Toy Story – One

“Those are some Hot Wheels!”

Image: Motor Trend

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[1] shudder. As for tyres, solid and smooth plastic; wonderful on hard surfaces, but from bitter personal experience, terrible on carpet.

The axles[2], 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[3].

The original Hot Wheels ‘Sweet Sixteen’. Image: juiceonline

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[4].

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.

Elliot and Ruth Handler check out the goods. Image: Motor Trend

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!

Image: bestbuy

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.

Like a kid in a toy shop… Image: drivingline

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

[1] Who Mattel purchased in 1997

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Values have subsequently soared towards the $100,000 mark

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

10 thoughts on “Toy Story – One”

  1. Good morning Andrew. As a Matchbox-era child, I’m too old to know much about Hot Wheels, so thanks for the above. I do recall that Matchbox introduced something similar called ‘Superfast’ with a plastic track and the model cars modified to move faster and further. This involved plastic (rather than metal) wheels on much thinner axles, the size of a sewing needle. Here’s a photo of a Matchbox Superfast set:

    1. I was disappointed when Matchbox introduced those Superfast models because their wheels always looked non-original and wrong.
      I also was too old for the Mattel stuff where neither the too US-oriented looks of the cars nor the dragstrip-like track held any appeal for me.
      I always had problems with Matchbox because nearly everything had the same size which made it look unrealistic too often and preferred models from Siku, Gama, Schuco or Corgi where models had the same scale.

      May I confess that a couple of weeks ago I bought an RC model in 1 to 87 scale(!) of a Unimog which is fun to drive around on the dinner table (my wife likes it, too).

  2. It’s funny how this is the kids version of Pepsi or Coke? I was a Majorette guy, it was the gold standard for me an nothing else ever came close. Though I always had a problem with scale, for some reason I couldn’t suspend my disbelief and pretend they were of the same size when they obviously wasn’t. Second place is a tie between Matchbox and Corgi. They both had their virtues. I fondly remember the Matchbox Superfast Mini in bright orange, that really was a fast one!

    And I had one Hot Wheels, the Spectraflame Orange/Gold Mercury Cougar from the “Original 16”. It was one of my most prized possessions. And one day my kid brother of three years old wanted to play with it. And I told my mom I feared he would destroy it and she told me to not be silly and three minutes later he had tored the wheels and suspension straight off the car. I’ll never forgive either of them…

  3. Good morning, Andrew. Thank you for a run down Memory Lane — and the educational backgrounder, too.

    I was young enough to take part in both Matchbox and Hot Wheels camps. Majorette and Corgi were never widely sold where I lived, so I mixed and matched what I could find. I liked that Lesney included real trucks (like rubbish trucks and cranes); it took a few years for Mattel to progress beyond the fun but relatively unproductive surfb0ard-toting Deora. As a resident of the U.S., though, I appreciated models I could recognize, like Camaros, Cougars, and Beetles, more than Ford Zodiacs and MG 1100s I had never seen in life size, even living not far from New York City. Hot Wheels also seemed to have a much greater performance bent, too, with Lesney’s Superfast line looking more like a catch-up offering and never quite having the panache (transparent metallic paint, hot-rodded designs, etc.) that Mattel offered.

    Many happy hours were spent pretend-driving and doing daredevil stunts. Over time I passed my collection to my younger brother; I never tracked down what became of them in his care. Only a couple have survived at this point. But the memories remain.

  4. Mattel were far too late to my party and had no appeal whatsoever, so thanks Andrew for explaining. For me it was Dinky Toys, starting pre-competition from Corgi (I was never convinced by the wheels on the latter). The real life lesson was saving up my pocket money (6d a week – that’s 2½p) until I could buy another one – a regular monthly treat and augmented at birthdays and Christmas by aunts & uncles who always knew what to buy me. But to this day I’ve never bought a car on any sort of hire purchase plan……. Sad old git – I’ll get my coat…..

  5. Andrew, Thank you for the nice write-up on Hot Wheels. I’ve been a toy collector for 70+ years in addition to the “real” cars, and once I retired and closed my restoration shop, my ex-wife and I created a business buying, selling, and repairing vintage toys, so over the last 50+ years I’ve owned literally thousands of Hot Wheels.

    One of the world’s biggest Hot Wheels collectors is Bruce Pascal, here in the Washington DC area. I’ve known Bruce and his parents for decades, I first met his parents Paul & Brenda thru my membership in the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club. They had a large collection of the real cars, and were serious vintage toy collectors too, even going to the effort of buying a large Victorian home to display their own collection of antique toys. You can see more of Bruce’s 7,000+ piece Hot Wheels collection at his Hot Wheels website: https://www.hotwheelsonline.com/about.html

    Starting in the early 1990s, Mattel began increasing production to the point where today, even mint examples still in the bubble card packaging, bring well under $1 at auction, hence most auction houses sell them 25 to 50 in a single lot. Over the last couple of years I’ve been selling off my toy collection, and since modern Hot Wheels are “everywhere” on the internet, they bring almost nothing at auction.

    One major part in collecting Hot Wheels [or almost any toy] is the importance of keeping the original packaging in mint condition if possible. One should never remove the toy from the original packaging, if the removal will damage the package. For example, Vintage Lesney Matchbox products were packed in a small box and not sealed. So today they can be taken out and displayed next to the box {1}. But examples with the toy inside a clear hard plastic bubble should never be disturbed unless the toy is intended for a child to play with. Serious collectors of rare toys in the hanging type display packaging even consider it damaged if there is wear at the hanging hole at the top of the card.

    And one more tip; If a toy is packaged as a “Collector piece” or “Limited Production” toy without announcing the number to be made, It’s likely they produced so many examples that they will never really be a decent investment. Typically that “limited production” toy is limited only by the number they can sell.

    {1} Boxes. Never discard a vintage toy’s box or packaging, even if it’s less than mint. Collectors often pay more for an empty box than the toy it housed. For example, Matchbox Motorway sets typically had 2 matchbox cars in their original boxes, inside the motorway set. The 2 most common examples in the 1960s sets were the Lamborghini and Mercedes-Benz 230sl. Because 99% of children opened the little boxes to get to the cars, then discarded the boxes after play, as the cars could be put back into the recesses in the Motorway set box, so demand for Motorway sets with the cars in their box mean the boxes can sell for more than the unboxed car. A Matchbox Motorway set can sell for double the price if it’s got the correct boxed cars inside.

  6. This was an entertaining and seasonal article, but somewhat less critical than I expect from DTW. Not to put too fine a point on it, Mattel and Hot Wheels were key in destroying the British miniature auto industry.

    Apart from the merits (or lack thereof) of the toys, Mattel was the first to move production overseas, purchasing a plant in Hong Kong shortly after the Hot Wheels were first introduced. The cost savings went to profits and to frequent television advertising (something which had previously been seldom-employed to promote miniature cars).

    When the Hot Wheels first arrived, I was 11. My best friend and I created intricate cities whose cardboard roads were populated with vehicles from the Matchbox 1-75 range.

    Since we were in California, a very few Matchboxes were too British (Ford D800 gritter) or boring (Vauxhall Victor estate), but in general they were perfect. In contrast, the gaudy, unrealistic Hot Wheels resembled nothing one would actually see on the road. In addition, the free-running wheels meant they wouldn’t stay parked, and easily went out of control when being driven around a curve or over a model bridge.

    Our cities were first set in a made-up corner of Oregon, and later in our own country somewhere out in the Pacific. The endeavor eventually led to us creating our own filling station brands, companies, even radio station programs. It was a world of imagination that left its mark on us even today, offering so much more than just pushing a car down an orange track to see how hard it could hurl itself into the skirting board.

    As collectors well know, Matchbox, Dinky, Corgi and other competitors all responded to Hot Wheels by modifying their own products to feature thin axles and unrealistic plastic wheels. It was greatly to their detriment. To name just one example from dozens, the Matchbox VW Beetle had reached a peak of development that included beautiful cast wheels, tires that could be removed, and working steering. When revamped to include Speedwheels, it lost all of these features.

    Defenders will say that Hot Wheels simply offered more of what children wanted than Matchbox, Dinky, or Corgi did. To that I would respond that people want what they are made to want, and refer the reader back to the point about Mattel’s vast advertising might.

    Yes, there were plenty of other factors leading to the demise of British diecast toys, but Hot Wheels were the beginning of the end. I will always dislike Mattel as a result.

    Ironically, they not only own Matchbox but also owned Corgi for a few years. They also own the Dinky trademark, which they later whored out to CIJ/Norev for reproduction of classic models. (This was done using 3-D scanning, not original tooling.)

  7. major part of Hot Wheels success was their aggressive marketing. Core to this was the Hot Wheels TV series which aired on ABC from 1969 through 1971. Each episode was nothing else than a 30 minute long commercial. Which prompted a lot of complaints by the public
    and competitors alike. Finally the FCC told ABC to take it off air (or bill it as advertising, while keeping with advertising rules). As a further outcome, the FCC imposed very strict rules for kids TV shows and kids TV advertising in general.

    In fact, this is very much a landmark case re: paid content/ clandestine advertising, up to the present day. Well … of course not in the US, where the Reagan administration forced the FCC to loosen regulation again.

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