Beautifully engraved Certificate from the famous Topper Corporation issued
in 1973. This historic document was printed by the Federated Banknote
Company and has an
ornate border around it with a vignette of an eagle. This itemhas the printed signatures of the company's officers
over 27 years old.
Below is an article from Sports Illustrated printed in the Fall 1970 discussing the toy war between Mattel and the Topper Corporation
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.
by Robert H. Boyle
It is a rivalry like no other. It has elements of GM against Ford, Army vs. Navy, Hertz vs. Avis, Macy's
against Gimbels, yin against yang, aspirin vs. Bufferin. The Great Toy Auto Race is on! In this lane,
revving up with Hot Wheels and Sizzlers is Mattel, Inc., the biggest toy company in the world, with an
annual gross of more than $300 million. In the other lane, at the ready with Johnny Lightning's, is
Topper Corporation. The prize at stake is a $150-million-a-year market composed mostly of kids from
4 to 14 reaching up to the toy counters at discount houses or Pop's stationary store, dollar bills
clutched in hand, saying, "Gimme that Hot Wheel" or "I want that Johnny Lightning." On such decisions
fortunes turn and companies retool.
American youngsters who may be the champion consumers of all time, have an extrodinarily wide
choice of toy cars. Cars have supplanted the electric train sets that tooted around the christmas trees
of yesteryear. Like their adult counterparts, the kids want cars, cars and more cars. There are
Aurora's Model Motoring, Ideal's Mini-Motorific, Kenner's SSP, Strombecker's and other so-called
slot-car racing sets, but the big bonanza is in miniature die-cast cars with low friction wheels, such as
Mattel's Hot Wheels and Topper's Johnny Lightnings. Mattel has the biggest share of the market, with
Topper a distant second but coming on fast in recent months.
The Great Toy Auto Race between Mattel and Topper is being fought on all sorts of fronts, involving
the television screen, cereal boxes, buttons, patches, coloring books, and other hoopla galore. Mattel
spends more on advertising than such industrial giants as Standard Oil of California, Royal Crown
Cola, Sun Oil, Delta Air Lines, Armstrong Cork, or ing-Temco-Vought, and Topper is not far behind.
In fact, Topper goes in for the hard sell with such a vengeance that almost a quarter of its gross is
poured back into advertising. In the field of auto sports Mattel and Topper are having a wicked go at
each other. Both companies have discovered that kids like to identify with real-life race drivers.
Mattel is big in hot rods.
It is backing Tom (Mongoose) McEwen, five-time holder of the national speed and elapsed time drag
records, and Don (Snake) Prudhomme, 1969's hot rod driver of the year. It has tied in with Grand
Prix models and the National Hot Rod Association and has sponsored the Hot Wheels Supernational
drag strip championships. Scratching and scrambling to stay in the race, the rival Topper Corporation
is sponsoring the Parnelli Jones racing team and last May pulled off a fantastic coup by winning at
indianapolis with the Johnny Lightning 500 Special, driven by Al Unser. As a result, Unser has come to
be regarded by kids as Johnny Lightning himself, and whenever he shows up at a store to plug the
Johnny Lightning toy cars he is surrounded by a horde of boys. "East Paterson, New Jersey, two
thousand kids!" exults Bob Perilla, Topper's public relations man. "Two Thousand!" All this causes
some people at Mattel to groan quietly in a corner. Mattel had the first chance to get Al Unser for Hot
Wheels, but turned him down.
Mattel has had promotional victories of its own, however. Last February the Chamber of Commerce
and the Junior Chamber in Siginaw, Mich. sponsored a Hot Wheels Derby in a local shopping mall.
There were more than 1,700 entries and a crowd of 6,000 showed up to watch the finals in which Hot
Wheels cars raced down 250 feet of track from an eight-foot-high starting tower. In May a Hot
Wheels Derby in Niles, Ohio attracted 850 entries and a crowd of 10,000. As a result of all this, the
Saginaw Chamber of Commerce, with happy cooperation from Mattel, is sponsoring a National Hot
Wheels Derby Championship for 1971. After local and statewide derbies are run off in shopping
centers all across the country the finals will be held in Saginaw, with plenty of prizes. Never one to lag
behind, Topper is involved in Johnny Lightning racing competition with the YMCA, which ordinarily
eschews any activity smacking of commercialism. Boys interest in toy cars is so intense, however, that
more than 900 Y's have signed up, and each of them has been presented with two free Johnny
Lightning New 500 Le Mans Raceway sets by Topper. There will be branch, citywide, regional and
national finals, with the grand prizewinner and his family getting an all-expense-paid trip to the 1971
Indy 500 as Al Unser's personal guests.
This personal touch, the signing of real hero drivers to promote toy cars, finally got to the Aurora
people, who are anxious to join the race with their own Model Motoring setup. A few weeks ago, in a
bold promotional stunt, they staged a mock race on the Ed Sullivan television show. Did any real kids
get to play cars? No. There at the miniature trackside were racing greats Dan Gurney, Stirling Moss,
Jackie Stewart, and Graham Hill, outfitted in newly bought Dunhill blazers and not the least
embarrassed. Score one for Aurora, even though there was a tense moment Gurney first agreed to
appear but asked, innocently, "May I wear my Mattel jacket?"
At Mattel, Topper is considered a pestiferous copycat company, a Johnny-come-lately, if you will, that
happened to be struck by promotional lightning at Indianapolis. Mattel executives take pride not only
in being on top of the toy industry, but in their company's innovations as well. Mattel's Research and
Development department employs more than 400 people, ranging from physicists to hair stylists.
Secrecy is the word. Mattel is already hard at work on its 1972 line-the 1971 line was decided
months ago-and the company does not want any competitors, particularly Topper, to get an inkling of
what's new. Toy projects are given code names ("Zip" was the code for the Sizzler cars) and R&D
prototypes are literally kept from prying eyes under wraps of purple cloth. It is impossible to enter
Mattel's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. without signing in with a guard and receiving a badge and an
escort. Every employee wears a badge of one color or another, the color of the badge depending on
the security clearance of the wearer.
By contrast, no one at Topper wears a security badge. Research and Development at Topper is behind
the design chief's office door, which opens after a knock. "Why would Topper need any security?"
asks Bernie Loomis, the Mattel vice-president in charge of Hot Wheels. When discussing Topper,
Loomis and other Mattel execs are fond of waspishly quoting Kipling;
And they ask me how I did it, and I
gave them the Scripture text,
"You keep your light so shining a
little in front o' the next."
They copied all they could follow,
but they couldn't copy my mind,
And I left'em sweating and stealing
a year and a half behind.
Mattel began 25 years ago when Elliot and Ruth Handler, childhood sweethearts in Denver, began
making picture frames in a converted garage in Los Angeles. After filling one large order the Handlers
found themselves with leftover scrap plastic and wood. An industrial designer by profession, Handler
converted the scraps into dollhouse furniture and, with with Ruth doing the selling, they did $100,000
worth of business, $30,000 net profit. Since then Mattel has been one success story after another. In
1947 the company introduced the Uke-a-Doodle, a small plastic ukulele, in 1948 a plastic piano with
raised keys that was difficult for competitors to copy and in 1949 a revolutionary music box. By 1955
Mattel was doing $5 million a year gross. This was the year the Handlers gambled $500,000 to
advertise their Burp Gun on a new television show called the Mickey Mouse Club. The response was
staggering. Reaching the kiddies directly with TV had far-reaching implications, explains Handler.
"Previously most toys were purchased by adults who would ask the retailer: 'What do you have for a 5
year old?' Three or four products were offered as possibilities and the selection made. Neither the toy
nor the manufacturer was identified in the mind of the adult or the child. With television both brand
name and product could be sold directly to the consumer. It was the beginning of a marketing
The marketing revolution continued with Mattel's introduction in 1959 of Barbie, a chesty doll named
after the Handler's 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 is 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 (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 palstigoop 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
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 Handler's 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 cents a piece and generally retail for
98 cents, a buyer 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 Splittin' 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 auto makers 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 the new products have included a stunt action
set in which Hot Wheels loop the loop; dual racing track; 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 and Snake drag racing set, complete with drag
chutes, and exquisitely detailed Gran Toros, built in Italy to a slightly larger scale and featuring such
lifelike models as Trantula, 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 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 Dec. Mattel started a small campaign announcing
the Hot Wheels Club. For $1 a youngster could get a Boss Hoss Hot Wheels and a collectors edition
of the Hot Wheels catalog. In little more then a month more than half a million youngsters wrote in. It
took the company more then 6 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, sometimes sculptor and former inmate of a German concentration camp named
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
master stroke, 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 Lightning 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 Rep. who was trying to
line up 1970 sponsorship of the Parnelli Jones racing team. Cook lives near 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 alot 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 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 Indy 500 next year?" Without hesitation 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 5 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 cent car."
Al Unser himself felt let down. "I didn't think they'd make a good sponsor, being a toy company," he
says now, "I thought we'd be kidded. But seeing what kind of company Topper is, well, I knew if I
won the race they would advertise it. They would capitalize on it. Its worth money to them and to me.
The more advertising I get the easier it is to sell me, and the easier I can make a living."
Jones went ahead with construction on the Johnny Lightning cars. They were built, Cook says with a
certain righteous satisfaction, "within two miles of Mattel's home office." The first sweet taste of
possible victory came last March in the Phoenix 150, when Unser, driving the Johnny Lightning, lapped
the entire field with the exception of his brother Bobby -also under contract with Johnny Lightning.
Before the race at Indy, Orenstein was supremely confident. He gave a prerace party in Jones garage
and setup toy race sets for kids who were invited. The day before the race Orenstein held a sales
meeting in an Indianapolis hotel. The subject was: "What do we do when we win?" When Unser and
the Johnny Lightning 500 took the lead early in the race Orenstein sought to head for the pits to
celebrate victory. With 35 laps still to go Orenstein could be restrained no longer, and when Unser
came in the winner Topper executives immediately slapped a sticker, Johnny Lightning, Winner of
the Indy 500, on the car. "Where did you get that?" Jones asked. He was told that Orenstein had
ordered several million printed before the race. "If we knew that we would have killed you," Jones
screamed. Orenstein smiled and Johnny Lightning has been rolling ever since.
After Joe Leonard won the Milwaukee 150 in the Johnny Lightning 500 he demonstrated the toy cars
in a Topper exhibit at the Milwaukee County Fair last August. A youngster came in and offered to
race his Mattel Sizzler against a Johnny Lightning. "We had done tests in our factory," says Ron Aaront
of Topper, "so we knew what would happen. We gave him a third of the way head start and beat him
easily. Our car can cover a 30 foot section of track in 1.8 seconds. The kid was flabbergasted. We
went out and got more Mattel Sizzlers and Juice Machines and put on exhibitions everywhere we
Recently Topper came out with a flyer that asks, "Boys, which are faster--the new Johnny Lightning
500s or Sizzlers?" And Al Unser answers, "The new Johnny Lightning 500s running on their tracks are
twice as fast as the Sizzlers on their tracks or any tracks, That's a Fact!" Topper recently ran an ad of
this nature in Boys Life, which prompted Mattel's ad agency to protest to the magazine. "A Sizzler car
is a different product." says Bernie Loomis, the Hot Wheels rep. "This is like comparing oranges to
bananas. Its like saying a track dash man can beat Jim Ryan in the 100. But Jim Ryan isn't out to run
the 100, he's a miler. Our concern is that that kind of ad to the kids isn't going to do the toy business
Back at Topper, Henry Orenstein says, "Johnny Lightning has the fastest cars by far, and no single
company can challenge that statement. In fact the Indy 500 has set the speed standards for the entire
industry. To say that we copy cars is ludicrous. It is a common practice to try to improve on existing
concepts." (Then last week, while the two companies were still arguing-and advertising-the Federal
Trade Commission stepped up with formal complaints against them both, citing TV ads that
"exaggerate or falsely represent" the toy cars, and asked both to cease and desist.)
Still the rivalry shows no signs of lessening. Hot Wheels is getting ready to spring the RRRumblers and
other suprises. Johnny Lightning is out to really cut the Sizzler down to size with a battery powered
trailer attachment called the Afterburner, which will be about one third the price of a Sizzler. Will Hot
Wheels hold onto the lead? Will Johnny Lightning gain ground? Mattel and Topper have different
opinions, but thats what makes a horse race, or at least the Great Toy Auto Race.
Dawn Dolls were 6 1/2 inch fashion dolls manufactured by Topper Corporation in
the early 70's. The included Dawn, Glori, Angie, Dale, Jessica, Longlocks, Melanie,
Maureen, Daphne, Denise, Dinah, Kip, Connie, Fancy Feet, Gary, Van & Ron.
This article was from Robert H. Boyle printed Fall 1970, Sports Illustrated
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