Johnny Lightning Toys
Johnny Lightning cars have thrilled collectors with their speed, detail, and quality since 1969. The original emphasis was to make our cars the fastest in downhill racing and on oval track sets. The direction later turned to realism, with production of popular muscle cars leading the way. We’re proud to be known as the creator a new genre of toy car: the collectible die-cast car for the adult collector. While our toys are tough enough for kids, their realism and subject matter appeal to adults. For many of those collectors, Johnny Lightning cars transport them back to a time when they remember the real muscle cars prowling the streets. These models remain the core of the Johnny Lightning brand.
Topper Toys: 1969-1971
In 1969, Topper Toys of Elizabeth, New Jersey launched a line of high-speed die-cast cars to compete in the rapidly expanding market for three-inch toy cars introduced 15 years earlier by Matchbox. Speed was all-important, and owner Henry Orenstein had the design and production resources available to create 15 different cars, from concept to retailer, in less than a year. Topper was a powerhouse toy manufacturer, producing popular products like Suzy Homemaker appliances and the mod Dawn fashion doll.
Unique to Johnny Lightning cars was the “Accelerator Loop,” part of the chassis which worked with Johnny Lightning track sets to get the cars moving faster than mere gravity. As the car passed over the launcher in the track (or “Actuator” as Orenstein called it) the “driver” would catch the Accelerator Loop and hurl the car around the circuit for another lap. This invention made it so that Johnny Lightning cars didn’t need gravity at all. They could run around closed oval speedways and keep going as long as the kids kept using the launcher. It became a game of skill.
Orenstein was determined to win the toy-car race, and spared little expense for publicity. His most high-profile venture was sponsoring the Parnelli Jones race team in 1970 and 1971. In both years Al Unser drove the “Johnny Lightning Special” to victory at the Indianapolis 500. And just as Johnny Lightning toy cars were making inroads into the thriving die-cast toy business, Topper Toys closed during a failed attempt to take the company public in 1971. In three years Topper produced 47 different models. The Johnny Lightning name then disappeared for 23 years.
Playing Mantis: 1994-2004
Car buff, toy collector, and entrepreneur Tom Lowe of Cassopolis, Michigan discovered that the Johnny Lightning trademark was abandoned and by 1994 he put it back to work selling toy cars to a new market. He was sure that adults who’d played with Johnny Lightning cars as children would be attracted to replicas of them. His new company, cleverly named Playing Mantis, introduced eight models, each in a variety of colors. Cars and packaging mimicked the originals and they were an instant hit. Made like the Topper models with heavy die-cast metal bodies and baseplates, the new Johnny Lightning cars were hefty, durable, and fast on the track. Kids could play with them and adults admired them. And collectors were introduced to something new: the chase car. Playing Mantis released a limited number of each model painted in pearl white. They were called “A Bonus” on the package. These quickly evolved into the popular White Lightning chase car, an industry first. Other companies quickly followed suit to create their own chase models. White Lightning versions, whether early or current, continue to maintain their mystique with collectors.
Lowe reasoned that if there was a market for replicas of these old toy cars then adults would also be interested in die-cast models of some of their favorite real cars from the period. Muscle Cars U.S.A. debuted in late 1994 and soon became the bedrock of the new Johnny Lightning. Adult collectors were thrilled to find miniatures of cars such as the GTO, Mustang Boss 302, and Superbird.
With each passing year, Playing Mantis tested new themes: dragsters, pickup trucks, pace cars, Corvettes, James Bond, police, Mustangs, military, Hollywood, and Coca-Cola, to name a few. Going into the late 1990s the die-cast toy car business grew rapidly in the United States, and Johnny Lightning rode the crest of that wave into the 21st century. Playing Mantis remained in the South Bend, Indiana area for its entire ten-year existence.
Tom Lowe, the ever-watchful businessman, felt that perhaps the bubble might not last and he put Playing Mantis on the market in 2004.
RC2 and Tomy: 2004-2013
Sales were strong in 2004 and it didn’t take long for a buyer to appear. RC2, a company formed a few years earlier from the the purchase of the venerable Ertl corporation by Racing Champions, bought Playing Mantis in June 2004. Tom Lowe stayed on in an advisory capacity but RC2 moved the Johnny Lightning brand and a small number of designers to its headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. There, Johnny Lightning continued to release high-quality replicas of mostly American cars in roughly 1:64th-scale. As the market for adult collectible toy cars began to taper off after 2007 the production runs became smaller and less frequent. Tomy, a Japanese toy company, purchased RC2 in 2011 and their U.S. headquarters remained in Oak Brook. Eventually most cars were fitted with plastic baseplates to save money. The last assortment of Johnny Lightning cars from Tomy appeared in 2013.
Round 2: 2016-present
Round 2, LLC, a collectibles and toy company in South Bend, Indiana, licenses the rights from Tomy to produce Johnny Lightning cars today. In a curious twist of fate, the owner of Round 2 is the former owner of Playing Mantis, Tom Lowe. He also assembled the core marketing and design team from the Playing Mantis days to develop the new Johnny Lightning cars. Look for old favorites like Muscle Cars U.S.A. and Classic Gold as well as new themes to emerge in the coming years. Says Lowe, “The Johnny Lightning team and I have done our research and picked the best of the best to offer our fellow enthusiasts.” So strap in and hold on tight as we stomp on the gas with the new Johnny Lightning…Your Collection. Our Passion.