Diecast Toy Collecting
A Dinky Supertoys Guy Warrior ‘Heinz’ Van (920). Sold for $1435 via Wallis & Wallis (November 2017).
The first diecast toy cars were sold in a set of six cars together: a sports car, a delivery van, a tank, a sports coupe, a truck and a farm tractor. These six cars were cast in lead and were based on a generic version of the listed car. The cars proved popular, and soon Dinky Toys was producing dozens of new models including diecast planes, diecast tanks and diecast ships. For twenty years, Dinky Toys was the only name in diecast cars, until a little company named Corgi Toys introduced “the ones with windows”.
Corgi Toys - was first introduced as a sub-brand of Mettoy Playcraft, and was named after the eponymous dog breed that also hailed from the company’s headquarters in Swansea, South Wales. Mettoy Playcraft specialized in metal toy production, but had primarily focused on tin plate toys, not diecast toys. Their products were initially popular, but in 1956 they shook the industry by developing glazed plastic windows, an invention so essential it’s hard to imagine a time before they existed. Corgi Toys was so confident in this new innovation, they sold the new toys with the simple slogan “the ones with windows”. Their initial 1956 line comprised of eight classic vehicles, including the Ford Consul, the Morris Cowley, the Austin-Healey 100 and the Triumph TR2.
Soon after Corgi introduced transparent windows, another British company, Lesney Products, unveiled “Matchbox” cars — what would soon become a household name. These cars, named for the faux matchbox they came in, were significantly smaller in size, but very affordable. Lesney Products produced an array of models, quickly outpacing their competitors in volume if not in quality. It also helped that Matchbox cars were made in approximately 1:65 scale, though proportions were often modified to fit their pint-sized packaging. This did not affect their popularity.
The appeal of “the ones with windows” and the affordable Matchbox cars forced a sort of diecast arms race. Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys produced car after car, each trying to outdo the other with new features: jeweled headlights, detailed interiors, working suspensions, and licensing deals. For ten years, the three major companies were caught in a stalemate that seemed certain to last. That is, until Hot Wheels emerged.
TootsieToy is a manufacturer of die cast toy cars and other toy vehicles. The TootsieToy brand has its origins in a range of miniature cars in the form of charms, pins, and cuff links, introduced circa 1901 by the Chicago based Dowst Brothers company.
Tootsie was the name of Theodore (Ted) Dowst's daughter. Some time before 1925 the TootsieToy name began to appear in catalogues and on boxes of automotive toys, but did not appear on the undersides of castings themselves until 1926 or 1927, and some unmarked castings were still being made after 1930.
Many TootsieToy cars are still made from a die cast mould, with a solid metal axle connecting the wheels to the metal body. TootsieToy, which is now owned by the Strombecker corporation and still based in Chicago, makes about 40 million cars per year.
All models have been available in different combinations blistered on cards, known examples are for instance a combination of Cadillac and Ford Sunliner on one card but also the Ford Sunliner with speedboat. As far as we know now, and with the exception of the I.H.Metro van, the models have only been available in a single colour, there were no color variations.
In 1969, the Topper Corporation of Elizabeth, New Jersey introduced the Johnny Lightning brand of diecast vehicles. They are one of the many brand names of Deluxe Reading, a toy manufacturer also based in Elizabeth, that made toys under Deluxe Topper, Deluxe Toy Creations, Deluxe Reading, Topper Corp., Topper Toy Group, and Topper Toys. The Topper Toys brand was the one most often used in print advertisements and children's based television commercials.
Topper was a power house toy manufacturer owned by Henry Orenstein. They designed and produced a range of (15) different customized and fantasy castings fitted with 'speed type' wheels and metal bases that made up the initial range of Johnny Lightning castings. They based all but one car, the Custom Turbine, on other real cars of the era. Along with their 'fabulous' 500 track sets, a carrying case and helmet - they moved from design concept to retail, in less than a year. Blister card tag phrases included "The Challengers" and "Beats Them All" in direct reference to Mattel's Hot Wheels offerings and indirectly Matchbox's Superfast line.
In 1970, they added (32) - mostly new fantasy vehicles and numerous different track sets. A section of the new car line up was called 'Jet Powered'. These models were powered by an inflatable bladder contained inside the casting.
Only (5) new models were introduced in 1971. These were called "Custom Cars". Each came with plastic snap-on parts, so they could be customized to personal taste.
By the end of 1971, after marketing a total of 47 different castings and numerous track sets, Topper Toys was forced to close. Topper had gone bankrupt, after a failed public stock sale. Although one site notes it was due to business fraud. Ending the Johnny Lightning line up - for the first time.
Four models that were in development and never released were only known from their test shots and prototypes. These four 'lost' Toppers were castings never mass produced for market in the USA. They were a Camaro, a Charger, a Lincoln Continental and a Mustang. These four castings were; however, mass produced and marketed - along with many others castings from the Johnny lightning line - in Mexico, under the brand name Lili Ledy called "Los Bolidos".
In January 1994, Tom Lowe, an entrepreneur from Cassopolis, Michigan had just founded Playing Mantis in 1993. after 23 years, he secured the molds and unprotected trade mark name of Johnny Lightning and began making JL diecasts again.
From the original 1:64 scale models, (8) were reintroduced. These were the Bug Bomb, '32 Ford Roadster, El Camino, GTO, Jag XKE, Movin' Van, Vicious Vette, and Wasp.They were updated with new metal base plates, body colors, and wheel sets. More realistic models and concept cars of mostly American cars followed. And in an industry first - collectors were introduced to the 'Chase' car. Playing Mantis had begun releasing a limited number of each model painted in a pearl white paint. They were initially called 'A Bonus' on the packaging but evolved into the popular "White Lightning" Chase car.
"Muscle Cars U.S.A." debuted in late 1994 and became the bedrock of the new Johnny Lightning brand. With each passing year, Playing Mantis introduced new themes for their cars. Adding dragsters, pickup trucks, pace cars, Corvettes, James Bond, police, Mustangs, military, Hollywood, and Coca-Cola series lines.
In 1995, Playing Mantis released a 'Commemorative Line' called "The Lost Toppers". This line up included the original four 'lost' Toppers Camaro, Charger, Lincoln, and Mustang.. Also included were (4) previously unmade Toppers that were slated for introduction in 1970 and 1971, but were never even developed as prototypes. These were the Beep Heap (Jeep), Commuter, Skinni Mini, and the Tow'd (a hot rod tow truck). "The Lost Toppers" also included a 'First Shots Series" (assembled as bare metal unpainted zamac bodies) and other 'Hobby Store Exclusives' castings. Other exclusive castings were available at K B Toys.
In the mid 1990s, a line of smaller sized muscle car diecasts called "Speed Rebels" were also made. These did not carry the Johnny Lightning brand name on their base plate or their blister card packaging.
In 1998, they made a series of James Bond 007 casting models for marketing and distribution by Corgi in Europe. These also did not carry the Johnny Lightning brand name and instead were labeled as Corgi made products.
They also made a series of plastic pull back friction cars called "Polar Lights" based on Playing Mantis' line of slot cars.
They also revived the "Sizzlers" brand name fitted with electric motors similar to the original Mattel series of electric motored cars.
In June 2004, Playing Mantis brands were sold to the RC/Ertl company who later became RC2 and the Johnny Lightning line - for the second time - came to an end.
The Johnny Lightning diecast products continued to still be made for and distributed by RC2 from the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook, Illinois. RC2 had started as Racing Champions and also produced NASCAR die-cast models. Mac Ragan remained with RC2 after Playing Mantis was purchased as a designer and author.
In 2005, RC2 brought in die-cast designer, Eric Tscherne who had worked for Hot Wheels and then Jada Toys. Tscherne was inducted into the Diecast Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 2006, Johnny Lightning under went an image overhaul. A new clam shell style package began to be used, in January 2007, with the release of the new "Johnny Retro" series. A new logo treatment was also used with the logo and new package design eminiating from a partnership with Design Force and directed by Tscherne, et al. Additional updates of the brand image included the long-time collector favorite series of "Classic Gold" and "Muscle Cars". New packaging graphics were developed in the West Coast office by Jeremy Cox and Tscherne. A large price increase also went along with the new packaging. Which left many collectors unhappy with RC2 's changes.
In 2011, RC2 Corp was bought by the Japanese toy company TOMY and the Johnny Lightning line of diecast cars in 2013 was discontinued - for the 3rd time.
Tom Zahorsky remained the Johnny Lightning design manager until RC2 discontinued production in 2013. Later on he became the Director of Strategic Branding of TOMY International. He was inducted into the Diecast (3009) and the Model Car Hall of Fames, for his work designing Johnny Lightning (?) diecast cars for Tomica. He had started his diecast design career in 1995 with Racing Champions, working on both the Racing Champions Mint and Racing Champions NASCAR series line ups.
In early 2016, Round 2 LLC, a new toy company owned by Thomas (Tom) Lowe (who had previously owned Playing Mantis), licensed the Johnny Lightning name and vehicle line from Tomy and was again making Johnny Lightnings once more. Along with their new sister brand of Auto World and the revived Racing Champions line. The Playing Mantis logo also returned to the front of the packaging - for continuity with the previously produced Playing Mantis Johnny Lightning cars. In addition, Tom Lowe hired four original Playing Mantis designers back to work on the new Johnny Lightning lines.. They were Tony Karamitsos, Mike Groothuis, Mac Ragan, and Scott Johnson (from Pitcock Design).
In 2020, Johnny Lightning castings can still be found commercially at many major retailers and by on line sales.
In 1968 Elliot Handler, toy industry legend and founder of Mattel Toys, created a new line of tiny toy cars: Hot Wheels. What made these cars so different from their competitors was that instead of being modeled after real-life cars, Hot Wheels were conceived as fantastical custom hot rods with exaggerated proportions and pull-back racing functionality. “The Original Sweet 16” cars alongside a racing track set (sold separately, of course) were released in America to outstanding success. In 1969, they took that success to Europe.
Consolidation in the Market
The British companies simply could not compete with the American-made cars. For ten years they played catch up as Hot Wheels sold better each year, so well they actually made their slogan ‘Go with the Winner’. Dinky Toys was the first to fall to the success of Hot Wheels, and they closed their factory in 1979. The Dinky Toys brand, along with Matchbox and Corgi Toys, would later be purchased by Mattel. Mattel eventually sold Corgi Toys, which was reestablished as “Corgi Classics”. They still produce replicas of original Corgi toys today. Mattel currently produces toys under the Matchbox brand name, but they have allowed the Dinky Toys classic line to languish.
Diecast Car Values
Diecast cars, including exceptional examples from Dinky Toys, Corgi Toys, Matchbox and Hot Wheels, are commonly found at auction. For individual cars, Dinky cars tend to sell for a few hundred dollars, depending on condition, demand, and availability of original packaging. Due to scarcity, some pre-war Dinky cars can sell for a few thousand dollars. Corgi Toys licensed cars tend to be the most sought-after of their toys, with their “James Bond” and “Batman” cars selling in a range from several hundreds to several thousands of dollars, again depending on condition and packaging.
True to their origins as a discount diecast toy line, Matchbox Cars items tend to sell for less, with individual cars typically selling for one hundred dollars or less. Meanwhile, Hot Wheels in unopened packaging can easily sell for thousands of dollars, and special sets can go even higher. The most expensive diecast car ever sold was a pre-production Volkswagen Read Loader Beach Bomb. The car was too top-heavy to go into production and the prototype reportedly sold at auction for around $70,000.
In collecting vintage diecast cars keep an eye out for zinc pest (also known as zinc rot). Zinc pest is caused by impurities in the zinc alloy and can be found in diecast object made before the 1960s. For diecast cars, that means zinc pest crops up in early Dinky Toys and Corgi Toys cars. Zinc pest causes a white corrosive to form on the surface of the metal and compromises the structural integrity of the toy. Also always remember that many of these car lines have been reproduced over the years, so make sure to do your research when purchasing a vintage toy.
Diecast toys are fun for nostalgists and collectors of all ages. The sheer volume of cars produced over the years makes acquiring quality models accessible for any level of interest in the field of vintage toys. Whether you’re interested in a classic Dinky Toy diecast car, a revolutionary Corgi, the economical Matchbox, or the fantastical Hot Wheels, you’ll find plenty of examples to capture your imagination in the market today.