Wheels vs Johnny Lightning
Never mind Indy, the real drive is for a $150 million market in tiny cars,
with a whole world of kids hanging on every high-speed turn.
by Robert H. Boyle
printed Fall 1970, Sports Illustrated - typed by Jack Leeper
It is a rivalry like no other. It has elements of GM against Ford, Army vs.
Navy, Hertz vs. Avis, Macy's against Gimbels, yin against yang, aspirin vs.
Bufferin. The Great Toy Auto Race is on! In this lane, revving up with Hot
Wheels and Sizzlers is Mattel, Inc., the biggest toy company in the world,
with an annual gross of more than $300 million. In the other lane, at the
ready with Johnny Lightning's, is Topper Corporation. The prize at stake is a
$150-million-a-year market composed mostly of kids from 4 to 14 reaching up
to the toy counters at discount houses or Pop's stationary store, dollar
bills clutched in hand, saying, "Gimme that Hot Wheel" or "I want that Johnny
Lightning." On such decisions fortunes turn and companies retool.
American youngsters who may be the champion consumers of all time, have an
extrodinarily wide choice of toy cars. Cars have supplanted the electric
train sets that tooted around the christmas trees of yesteryear. Like their
adult counterparts, the kids want cars, cars and more cars. There are
Aurora's Model Motoring, Ideal's Mini-Motorific, Kenner's SSP, Strombecker's
and other so-called slot-car racing sets, but the big bonanza is in miniature
die-cast cars with low friction wheels, such as Mattel's Hot Wheels and
Topper's Johnny Lightnings. Mattel has the biggest share of the market, with
Topper a distant second but coming on fast in recent months.
The Great Toy Auto Race between Mattel and Topper is being fought on all
sorts of fronts, involving the television screen, cereal boxes, buttons,
patches, coloring books, and other hoopla galore. Mattel spends more on
advertising than such industrial giants as Standard Oil of California, Royal
Crown Cola, Sun Oil, Delta Air Lines, Armstrong Cork, or ing-Temco-Vought,
and Topper is not far behind. In fact, Topper goes in for the hard sell with
such a vengeance that almost a quarter of its gross is poured back into
advertising. In the field of auto sports Mattel and Topper are having a
wicked go at each other. Both companies have discovered that kids like to
identify with real-life race drivers. Mattel is big in hot rods.
It is backing Tom (Mongoose) McEwen, five-time holder of the national speed
and elapsed time drag records, and Don (Snake) Prudhomme, 1969's hot rod
driver of the year. It has tied in with Grand Prix models and the National
Hot Rod Association and has sponsored the Hot Wheels Supernational drag strip
championships. Scratching and scrambling to stay in the race, the rival
Topper Corporation is sponsoring the Parnelli Jones racing team and last May
pulled off a fantastic coup by winning at indianapolis with the Johnny
Lightning 500 Special, driven by Al Unser. As a result, Unser has come to be
regarded by kids as Johnny Lightning himself, and whenever he shows up at a
store to plug the Johnny Lightning toy cars he is surrounded by a horde of
boys. "East Paterson, New Jersey, two thousand kids!" exults Bob Perilla,
Topper's public relations man. "Two Thousand!" All this causes some people at
Mattel to groan quietly in a corner. Mattel had the first chance to get Al
Unser for Hot Wheels, but turned him down.
Mattel has had promotional victories of its own, however. Last February the
Chamber of Commerce and the Junior Chamber in Siginaw, Mich. sponsored a Hot
Wheels Derby in a local shopping mall. There were more than 1,700 entries
and a crowd of 6,000 showed up to watch the finals in which Hot Wheels cars
raced down 250 feet of track from an eight-foot-high starting tower. In May
a Hot Wheels Derby in Niles, Ohio attracted 850 entries and a crowd of
10,000. As a result of all this, the Saginaw Chamber of Commerce, with happy
cooperation from Mattel, is sponsoring a National Hot Wheels Derby
Championship for 1971. After local and statewide derbies are run off in
shopping centers all across the country the finals will be held in Saginaw,
with plenty of prizes. Never one to lag behind, Topper is involved in Johnny
Lightning racing competition with the YMCA, which ordinarily eschews any
activity smacking of commercialism. Boys interest in toy cars is so intense,
however, that more than 900 Y's have signed up, and each of them has been
presented with two free Johnny Lightning New 500 Le Mans Raceway sets by
Topper. There will be branch, citywide, regional and national finals, with
the grand prizewinner and his family getting an all-expense-paid trip to the
1971 Indy 500 as Al Unser's personal guests.
This personal touch, the signing of real hero drivers to promote toy cars,
finally got to the Aurora people, who are anxious to join the race with their
own Model Motoring setup. A few weeks ago, in a bold promotional stunt, they
staged a mock race on the Ed Sullivan television show. Did any real kids get
to play cars? No. There at the miniature trackside were racing greats Dan
Gurney, Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, and Graham Hill, outfitted in newly
bought Dunhill blazers and not the least embarrassed. Score one for Aurora,
even though there was a tense moment Gurney first agreed to appear but asked,
innocently, "May I wear my Mattel jacket?"
At Mattel, Topper is considered a pestiferous copycat company, a
Johnny-come-lately, if you will, that happened to be struck by promotional
lightning at Indianapolis. Mattel executives take pride not only in being on
top of the toy industry, but in their company's innovations as well.
Mattel's Research and Development department employs more than 400 people,
ranging from physicists to hair stylists. Secrecy is the word. Mattel is
already hard at work on its 1972 line-the 1971 line was decided months
ago-and the company does not want any competitors, particularly Topper, to
get an inkling of what's new. Toy projects are given code names ("Zip" was
the code for the Sizzler cars) and R&D prototypes are literally kept from
prying eyes under wraps of purple cloth. It is impossible to enter Mattel's
headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. without signing in with a guard and
receiving a badge and an escort. Every employee wears a badge of one color
or another, the color of the badge depending on the security clearance of the
By contrast, no one at Topper wears a security badge. Research and
Development at Topper is behind the design chief's office door, which opens
after a knock. "Why would Topper need any security?" asks Bernie Loomis, the
Mattel vice-president in charge of Hot Wheels. When discussing Topper,
Loomis and other Mattel execs are fond of waspishly quoting Kipling;
And they ask me how I did it, and I gave them the Scripture text,
"You keep your light so shining a little in front o' the next."
They copied all they could follow,but they couldn't copy my mind, And I left'em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.
Mattel began 25 years ago when Elliot and Ruth Handler, childhood sweethearts
in Denver, began making picture frames in a converted garage in Los Angeles.
After filling one large order the Handlers found themselves with leftover
scrap plastic and wood. An industrial designer by profession, Handler
converted the scraps into dollhouse furniture and, with with Ruth doing the
selling, they did $100,000 worth of business, $30,000 net profit. Since then
Mattel has been one success story after another. In 1947 the company
introduced the Uke-a-Doodle, a small plastic ukulele, in 1948 a plastic piano
with raised keys that was difficult for competitors to copy and in 1949 a
revolutionary music box. By 1955 Mattel was doing $5 million a year gross.
This was the year the Handlers gambled $500,000 to advertise their Burp Gun
on a new television show called the Mickey Mouse Club. The response was
staggering. Reaching the kiddies directly with TV had far-reaching
implications, explains Handler. "Previously most toys were purchased by
adults who would ask the retailer: 'What do you have for a 5 year old?'
Three or four products were offered as possibilities and the selection made.
Neither the toy nor the manufacturer was identified in the mind of the adult
or the child. With television both brand name and product could be sold
directly to the consumer. It was the beginning of a marketing revolution."
The marketing revolution continued with Mattel's introduction in 1959 of
Barbie, a chesty doll named after the Handler's daughter, and later Ken,
Barbie's boyfriend named after their son. (Topper now has Dawn, a Barbielike
doll that sells for half the Barbie price and which, or who, zoomed recently
to No. 1 spot on the toy hit parade. "Dawn is just a gorgeous little broad,
she really is, " says David Downs, Topper's executive vice-president for
corporate development, giving her a pat on the head in the showroom.) Mattel
followed with other successes: Baby First Step (first doll to walk by
herself), Baby Tender Love (Topper has Baby Luv 'N Care), Creepy Crawlers,
Fright Factory and Incredible Edibles (all made from palstigoop and
gobble-DeGoop; half the fun at Mattel is making up names), See 'N Say
educational toys and -roll of drums, blare of trumpets, unfurl all
shopping-center flags- Hot Wheels!
Small cars have been a staple in the toy business for years, and collecting
miniature cars is an old idea, going back to Dinky toys and beyond, but one
day in 1967 Handler wondered if Mattel couldn't come up with a new
twist:speed. "Kids like things that go fast," Handler says. Why not make
miniature cars that would run fast, cars that would create what the Handler's
fondly term "a play situation"? R&D at Mattel was unleashed and came up with
a prototype gravity powered car that could run at a scale speed of 300 MPH
downhill. The secret was low friction wheels made of styrene hung on torsion
bars. Recollections differ at Mattel but, according to the most common
version, Handler took one look at this car and exclaimed, "Wow, those are hot
wheels!" In 1968 Mattel came out with the first of the Hot Wheels line.
Besides the cars, which factory wholesale for 58 cents a piece and generally
retail for 98 cents, a buyer purchase strips of plastic track on which the
car could roll. Some of the cars were modeled on standard automobiles --
Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, Corvette, '36 Ford Coupe, Mercedes-Benz 280 SL,
Continental Mark III -- but others were way out, Mattel inspirations done in
what the company calls California Style such as Splittin' Image, Sand Crab,
Hot Heap, Light-My-Firebird, Hairy Hauler, Power Pad, and Nitty Gritty Kitty.
Instant success. Mattel was soon making more toy cars than all the life size
auto makers in the world combined. In accordance with company custom Mattel
began immediate work on improvements and additions that would enhance the Hot
Wheels line, and the new products have included a stunt action set in which
Hot Wheels loop the loop; dual racing track; the Super Charger, a battery
operated device with spinning brushes that send Hot Wheels whirring down the
track; the Lap Counter; a starter called the Rod Runner; the Tune-Up Tower, a
parking garage with an elevator and equipped with a Dyno-Meter to check wheel
alignment. Misaligned wheels can be corrected by - right!- the official Hot
Wheels wheel wrench. There is the Mongoose and Snake drag racing set,
complete with drag chutes, and exquisitely detailed Gran Toros, built in
Italy to a slightly larger scale and featuring such lifelike models as
Trantula, Lotus Europa, Lamborghini Miura, Porsche Carrera and the Ferrari
But the blockbuster came this year: Sizzlers. These have plastic body shells
and are powered by a nickel cadmium battery that can be refueled by the Power
Pit or the Juice Machine. Kids can, according to the promotion, "race-em,
Charge 'em, Run lap after lap at super speeds. Recharge again and again for
instant power. Quick pit work lets cars charge back into action in 24 hour
endurance races like Daytona and Le Mans."
Mattel is not standing still with the success of Sizzlers, which are factory
priced at $2.10 each. This January, to quote Mattel's tease advertising,
"the RRRumblers are coming!" The new RRRumblers are motorbikes built to run
on Hot Wheels gravity tracks. That is just for starters: more RRRumblers
innovations are in the works, shrouded by purple cloth. To get RRRumblers off
the ground, Mattel is coming out with an offer that allows kids to trade in
certain Hot Wheels buttons for the new product. The response is expected to
be overwhelming. Last Dec. Mattel started a small campaign announcing the
Hot Wheels Club. For $1 a youngster could get a Boss Hoss Hot Wheels and a
collectors edition of the Hot Wheels catalog. In little more then a month
more than half a million youngsters wrote in. It took the company more then
6 months to dig itself out from under the mail, and if only Topper and Johnny
Lightning would go away the world would be pure gravy.
Topper Corporation headquarters in Elizabeth, N.J., composed of old brick
buildings capped by smokestacks and surrounded by railroad sidings, is said
to be the biggest single toy factory in the world. It looks more like an
R.A.F. target in the Ruhr. The presiding genius is a first-rate table-tennis
player, chess addict, sometimes sculptor and former inmate of a German
concentration camp named Henry Orenstein.
In 1969, a year after Mattel introduced Hot Wheels, Orenstein and Topper came
out with the first Johnny Lightning metal cars, which could be rolled by
gravity or propelled around a track by a catapult device called an actuator.
Inasmuch as the actuator is hand operated, Topper says Johnny Lightning races
are won by skill. From the very first, Topper made the claim that Johnny
Lightnings were faster than any Hot Wheels car. According to Topper the
first Johnny Lightnings could achieve scale speeds of 400 MPH. The secret was
their wheel construction. The wheels are made of Celcon and hung on straight
axles. This year Topper refined the wheels even more and improved the
actuator, boosting the scale speed to an asserted 1,500 MPH.
Initially, Johnny Lightning sales lagged far behind Hot Wheels. Then Henry
Orenstein pulled off the master stroke, or what Elliot Handler of Mattel
terms "a desperate gamble." Topper sponsored the Johnny Lightning 500 car
that Al Unser drove to victory at Indianapolis last May. The resultant
publicity gave credibility to the speed of the toy Johnny Lightning and, as
Ron Aaront, vice president in charge of product development at Topper says,
"Speed is the name of the game." Since then Johnny Lightning sales have
jumped and figures compiled by Mattel show that for about every three Hot
Wheels one Johnny Lightning is sold.
How Orenstein and Topper came to sponsor the Johnny Lightning 500 at Indy is
an astonishing tale in the annals of capitalism. Much credit belongs to Jim
Cook, a former Firestone Rep. who was trying to line up 1970 sponsorship of
the Parnelli Jones racing team. Cook lives near Mattel headquarters - in
fact there are so many Mattel executives in his neighborhood that it is known
as Mattel Hill- but he had no luck in getting Hot Wheels sponsorship. Mattel
had alot of promotions going, the Indy 500 was not on TV, and besides the
idea was just too crazy. Undaunted, Cook took his pitch to Topper.
Orenstein was intrigued, but was it really possible to pick a driver for the
500 and actually win with him the first time out?
At a memorable meeting in 1969, 11 months before Indy, Orenstein asked Cook:
"If your head were on a chopping block and your life depended on giving the
right answer, tell me now, who is going to win the Indy 500 next year?"
Without hesitation Cook replied " Al Unser." With that show of confidence,
Orenstein agreed to make a deal. For a sum believed to be $150,000 Topper
was to sponsor 5 racing cars to be built by Parnelli Jones. They were to be
called Johnny Lightning 500 Specials, and they were to be painted blue with
gold lightning bolts. There were to be two cars for the Indy race, a starter
and backup cars. Al Unser was to be the driver. Two other Johnny Lightnings
were for the dirt-track circuit. Moreover, the other members of the Jones
team-Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser, Joe Leonard, Billy Vukovich,
Roger McCluskey and Jones himself- were to do commercials for the toy Johnny
Lightnings. Elated, Cook returned to California with the glad news for the
team. He was greeted with profound depression. One mechanic muttered, "Now
Andy Granatelli will say we have a 98 cent car."
Al Unser himself felt let down. "I didn't think they'd make a good sponsor,
being a toy company," he says now, "I thought we'd be kidded. But seeing what
kind of company Topper is, well, I knew if I won the race they would
advertise it. They would capitalize on it. Its worth money to them and to
me. The more advertising I get the easier it is to sell me, and the easier I
can make a living."
Jones went ahead with construction on the Johnny Lightning cars. They were
built, Cook says with a certain righteous satisfaction, "within two miles of
Mattel's home office." The first sweet taste of possible victory came last
March in the Phoenix 150, when Unser, driving the Johnny Lightning, lapped
the entire field with the exception of his brother Bobby -also under contract
with Johnny Lightning. Before the race at Indy, Orenstein was supremely
confident. He gave a prerace party in Jones garage and setup toy race sets
for kids who were invited. The day before the race Orenstein held a sales
meeting in an Indianapolis hotel. The subject was: "What do we do when we
win?" When Unser and the Johnny Lightning 500 took the lead early in the race
Orenstein sought to head for the pits to celebrate victory. With 35 laps
still to go Orenstein could be restrained no longer, and when Unser came in
the winner Topper executives immediately slapped a sticker, Johnny Lightning,
Winner of the Indy 500, on the car. "Where did you get that?" Jones asked.
He was told that Orenstein had ordered several million printed before the
race. "If we knew that we would have killed you," Jones screamed. Orenstein
smiled and Johnny Lightning has been rolling ever since.
After Joe Leonard won the Milwaukee 150 in the Johnny Lightning 500 he
demonstrated the toy cars in a Topper exhibit at the Milwaukee County Fair
last August. A youngster came in and offered to race his Mattel Sizzler
against a Johnny Lightning. "We had done tests in our factory," says Ron
Aaront of Topper, "so we knew what would happen. We gave him a third of the
way head start and beat him easily. Our car can cover a 30 foot section of
track in 1.8 seconds. The kid was flabbergasted. We went out and got more
Mattel Sizzlers and Juice Machines and put on exhibitions everywhere we
Recently Topper came out with a flyer that asks, "Boys, which are faster--the
new Johnny Lightning 500s or Sizzlers?" And Al Unser answers, "The new Johnny
Lightning 500s running on their tracks are twice as fast as the Sizzlers on
their tracks or any tracks, That's a Fact!" Topper recently ran an ad of
this nature in Boys Life, which prompted Mattel's ad agency to protest to the
magazine. "A Sizzler car is a different product." says Bernie Loomis, the
Hot Wheels rep. "This is like comparing oranges to bananas. Its like saying
a track dash man can beat Jim Ryan in the 100. But Jim Ryan isn't out to run
the 100, he's a miler. Our concern is that that kind of ad to the kids isn't
going to do the toy business any good."
Back at Topper, Henry Orenstein says, "Johnny Lightning has the fastest cars
by far, and no single company can challenge that statement. In fact the Indy
500 has set the speed standards for the entire industry. To say that we
copy cars is ludicrous. It is a common practice to try to improve on
existing concepts." (Then last week, while the two companies were still
arguing-and advertising-the Federal Trade Commission stepped up with formal
complaints against them both, citing TV ads that "exaggerate or falsely
represent" the toy cars, and asked both to cease and desist.)
Still the rivalry shows no signs of lessening. Hot Wheels is getting ready
to spring the RRRumblers and other suprises. Johnny Lightning is out to
really cut the Sizzler down to size with a battery powered trailer attachment
called the Afterburner, which will be about one third the price of a Sizzler.
Will Hot Wheels hold onto the lead? Will Johnny Lightning gain ground?
Mattel and Topper have different opinions, but thats what makes a horse race,
or at least the Great Toy Auto Race.
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