Let's face it, it's a Hot Wheels World.
Those classic cars, designed by Hot Wheels and released for Christmas 1967 were a hit from day one. I received the Hot Wheels Drag Race Set, for Christmas, and played with some of the cars until the wheels came off.
In about 1968, Topper realized how popular these die-cast, gravity-raced cars were becoming, and scrambled for their share of the market. There had never been anything like Hot Wheels--die-cast cars, all metal, with racing wheels. The initial sets featured track that you clamped onto a chair, and through gravity, raced cars. From the very first year, there were plenty of different cars, sets, and accessories. Hot Wheels accelerated and never slowed down.
I must admit as a child, when Johnny Lightnings came on the market, I thought they looked big and clunky next to Hot Wheels, with lousy paint and no style. These were the Centuri rockets next to Estes, the Testors planes compared with Cox. Someone in the early 70s gave me one, an ugly thing called The Glasser. I would not know until 1995 how special and wild that particular car was. More on that later.
Topper did not fail in the market place, JLs sold fairly well, and there was alot of TV advertising. They were marketed as the fastest cars around, and put on some showdowns with Hot Wheels to prove it. You could race JLs and Hot Wheels together on the same track. There certainly was enough space in the market for all, although JLs sold a fraction of what Mattel sold with Hot Wheels. As if to underscore the direction of the market, even Matchbox moved to Superfast cars, wire axles with very free spinning wheels, as compared to the heavy, hard plastic tires and steel pin axles as before.
JL track sets were interesting, as they went in two different directions. At first, they offered almost identical, soft track and connectors, to Hot Wheels track. They were even interchangeable.
Then they brought out hard plastic track sets, with all sorts of curves and virtual upright sections, and the cars were raced by jamming plastic levers forward, and pins in the track would shove the cars forward at very fast speeds. Timing was critical, and required high skill.
Tracks and Sets
Johnny Lightning started out with soft track sets, very much like Hot Wheels. To encourage sales, they did something very smart and made the track basically interchangable. They used very similar connectors. The soft track was typically red in color. The Jet Power sets, discussed below, came with blue track.
The first sets were single strips, single strips with a timer, dual drag strips, and later, loops and jumps. Here is the single strip set:
Then, Topper did something amazing. They brought out a COMPLETELY different track system. Instead of a gravity based soft-track system, they brought out a hard track system, and a launcher that you would manually propel the cars forward with. The system was a closed loop system, so the cars would wind around and come back, and it took some skill and timing to shove the car forward again, getting the hook on the underside of the car to actually grab the lever that you intended to push the car with.
The first of these new systems was known as the LM 500. The LM stood for Lightning Motion.
This is a fun set. However, it has its drawbacks.
|This is the Base Unit, with the built in lap counters.|
|Each person has a "grab knob" and the lever that you use to shove the cars forward.|
|This is the hook that grabs the underside of the cars.|
|The old Topper JL cars had a hook pre-cast into the chassis. Some of the new cars have this too. I bought two new Playing Mantis JL GTOs from Target, and they had the proper chassis.|
|Here is the underside of one of the Playing Mantis Corvettes, notice the flat underside. These types of cars will not work with these sets.|
|Here is the hold down shield to keep the cars from flying off the launcher.|
There are a few drawbacks to the LM set. For one, the launcher starts out on a HILL. This arrangement is unwieldy at best. To keep the cars from flying in an arc off the track, there are clear plastic shields that act as a hold down. The problem here is twofold....if there is a barrier to keep the cars from coming off the track, it is going to create drag on the cars as soon as they rub against it. It may be argued that the more skillful users can get to a point where they can get a good push on the cars but not so much as to make the tops of the cars scrape against the barrier. I could never get that good. The second problem comes into play as the cars contact this shield--there was paint rub off on my GTO hardtop within a few minutes of playing, and the windshield on the convertible GTO cracked.
I was not upset at the wear on the cars, I bought them for that. However, I strongly recommend that you do NOT use mint vintage cars on this set, OR any new Playing Mantis versions that you want to keep in good shape.
The other problem on this set is that the cars immediatly go into a curve once out of the launcher....if they are going too fast, they crash...if slower, then they are not particularly fast around the track. You have to carefully lay out this track so that the return path is slanted appropriately--using gravity to the maximum to get the cars back around.
Even with these drawbacks, I had fun with this set. Restoration tips will be coming.
Other hard track sets include the Indy 500, which has been reissued by Playing Mantis, the vertical Cyclone set, and the Le Mans set. Finally, these sets were further enhanced with the Big Switch System, and sets such as were brought out.
Jet Power System
Lots of different cars were released by Topper. The most fascinating system was the Jet Power System.
Some people think these sets were failures, and sale indicators may reflect this to be true in part.
However, Kevin Preston Laboratories, in association with the Kevin Preston Collection,has conducted evaluations and tests on these systems.
I have come into ownership of some Jet Power Systems and Cars. I have been experimenting with the Jet Power Process.
When I turned 13, I went through that horrible period where you don't want to be SEEN with your parents, and you want to get rid of all your toys. Some people never grow out of this stage, and that is why you see men at 60, completely insane, wearing an engineer's cap and staring into oblivion while their train set goes around and around.
I snapped back into shape and started collecting, slowly, about 17 years ago. When I got rid of all my toys, including Tog'ls, vintage board games, and other treasures, for some reason I kept all my Matchboxes and Hot Wheels. My tracks though, and my Rod Runners, curves and loops, were all given to my cousin. I am sure he destroyed them all.
In amongst every youngster's die-cast collection will be both very beloved pieces, where he can remember exactly where, how and when he got it, as well as a few of which he has no idea of how he got them.
Mixed into my collection was a Sand Stormer, missing one wheel, and something called a Glasser. Obviously, I never raced the Sand Stormer, and the Glasser was, well, too ugly to take out of the case. I also had a scratched up Mako Shark, which actually did not race too badly.
In 1971, General Mills ran a promotion on Cheerios that for $.25 cents, and 2 proofs of purchase, you would get a Johnny Lightning in the mail. I was SO excited. I sent away immediately. I waited for a week. Two weeks. A month. A month turned into months. I wrote General Mills, never got an answer. I am STILL waiting for my Johnny Lightning car. I was so disappointed. Hey, it was no Hot Wheels, but I still wanted it. Years later, I find that Topper went out of business in 1971.
When I started to collect toys, some of my first ones were Deluxe Reading/Topper items. #1 was the Topper Johnny Astro. I loved that toy before, and loved it now. It reacquainted me with the Topper logo, and distant memories of Topper toys and advertisings. I could not put my finger on what else they made though.
So, imagine my shock when I turned over the Mako Shark one day, slowly......and saw...TOPPER.
I could not believe it. So Topper made Johnny Lightings huh. Ok. That explained alot of things.
At around the same time, I examined the Glasser, and noticed something odd about it.
For example, that exhaust at the back, well, it seemed to go through to something. And that something looks like, well, a tank. Could this be some sort of jet car?
Needless to say, the Glasser will run again under jet power. Stay tuned.
As I look back now, it wasn't that the JL cars were clunky, or had bad paint, they were just different. They weren't as flashy or slick as Hot Wheels, but they had that unmistakable Topper/Deluxe Reading vibe to them. If you look at the older cars that went with the Johnny Service toys, and some of their older remote (wired) toys, you would have to be blind not to pick up the similarities. Johnny Lightnings were Hot Wheels spun through the rinse cycle along with Deluxe Reading "Supermarket Toys".
The finishes were interesting too. In fact, there were some "mirror" finishes that are quite collectible today. Often times, the metal underside chassis came up on the sides, making the cars seem a bit ungainly, but not without their charm. Now, I feel myself starting to want to collect these. They are NOT Hot Wheels, and viva le difference.
I very vaguely remember a JL set that actually had the cars going vertically up a wall and down again. Upon further research, I have discovered this to be a 1970 Cyclone set.
At the end of production, Topper released the Big Switch system, which was the hard track with tons of flip type switches, allowing for all types of strategic lane changes. These are not too easy to find today.
More information and pictures to come!
New Johnny Lightnings
A startup company called Playing Mantis bought up the rights to the old name, logo, and designs of the previous company, and in 1994, brought back Johnny Lightnings.
They have done a great job recreating the old cars, and adding simply tons of new sets, muscle cars, specially numbered cars, etc. They are, however, a bit fixated on the "older collector", and have brought out very few track sets. Also, since the appeal is mainly to adult collectors, many of the few track sets that are brought out are snatched up then resold on EBAY. Oddly, there is often very little price difference. Why do people even do it with little or no profit potential? The same thing happens with alot of Jasman products...Jasman has brought out, among other things, a remake of the old Mattel Vertibird. You can see alot of these on EBAY. What, after all this time, do people think that the value of these will suddenly reach those of an original, orange, unopened Mattel Vertibird? Same thing with Playing Mantis stuff.
A few years ago, Playing Mantis re-did the Indy 500 Rocket race set. I missed these in stores, but I have just acquired one and here it is:
I just can't contain my excitement for my new Indy 500 Set. These came out in the late 90s, were snatched quickly up. I just tested mine out, and it is the best set like this I have played with so far. While it doesn't have that challenge of the LM, the Cyclone, or the version detailed below, it is the best for control of the cars, and also very easy wear and tear wise on the cars you use.
Here is the box, reproduced quite well!
Here are the cars that come with the set, a Charger and a Camaro!
Here are two cars, my Playing Mantis GTOs, in the launcher, ready to go. These are not the cars that the set comes with, but they are the classic "hook" chassis, which appear to be getting harder to find. You need the chassis with the hooks on them to work on these sets. (See section above for illustration)
Here are the controls to shove the cars forward. There is a grab post also.
|The curves on each side of the Indy track are highly banked at 90 degrees at their apex.|
Look how clean and perfect PM did with the labeling job here on the launcher!
Look closely, this is my GTO flipping over going through the curve too fast! The front of the car is to the right and the car is upside down. Great action. Plastic in track is well made, as is the launcher.
Here is the instruction set. I do not know how close this is to the original, but it sure looks the part. There are both Topper and Playing Mantis logos at the bottom of the page.
|Also included are a complete decal set (which I elected to keep on the sheet) and this warning certificate. I would suppose that stating that this is an "Adult Collectible" was meant to keep some of the "baby safe" worrywarts from going bananas. Does every toy have to be able to be shot safely at a baby's face to be considered safe?!||Here is a close up of the logo.|
They also bought the rights to the Sizzler name, right out from under Mattel, hee hee, as the trademark had expired. They created a few oval sets, with super wide track and banked curves, and some rechargable cars, and an equivalent to the old Juice Machine. Most collectible of these is the set based on Speed Racer. I have one of the early Super Stocker sets, and will profile it soon. However, in typical Playing Mantis fashion, it appears that they no longer make Sizzlers. On top of that, I won't even go into the wierd Thunderjet HO "Slot cars" that they came out with---pushback spring wound motors, but you could take the bodies off of them and they fit on vintage HO slot car chassis. What the hell is that all about?
I also have a number of Sky Show sets. Yes, just like the Hot Wheels name sake, this set has little gliders launch from a ramp on the back of a car. The original Hot Wheels set used a Custom Fleetside for the launcher (even though the Custom Fleetside was no longer available as a regular car!), but the PMJL set used an El Camino. The gliders are a bit different, and very fragile, but they work GREAT! Interestingly, these sets have seen NO increase in value over the past few years, and you can easily find one on EBAY, unopened, for less than $20. People bought these up thinking they were going to go crazy in price like the old Hot Wheels set. People are stupid. They just took these out of circulation from kids who might actually enjoy them.
Here is something amazing I just bought.
Remember the discussion on the JL Cyclone, the verticle set? Well check out what I just picked up from Toys R Us.
|This appears to be a scaled down version of the JL Cyclone set. This is NOT a Playing Mantis set, but by Fast Lane, distributed by Toys R Us. They also make some other goofy cars that I noticed on the aisle, but did not fit the scale of this set.|
||(Left and Right) Here are some pictures of the control console. A grab handle is there for each participant. The launcher unit is well made, and I cannot complain about quality anywhere on this set. See what you can get when you pay people in China slave wages to build things?! You get a nice quality set that sells for 1/2 what it used to when dollars are adjusted for inflation.|
|I purchased this in November 2002, just to see what it was like. The plastic is a decent grade, flexible enough to not break easily, but not too flexible. Let's hope its not the cheap stuff that gets brittle in a few years and breaks when you try to reassemble the track.|
||The cars are cheap, light, and I would not expect to race them on a gravity track to any victory. However, they serve this set well. Plus, they give you four of them plus this nifty built in storage facility.|
|I was wondering if vintage or newer Playing Mantis cars would work on this set. They sure do, but they are heavier and require a slightly different technique. It is all in the technique with these sets, old or new, to get the cars to launch without going off the track and get completely around. Tons of fun. Make sure you have the type of chassis with the built in hook. All the old JL's have this, and some of the Playing Mantis ones do too, as in both my PM GTOs. However, recently I went to the store and NO PM JLs had the hook, they all had the flat chassis. I wrote the company about this, of course, never got an answer. To the left is the car stop and engaging hook.|
||The verticle riser works great!|
|Box cover art. Ok guys, Marketing 101. This toy is not appropriate for the oddball kids they have on the box art. What is that one kid, 4? It takes skill. This toy is for 8 to 12 year olds and up. A little kid would not be able to do this, much less even dream to set it up, as it takes 20 small screws and about 1/2 hour to make. And if you have a toy with little kids on it, older kids will immediatly think its a baby toy. As this toy is directly marketed, not just sold, by Toys-R-Us, you think they would know this.|
Fun Johnny Lightning Links
Here is a great link, showing the whole 1970 JL Catalog: http://www.jlightning.8k.com/catalog.html
Here is some information on the assembly plant in NJ where the JLs were made:
Sizzler imformation and repair site:
Take me back home