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Johnny Lightning Factory

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  • jt3
    Just as Topper was the company name Henry O. used, Playing Mantis was the company Tom Lowe originally started with, which sold to RC/Ertl. Tom started a new company, Round 2 who now holds the trade dress and the lease from Tomy and is once again releasing JL and RC models.

    If you think about JL as having 3 lives:

    1 - Topper

    2 - Playing Mantis

    2.5 - RC/Ertl into Tomy

    3 - Round 2
    Last edited by jt3; 12-29-2020, 10:24 AM.

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  • jt3
    Brief history of Johnny Lightning (copied from another post)

    There really isn't much comparison between the original redline era JLs and the "rebirth" or "new and improved" JLs, apart from getting a start by reworking and reissuing old original Topper era models. Topper as a toy company was around through most of the 1960s, with various "Johnny" series of toys for boys. About a year after Hot Wheels launched, Topper launched the original Johnny Lightning, which proved to me the only genuine competition Mattel ever had. Mattel was already a corporation (Ruth and Elliot Handler were still corporate officers as I understand), whereas Topper's major stockholder was Henry Orenstein. Johnny Lightning sponsored Al Unser sr at the Indy 500 in 1970, Mattel sponsored Don Prudhomme (Snake) and Tom McEwen (Mongoose) in drag racing during the same era.

    Mattel had their own financial crisis and Hot Wheels was nearly dropped around 1973. (Keep in mind the average life expectancy of a line of toys is 3 to 5 years tops) If it were not for the Shell gas station give aways, Hot Wheels may have disappeared.

    Topper wasn't as fortunate. I never heard or read any details, but the scuttlebutt is Henry O. played fast and loose with the company finances, and it caught up with him around 1972-73, and the whole of Topper Toys folded, ending not only Johnny Lightning but every line of toys Topper had (and they had several).

    When one considers the challenge also made by Corgi Rockets during this same period and Mattel taking Mettoy to court and winning, shutting down that line before it truly got established, this period of diecast development was seriously challenging from a business perspective. We are fortunate any of these...let alone Matchbox Superfast...survived.

    My point being, Hot Wheels won a battle of attrition, one it almost succumbed to itself. Johnny Lightning was never "inferior," just unlucky - or perhaps more accurately, mismanaged.

    The story is Tom Lowe came along with some money to burn looking for some toys from his youth and realized the power of nostalgia. He was able to acquire the rights to the Johnny Lightning trade name and trade dress which had long before lapsed. Somewhere he was able to acquire some of the old Topper JL tooling and had it reworked to conform to modern safety standards. This would have been about 1994, by late '94 into early '95 Playing Mantis began reissuing some of the old Topper era JL models. Shortly after a few new inhouse models were developed, and all early designs were intended to be used with the JL proprietary flat track racing system. When the track sets didn't sell as well as hoped they were dropped and the inhouse models were (mostly) re-engineered to remove the "belly hook" required for the track sets. That belly hook gave many early models a "4x4" stance that turned off a lot of modern collectors, and Playing Mantis responded, eventually dropping the Toppers (except for special editions) and improving their new models towards greater accuracy. With metal bases and "real rider" style rubber tires, priced about $3 against the long standing buck apiece for Hot Wheels and Matchbox, they were a very good deal, even if scale was sometimes iffy (such as the British Invasion models which were oversized, though a few others - like one of the Chevelles - were actually pretty small, and then there's the whole Speed Rebels thing - different story for another day).

    The heyday of JL was probably about the year 2000 until Tom Lowe sold Playing Mantis to RC/Ertl, I want to say 2004+/-.

    RC to that time priced themselves at a premium (the Mint series as example, retailed about $5 back in the day, though they could be found for half that on clearance), and Ertl American Muscle - which to this day ranks among the best at 1/64 - typically priced above $5. Mattel also responded to the consumer demand for accuracy with the 100% line, at $10 a pop full retail.

    When JL was drawn into the RC/Ertl mix, two lines were created. The "2point0" line presumably continued the trajectory JL had been on, with metal bases and accuracy and details not found on the other about $5 a pop as I recall. The second line is colloquially called "red card" because of the small red cards the models were sold on, but the bases were changed to plastic and some wheels were changed to hard plastic. Several former RC models found their way into this JL series. Apart from the plastic bases and wheel changes, the finish was generally the same as collectors had been accustomed to...and most important to me, the initial retail price was $2.

    In short order, my memory is a little fuzzy, the price inched up to $3 and Tomy bought the lot. Under Tomy, the red card line increased in price yet again. I think there was a total of 26 or 27 releases of the Anniversary / Forever red cards, I never saw the final release at retail. I did find a handful of JL models tagged for sale in Farm stores along with Ertl and certain Tomica models. Tomy then closed JL.

    Tomy still owns JL, which helps explain the new pricing. Tom Lowe and his new company, Round 2, were able to "rent" or "lease" their own tools back, a deal that includes RC tools and trade name and some Ertl tools, but not the Ertl trade name. Which is why we now can find JL and RC in the stores, and if one is familiar with the models they can find the occasional Ertl in the mix. The details seem improved, but the $7 price tag in my mind makes the new issues prohibitively priced when hanging next to them are Auto World (also from Round 2) for a dollar less at consistent scale and comparable finish.

    I don't know if this long winded reply answers your question(s), but apart from getting detailed at various points, this is the shortest summary that hits the main points. JLs are and have long been good quality at the price if you are forgiving regarding scale. Are there better out there? Sure, but you will pay more generally speaking.
    Last edited by jt3; 12-29-2020, 10:20 AM.

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  • jt3
    started a topic Johnny Lightning Factory

    Johnny Lightning Factory

    Click image for larger version  Name:	topper factory.jpg Views:	0 Size:	18.9 KB ID:	464
    [The photo above is the building which once housed Crown Fasteners. It was here that Topper Johnny Lightnings were produced, assembled, and packaged between 1969-70. The photo (below) shows some discarded wheels in an area in back of the plant that was used for "dumping" many items when the plant closed it's doors in 1971.]

    Click image for larger version  Name:	topper factory1.jpg Views:	0 Size:	41.5 KB ID:	465

    When Henry Orenstein (the president of Topper Toys) was looking for a place to assemble their new line of toy cars in 1969, he found it in my backyard. Traveling 5 hours north from Topper's home base in Elizabeth, N.J., Henry and the boys agreed to sub-contract the production of their "fastest cars in the world" to Crown Fasteners, a mere 5 minutes from my home. Crown was a division of Coats & Clark Inc. and was located in Warren, Rhode Island. The local workers there were content in manufacturing items such as metal zippers which were a staple in their operation for many years. That all changed in 1969 when "Johnny" came to town.

    My friend, Ray Falcoa and I have had the pleasure of speaking to many of the people who manufactured Johnnies and look forward to hearing from anyone who has a question or is in the market to buy or sell Topper Johnny Lightnings.


    Used with permission from the author


    Tom Brown and Ray Falcoa were able to acquire a small stash of vintage Topper era pieces from a former employee, enough to make about 500 copies...except for wheels. These were then made available to Tom Lowe of Playing Mantis, who then issued a very special edition of real, genuine, authentic "brand new" Topper Deuces with Playing Mantis era wheels. This special edition was not available in stores, and sold for a healthy premium through the online Collector Club.

    Here's Tom Brown's (Brown/Falcoa) personal kit:

    Click image for larger version  Name:	tom brown jl topper kit.jpg Views:	0 Size:	79.4 KB ID:	466Click image for larger version  Name:	tom brown jl topper kit1.jpg Views:	0 Size:	98.7 KB ID:	467