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Hot 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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