February 9, 2020 – by Doug Breithaupt
Who of us has not fantasized about owning a die-cast toy car company? A few friends who have had the opportunity to work for such a company might advise, “be careful what you wish for” but most of us would still jump at the chance. If you read the first few pages of Jack Robbins’ autobiography, Jack the Toyman, the founder of JRI and better known to toy car fans as the father of the Road Champs brand, you will immediately be drawn behind the closed doors of a very competitive industry. You may look at Yat Ming a little differently after reading what happened.
Jack Robbins’ autobiography is available through Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Jack-Toy-Man-Champs-Finish/dp/0692654437, and was published in 2016, three years after his death in 2013. Following his death, I had several interesting exchanges with his daughter Deborah and son Mike Robbins and shared these in a Tales of Toy Cars Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10151700959989526&id=332434969525&comment_id=26682509&offset=0&total_comments=5&ref=notif¬if_t=feed_comment.
It is always a pleasure to connect with the people directly tied to individuals who were key players in the toy car industry.
There is a growing interest in the Road Champs models among collectors. The earlier examples from the 1980’s included full metal bodies and bases, opening features and many nice paint variations. My collection is focused on the small-scale models from Road Champs although they also offered 1:43 and 1:18 scale. While I may offer a more complete review of the Road Champs story at a later date, let’s get right to some of my favorites. Most of the 1:64 scale vehicles were American cars but for the moment, I would like to focus on a few European models from Road Champs.
The Porsche 928 was produced in both street and racing form by Road Champs. The racing versions were simply painted with numbers and graphics. The 928 was included in a Racing Demons series that included a number of soft drink sponsors and looked more like NASCAR liveries but make for a colorful display. The 928 was also selected for use with high-rise suspension and off-road tires.
The Porsche 944 was also done by Road Champs. The earlier variations had mag-style wheels, much like those used by Hot Wheels. Later variations went to chromed plastic bases and less expensive phone dial wheels. The transaxle Porsche 924, 944 and 968 models have had limited numbers of small-scale examples. This is actually one of the better examples of the 944.
The BMW 325i E30 was also selected by Road Champs for production. Like the two Porsche models, it was included in the Racing Demons series as well. Like most of the Road Champs of this era, the doors open. The E30 M3 often gets the most attention so it is nice that Road Champs selected the 325i for their line.
German cars seem to have been favorites for Road Champs. They selected the Mercedes-Benz 500SEC as another European model for their line. The metal base, chromed grills, red plastic tail-lights, and opening doors make this one of the most detailed examples from Road Champs. The blue car has added white walls, but they were applied by a previous owner and I have left them. Another Racing Demons version was done of the 500SEC. You might notice the sun roof was painted in body color.
Road Champs offered a Ferrari Testarossa from the 1980’s. I have only found it in yellow so far. It has the usual opening doors but also offers an opening engine cover and a chromed V12. Curiously, no Racing Demons version was produced.
The last of these early Road Champs is a Jaguar XJ-S. The Racing Demons variation came with bright green paint, soft drink graphics, and pink numbers. Even the grill and bumpers are green. The road versions are more restrained. The usual opening doors, metal base, and red plastic tail-lights are provided. Road Champs followed others in offering a color changers line. The brown example is one of these.
There were other European models offered in the 1990’s including a BMW 750i and 850i, a Ferrari F40 and Mercedes coupe. These castings are less detailed, have no opening features, and have basic wheels and plastic bases. Road Champs also produced a Mercedes-Benz Limousine that was part of their earlier, more detailed line. Values for Road Champs remain affordable for the most part with loose cars seldom going for more than several dollars at toy shows. At some future point, I will look at Japanese and American cars from this toy car maker.
Jack Robbins sold JRI to JAKKS Pacific in 1997 and retired but has left us a variety of interesting toy cars from his Road Champs line. He has also left us a fascinating story as an insider in this industry during the 1980’s and ’90’s. For both of these contributions, Jack the Toyman deserves our thanks.