Baby you can drive my car! Johnny Lightning’s British Invasion

Can’t Buy Me Love? Do Wah Diddy Diddy? Wild Thing? No, not that British Invasion. It’s 20 years since Johnny Lightning released its British Invasion sets – three releases in different colours of six classic British roadsters, plus three First Shots and the trademark White Lightnings.

The lineup consisted of four all-new castings (Austin-Healey Sprite, MGA, Triumph TR3A, MGB) and two reissues (Jaguar E-Type, Sunbeam Alpine).

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There are only a couple of Johnny Lightning models in my collection (including the fabulous Aston Martin Lagonda) but I was intrigued when I belatedly found out about this set from 2000, which wasn’t available to me in the UK on release. All six vehicles were staples of classic car shows when I was growing up. I also lived in a town where they made the Healey Frogeye – a licensed update of the Austin-Healey Sprite – so these models hold plenty of appeal.

When I spotted a set of Release 2 for sale locally, I picked them up (thanks Andrew!). I don’t plan to expand into JL collecting so they’ll soon be on their way from Calgary to a friend across the Pond, but he generously let me open them up first so I could take a look and share them with Lamley readers.

My investigations into the origins of the set didn’t get very far (thanks Mac Ragan for getting me started – follow him on Instagram @macragan500) but I believe the designer was Alan Pletcher. No surprise that the packaging for this series evokes Swinging London in the 1960s – and more particularly, Austin Powers. Johnny Lightning had first issued the E-Type as Austin Powers’ Shaguar in 1999. Clearly Playing Mantis was still feeling groovy when it decided to assemble the weapons for its own British Invasion…

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Each car in the set comes on a blister pack and with a card showing a photo of the real car in the appropriate colour. Let’s go through them in chronological order. As usual, I’m going to rope in some related models from my collection along the way, just for fun.

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1959 Austin-Healey Sprite

The ‘Frogeye’ or ‘Bugeye’ Sprite is finished in a shade of white that looks just right for an old BMC vehicle. The hinged hood/bonnet is a great feature, too.

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I’m not sure about the proportions though. To my eyes the wheelbase seems too long, or perhaps it’s just that the wheels are too small – a pity, as the wheel design is perfect for the car.

The bigger issue is surely the model’s size. If you’ve seen a full-size Frogeye, then you’ll know that it’s a tiny car. I couldn’t find a scale but the model must be close to 1:43. For comparison, I’ve shown it below with a 1:64 Tomica Limited Vintage Toyota Sports 800, whose real-life length was greater than a Frogeye’s, yet the Tomica is about half as long as the Johnny Lightning!

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Here’s the Sprite again, this time towering over the glorious Matchbox Austin-Healey 3000 from the 2020 range.

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1960 MGA 1500 Twin Cam

The MGA appears to suffer from the same issue as the Sprite – an overlong wheelbase or undersized wheels. The paint on this one isn’t great either – the opening hood (nice feature, shame the engine detailing beneath isn’t the best) is bright red but the rest of the car is a duller shade.

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I like the way the grille and lights are picked out, and the delicate bumpers look great, but there’s something awry with the shaping of the hood. On an MGA it slopes gently past the front of the wings to protrude slightly, a detail that was captured perfectly by the Matchbox Lesney Edition version shown below. The JL is a little flat-fronted, unfortunately.

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1961 Triumph TR3A

Johnny Lightning stepped it up with the third of the new castings in this set, the Triumph TR3A. The proportions look right and there’s some wonderful detailing, including a tight-fitting opening hood. Yet again, the model could use bigger wheels, or being scaled down slightly. The screen on this one is also a little too steeply raked and the folded-down roof is moulded too thickly at the sides, but overall this is an attractive model.

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As far as I’m aware there isn’t another TR3A in 1:64 scale but I thought my old Dinky Toys TR2 (1:43) would make for a nice comparison.

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1962 MGB Roadster

Until the recent Matchbox release of an MGB GT coupe, I believe this was the only model of an MGB in 1:64 scale – astonishing, considering the longevity of the car in real life (1962-80) and its enduring popularity with enthusiasts.

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Johnny Lightning did a wonderful job with this roadster, which to my eyes is the best of the four new castings for the British Invasion series. The opening hood reveals an engine with detail picked out in silver. The proportions, stance and screen are all well done. If I’m being picky then the chrome wheels are a little dazzling and the folded roof should sit flatter to the rear deck. Still, the model easily captures the essence of the real car.

Here it is with the Matchbox 1971 MGB GT coupe.

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1963 Jaguar E-Type Roadster

Shorn of its Union Jack Austin Powers paint scheme, the E-Type looks a lot plainer here in black (Release 1 was red, Release 3 was cream). It’s noticeably closer to 1:64 than the four new castings – the real E-Type was 78cm/30in longer than an MGB, for example, but the JL E-Type is shorter than the MGB model.

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I think that Johnny Lightning did a good job with the E-Type’s slinky lines, even if the windscreen looks a little too upright to be spot-on and the car perhaps rides a little high. There’s another awesome opening hood, too.

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For comparison, I’ve shown the JL model here with the beautiful Matchbox E-Type; this black Superfast issue is my favourite of the many available. Most are fantastic!

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Not surprisingly, collectors are spoiled for choice when it comes to 1:64 E-Types. In addition to the Matchbox there are coupe versions from Husky, Kyosho, Schuco and more. Roadsters are harder to come by but there’s a Hot Wheels one from a Jay Leno Collection and a rare vintage Best Box model.

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1964 Sunbeam Alpine (Tiger)

Like the E-Type, the Sunbeam Alpine debuted as a movie release, representing a car from the first James Bond film, Dr No. I bought it in 1998 in Toys R Us in Times Square, New York, on my first trip to the US. I later sold it, but seeing this one again makes me think I’ll have to track down another!

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This is a beautiful model and for me, the star of the British Invasion series. It is however dressed up here as a V8-powered Tiger, which was externally identical to the four-cylinder Alpine. Quite why the Alpine name remains on the packaging, I’m not sure.

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It’s the smallest model in the line and the closest to 1:64. It captures the spirit of the Tiger perfectly. The blue’s great and the wheels are an excellent match. I don’t have any other Sunbeams in a similar scale but this Matchbox Hillman Minx is another Rootes Group product, so we’ll use that for comparison!

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There are a couple of other 1:64 Alpines/Tigers out there but the Johnny Lightning, which was made in half-a-dozen versions, is the pick of the bunch. I reckon this British Invasion one is the best of all – well worth seeking out!

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Graham Heeps

6 thoughts on “Baby you can drive my car! Johnny Lightning’s British Invasion

  1. Lovely stuff.. The collection is nice. Respect👍😀.. Never known of JL line of these. The packaging also is a nice touch. Great collection.

  2. Graham,

    There was a very, very well done MGB roadster in the short-lived Mini Dinky range; the ones that came encased in little plastic garages. My sky blue example was one of my favorite little toy cars, until it literally fell to pieces one day, a victim of bad zamac. I could see the paint cracking little by little for months before that. I really miss that model. The wire wheels were as finely cast as the original Matchbox XK-E, and the shape and proportions of the car were absolutely correct. Opening bonnet, too.

    The best and most accurate Sunbeam Alpine casting in our scale is the old Husky casting. It was painted a lovely shade of copper…had chromed bumpers…and a removable blue-tinted hardtop so you could button it up when it rained, or run it across the floor as a roadster when the sun was shining.

    Because of the quality of those two British sports car models, I was massively disappointed in the JL range when it first came out, the ones you have reviewed. The Sprite in particular is a disaster. How could JL have gotten these models so wrong?

    .

    1. Hi, thanks for the info! I’d seen the Husky but not the Mini Dinky. I agree, the JL set definitely has its hits and misses!

  3. I have a Husky Sunbeam Alpine that I bought back in the 60s when it was new. I still think of it as an accurate model. I loved the evocative description in the comment above from Bubblecar. I haven’t seen the JL but I’m curious to know how it compares.

    1. John,

      I agree with Graham that the Alpine is the most accurate casting of this particular JL series.

      The Husky Alpine represents the earlier series Alpine, which had the higher rear tailfins.

      The JL casting looks more like the later series Alpines.

      The high tailfins were cut down a little by Sunbeam in the mid-1960s, because taller rear fins on cars had started to look a bit dated.

      Since JL chose to model the later body style, their casting could theoretically be used to produce the Sunbeam Tiger, just by tweaking the tampos a bit.

      IMO the Husky is a finer and more delicate casting than the JL. And some of the detailing on the JL is a little heavy handed. But I’m happy to have both.

      .

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