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Hot Wheels half century: Now in its 50th year, Hot Wheels remains top dog in the world of diecast cars

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Photography by the author.

Half a century of Hot Wheels. Can you believe it? Oh, metal toy cars existed long before Mattel’s eternal “blue brand” (so named for the color of its packaging), but Mattel’s timing and ideas combined to fire the imagination of generations of kids, building a billion memories in the process.

To understand why they were such a phenomenon, you have to understand what came before. In the ’50s, Tootsietoy made diecast cars in a variety of sizes, including 3-inch scale (roughly 1/64, or S-scale). They were charming but crude: a body featured faint cast-in detail, so-so paint and a pair of barbells (wheel/axle combinations) clamped in to stanchions jutting down from the body. There was no chassis, interior, nor glass on cars of that size in those days.

When England’s Matchbox burst on the scene in the mid-’50s, their small cars offered a new level of detail: interiors, chassis, the occasional trailer hitch, and (in the early 1960s) window glass. Their cars were roughly OO scale (1:76) but grew over time to the familiar 3-inch size. They covered vehicular subject matter from around the world. Across the globe, they were favorites among boys of a certain age (and likely not a few girls, also) for most of the 1960s.

And then along came Hot Wheels. They were the brainchild of Elliot Handler, co-founder of toy giant Mattel and the “el” in that company’s name; he made his fortune on Barbie, her friends, and her never-ending line of fashion accessories. But Mattel didn’t have an evergreen sales staple for boys the way it did for girls. When Handler suggested a line of diecast metal cars (with a twist) to compete with Matchbox, the Mattel board pooh-pooh’d it. Can you imagine? Handler pressed on regardless.

Hot Wheels tapped into both the late’60s muscle-car zeitgeist and the world’s thirst for California car culture, and introduced it to a group (the young end of the Baby Boomer brigade) that didn’t yet have their driver’s license. Custom-car designer Harry Bentley Bradley was retained to design 11 of the first 16 models that were released in the Fall of 1967. His own heavily customized ’64 Chevy El Camino was the inspiration for the Custom Fleetside pickup, and more: during the design phase, someone spied Bradley’s Elky in the parking lot and told him that he had some “hot wheels.” The legendary moniker was born.

Hot Wheels were an instant sales hit, and to understand why you had to see what they were up against. Where other manufacturers from distant lands had worldwide marketing needs to consider, Hot Wheels models were largely based on either American performance cars (Camaro, Firebird, Mustang, Corvette) or American custom cars (Alexander Brothers’ Dodge Deora, Bill Cushenberry’s Silhouette, etc.) for the American market.

Where nods to replicated realism were part and parcel of the old guard, Hot Wheels embraced chromed engines popping through hoods, zoomie-pipe exhausts, and radically raked stances. Where wheels and tires on other brands were just featureless black disks designed to roll via kid power, Hot Wheels offered mag-wheel styles, red-stripe tires, 0.02-inch piano-wire axles bent to replicate torsion-bar suspension, space-age Delrin bushings with press-on wheels, and a razor-thin contact surface on the tire itself for fast-rolling action–achieving scale speeds of 300 mph or more.

Other toy companies had playsets that resembled roads, parking lots and construction sites; Hot Wheels offered neon orange race track, as well as a Super Charger, with a pair of counter-rotating foam-wrapped wheels designed to fling cars forth at speeds that their complicated suspensions could handle. (That track would be offered in endless configurations: drag strip, high-banked oval, Figure 8, loop-de-loop, and more.)

Other toy companies painted their cars with plain ol’ paint, in colors that were frequently offered on a given model for years on end; Hot Wheels’ special Spectraflame paint, a semi-translucent application over a polished raw metal body, was available in up to 16 colors. (Not every color was available on every car, and with two factories going, some cars were only available in some colors from one factory or the other.)

All of that … for a dollar.

Hot Wheels did more than just make Mattel a shedload of cash and give the company that evergreen sales staple for boys–they changed the way diecast cars were marketed and made. They made such an impact on the market that they instantly put every other diecast-car maker on the back foot as they scrambled to catch up, with varying degrees of success. For example, Matchbox introduced the Superfast line, with thin wheels and wire axles, in 1969, as a direct response to Hot Wheels.

Also in 1969, Hot Wheels designers’ flights of fancy–cars like the Torero or the Tri-Baby–took up more and more of the lineup alongside real cars. Within a year or two, Matchbox also sidestepped realism and introduced fantasy models into the lineup. Topper Toys’ Johnny Lightning models thoroughly aped the Hot Wheels business model from 1969-72, selling up to one JL for every three Hot Wheels–and likely would not have existed at all without Hot Wheels. AMT launched their 1/64 Pups line to a resounding sales thud because they were duds on the orange track; subsequent owners of the tooling introduced wire axles and speed wheels, but didn’t have the marketing might to mix it up with Mattel. Aurora briefly continued its Cigar Box line with chromed plastic bodies and mag-type hard wheels. Other lines (Impy, Husky/Corgi Junior, Budgie, Mini Dinky) either adapted or disappeared. Even Matchbox itself, once the industry leader, was purchased by Mattel in 1996.

Though initially made in America, Hot Wheels were such an instant hit that Mattel employed a second factory, in Hong Kong, to make a variety of models. Tooling differences between the U.S.- and Hong Kong-made models meant little (if anything) to kids who wanted to dial their rides in for speed on the orange track, but would prove interesting to collectors many decades hence. Plenty of modern collectors don’t consider (for example) the HK-made Camaro and the US-made Camaro to be the same casting; Redline-era completists will need at least one of every available color from both countries. It wasn’t long before the U.S. factory closed and all production was sent through Hong Kong; Malaysia replaced Hong Kong as the main manufacturing facility in the early 1980s, though production also takes place in China and Thailand today.

Color mattered too. Spectraflame Pink models were purchased in far lesser numbers than cars in other colors; whether it was a production issue, with fewer made, or simply that boys didn’t want a car in a “girls’ color” is open for debate. What isn’t up for debate is that pink models today can command prices more than double that of other colors; while many colors of the Olds 442 from 1971 sell in the hundreds of dollars, pink versions vault into the thousands. Other colors are less common on certain castings, more through happenstance than design, and can command similar prices.

For 1969, Hot Wheels expanded into new areas: Grand Prix and road racing cars like the Chapparal and Ford Mk IV; European models like the Pagoda-roof Mercedes SL and Maserati Mistral; American hot rods like a ’36 Ford coupe (with opening rumble seat!) and ’31 Ford Model A Woody, a couple of American high-performance cars like the AMC AMX and Dodge Charger; and at last a ’67 Plymouth Fury police car to stop all the riff-raff. (The police car was the first diecast car to use tampo pad-printing technology in lieu of stickers or painstaking hand-detailing.) The police car and some of the race cars were painted enamel colors,  to better emulate the real subject matter, and the European models were largely unmodified beyond the Spectraflame paint.

There is one notable exception to this: the legendary Volkswagen Beach Bomb, a Bay Window-era VW van. The ones available in stores have a box that widens the rear track of the van; each side also holds a surfboard. Those “side-loader” Beach Bombs are common. There was also a prototype version, the “rear-loader” Beach Bomb. The body was correctly proportioned, and the surfboards slotted in through the rear window. But it was too narrow to work properly on Hot Wheels’ orange track, and so was modified before it came to market. These few slender prototypes now sell for five figures on the open market; the one known pink rear-loader Beach Bomb sold a few years back for more than $70,000. Reproductions were available for a time, but even they are no longer on the market.

For 1970, Hot Wheels could easily be described in two words: Snake and Mongoose. Drag-racing legends Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen match-raced each other all over the country in Hot Wheels-sponsored funny cars, and Hot Wheels made diecast cars and playsets replicating the two Mopars. Also, Mattel introduced the Spoilers, which saw fatter tires, aggressive cast-in air dams and trunk lips, and removed hoods (to better show engine detail) as a way to refresh the line using existing, lightly modified tooling.

A sales slump in 1972, following Mattel’s saturation of the diecast-car market, led to some changes for 1973. A paucity of all-new castings (just three, the fewest in a year in Hot Wheels history) meant that creative new solutions were pressed into place. Old castings were renamed–the Classic Nomad became the Alive ’55, for example. Other castings were converted–the Olds 442 would become a police car, fire chief car, and a taxi cab, with lights on the roof and the opening hood permanently sealed. Spectraflame paint went away, replaced by a dozen (admittedly fragile) enamel colors–making clean ’73 models hard to find, and therefore a favorite of collectors. Wheels retained the trademark red stripe, but they no longer rolled on Delrin bushings: the pulloff wheels were a choking hazard to small kids, it was judged, and new safety laws eliminated the old style of wheel. Newer redlines have a center hole that clearly shows the axle. Hot Wheels sales picked up.

For 1974, paint-quality improved and brightly colored tampo decorations festooned the new Flying Colors line of Hot Wheels–another move copied by others, notably Matchbox with its Streakers line–and while it wasn’t the seismic shift that Mattel brought in 1968 with the introduction of the brand, it certainly helped invigorate the line for a few more years. By 1977, bowing to fashion and cost considerations in equal measure, the red stripe on Hot Wheels’ tire sidewalls was eliminated.

But Hot Wheels continued, and continues to this day. Today, the brand remains such a force that (like Kodak, Kleenex and Xerox) its name is in danger of becoming genericized, short-hand for “toy car.” Hot Wheels dominates the worldwide new toy car market. Other brands may be more popular in different countries, but wherever you go toy hunting, the presence of Hot Wheels on the pegs is inevitable. And throughout the year, Mattel will be dropping 50th-anniversary-themed models and sets onto the collector community at large. The annual Hot Wheels Nationals in Dallas, in early April, is already sold out, and we suspect that the annual Hot Wheels Convention in Los Angeles in October (probably; dates are TBD) will also sell out in record time, in no small part because of the anniversary.

How many of us got hooked on real cars because of Hot Wheels? It was so easy then. Before you could put your name on a pink slip, you could ask grandpa for a dollar to buy something cool. The rip of the package, the smell of the fresh paint that escaped the blisterpack, the bounce of the suspension, the fast roll of your new ride. More than a few car junkies reading this page will have to admit that playing with (and collecting) Hot Wheels was their first step into loving cars. Today, half a century later, your local brick-and-mortar store still sells them for a dollar. It’s a cheap way to get another generation hooked on old cars, just like we got hooked.