It seems like every generation claims a type of toy as their own. Toy cars however, have been zipping around households for decades with no intention of checking the brakes. There have been model cars for building, slot cars and die cast. We are specifically talking about play vehicles roughly 1/64th scale or smaller. This includes the products of famous brands like Matchbox, Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning. What makes this type of toy timeless? They are simply cool. It certainly doesn’t hurt that all three of these companies have done some creative marketing stunts to keep these pint-size racers in the hands of children.
Matchbox cars were the first to really mass produce toy cars for children. Starting in 1953, the co-founder of Lesney Products, Jack Odell, came up with the idea from his daughter. At the time in England she couldn’t bring toys to school that were larger than a matchbox. Thus enters the inspiration and name for the company. Making cars small enough to be tucked into a matchbox, the 1/75th scale cars were a big hit. The company focused on adapting realistic street designs into playthings. They were highly detailed, cheap and abundant.
Mattel, seeing Matchbox’s success over the pond ignited their own version of speedy racers called Hot Wheels in 1968. They were designed to be more eccentric, with vivid paint schemes and crazy racer-type bodies. Hot Wheels were an instant hit. What made them gain momentum was the subliminal marketing strategy. Automobile manufactures would license out their designs to Hot Wheels so that consumers could buy little replicas of their favorite cars both on the racetrack and off. Mattel even hired Harry Bentley Bradley, a concept car artist, to design the first fantasy fleet of Hot Wheels. Another decision that made Hot Wheels wildly popular was the option to buy track packages. Now kids didn’t just hold races on the family living room carpet, they could construct their very own racecourse out of the bright orange plastic track. Jumps, and loop options were sold to add to possible stunts.
Johnny Lightning was the third of the toy car trifecta. Originally a Topper Toys brand, what made Johnny Lightning cars stand out was the engineering. These cars could be propelled down the track with a lever-driven catapult whereas Matchbox and Hot Wheels mostly relied on gravity. In 1969 the first Johnny Lightning came onto the scene. In an effort to challenge Hot Wheels, Johnny Lightning started sponsoring racing. This turned out to be a brilliant marketing move. Sponsoring Al Unser’s Indy500 entries in 1970 and 1971, Unser would win the race both of those years, proving that Lightning can strike twice. The Al Unser/Johnny Lightning cars became the most sold toy car in history.
Mattel bought Matchbox’s parent company in 1997, and playtime was over for Topper Toys who closed due to business fraud. The Johnny Lightning brand was bought and changed hands a few times but ultimately was discontinued by TOMY Toy Company in 2013. Only Hot Wheels still rolls on but is overshadowed by the virtual toy trend. Many of these cars are considered collector’s items today and are bought primarily by adults. All these years later toy cars are still cool and provide hours of automobile fun for everyone.