Nostalgic toy-car lovers well served by Indiana’s Round 2 reboot

In an anonymous industrial complex just west of South Bend, Indiana, there’s a building that would rival Santa’s workshop, though you may not be able to tell from the outside.

The only way to distinguish the building from every other warehouse on the block is a sign over the front entrance featuring a reclining kangaroo in boxing gloves. This is the logo for Round 2, a company founded, sold, restarted, and renamed by longtime toy man Tom Lowe.

The firm produces an array of collectible toys for all ages. Between its lines of model kits, die-cast vehicles, slot cars, and model railroading the 40-person team at Round 2 produces over 1000 individual products. They occupy the shelves and pegs of nearly every hobby shop as well as national department store chains like Walmart, Target, Hobby Lobby, and Meijer. More importantly, they’re keeping vintage brands like Johnny Lightning, Lindberg, and AMT on store shelves long after the original companies shut their doors.

round 2 model die-cast slot cars
Cameron Neveu

To understand how an empire of plastic and steel miniatures was built in the shadow of Chicago, you must go back to the early 1990s. Lowe, who had already self-funded and started his first company, Safe Care Products (known for its Velcro football called WhataCatch), noticed that toys from his childhood were fetching big bucks in used toy catalogs. Citing the demand, he researched the trademark behind one of his beloved childhood brands, Johnny Lightning.

In 1969, Topper Toys started producing miniature die-cast under the brand Johnny Lightning a year after Mattel debuted its first line of Hot Wheels. The underdog brand became a household name amongst car crazy youngsters, no doubt amplified by its sponsorship of Al Unser Sr. and his Indy-500-winning exploits in 1970 and again in ’71. Despite the success, Topper halted production later that year and filed for bankruptcy in 1973.

Unser Sr. at Indy in 1970. The Enthusiast Network via Getty/Bob D'Olivo

Twenty years later, Lowe purchased the Johnny Lightning brand name for the rights to the die-cast line. He then ditched Safe Care and selected a more jovial moniker for his burgeoning toy company: Playing Mantis.

Throughout the 1990s, Playing Mantis sold exact replicas of the toy cars Topper cast nearly three decades earlier alongside a line of new Johnny Lightnings—which included drag racers, mid-century customs, and movie cars. He also purchased the rights to more shuttered brands. For example, Aurora, a plastics company known for making model cars in the 1960s, was purchased and rebranded by Playing Mantis as Polar Lights. Lowe was bringing the classics back to adults, now in their 30s, who remembered playing with these toys on their living room floor in the 1960s and 70s. The company flourished.

By 2004, he decided to get out of the game and sold the Johnny Lightning rights to RC2, another toy company. RC2 was purchased by Japanese toy manufacturer TOMY in 2011, and by 2013, Lowe’s beloved Johnny Lightnings had ceased production.

No matter. In the background, he had been working to develop a larger scale die-cast and other toys under his new company Round 2 (cue the reclining kangaroo). Lowe swooped in to save Johnny Lightning again and re-acquired the rights in 2015.

One of the constants throughout the selling, buying, and reorganizing has been Tony Karamitsos. Fresh out of college, the South Bend-native interviewed for Lowe and Playing Mantis in its early days. “One of my buddies told me about Playing Mantis,” says Karamitsos. “I was blown away that Johnny Lightning was in Indiana.” Since then, he graduated from design to brand manager, and when Lowe re-acquired Johnny Lightning, Karamitsos was already on the Round 2 team. Now, in 2023, the company has three die-cast brands, five model kit brands, and their own brand of slot cars. “To see all this grow and expand…it’s crazy,” he says.

The sprawling set of office rooms joined to a large warehouse are indeed expansive. Chad Reid, Round 2’s marketing manager, greets us in the entrance. Unlike Lowe and Karamitsos, Reid wasn’t alive during the 1960s and ’70s. The history isn’t lost on the fresh-faced youngster, though, and he guides us through the campus with an encyclopedic knowledge of the die-cast, models, automobilia, and posters that line Round 2’s walls and conference rooms.

round 2 model die-cast slot cars
Cameron Neveu

First stop, the design room—the heart of the company. Every designer who works for Round 2 has a desk in the room. The entire floor is a dense network of cubicles, with various employees developing new model kits, slot cars, and of course, Johnny Lightning die-cast. Model kits line the interior shelves, nestled like bricks on the wall. These are reference kits purchased from eBay and ranging from new releases to the early days when models were as plentiful as Netflix titles. Michigan model companies MPC and AMT are well-represented.

“We might even do a silent box because it turned out so well”—a voice is overheard from a nearby desk. Chuck Zitta examines the proposed box art for a Datsun 280ZX. The art was freshly painted by Brad Leisure and the work turned out so well that Zitta is considering leaving all text off the box to let the art speak for itself. Many of the style and techniques like hand-painted box art that were used by the brands back in the day are faithfully upheld by the Round 2 crew present day. Thanks to this attention to detail, many of their offerings looks like they could have occupied the shelves of Kresge’s.

round 2 model die-cast slot cars
Cameron Neveu

Next to Zitta’s desk, designer Jamie Hood is hard at work on a 1/25-scale model of Black Beauty, the menacing Chrysler Imperial from The Green Hornet.

Hood, the sci-fi expert according to his co-workers, graduated from art school with a major in illustration and began designing exterior graphics for RVs. (In fact, he may be the first designer to adorn a camper with a mountain vista.) Eventually, he found Round 2, where he designs kits and illustrates box art, and deals with licensing.

Much of the job requires a certain tap dance around licensing, naming rights, and usage conditions. “Every situation is different. When it comes to Star Wars, for example,” he motions toward the box depicting a giant spaceship, “I had to fight to put figures in. And even then, you’re limited to the scale that you can produce.”

Not to mention the frenetic fandom surrounding much of Hood’s largest projects. “It becomes complicated when you create something and your references are a filming miniature that they used for special effects and a full-size set with actors. Sometime the dimensions are physically impossible,” says Hood. “Or, in the case of Star Wars, creators built several Millennium Falcons through the various movies. Which one do you follow?”

round 2 model die-cast slot cars
Cameron Neveu

We circle the cubes and find brand manager Karamitsos reviewing a batch of “test shots.” These are early examples of what the produced vehicle—whether model kit, die-cast, or slot car—will look like. He picks up a 1:64-scale Pontiac GTO: “See how this roof is flat? That’s not right.” He picks up a more recent test shot of the same GTO. It looks nearly identical to the first except the roof more closely matches to the original roof line of the Poncho. (Karamitsos has been wrenching on cars for years and even drag races his blue 1969 Camaro, so he knows a thing or two about accuracy.)

Including the initial digital 3-D models, the review process could go several rounds until team members are confident in the final piece. Then, the finalized test shot is approved for tooling overseas. This process is one of the most expensive steps, so it requires the staff at Round 2 to critically think about how they can get the most bang for their buck.

Reid shares a project that he’s been developing: a first-generation Chrysler minivan. “You go, ‘Okay, it kept the same body from ’84 to ’90. We can make a Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager if we do four different front die-cast grilles,” says Reid. “It’s all about getting the most out of the tool.”

Adjacent to the maze of cubicles, boxes of reference materials are stacked in the corner of the design room. Vintage toys, paint swatches, magazines—anything to spark an idea is at the ready for the designers. Reid picks up an old set of AMC paint swatches and sets it back down on the pile. Beyond the ideation materials, there’s well-lit desk covered in white seamless paper used to create studio shots of the finalized products.

round 2 model die-cast slot cars
Cameron Neveu

We take a quick tour of the other rooms, which prominently feature stacks of new and old merchandise. We blitz past a small studio setup where Reid records monthly newsletter videos unveiling new products and teasing future releases. Many of the toys may be retro in nature, but that doesn’t stop Round 2 from leveraging its social reach to build awareness around its brands.

round 2 model kit
When it comes to model car kits, Round 2 does it all, from new vehicles that use an OEM’s design files, to retro kits from modeling’s salad days. Cameron Neveu

The other half of the company’s South Bend campus is a warehouse that serves as their digital hobby shop. “We wanted a place where people can get anything Round 2” says Reid, “So we have the Auto World store. We have inventory of all of our products here. We also provide customer service as well as parts replacement for flashing or tooling issues.”

round 2 model die-cast slot cars
Cameron Neveu

Customer service for a toy company? As if on cue, an employee to the left of us is fitting together a plastic Chevelle model. He brings in a colleague to analyze the fit of two parts using the instructions and then hops back on the phone with the customer to share their solution. Now, that’s service.

The warehouse is filled floor-to-ceiling with inventory. Back behind the boxes are old tooling blocks. Most of these steel cubes, which contain channels for injecting raw material into, are overseas where much of the company’s casting and tooling are done. A few are still over here. “They’re much heavier than you think,” says Reid.

We are about to leave when he motions for us to follow him to the back of the warehouse. There, parked cheek-to-cheek is a portion of Lowe’s car collection, which includes a widebody Dodge Hellcat, a 1976 Chevrolet Camaro, and a Plymouth Superbird. It makes sense that the man responsible for filling shelves with die-cast, model kits, and slot cars for three decades would have a few full-size toys of his own.



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    I’ve often wondered about the Round 2 story, having been a modeler since the late ’50s. Good info! 👍

    DUB what brand kits to you prefer? I am 72 and and have not built models for about 40 years and looking to start with some that are easier to build.
    Thanks, Scott

    Do you sell 1/24 or 1/18 scale 1977 or 1978 Pontiac Firebird models? Regular stock Firebird or Formulas with out t-tops?

    Sincerely yours, Jim Suva

    Revell made a 1/24 78 Trans Am with T tops. In 2001, they made a “3 in 1” kit w/o T tops.
    MPC made a 1/24 Trans Am w/o T-tops in 1978. Later released had T-tops. Look online.

    Model companies didn’t make a kit of very sub model.
    The tooling is very expensive, so only the “best sellers” or popular cars were turned into kits.

    So, a lot of Trans Ams, not many base models, Formulas, Esprits, etc.
    It would not be that difficult to modify a Trans Am into a base model. If you can’t do it, find a model car club in your area, they will help you.

    I would like to know more . Could you bring back JOHAN models ? Can I get a Phone number ? I have collected models for over 60 years . As I get older I buy more diecast than plastic kits .

    I would love to see the former MPC 1/25th 1914 Stutz Bearcat come back. It was released three times beginning in 1971 as a tie in to the “Bearcats!” TV series. I

    I also have the George Barris built full scale replica used in the series.

    I have several unbuilt, so if anyone there needs one, contact me…Hagerty has my contact info.

    Is it open to the public? I’ve been in South Bend a couple of time in the last few years and had no idea this utopia was there!

    Io don’t whant models cars I like the one o redy built canot see to good I have little shop I like to buy same

    Good luck.
    Because of the tooling costs, not many four for kits were bet made.
    Try finding a Chevy promo model. They might have done a 4-door, but probably not.

    As a teen, I would buy kits and assemble them. Alas, I am 72 now and because my hands shake sumthin’ fierce, I can no longer build models. I have to be content collecting promos and unbuilt kits. (btw, those photos make me drool!)

    Hi would you be interested in purchasing nascar models late 80’s early 90’s all factory sealed ?

    Do You Have Any 1/24 or 1/25 scale models in Dodge Demon or Marlra or die cast in the same scale challenger, or barracuda in pro stock Thanks

    I have been looking for 1/18th scale die-cast pickups , all makes and models for years with no luck , they just are not out there , do you have any ? And what’s the price ?


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