“Their toys opened up flight to millions of kids…” Ben Varadi on Peter Manning and John Dixon

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

Ben, terrific to see you! Looks like you’re in your little underground music bunker…
I am, I am! I’m underground in Toronto! Where are you? London?

No, an area called Runnymede. They signed the Magna Carta here. There’s a memorial to JFK nearby, Windsor Castle isn’t far… It’s all very posh; I’m amazed they let me in!
Ha! But we’re going to talk about Dixon Manning today?

Yes, in the context of John and Peter inventing Air Hogs – and winning the I.D.I.O.T. Award. Now, obviously we’ve already spoken about this because it recently came to light that John Dixon is very quietly retired in France… Sadly, though, Peter Manning passed over a while ago; 18 months or so.

So first, my condolences again, because I know these guys had a huge influence on your life. In fact, let’s start there… There’s no question that Spin Master made Air Hogs – but to what degree did Air Hogs make Spin?
Oh, to a huge degree; massively. There’s no doubt that Spin Master would not be where it is today without Dixon Manning. And my life would not be the same without them – so both of them hold a very special place in my heart.

And because the news of Peter’s passing only reached us recently, I figured we could look to pay tribute to the Dixon Manning partnership here…
Well, we should, we should. And you know what would be beautiful – and I’m sure you’re thinking this… At the London Toy Fair next year, they get a proper send off, like a 21-gun salute! Push the boat out; shoot the arrows – whatever… Because I can tell you, I loved Peter very much. I thought he was an absolutely incredible guy.

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

I know. I am sorry… What was he like?
He was a great tinkerer, a true inventor and an amazing person. Just a joy of a guy. To me, he was so classically British, like that classic cynic. At the same time, he had a terrific sense of humour. It’s funny, because – like a lot of great partnerships – they were very different. John Dixon was a much more dour guy. He was a marketer; Peter was an engineer – and a great engineer; a really pragmatic guy. I can’t say enough amazing things about Peter and John. They don’t make them like those guys anymore.

And I know we’ve discussed it in another chat, but in terms of people wanting to find out more, can you explain why they were so fundamental to the Spin story?
Of course! I remember the story like it was yesterday; it’s so funny to me, and ridiculous and legendary. We’d just done the deal with the guys; we’d written the biggest advance check: $25,000… I was so excited about it. I called, Steve Rehkemper and said, “We’ve signed this amazing item it’s a really big deal for us… I’m really excited about it!” And I started to describe the prototype: “…this amazing plane with these huge wings…” And he starts to go, “Yep, yep.”

Not excited?
Totally unexcited! And I’m super-excited, going: “Made from a fish and chips container…” “Uh-huh, yeah.” – he’s nodding along: “…and a giant bottle!” Then he says, said, ““Yep. And a big bicycle pump, right?” And I said, “Oh! Yeah! How do you know?” Then he says, “Benny, everybody’s had that item… Everybody: Playmates, Galoob, Mattel, Hasbro… Everybody’s had it.” And I said, “What happened?” He said, “Well – no one’s been able to get it to work.” And I thought: oh fuck! It just hit me like a ton of bricks at that moment… Like cold water in the face: of course they didn’t bring first it to us first! Ha!

Ha! Because who are you back then?!
Right?! And I should have known! Because – you know – when Peter and John walked into our showroom in 1996, we were in a room not much bigger than this one. There were five companies in this room… Four of us had a corner each, then there was one guy had like the galley kitchen in the back. Ha! So we were nobody, stuck away in the back corner. Why would they have come to us first?! They wouldn’t! Ha! We’re not their first choice… We’re their LAST choice!

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

Ha! It’s brilliant; that Road to Damascus moment!
Right? Like, it never dawned on me until that moment. I honestly thought we were getting it – finally; we’re in. People are showing us the good stuff; we’re getting treated like we’re a real toy company now! You’re laughing, Deej, but I felt like Pinocchio, like “I’m a real boy!”

Ha! We’re a real toy company now! So everybody’s had it. Everybody’s tried it. Everybody’s failed with it! But you’ve signed it, you’ve paid for it… How did Spin, Peter and John manage to do what everybody else could not?
Oh, wow. Well, that’s a great question. I think the answer is: we got by with a little help from our friends. Ha! So I give a lot of the credit to both Steve and Jeff Rehkemper – particularly Jeff – who day in, day out, built model after model. Chuck Kownacki who helped on the engineering side. And – of course – Peter and John. I think everybody played a really critical role in bringing it to life.

Yes, you’re very quick to give the credit.
Well, sometimes I get myself into trouble because I don’t remember exactly who contributed what and when. But I think I got everybody there – plus the Hong Kong office at that time. And William Babs, who was the manufacturer. So yes, I think it was that collective effort that made it a success. Because certainly, you know, Ronnen Harary and I – who also put lots of time into it – neither one of us was an engineer… We couldn’t have drawn a stick figure.

And it took time, did it not? To get it right?
Oh, for sure. It took two years of development – and at that time we could have brought a product to market in four months if we wanted. So to work on an item for years… That was an awfully long time. It’s shocking that we had the stomach for it to be frank. Ha! But in a way, it’s because we just didn’t know any better. That’s where we’d put our lot. We took every penny we had and dumped it into that plane.

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

Was that not terrifying?
I think maybe it should’ve been, but we were too stupid to be terrified; we were too young. You know how it is when you’re young; you’re all piss and vinegar! You don’t even realise the risk you’re taking.

Ha! And with John and Peter specifically, they’re two very different personalties… When they first presented that plane, what was it that made you believe it was worth pursuing?
Well, first – and this isn’t a knock on them, or anybody else for that matter –I’m just an item guy… I’m only looking at the toy; I really don’t care who’s presenting it. You know? I couldn’t care less about that – I’m focused on the product…

So in that respect, it wasn’t really about personalities. What mattered is that we could relate to them, and we respected them. So I would say it was great that it WAS them – because we liked them! They were fun, interesting guys. And they had a great history in the toy industry. But had it been presented by someone else, it wouldn’t have made a difference to whether or not we’d signed it because it was such an incredible item.

Indeed! And in a way, that’s reassuring, I think. Inventors want to believe it’s all about the product. So, now… Obviously, Peter and John won the I.D.I.O.T. Award. Why do you think they were worthy winners of that?
They were worthy winners because Air Hogs changed the whole category of flight in our industry… And even though Peter and John didn’t invent everything Air Hogs that came later, they didn’t need to: that first plane opened up an entire category of play… It exposed millions of kids to the joy of flight in a way that had never been done before. They were the first. I think of it as kind of like Bill Haley playing Rock Around the Clock!

How so?
Bill Haley didn’t write 40 hit songs like The Beatles, but what he did was just so critical to the genre, so groundbreaking… And I would say that about Peter and John. Their plane just opened up flight to millions of kids. And I’ve told you, haven’t I, Deej, that story that sums it all up for me? The kid in the park?

You have, but it’s an amazing story and absolutely warrants repeating! It was a heck of a moment…
It was, and a really beautiful moment, you know? Because it was when I was trying to decide whether we should back the product… I took it to the park across from where I was living, and I flew it. And this always feels to me like it’s a scene straight out of the movie! Because this kid comes over to me and he says: “Where’d you get that?”and I said: “Oh, I got it at Toys R Us.” He paused, looks at me and then says: “You didn’t get that at Toys R Us. That’s a toy of the future!”

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

You know, for me, THAT story shows why Peter Manning and John Dixon won the I.D.I.O.T. Award. They’d invented a toy of the future. And you’re right, it is like something out of a movie!
Exactly! They HAD invented a toy of the future! And that’s either the start of a movie, or it’s the most pivotal point. And of course, Air Hogs isn’t the only thing that the guys did… Right off the top of my head, they came up with the E Charger Plane, for example… A really cool innovation. Instead of air, you just charged up this little motor with a charger. The propeller started spinning right away, and the more you charged it, the faster it went. Then, you just tossed it, and it flew right out of your hand…

Funnily enough, Rehkemper also showed an item similar to the E Charger Plane right at the same time. So we ended up doing that project all together.
That also did really, really well for us, and was out for many years. But for me, breaking that first ground was the most amazing thing in an amazing career. And what a legacy!

Yes. That partnership changed the face of an entire play category and – by extension – the industry.
Right. And once Peter and John did their plane, it created this flood of flight. And remember, prior to that, flying had been a hobby category – it wasn’t accessible at all. They made it so anyone could go fly a plane. And I have a story that illustrates that because I once got on a plane carrying an Air Hogs plane in a box. But the steward said, “I’m sorry; you can’t take that on the plane, sir.” There was a short conversation, then she said she’d ask the pilot. So she showed the box to the pilot, and the pilot just said, “Air Hogs! Oh, I love that toy. No problem.”

Perfect. Well, Ben, I know we’re pushed for time here, but I have one last question! Because we now know that Peter has passed, and John is not in the best of health. If we had had an opportunity… Sorry, I’m getting moved.
Yeah, that’s okay. It is… It’s a moving moment.

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

I hear you. If we had had an opportunity to give Peter and John the send off they deserved, what would’ve been the send off?
You know, when someone passes away, the greatest tribute to their legacy is to remember their accomplishments and remember them as people. So I think we would’ve stood up at the London Toy Fair and shown a history of their career; maybe a video history, almost like when someone’s inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Now John’s still with us, so it may not be appropriate, but maybe the send off they deserve is to honour them at the Inventors Dinner… Maybe you can get someone that really knew them well to just say a few words about them as inventors and let everybody know that Peter passed away. And it would be nice to invite Peter’s wife Lesley to the dinner. That’s my suggestion.

Alright. It’s a great suggestion. I will certainly pass that on to the committee. And next year’s Inventors Dinner is the 40th one… So it might be that we celebrate all the I.D.I.O.T. winners and acknowledge that we’ve lost some.
You know what would be beautiful is to invite all the living I.D.I.O.T.s… I think that would be beautiful. Is that possible, do you think?

I don’t see why not… I mean, it’s at least logistically possible now because we’ve tracked so many of them down for interviews. I think there are two people we can’t find, but yes… I’m sure we could invite them. Alright! So… To wrap it up: John Dixon and Peter Manning: two guys that changed the face of a genre and in doing so, changed the face of the industry…
Yes. I think they were remarkable partnership. At the end of the day, it’s about the product that goes out into the world… And they gave millions and millions of kids around the world access to a play pattern that they might not have otherwise had access to. And ultimately, there would be no Air Hogs without John and Peter, and – if it weren’t for them – Spin Master might never have become the company it is today.

Well, as always, Ben, you’ve just been a delight. Thank you for making time. You’re a joy to talk to.

Ben Varadi, Peter Manning, John Dixon, I.D.I.O.T. Award,

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