Hot Wheels took the lion’s share of diecast journalism attention in 2018 with their elaborate, year-long 50th Anniversary celebration. With that in the rear view mirror, Johnny Lightning turns the big 5-0 in 2019, with some special retro packaging and old castings in the works. Several people involved in the brand are also celebrated as Inductees of the Model Car Hall of Fame.
Of course, it hasn’t been a continuous half century. The original Topper cars were made only until 1971 when the company went bankrupt for missing the mark on other toys. It’s a shame they went out of business, because JL was giving Hot Wheels a run for the money at the time. For a sense of how heated the race was between Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning during the Topper years, check out this article from Sports Illustrated from 1970. The brands were not only banging fenders at 1/64 scale, they were duking it out on real tracks. While Hot Wheels was all-in with their Snake and Mongoose drag racing efforts, JL was busy sponsoring -and winning – in Indy Cars. The peak for Topper was Al Unser winning the Indy 500 in a blue car covered in those familiar lightning bolts.
In 1995, Tom Lowe (MCHOF ’10), who enjoyed those original cars as a kid, secured the license to the name and the designs and started reproducing them. Collectors of a certain age were thrilled to see the original designs, but that wasn’t all he had in mind. That lasted a good decade until 2013. Lowe has also worked tor AMT, Auto World, Hawk, Lindberg, MPC and Polar Lights. As the CEO of Round2, he was able to secure the brand again and begin producing new Johnny Lightning models in 2016.
Mac Ragan (MCHOF ’10) helped steer Johnny Lightning from 2003-2007, with a hand in designing hundreds of vehicles during his tenure. He left for Greenlight Collectibles, but eventually found his way home again. As Social Media Director for their various brands, he was instrumental in the latest comeback for Johnny Lightning.
Several designers who have contributed to the Johnny Lightning garage are also inductees in the MCHOF.
Judson Bryan (MCHOF ’15), right, is another diecast designer who has done some of his best work with Johnny Lightning. Bryan has worked with several other large diecast brands, including Muscle Machines, Jada Toys, and Johnny Lightning.
Tony Karamitsos (MCHOF ’17), left, currently serves as Brand Manager and senior designer for Round2. Tony is known for his attention to detail having designed hundreds of highly detailed die-cast replicas for numerous scales for Johnny Lightning, Auto World, Racing Champions, American Muscle, Legends of the Quarter Mile, Silver Screen Machines, slot car replicas, resin models & model kits throughout the years which are all currently owned by Round2.
Then of course, there’s Tom Daniel (MCHOF ’18) He’s best known for his crazy, far-out model kits, often a take on a familiar theme such as circus wagons, paddy wagons, beer wagons (he really likes wagons!) Several of his cars have been licensed for smaller scales by Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning. JL’s models included the “Plastic Fantastic” series, which came with miniatures of the model kit boxes. His custom 1960 Chevy Panel Wagon has also been produced in 1/18 scale by Johnny Lightning.
The MCHOF has even recognized one of the descendants of the Johnny Lightning brand as model of the eyar. The Auto World ’64 Galaxie (MCHOF ’18) won that honor for 1/64 scale cars.
Even though the timeline has some gaps, Johnny Lightning has been an important part of the diecast world for the better part of the 50 years since their debut. Here’s hoping they celebrate in style as the year rolls on!