“Those are some Hot Wheels!”
But when it comes to shifting vast quantities of cars, requiring little human intervention, there’s a company at the very top of the tree. Toyota and VW can claim to make ten million vehicles per year, Mattel’s Hot Wheels shift about the same per week. The name is purportedly to have emanated from the lips of Mattel founder and inventor, Elliot Handler upon observing a prototype whizz by. Considering models from rivals, Matchbox, to be unsatisfactory, Handler wanted not just to compete but bring forth the finest looking and running, models. He and his wife, Ruth, invested well.
Vehicle Play was the watchword, but in addition, Handler wanted to reflect the growth in Stateside Hot Rod culture. Research over two years from 1966 settled on 1/64th scale and some innovative ideas. Handler suggested wild colour schemes; Spectraflame involved polishing the metal to a mirror like sheen then applying transparent colours achieving candy-coloured metallic finishes that made rivals, Matchbox shudder. As for tyres, solid and smooth plastic; wonderful on hard surfaces, but from bitter personal experience, terrible on carpet.
The axles, a simple torsion bar set up, were of thick gauge music wire. With lubrication, a small, cheap, durable and with low friction plastic bearing named Delrin allowed the cars to run freely. Add in chromed side exhausts along with redlines, the red-rimmed mag-style wheels, then put them on the (sold separately) orange plastic racetrack and Mattel would create a sales and marketing phenomenon.
The first 1968 batch of cars became known as The Sweet Sixteen with the lion’s share of designs credited to Harry Bentley Bradley. Known at GM in the mid-60’s, Handler also introduced John (Jack) Ryan for his “space-age material savvy.” HBB, whilst pleased with his output thought the scheme wouldn’t take off, leaving Mattel in 1969, although not before recommending Ira Griffin from Chrysler as replacement. Hot Wheels gained credence within the car industry with designers seeking opportunities. Blending current life-sized favourites with a Hot Rod twist, the very first Hot Wheels was a Custom Camaro. Hot on its heels were manufacturer approved licenses from the ‘Big Three’, leading to the Sweet Sixteen being highly sought after, then and now.
In those fifty years some 20,000 models have been created with around 130 new variations arriving every year. One of the latest being a green British Volvo P1800 Gasser raced by septuagenarian Lee Johnstone wearing the nickname ‘Ain’t No Saint’ under the Hot Wheels Legends motif. Since 2018, the Legends fly under the banner of ‘Art That Rules the Road’ where authenticity, creativity and that built, not bought persona shines through. Winning is the ticket to having your car available almost everywhere for around £2.
Aping the real car business, Hot Wheels devote around eighteen months developing a new model. A youthful mentality helps alongside involving known car celebrities, current video game and movie franchises. “Hot Wheels was born out of authentic automotive heritage,” states design VP Ted Wu. His team is split roughly two-thirds working on licensed vehicles, the remainder on Originals – fantasy cars direct from the designer’s mind where anything goes. A few timeline highlights: 1977, redline wheels phased out. 1983, MacDonalds offer Hot Wheels with Happy Meals. The mid-80’s, Kellogg offered them with their cereals. By the millennium, Formula One entered the scene – go, Bernie!
As with manufacturers using scale models alongside computer simulations, the reverse is true with 1/64 scale models. Simply shrinking the real car down to something a couple of inches long might lose the obvious scale but also most of the looks. Wu again, “A lot of design creativity is required. Most, if not all the (licensed) cars are not carbon copies.” Backing Wu up is Adam Barry, a senior creative designer. “Exaggeration has to occur in order for the car to look good and keep its character. In general, we make the wheels bigger, squeeze down on the roof, maybe widen the car but maintain the caricature. There’s a lot of creativity. A lot of design going on.”
Should a manufacturer with intent offer a concept or pre-production model to Hot Wheels, heavy challenges are then faced. “We might receive a basic image, very little detail. That base line is translated into 3D and changes constantly. It’s always a fine balance,” says Wu. Remember the brand caters to the wealthy, adult collector as much as the child of today who of course knows nothing of the original muscle and pony cars when Hot Wheels itself was but a child. This also (partly) explains how when browsing the supermarket play aisle, one might find a Lamborghini Countach next to a Datsun 510, a Cadillac or Porsche or maybe even a dinosaur or shark on wheels. And those effects are long lasting.
Take the Twin Mill, from the pencil of Gifford, a dart-like hot rod with two V8’s up front on the outer edges became ultra-popular because of its preposterous nature. Impossible perhaps in the (1960’s) real world, but a fillip for the kid owning one. But then Gifford had a 1:1 Twin Mill made for the 2001 SEMA show. With a working output of ‘around 1,400bhp’, doubtless the real car isn’t the weapon of choice for the Nürburgring but illustrates the appeal to our inner child, regardless of age.
From their rudimentary if perfectly fine early diecasts, the company have, just like their real-world counterparts invested in technology to create more intricacy along with different scales. “Rather like platforms in the car industry,” states Jun Imai, another design team member. And with such a large, social media fuelled customising fan base, the company openly admits to implementing information and techniques to create the next best thing.
Ask anyone within the industry – those sales figures cannot be ignored.
Data Sources: Hotwheels.fandom.com, Hotwheelsmedia.com, Motortrend.com, Evo.co.uk
 Who Mattel purchased in 1997
 Simple but flawed. There were difficult to install on assembly and highly proven to detach themselves given enough childish “encouragement.” A redesign took place in 1970.
 Creating your very own, front room movie scene; cars flying, looping the loop and crashing with aplomb. Even when the paint eventually chipped, they still looked good.
 Values have subsequently soared towards the $100,000 mark