather than ‘silhouette’ racers. Unlike dragsters, they are completely street-legal and are fitted with comfortable interiors, brakes, lights and wipers. Some are fitted with roll cages, boot spoilers and parachute brakes. Finishes on Pro Street cars can vary, with some owners preferring plain colours, while others have wild decals along the sides.
The earliest of these three models is 1966 Pro Street, a heavily modified Chevrolet Chevelle SS. Customized by Dan Scott, it won the ‘Fastest Street Car’ award in 1994. This car was painted turquoise without any decals, and was fitted with a bonnet scoop, boot spoiler and interior roll cage. The model is very accurate, although it featured a solid front vent window, a frequent tooling limitation in Johnny Lightning cars of this era. The bonnet scoop was a separate diecast part. The grille is painted black with the quad headlights and ‘SS’ badge highlighted in silver. The five colour variations were metallic purple, red, gold, orange and turquoise.
1969 PRO STREETThe next model is 1969 Pro Street, based on a Chevrolet Camaro. This car was owned by Tom Hammonds, a well-known American basketball player. He also was heavily involved in drag racing, which he competed in during the basketball off-season. Tom raced his 1969 Pro Street Camaro and won the ‘Fastest Street Rod’ award in 1993. The car had a huge front air intake, small-ish rear spoiler, and an interior roll cage with window netting.
Johnny Lightning made a very accurate replica of Tom’s car, complete with a window net on the driver’s side window, and larger tyres on the rear wheels. The first release was in metallic red, then yellow and metallic blue. The final two issues featured additional tampo printing in the form of a three-colour ‘shooting star’ pattern along the doors and bonnet scoop sides; the fourth version being in black, and the last type in mid-blue.
GOIN’ GOATThe most recent of the Pro Street cars was Goin’ Goat, which certainly had a more original name than the previous two models. Goin’ Goat was built by Mike Lloyd, and was a heavily modified 1972 Pontiac GTO. The name came from the nickname that American car enthusiasts have for the GTO: ‘Goat’.
Again Johnny Lightning has produced a nice model which captures the quad headlights and split grille of the Pontiac GTO. The model is quite weighty, and includes a separate bonnet scoop, long rear spoiler, large rear wheels and roll cage. The first wave colours were dark blue, orange and light green. The final two waves featured vibrant side decals with green and purple stripes and large pink zig-zags, plus pink stripes on the scoop. The fourth release was silver followed by the original car’s shade of purple.
PACKAGINGAll models came in a large blister card with the ‘Hot Rods’ logo in piped lettering. Quite impressively, the picture on the card was different for each casting, and featured a photo of the real version of the enclosed car. Every pack also included a free ‘POG’, a collectible disc that was very popular in the 1990s. The POG featured a different photo of the real car. The reissue of Bumongous came in special packaging without the POG.
This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.
Text and images (C) Mike Pigott 2021.