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Johnny Lightning Celebrates 50 Great Years


Johnny Lightning brand turns 50 and the hits keep on rolling

Hard to imagine it has been 50 years since the first Johnny Lightning die-cast cars hit the market. But 2019 marks the anniversary for the fine 1:64 scale die-cast cars that started out as part of the Topper Toys portfolio and now is a mainstay at Round2, based in South Bend, Ind. 
For collectors under 60 you might be surprised at JL’s longevity. You might just think of the great models with rubber tires that have been churned out via Round2 and Playing Mantis for the past 25 years.

But it was Henry Orenstein, owner of Topper Toys, that invented Johnny Lightning, and what a name. He wanted these to be the fastest miniature die-cast cars around and succeeded by creating realistic looking cars of a heavy metal and low-friction plastic wheels underneath to make them mini-rockets for kids to play with on the patio, schoolroom floor or at home.

The company made a big splash a year after JL was launched by sponsoring Al Unser’s Indy 500 car, while also making a die-cast version of it for sale. Lucky for Johnny Lightning too, Unser won Indy in both 1970 and 1971 in the JL-sponsored blue racer with lightning bolts on the nose. 
By the end of 1971 Johnny Lightning had captured 25% of the toy market, no small feat in just a couple years. But financial pressures caught up with Topper as it was expanding and by December of 1971 it had gone bust. The brand faded. But in 1994 Tom Lowe, then the owner of Playing Mantis in South Bend and now owner of Round2, revived the brand. That year eight replicas of the original Topper produced Johnny Lightning models were put on the market. JL collectors were quick to respond and the brand was rolling up sales big time in no time.

Now Round2, which also makes Auto World and Polar Lights die-cast vehicles, plus AMT, MPC and Polar Lights plastic model kits, is celebrating JL’s 50
th in a big way. First, you’ll see Johnny Lightning’s anniversary logo on all its package, plus two anniversary releases are planned, all with special artwork on the packaging, unique graphics and, get this, 20% of the product run will be with the old-time hard “Racers Edge” plastic tires as a throwback to JL’s racing heritage. Here’s what’s in the JL 50th releases:

  • Release 1 includes: 1966 VW Beetle, 1970 Plymouth Superbird, 1969 Chevy Impala convertible, 1965 Shelby Cobra Daytona coupe, 1934 Ford coupe and George Barris Fireball.
  • Release 2 includes: 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible, Topper Custom Camaro, 1969 Pontiac GTO, George Barris ice cream truck, Hawaiian Rolan Leong 1971 Dodge Charger Funny Car, and 1964 Ford Mustang convertible.

Other special JL products will include:

  • Tow & Go release featuring a 50th anniversary parade float.
  • 50th anniversary hobby exclusive Tin Litho Diorama with exclusive die-cast and car dealership diorama display.
Also look for more on JL’s social media sites and at this February’s New York Toy Fair, the giant worldwide Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany, and the Corvette National event, plus other regional and consumer shows this year. Fun times at Round2 with its Johnny Lightning brand! 


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