Jeff Koch - Brand Manager, Johnny Lightning

Jeff Koch has been a loyal reader and contributor to 'Tales of Toy Cars'. His personal collection of toy cars is extensive. He recently left his California home and post as a writer for Hot Rod Magazine, to accept the new job as Brand Manager for Johnny Lightning. Jeff has agreed to 'take us along on the new job' through the interview that follows. I have been fascinated by Jeff's observations and insights into the production side of toy cars. I know you will be too. Thanks Jeff, for letting us live a bit of every collectors dream.

Doug Breithaupt
Publisher - TOTC

A resume by way of introduction:

I was born in 1970, making me 31 years old. I grew up in Howell, New Jersey, a fairly nondescript suburban town bordering Bruce Springsteen's own Freehold. I loved cars since I was a boy--my first was a gold Matchbox BMC 1800 Pininfarina fastback with thin Superfast wheels, my parents bought it for me as a shut-up toy when I was 2. Within five years I had nearly 100 cars from all different companies-Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Playart, Zylmex diversity came early. I grew up reading Car and Driver in the late '70s, when the cars sucked so bad that the writing had to be lively to keep people interested--and by the age of 12 I decided I wanted to write about cars. I went to Purdue (W Lafayette, IN) in 1988, escaped in '92, and from 1993 to 1996 I worked at CSK Publishing in Saddle Brook, NJ (subsequently absorbed by the Primedia publishing empire). Wrote for all of their titles including Musclecars, Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords, High Performance Mopar, High Performance Pontiac, Bracket Racing USA, 4x4 Mechanix, Hot Rod Mechanix, Vette, and countless one-shots. At the end of '96 I moved to LA and did two issues of the now defunct Car Toys (post Sue Elliot-Sink, who had recommended me to replace her after the sale to Challenge[d] Publishing; it later became Car Toy Collectibles and then died a painful death). As soon as the job opened up at HOT ROD, I ran over there, and was there 4 1/2 years-started 1 May 1997, and my last day was 12 October. In that time I had the space and ability to quadruple my collection to the 4000 pieces it is now. I also contributed to the (also now-defunct) Mobilia during my time at HOT ROD, for which I got in quite a lot of trouble. First day at Playing Mantis was 22 October. And here we are.

I have always been someone who likes to peek behind the curtain. Whether it's real cars, diecast cars, or pro wrestling (something that takes my feeble mind far, far away from the office), I always love to know why things work the way they do. Even being here two weeks I have a new understanding of the insane dynamics of this business. At the same time, I just picked my first color arrangement for our Woodies and Panels program, due in April: colors, wheels, options like whether the engine sticks out of the hood or not. As someone who works for Johnny Lightning and wants to get a variety of attractive, colorful, realistic-looking models out there on the shelves, it took some thinking. As a collector, the thought of being able to dictate color choice on cars makes me giddy. I got my first taste of that when I was at HOT ROD, doing the Hot Wheels newsstand promotional cars, but never thought I would ever be doing it for a living. Be warned I do drone on a bit.

Now, then...impressions of the new job:

First, I should probably explain exactly what it is I do, as Brand Manager is a new position here at Johnny Lightning. Explaining it will help me rationalize it in my own head as well. I'm part PR department, part marketing department, and part product development, which means I will be dreaming up programs for both new and existing castings. The 2003 lineup will have my paw-prints all over it. (The actual engineering, accuracy, etc. is up to my research specialist Alan Pletcher, who is a big reason that JL cars have started to look even better in the last 2 1/2 years.) I also collect ideas from all over--from magazines to collectors with suggestions to people inside the company-and compile them into The Big List. In addition, I research vehicles for upcoming programs--ie find actual cars to get dimensions, detail photos et al) and occasionally find cooperative owners who are all too happy to send photos of their vehicles for us to make in scale. Also, I will be writing the Newsflash!, the Johnny Lightning Collector's Club newsletter. I'm also supposed to be updating the JL website and the JL B2B (business to business) website, but that will come once I'm a little better acclimated to my other 14,000 duties. That's most of it, but there's plenty more I'll be doing. At a small company like Playing Mantis you pitch in to do a great deal where you can.

This is, for me, a completely different work environment, and it's not a move everyone around me entirely understands. (Luckily, my wife does.) The decision to move from warm and sunny Los Angeles to the industrial grey of South Bend, Indiana-in October, no less!-has most of them stumped, and for those who have known me since adolescence, who have only known that I wanted to write about cars, this is a bit of a switch. People who have only known me in a HOT ROD capacity don't necessarily get it either. There's always been this other side to me, though: I had 600 cars hanging in my office in Los Angeles, and anyone who ever entered that forbidden chamber understands completely what I'm up to. I can talk all day long about having 4,000 1/64 scale cars from 60 companies from across five continents (anyone know where I can find some African-made 1/64 scale diecast?), but until you actually see them hanging on the wall, and realize that I'm mad enough to cure your insomnia by discussing each one in detail if you let me, it's hard to fathom.

There is, as you might imagine, a steep learning curve involved in going from collector to someone who works in the business: how distribution channels work, profit margins, even molding technology--and there have been some recent advances for us on that front. One thing I am not allowed to do, and they're pretty strict about it, is helping myself to the warehouse. They just don't want all of the White Lightnings disappearing and showing up on eBay, which I can completely understand. I don't look for those anyway, particularly.

TofTC: What's a normal day for you?

Still too early to tell, but all indications are that I won't have one. When you have 40 people putting out what will essentially be 650 different cars for 2002, every day is a different variety of mad rush, for a different reason. It's not all fun and creating and dreaming, of course--there's budgeting and numbers and searching for photography to go with our packages. I'm stamping out a lot of fires right now. Also, I have to wear a tie.

TofTC: What are the steps to make a final decision on a new model or series?

It starts with an idea--as simple as "so-and-so drive this car in so-and-so TV series and we have the casting ... it could make a good Hollywood on Wheels!" or a color photocopy of a crazy paint job from an old magazine, as example of a style to be applied to one of our castings, all the way up to a new licensing property that we would have to start from scratch. Maybe there has been a steady message from collectors saying "do THIS car," whatever that car may be. There are a couple of glaring holes we have right now in our lineup that should by rights be filled sooner rather than later. Beyond that, I don't know. I haven't been down that road yet--as I type this I have not yet completed six weeks. I have been compiling tons of ideas into a single list; so far we have 20 single-space typed pages worth, and that's about 1/3 of the way through the stack. Collectors have also written us with extensive lists of what we still need to do, which seems like everything, and they've all been compiled into my Big Ideas List which will get hashed out in our '03 Product Development meetings sometime before Christmas.

We never want for ideas--it's the ability to follow through on the best of them that takes up all of our time and energy. There is a core of four or five of us who choose programs and castings: Tom Lowe, Alan Pletcher (our research specialist and the reason why JL castings have taken on a whole new look in the last two and a half years or so), Eileen Maloney-Crouse, and myself--there may be one other. The idea is to lean on those who are automotive enthusiasts and those who collect. I do both, so I hope to bring some balance between the "let's do everything!" contingency and the "it costs too much!" crowd. I have it on good authority that Tom Lowe doesn't run roughshod over people's ideas in favor of his own, so we're not puppets by any means.

First we'll probably decide what licensed properties and core programs we need to do and re-do--we've got some doozies for '03, boy--and from there we figure out what else we want to do. We have a fixed tooling budget, and my goal this year is to maximize it. The way I see it, just about everything we tool up for will have to be flexible enough to do other things with. Something like a Road Runner tooling is easier to justify because Plymouth built a seemingly infinite number, each of them painted a different color, and we can do them and sell them until California slides into the ocean. We can also do Satellites, Satellite Sebrings, Satellite Sebring Pluses, GTXes, and any number of other variations of a given car. Something like the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine is a little tougher, since a cartoon-y casting like that won't work in anything beyond a Scooby Doo capacity--though we're banking on the fact that there are enough Scooby fans out there to justify the investment.

That said, there are some items in JL's tooling vaults (a figurative term) that haven't seen the light of day in a while--most of the Musclecars 2 program, for instance, including the '69 Firebird and '69 Road Runner. Both are model-worthy cars, and perhaps good for the time they were introduced, but time marches on. I'd rather spend tooling dollars fixing a couple of chassis, opening up some wheel wells, and doing some flat hoods for established tooling, thus giving us literally dozens of new models and possibilities for the cost of just a couple of all-new tools. Would you rather have 40 new cars, or 90 variations of 35 cars?

I'd also like to see a variety of new wheels and tires in there--something a little more, shall we say, representative of what appears on cars today. The classic styles are just that--classic--and they will always have their place, but wheel and tire technology has come along way in just fifteen years. Sixteen inch wheels and tires were big news on Corvettes less than 20 years ago; now you're hard-pressed to pick up a rental car at the airport that doesn't have 16s. I think our own collection of rolling stock should better reflect that. Perhaps I'm just being naive. I want lots of things, and the nature of the beast is that maybe I'll get some of it. We'll see. Get back to me next year and I'll give you a progress report.

TofTC: Are there any muscle cars left to do?

Ha ha. There are boatloads left to do, and as the Musclecars program is considered a core program for JL, I don't see it stopping anytime soon, frankly. I think we're a little shy on Buick-Olds-Pontiac, myself, as well as pre-'68 Mopar and pre-WWII anything. We've also shamefully ignored some of the American independents and some of the more recent trends in real cars. Playing Mantis' Johnny Lightning made its name on Muscle cars back in '95. When someone things Johnny Lightning they think "musclecar." Abandoning that, especially when there is so much fertile ground left to till, would be foolhardy, if not suicidal. There are also plenty of American cars left to do that don't really fit into the muscle car mold.

Around here, there has actually been some discussion recently as to what exactly makes a muscle car, and how the genre started. Many will credit the '64 GTO as the start, and indeed a mid-size body with a large-car engine is generally considered to be the basic formula. So does that mean that the '49 Olds Rocket 88 (with its 76-series body and 98-series OHV engine) qualifies? What about the '36 Buick Century? Was it the genesis of the muscle car? Some insist that the Chrysler 300 was the car to kick the horsepower wars into gear in '55 and everything escalated from there. Does it count? What about W-motor Chevy Super Stockers and '62 Pontiac Super Duties? Do they count? What about '62-'64 Plymouths and Dodges and their 413ci and 426ci Max Wedges? They were Mopar's "big" cars but were the size of everyone else's intermediates. Do they count? For what it's worth I vote for a broader scope for Muscle cars too, but it's not like we're changing official definitions by any means. I'm trying to convince them to do some sort of "What is a muscle car?" program featuring some of the vehicles I mentioned. Again, we'll see if I get my way.

For those who are freaking out that a "HOT ROD guy" like me has come to JL, and that we're now going to be all musclecars all the time, rest assured I've got a grip on the import scene as well. I've just purchased a Subaru WRX wagon as my daily driver, and I was raised in the back of a pair of '73 VW Beetles, so cars from overseas don't get me in a snit like they do so many others. I also contributed to Super Street, a top import book, during my time at HOT ROD. Don't hold your breath for that Isotta-Fraschini, though, Doug. (Did I spell that right?)

That said, here's something to think about, and I hesitate bringing it up for fear of looking like a kiss-ass, but it's something I believed long before I started working here. JL really changed the way diecast outfits do business. Who paid attention to musclecars before Playing Mantis revived JL? Who catered to the serious collector, rather than aiming for kids? None of the big diecast companies, for sure. The muscle car boom of the late '80s was old news; who cared about those museum pieces? Hot Wheels was doing 12 new castings a year, half of them made-up cars, and Racing Champions was still doing NASCAR exclusively. Matchbox from the Universal-era had it right, I thought, until Tyco took over-though musclecars weren't part of the mix. Tomica and Siku were mostly unavailable in this country and ignored musclecars anyway (no real surprise there). Short of a couple of cheaply-done dime-store cars like the Zylmex '69 GTO, no one really cared. Of course a few musclecars were done back in the day: original Hot Wheels Redlines of course, and even companies like Siku did a couple of GTOs. Plenty of others did Mustangs, Camaros, Chargers, Javelins ... hell, Playart did totally separate castings for their Javelin and AMX--nothing shared! Still, without the revived JL around, do you think Matchbox would have introduced a '70 GTO into their lineup, or Hot Wheels would be doing Road Runners and 'Cudas, or Racing Champions would have started their Mint series? Maybe. It may have happened, just differently. JL's influence has far outstripped our sales in this regard-and our sales have been pretty good.

Also, I need to stress that just because a car hasn't been done yet doesn't mean that it won't be done. We have money for 40 new tools this year--same as Hot Wheels, come to think of it, except almost all of ours will be real cars--so we can't have the whole history of Detroit on sale all at once. It'll take time. In less than 10 years, we have done more than 400 separate castings. In their basic car line, Hot Wheels hasn't done many more than that, and they've been around more than three times as long as we have. We've kept our "fictional" cars to a minimum too--not a Sharkcruiser in the bunch, except for some TV cars like Speed Racer and Speed Buggy ... but at least they're TV related! Meantime, our detail and quality are getting better, and we're amassing a greater collector base who we find is appreciating our detail more and more.

To your underlying point, which I think is basically "can't you guys dream up anything else to do?", well, of course we can. And slowly those ideas are being integrated into the line. We now have Aston Martins and Toyotas and Datsuns, and the second half of this year will surely bring some surprises for those who think we need to branch out from our American-car rut. Frankly the thought of "too many Muscle cars" would have been a collector's wet dream half a dozen years ago. Ertl was doing some 1/18 scale models, but they were $20 a whack. JLs were $3 a piece in '94, and for the most part are still $3 in retail stores now--and the accuracy of the castings, the paint schemes and the tampos are all a hell of a lot better now than they were then. What a change in the scene to be able to ask such a question!

TofTC: How many cars do you do in a year?

The numbers go like this: we may only have fifteen or twenty programs next year, but with three or four releases for each program, we have 109 total programs for 2002. Multiply that by six, the number of different cars in a given release, and we are doing 650+ cars for '02. Out of that, 40 new castings sounds like a drop in the bucket, but think about it: 650 different cars means we're putting out roughly two a day. Keep in mind also that we have ONE guy doing all of the modeling and communicating with China, as well as researching details and making JL cars as detailed as they are. Have you noticed the separate engines in recent releases? Mopars come with a choice of big-block wedge and Hemi now. More pieces, more complexity, 650 cars next year, one guy doing it all. We only have 40 employees here. Mattel's design staff alone is a couple of dozen--back when I was allowed to talk to them I constantly met new faces on the design staff. Here, keeping track is easy: it's Alan. Part of my job is helping him find photography to justify new models in certain colors (for photo cards), as well as track down info on new models. My goal is to relieve a little of his panic, so that upcoming programs are all spec'ed out for him once he's ready to get started.

TofTC: What's your own personal favorite JL series?

Well, I lean more toward favorite castings, more than entire series. For a while, my favorite casting was the '70-'71 Mercury Cyclone--I own a '70 Montego that's taken forever to build up in HOT ROD, and now that I'm here in Indiana I don't know when I'll be able to finish the stories I have pending. I'm also a big fan of the '71-'72 Satellite/Road Runner/GTX, as a neighbor had an avocado-colored '71 Satellite Sebring when I grew up and it was the first car that really struck me as being a distinctive-looking car. From the original Topper series of 47, I'll have to go with the Custom Toronado--always loved that car, whether it has the MPC model kit-inspired custom nose and tail treatment or not. In general, though, I lean towards the more, shall we say, esoteric postwar material: the cars that no one else made in scale.

What I like has less to do with how the casting turned out, and more with what the car itself is, if that makes sense. JL's own '75 Buick Indy Pace Car is a prime example of this: clearly it's part of JL's early period, casting-wise (you must admit we've come a long way), but it's a model you'd never find elsewhere--in Pace Car colors or otherwise. Corgi Juniors did one, but it was a four-door (the Kojak car). A car like that Buick by itself seems bizarre, but in the context of a larger program (ie Indy Pace Cars, two-packed with Indy winners that weren't sponsored by tobacco companies did you notice?), it falls into place and at the same time gives the person who likes more than '69 Camaros and '57 Chevies (like me) something to chew on and chase after. No way either one of those would ever have been done without a licensing tie-in.

Alas, the numbers I've seen have borne out that the numbers of people like me are scattered--the public at large seems plenty happy with '57 Chevies and musclecars. And that's fine--we've got plenty of those, and more coming. At the same time, we've got some cars coming out later in '02 that are going to raise some eyebrows--some things I know haven't been done in 1/64 scale diecast before.

It's a delicate balance: on the one hand, we're a business and we have to make money. Despite what you might think we're not zillionaires, so we have to make each of our new tools each year count. On the other hand, because we're collector oriented, we try things that other companies won't touch. If a program tanks, and of course some programs have tanked, it hurts. And if it's something new and different we try that tanks, then it becomes a little more difficult to justify something like that again.

TofTC: What have been the most and least successful JL models?

I had to ask around for this one. One of the top sellers this company has had, believe it or not, was the KISS models--the funny cars and the stock cars with the guys' faces on them. The KISS Army came out in force on that one. James Bond has been an excellent program for us as well. In both cases, it had less to do with the cars themselves than the fact that they were licensed products with a large fan base outside the world of diecast collecting. As for least successful ... well, I'm advised not to name names of specific programs, but suffice it to say that anything you've seen on sale, discount, remainder or clearance probably hasn't done the sales numbers we'd hoped.

TofTC: What's coming for 2002?

I can talk about the models for the first half of '02. Programs with new tooling include :

Thunderbirds ('56, '58-'60, '61-'62 and '67-68) in February
VWs ('64-66 Beetle, 21-window bus and single-cab Samba, New Beetle) in March
Woodies and Panels ('40 Ford sedan delivery, '31 A woody, '33 Willys panel, '55 Ford panel, '41 Chevy woody and the Mod Squad Merc woody) in April
May will see some new Classic Gold castings (China willing) including, possibly, a PT Cruiser
June will see a new Camaro series with one new casting: an '02 SS model, which will be done as a convertible, solid roof or T-top model depending on release.

Programs featuring existing tooling will include:
American Graffiti (January)
Classic Bowties (April)
And of course we're still doing our McMullen-Argus cover cars, Mopar Muscle,
Lost Toppers, Willys Gassers, Thunder Wagons, and other programs that were started in '01.

Anything beyond that and I'll have to kill you. I will say, however, that I'm more personally excited about the second half of the year and will be happy to talk about it when it comes.

None of the castings I have a hand in choosing will appear until very late '02. My color and wheel selections on existing models and programs won't show up until April or so--I picked all of the Woodies and Panels colors, so you can blame me personally if they suck. Keep in mind when you see them that the woodies have all of the wood tampos, so I tried to keep them pretty simple color-wise; the panels, on the other hand, I went a little off the deep end. We work 12 months out on new tools and 6 months out picking decor, so the cars that just showed up in the local X-Mart were actually planned six months ago, and, if they're brand-new tools, were decided a year ago. Pretty soon I have to figure out what models will be made for a very late '02 licensed program-just one more fire to put out. There are companies who can turn things around in six months, but they're a good deal more toy-like and less detailed than what we do here.

TofTC: How difficult and expensive is licensing for a new model?

Everything depends on everything else. Is the car current or nostalgic? Is anyone else vying for that same license? It also depends on the car's decor. If you do a stock muscle car, all you do is pay Detroit. If you do a NASCAR stocker, you have to pay a royalty to every company whose logo is reproduced on the side of the car as well as to the maker of the car itself. Take the Batmobile, for instance. We'd sell a zillion of 'em. No brainer, right? Think again. DC Comics will want a piece. George Barris will want a piece. The TV company and the movie company will both want their cuts since the car appeared in both properties. If characters' faces are on the packaging, the actors will want their cut. (Interestingly enough, Ford never made much of a stink about wanting their cut.) And with a hot property like the Batmobile, everyone thinks their piece is worth more than everyone else's. In fact, the legal bills to figure out who actually has rights and to figure out who gets the royalties would be enough to kill such a program in its tracks. Too much hassle. A license could be as little as a $500 one-time-use fee or as much as a multi-year, several-hundred-thousand-dollar guarantee. How Corgi did it in the 60s and 70s is beyond me.

TofTC: Do models ever reflect what's in the PM parking lot?

It's happened, but usually it's more to fill in a hole in a program, like Classic Gold, where someone has a car that matches something we've already tooled up. That's happened a couple of times, but it's not something we go out of our way to do to amuse ourselves. I'll be doing my Montego in Classic Gold soon, just because I have artwork at the ready and the castings we choose are often dictated, at least in part, by what art we have available for the photo cards. The car's in my driveway, I see it daily, I can take five minutes to shoot it, and we're done. Have we ever tooled up a car that someone in the company owned? Not until recently. It's coming out in the latter half of '02, so I can't chat about it just yet, but it's one of Tom Lowe's personal cars.

Before anyone goes rolling their eyes here, consider that Tom Lowe owns probably ten real 1/1-scale collector cars and owns a company like Johnny Lightning. Considering a number of his real cars would make prime diecast material, I think he's shown admirable restraint in having models of his own cars done. His all-original, unrestored bronze '66 Toronado makes my heart go pitter-pat--though that's not the car we're doing, sadly.

TofTC: Is there a JL museum or heritage collection in the works?

Not to my knowledge. At our office we have dozens of acrylic showcases lined up with one of everything we've done at Playing Mantis-era JL: one regular run, one White Lightning. (WLs typically make up one percent of production, by the way, and it's rare that we ever do more than 20,000 of a given car ... do the math, those suckers are rare.) I suppose that's a museum of sorts but it's not arranged in any sort of order that makes sense to me, save for maybe chronologically by release, and it's not really open to the public though folks have been known to drop by and ask to look around. In fact, that's how Mac Ragan got all those photos for his new JL Pricing Guide--a couple of very long days in our basement and photo studio here in South Bend. Tom Lowe has a collection of all 47 original castings, loose, in a case in his office, and he has maybe half of them again mint-in-blister. Slowly he's acquiring a full set, piecemeal, but they don't turn up that often--even on eBay.

TofTC: Been to any car shows lately?

Yeah, and it wasn't as bad as I thought. I should explain. After eight years in the automotive publishing business, I got kind of tired of car shows: the travel, lugging 20 pounds of gear around with me, and, in the case of the 2500 cars that show up at a given Power Tour stop, the sheer scope of the thing: I couldn't possibly see everything I needed to. It was frustrating, and nearly impossible (for me, anyway) to get anything done and be pleasant while doing it. It kicked my ass every single year. That's a car show a night for ten days. Then I travel an additional weekend a month, on average, so some far-flung land like Georgia or Texas to do more of the same. Going to car shows for fun long ago exited the equation, and well-meaning friends who show me THEIR pictures (or worse, home video) car shows just made my brain hurt. You do enough of them, and it feels like work. No matter how cool your job is, it still feels like work.

I just went to my first car show this weekend since not being a HOT ROD staffer--the Chevy VetteFest in Chicago, and it was a curious mix for me. Lugging the gear around still was a pain, but I have a whole new set of parameters I'm looking for, which is spicing things up a little for me. Rather than simply cool cars, or feature material (for which I was extraordinarily picky) for a magazine, I'm looking for cars that we produce (or will be producing, shortly) in scale. That means that paint jobs I might not ordinarily find tasteful will get the nod over the clean car next to it, because we don't have a casting of the clean one. At any rate, I hope to get back to actually enjoying car shows again sometime in the near future.

In fact, if your readers have decent photography on a vehicle we produce in scale (decent meaning in focus, well-lit, no doors or hood open, no people in shot, and either 100 or 200 speed color print film, slides of the same exposure, or hi-res jpegs) we're happy to take a look at it--and even give you toys as a thank-you if we use it. Prints to my mailing addy: Jeff Koch, Brand Manager, Playing Mantis, 3618 Grape Road, Mishawaka, IN 46545. Include an SASE if you want them back. Digitals to my email: