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Johnny Lightning is 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. Topper closed in 1971 and production of Johnny Lightning cars ceased for 23 years. In 2003 Thomas Lowe secured the trademark rights to the Johnny Lightning name for his Playing Mantis company. Playing Mantis produced toy cars under the Johnny Lightning brand name from 1994 to June 2004. At that time Playing Mantis (including the Johnny Lightning brand) was bought by RC2 Corp. which in turn was bought by the Japanese toy company TOMY in 2011. TOMY discontinued the Johnny Lightning line of diecast cars in 2013. The brand continued to maintain a following by a loyal group of collectors. In early 2016 Round 2 LLC, a toy company owned by Thomas Lowe (who also owned Playing Mantis), revived and reintroduced Johnny Lightning vehicles to the toy market for a second time.
In 1969, Topper Toys introduced Johnny Lightning cars and track sets in response to the growing 1/64th-scale diecast market. New Jersey inventor and author Henry Orenstein owned Topper toys and is responsible for their creation. 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. This was 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 2004, Playing Mantis was bought by RC2 Corporation and Playing Mantis disappeared. Johnny Lightning products were then produced and distributed by RC2 in Oak Brook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. RC2 started as Racing Champions and produced NASCAR die-cast models. Carrying over from the Playing Mantis era was designer and author 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). Ragan and Tom Lowe were inducted into the Diecast Hall of Fame in 2010.
In 2005 RC2 brought in a popular automotive and die-cast designer, Eric Tscherne. Tscherne previously worked for Mattel's Hot Wheels brand and Jada Toys. Tscherne was inducted into the Diecast Hall of Fame in 2011.
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 Muscle Cars which received new packaging graphics 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 RC2 for Greenlight Toys. Tom Zahorsky remained the Johnny Lightning design manager until RC2 discontinued production in 2013. Zahorsky no longer works for RC2/Tomy.
For a time, Johnny Lightning vehicles were 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.
Round 2 LLC, Johnny Lightning Relaunch, and Return of Playing Mantis
In January 2016, three years after its second disappearance from the market, the Johnny Lightning die-cast brand was relaunched once again by Thomas Lowe and his Round 2 toy company which also produces the Auto World and Racing Champions brands of die-cast cars. Although Johnny Lightning cars are now made by Round 2 (under license from TOMY International), the Playing Mantis logo returned to the front of Johnny Lightning packaging for continuity with the previously produced Playing Mantis Johnny Lightning cars. In addition, Tom Lowe hired four original Playing Mantis designers to work on the Johnny Lightning line: Tony Karamitsos, Mike Groothuis, Mac Ragan, and Scott Johnson (of Pitcock Design).
- Ragan, Mac (2001). Tomart's Price Guide to Johnny Lightning Vehicles. Dayton, Ohio: Tomart Publications. p. 4. ISBN 0-914293-50-8.
- Dan Stearns, Standard Catalog of Diecast Vehicles, ISBN 0-87349-821-6(KP Books, Revised ed. 2005).
- "Barnes & Noble author page: Mac Ragan". Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 2016-04-05.
- Ragan, Mac (2001-05-15). Tomart's Price Guide to Johnny Lightning Vehicles. Tomart Publications. ISBN 9780914293507.
- "Induction Years 2010 — The Diecast Hall of Fame".
- "Induction Years 2011 — The Diecast Hall of Fame".
- "Welcome Mac Ragan - HobbyTalk". www.hobbytalk.com. Retrieved 2016-04-05.
- 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/
- "Lightning Strikes Twice! 10 Questions with Johnny Lightning's Tom Lowe - Die Cast X". Die Cast X. 2016-01-22. Retrieved 2016-06-07.