Johnny Lightning was a brand of model cars originally produced by Topper Toys, similar to the hugely successful Mattel Hot Wheels die cast racing cars. Their claim to fame at that time was that they were extremely fast compared to other brands of die-cast cars. Their most important technology was to mold in a small hook under the front axle so that they could be propelled by a lever-driven catapult, far faster than could be obtained by either gravity, or battery powered "supercharger" devices. The company was bought by RC2 Corp. in 2005, which in turn was bought by the Japanese toy company TOMY in 2011. TOMY discontinued the Johnny Lightning line of diecast cars in 2013. Johnny Lightning has a following by a loyal group of collectors. In early 2016 Playing Mantis, a company founded by Thomas Lowe, revived and reintroduced Johnny Lightning vehicles to the toy market.
In 1969, Topper Toys introduced Johnny Lightning cars and track sets in response to the growing 1/64th-scale diecast market. Johnny Lightning introduced 11 cars and several hard plastic sets that year. Topper based all but one car, the Custom Turbine, on real cars of the period. Flexible plastic track was also sold, as well as accessories like a loop-the-loop and curved sections. In addition, Topper sold a Johnny Lightning helmet and carrying case.
For 1970, Johnny Lightning introduced 31 new models, mostly based on fantasy vehicles. Seven of the new models were "Jet Power" cars. These cars contained a plastic bladder which could be filled with pressurized air that, when released, sent the car speeding down the track. Topper also produced numerous new track sets for 1970.
Johnny Lightning sponsored five Parnelli Jones cars, including Al Unser, in the 1970 and 1971 Indy 500 races. Unser was able to capture those victories in his blue lightning bolt decorated Johnny Lightning Special. After the initial 500 victory, sales of the Johnny Lightning cars increased dramatically, from initially having sales falling far behind that of Mattel, to selling one Johnny Lightning to every three Hot Wheels cars.
Only five new models were introduced for 1971, all part of a series called "Custom Cars". Each came packaged with plastic snap-on parts so children could customize the cars to their liking. By the end of 1971, Topper Toys was forced to close due to business fraud which brought an end to the Johnny Lightning cars.
Tom Lowe and his Playing Mantis company acquired the rights to the Johnny Lightning trademark and started producing reproductions of the original cars in 1994. About the same time that Hot Wheels introduced a "Vintage" line of cars that were reproductions of original 1960s designs. Sales were moderately successful. Interest soon faded as most collectors were not that passionate about the cars even when they were new. They also revived the "Sizzlers" name with electric cars similar to the original Mattel cars. Currently, they sell a line of 1/64 scale adult die cast cars with more detail. Jeff Koch, formerly of Hot Rod Magazine, briefly acted as brand manager for Johnny Lightning, bringing his unique real automotive expertise to the line from 2001 through 2004.
In the mid-1990s, Tom Lowe at Playing Mantis commissioned Hollywood writer and producer, William Winckler, and comic book artist Charles Barnett III in New York, who had worked with Marvel Comics, to produce a comic book toy line called "The Adventures of Johnny Lightning". Previously, William Winckler had written and optioned a pilot for a live-action kids TV series to compete with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers called "Johnny Lightning", with Tom Lowe's approval, but the series was not made. However, the comic book and toy line were developed and produced.
Like Speed Racer, the comic book stories involved young race driver Johnny Lightning, who drove a 1968 Charger, called "Lightning One". Playing Mantis was to package self-contained comic books with die-cast cars featured in the stories. Each comic book was to be packaged in a blister pack with one die cast car.
Several issues were prepared, and sample die cast cars were made. A promotion to the public was made at Comic Con, and it was a huge success with the fans. However, for unknown reasons, The Adventures of Johnny Lightning was shelved before Toys R Us, Target, and other retailers were to receive the line from Hong Kong. It is speculated that Playing Mantis did not want to share a small percentage of rights in the new comic book character of Johnny Lightning with comic book creator and writer William Winckler, and this is why the project was shelved. There are public records showing that the comic book creator William Winckler also sued Playing Mantis in a court of law in South Bend, Indiana, as a result of this abrupt cancellation, and received a financial settlement.
William Winckler was also the licensing agent for many early TV and movie related die-cast cars and plastic model kits for Playing Mantis, including Speed Racer, Supercar, Land of the Giants Spindrift and others. Winckler was instrumental in obtaining the Speed Racer license for Playing Mantis since the U.S. licensee Speed Racer Enterprises initially rejected the offer from Playing Mantis, and Winckler had to go straight to the original Speed Racer licensors in Tokyo, Japan, Tatsunoko Production Co., Ltd. to secure the license. The Speed Racer Playing Mantis cars were the first "officially licensed" die-cast vehicles of Speed Racer sold in the U.S. thanks to Winckler. William Winckler assisted in the design of the Speed Racer die-cast cars, coming up with the concept of attachable parts, buzz saws, auto jacks, etc., to the Mach 5 vehicle, and Tom Lowe incorporated Winckler's ideas into the product line. William Winckler was paid royalties on Speed Racer and other licensed properties, but then Playing Mantis failed to continue paying owed royalties on Speed Racer to Winckler. Winckler considered suing Playing Mantis in court for money owed a second time, but never pursued it further.
The full line of Johnny Lightning cars produced by Topper and Playing Mantis is described in the Standard Catalog of Diecast Vehicles.
In 2005, Playing Mantis was bought by RC2 Corporation and Playing Mantis disappeared. Johnny Lightning products are now produced and distributed by the RC2 corporation in Chicago. RC2 was previously known as Racing Champions and produced NASCAR die cast models. Carrying over from the Playing Mantis era was Mac Ragan who was responsible for many of the popular models and had written a comprehensive guide to Johnny Lightning cars called Tomart's Price Guide to Johnny Lightning Vehicles (2001).
Johnny Lightning received a major overhaul of its image in 2006. A new clamshell style package arrived stores in January 2007 with the release of the new Johnny Retro series. A new logo treatment was also introduced and the logo and package design were products of a partnership with Design Force and directed by Tscherne among others. Additional overhauling of the brand included updating many of the long-time collector favorite series like Classic Gold and Musclecars which received new graphic treatments developed in the West Coast office by Jeremy Cox and Tscherne. A large price increase coincided with the new package, leaving many collectors upset with RC2's management and decision making associated with the beloved Johnny Lightning brand. in September 2007 Mac Ragan left the RC2 and Johnny Lightning. Tom Zahorsky is currently the Design Manager associated with the brand today as is responsible for picking castings, themes and developing paint schemes and decorations on the little cars. Tom is also a member of the Diecast Hall of Fame.
Johnny Lightning vehicles are today sold by Learning Curve Inc., formerly known as RC2. In 2007 Johnny Lightning expanded to offer more than just adult collectibles by introducing Battle Wheels. Battle Wheels is a line of remote controlled robots that battle one another. They also introduced the world's first transforming RC vehicle the V_BOT.
In 2011, the Japanese toy company TOMY bought RC2 Corp., acquired the Johnny Lightning line, and for a while sold Johnny Lightning cars in the U.S. with the TOMY logo on the packages. However, in 2013 Tomy Toys announced it would no longer produce the Johnny Lightning brand and it was discontinued.
- Dan Stearns, Standard Catalog of Diecast Vehicles, ISBN 0-87349-821-6(KP Books, Revised ed. 2005).
- Tomart Publications Online, http://tomart.com/webstore/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=633 (retrieved July 2, 2015)
- Jeff Koch, Tomy Buys RC2, Hemmings Daily, Mar. 15, 2011, http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2011/03/15/tomy-buys-rc2-what-will-this-mean-for-tomica-and-johnny-lightning-collectors/