continues to impress with a new series release of the Ford favorite circa the mid 20th
The popularity of the sports car increased dramatically after World War II, and the
auto manufacturers rushed to fill the demand. The Thunderbird was introduced by
Ford in 1955, and immediately imprinted itself into the American consciousness.
Designed as a sports car with a 193hp V8 engine, the Thunderbird also featured the comfort
and convenience features consumers had come to expect in American vehicles. The
Thunderbird remained a popular model for decades, and was reintroduced this year with a
retro-design based on the 1955 roadster. Consumer interest indicates the Thunderbird
is as popular now as it was when first introduced.
Playing Mantis has developed an ingenious method of producing diecast models in recent
years. It designs the tooling with various interchangeable sections so that multiple
variations of a basic model can be manufactured at a fraction of what it would be if each
variation were produced with a separate tool. The result has been a number of vehicles
offered that have slight variations with each subsequent release. Models in the past
that have shown this versatility include the late 1960s Mercury Cougar, the 1960s GTOs and the
late 1960s/early 1970s Chrysler Mopars. The blurb on the blister card states the models
are “Legendary Bad Birds of the 50’s and 60’s” and these new Thunderbird models appear to cover
the years 1955 through 1970. Continuing its recent trend, these models are extremely
accurate and exceptional in detail. As is the standard with Johnny Lighting offerings,
both the bodies and chassis are diecast with plastic windows and interiors, opening hoods and
detailed engines. And it again has tweaked Mattel on two counts, with all of the models
riding on Cragar rimmed thin redwall tires and one of the models the same as one of the original
sixteen Hot Wheels from 1968.
In this first release, four basic castings are used to represent the six vehicles. Playing
Mantis chose to start with a representation of the 1956 T-Bird Roadster (Casting #290)
on the 1955-57 body. The body is painted gloss black enamel and is accented with crisp
silver tampo highlights, as well as neatly rendered multi-colored emblems on the nose and upper
front fenders. The bumpers, grill and rear fender trim are part of the body and are masked
in silver enamel. The rear tire sits on top of the rear bumper, away from the trunk lid,
and appears to be shiny black plastic with the wheel spokes painted silver. The headlights,
taillights and running lights are all painted in appropriate colors, and the exhaust openings in
the rear bumper are simulated with a dash of black paint. The chassis has good underbody
detail, with some of it visible when viewing the model at eye-level. The interior detail
is what you would expect in a convertible model, with excellent relief and a beautifully rendered
conical steering wheel. It is painted red with a satin finish. The windshield has
the trim highlighted in silver. The sun visors are painted red and are slightly translucent,
but this is an extremely minor peeve. The hood opens to reveal the detailed engine.
The 1958-60 casting (#295) is used to represent the next two models in this release.
Both the 1958 T-Bird and 1959 T-Bird feature the same basic body, with the tooling
differences present in the front grill and taillight areas. The 1958 T-Bird body
is painted red enamel, while the 1959 T-Bird is painted aqua enamel. The openings
of the hood scoops are simulated with black paint. The steering wheels are not as
cone-shaped as that on the 1956 T-Bird Roadster, but the detail is just as fine.
Most of the visible differences are achieved by tampo variations on the two bodies. Some
of the emblems have different configurations and placement, and the door accents provide the
most visible variation. The bumpers, grill, wipers and roof trim are accented in silver.
The chassis detail is more moderate than that of the 1955-57 version, but appears to be accurate.
Headlights and taillights are painted accordingly. The interiors are painted to match the
body. The hoods open to reveal gold painted engines. These two models are the most
beefy in appearance in the series, and look imposing and impressive.
The 1961 T-Bird Convertible is the lone representative in this release on the 1961-63 casting
(#292). The body is beautifully finished in silver mist metallic, with silver accents
tamped along the fender tops and in various locations. The front scoop is decorated in silver
and black. The herald is tamped in black, green and silver on the nose and rear lip of the
trunk lid. The bumpers are masked in silver enamel, and the headlights and taillights are
painted in milky white and red respectively. The interior is exquisite, molded in off-white
plastic and featuring exceptional detail, including a delicate conical steering wheel. The
windshield includes the side vent detail as well as the wipers and sun visors. The wipers and
window trim are finished in silver, and the visors are painted white to match the interior.
Ironically, this vehicle reminds me of Mattel’s 1963 Thunderbird from the 1998 First Editions
series, in that it shows how accurate the Hot Wheels model is to full-sized car.
The 1967 T-Bird and 1968 T-Bird both utilize the 1967-68 casting (#291) and look
fabulous. The body of the 1967 model is painted in powder blue metallic with silver accents
on the window frames, door hardware and windshield wipers. The 1968 version is painted in
light olive green metallic and similarly decorated. Both models have intricate interiors with
such details as a lacey steering wheel, dashboard vents, inner door handles and floor mats, and are
painted to match the respective body colors. Emblems are printed in silver in various
locations. The models feature peek-a-boo headlights in the grills and the side-to-side
taillights. The 1968 model also sports running lights on the fender sides, which are not
present on the 1967 version. As interesting note is the presence of the 1967 T-Bird
in this series, with its “ice blue” metallic finish and redwall tires – a more accurate, more
sophisticated rendering of Mattel’s Custom T-Bird from the premiere group of Hot Wheels that
debuted in 1968. Both of the Johnny Lightning issues have a motor painted in Ford blue nestled
in a black engine compartment. The chassis common to both models features moderate relief.
As mentioned, there are two pair of cars in this release that share common tooling and feature
minor body detail differences. Pictured here are the front-end differences in the models.
The 1958 T-Bird features a honeycomb grill while the 1959 T-Bird showcases a horizontal-bar
grill. The same design differences exist in the detail area around the taillights.
The only difference between the 1967 T-Bird and 1968 T-Bird is the rectangular pattern
of the front grill. The 1967 model has a tighter pattern than the 1968 model.
There are two missing numbers in the sequence of castings offered in this initial release, which
leads me to believe that models of the 1964-65 and 1969-70 Thunderbirds have been tooled and are
destined for future releases in this series. While there are a number of wheel types on
the Johnny Lightning roster that these models would look good riding on, I hope they continue to
release the series on the Cragar redwalls. They may not be entirely prototypical on all of
the cars, but they sure look sharp, especially on the mid/late 1960s models. This release
surpasses the Chrysler Mopars series as the best-looking diecast offering to date that
Playing Mantis has created. I look forward to seeing the two missing castings in the series
in addition to new variations on the four that currently are on the shelves. Truly