Johnny Lightning “L.M. 500” Race Set

The length of the track has been greatly exaggerated by the artist.
The length of the track has been greatly exaggerated by the artist.

The original Johnny Lightning line of 1/64th-scale diecast cars was only on the market for less than three years, from early 1969 until Topper Toys went belly up in late 1971. Despite this short lifespan, and the long shadow Matchbox and Hot Wheels cast over the underdog Johnny Lightning brand, Topper created at least eight or nine different J-L track sets: single car circuit tracks, side-by-side race circuits, and point-to-point drag/stunt tracks. All the circuit tracks were powered by the innovative and quirky “Lightning Motion” catapult. Sometime during that three-year period my parents bought me the “L.M. 500” track set, which I believe was the first and most produced version. I thought it was pretty cool, but it was definitely odd, and a bit flawed.

As the underdog, Topper had to give the Johnny Lightning track a new and novel gimmick beyond Hot Wheels’ one-way gravity track. Battery power was too expensive and a wind-up clockwork motor was old-fashioned and still not cheap. Someone at Topper came up with an innovative and battery-less (and cheap!) way to basically fling the cars up a hill with a push from behind, then let gravity pull them around the circuit.

I liked that there was actually some skill involved, in that the “racers” had to carefully time each pull on the “power lever” to accelerate the car up the ramp as efficiently as possible each lap. Really screw it up and the catapult’s hook would end up in front of the car, which would do nothing at all or on rare occasions even bring it to a sudden stop and send it rolling back down the hill. “Winning” is more meaningful when it involves (slightly) more than dumb luck.

There were a few fatal flaws, however. One thing the cover illustration doesn’t show is the clear plastic snap-on shield that covered the top half of the ramp. With the plexi shield in place, nearly all my Hot Wheels cars, which were slightly larger on average, would jam up under it. In fact, some of Topper’s own Johnny Lightning cars wouldn’t work. It also tended to wear off the paint on the cars’ roofs. Without the cover installed, a firm, properly-timed boost simply launched cars skyward off the top of the ramp, totally missing the track and landing halfway across the bedroom. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing to a seven-year-old boy, but it made races very, very short.

Topper soon redesigned the track so that the catapults were horizontal, rather than inclined, and cars coasted around each lap solely on inertia, unaided by gravity. Or, in the case of the bizarre Cyclone track, against gravity. 

johnny-lightning-1970-JCPenneys

Lastly, it was nearly impossible to use the track alone, as manning the two power levers simultaneously was beyond my woefully underdeveloped eye-hand coordination. Being an only boy with three older sisters, this was a severe impediment, restricting my L.M. racing to solo qualifying sessions unless one of the neighbor boys came over to play.

You can see actual photos of the complete LM500 set and other J-L track versions over at toycarcollector.com

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