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HOT PACE IN A BIG MINI-RACE
Robert H. Boyle
December 07, 1970
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
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December 07, 1970

Hot Pace In A Big Mini-race

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

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The marketing revolution continued with Mattel's introduction in 1959 of Barbie, a chesty doll named after the Handlers' 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's 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 ("The 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 Plastigoop 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 Handlers 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¢ apiece and generally retail for 98¢, a buyer could 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 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 automakers 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 new products have included a stunt-action set in which Hot Wheels loop the loop; dual racing tracks; 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 & Snake drag racing set, complete with drag chutes, and the exquisitely detailed Gran Toros, built in Italy to a slightly larger scale and featuring such lifelike models as T'rantula, Lotus Europa, Lamborghini Miura, Porsche Carrera and the Ferrari P4.

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 the 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 December, Mattel started a small campaign announcing the Hot Wheels Club. For $l a youngster could get a Boss Hoss Hot Wheels and a collector's edition of the Hot Wheels catalog. In little more than a month more than half a million youngsters wrote in. It took the company six 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, sometime 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 masterstroke, 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 Lightnings 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 flack who was trying to line up 1970 sponsorship of the Parnelli Jones racing team. Cook lives near the 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 a lot 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 June 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 Indianapolis 500 next year?" Without hesitating 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 five 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¢ car."

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