Saturday mornings for kids used to be sacred. We'd sit on the floor, clutching a cereal bowl, our eyeballs mere inches from the television screen, so close we could see the tiny pixels that made up the larger image. Every two minutes, or so it seemed, He-Man or Jem or Sponge Bob had to take a break, and the onslaught of commercials would begin. One of those commercials would almost always include a couple of kids also on the floor, but instead of staring at the screen like little zombies, they were zooming shiny, tiny cars around on tracks. They were Hot Wheels, and they were far more affordable than the real thing. Like, kid-allowance affordable. As soon as our parents plunked a few dollars in our hands, we jammed those babies into the pocket of our jeans and headed for the toy aisle, where the Hot Wheels hung on pegs. We looked at every bubble package for the best car that we didn't already have. And, because those things are never stocked in an orderly fashion, you had to look at every. Single. One.
Hot Wheels were so cool because the designers came from the auto industry, where they designed actual, full-sized cars. But in tiny form, they could really let their imaginations run wild. This also made Hot Wheels the number-one vehicle property in the United States every year since its beginnings in 1968, according to parent company Mattel. The sales numbers of these little cars are way bigger than the Big Three: Mattel has produced more than 4 billion Hot Wheels, in total, since 1968. That's more cars than Detroit's three largest auto manufacturers combined.
The Saturday morning ritual may be gone, but cartoons, commercials, and Hot Wheels are still around, and kids are still paying for them with their few crinkled dollar bills. And adults are now paying for them with high-limit credit cards. Let's look into the allure of some of the hottest wheels on the planet.
Little Cars Make a Big Splash
In the late sixties, Matchbox cars already existed, and they were selling like crazy. Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel, saw that realistic toy cars were making a mint for Matchbox, and he wanted a piece of that market. So he hired actual automotive designers and set about creating the first set of 16 Hot Wheels cars, which were also known as California Custom Miniatures. The very first car produced was a dark-blue (or white, depending on your source) Custom Camaro, and the first set included a preview of the 1969 Corvette before the car was even available in full size. Rumor has it that this was thanks to former Chevrolet employee Harry Bentley Bradley, who knew that the door to the GM cafeteria was often unlocked. He used his inside knowledge to get ahold of the new Corvette plans and create a teeny-tiny version. (He also designed 10 other Hot Wheels in the 1968 collection.)
Hot Wheels are built at a 1:64 scale, which means if you hit a regular car with a shrink-ray and made it 64 times smaller, you'd have a Hot Wheels car. For the first few years, Hot Wheels were painted in Spectraflame, which was about as shiny and sparkly as paint could be, and they had chrome-like mag wheels, too. And, just like the coolest real-life muscle cars, Hot Wheels had redline tires, a feature they carried up until 1977.
Even in the very first year, there was a track available for racing Hot Wheels, and the cars were made to reach 200 scale miles per hour (321.9 scale kilometers per hour). They had moving styrene wheels attached to the chassis by actual axles with a working suspension that included tiny plastic bushings. This suspension was a real pain in the bumper to install, though, so in 1970 it got an overhaul.
Hot Wheels Heat Up
Elliot Handler's faith in kids wanting cool little cars was not misplaced. The first set did so well that in 1969, Hot Wheels issued 24 new cars, and in 1970 there were 33 total cars. Each of these models, by the way, came in a few different colors, so that 1970 Red Baron — a dragster with an inexplicable and inexplicably cool helmet over the cockpit — could be found in different colors.
The demand for Hot Wheels overwhelmed the California production plant within the first few months, and for the first couple of years, manufacturing was split between in there and Hong Kong. In 1973, Mattel moved all Hot Wheels production to Hong Kong, and the next year they sadly ended the expensive and hard to apply Spectraflame paint. A far less-shiny enamel was used ever after. Sad face.
But kids weren't sad for long. In 1983, Hot Wheels came in Happy Meal boxes at McDonald's. This was pretty much the pinnacle of 80s kid-hood. Except that around the same time, Hot Wheels production moved to Malaysia and they added economy cars to the lineup. Because why dream of a Camaro or something out-of-this-world like the "Eevil Weevil" when you could dream about a Pontiac Fiero, just like all the small-time drug dealers in your town?
In 1995, Hot Wheels debuted Treasure Hunt cars, which were limited to just 10,000 castings of 12 models (each year) with the TH logo, including a Rolls-Royce Phantom II and an Olds 442 in the first year. The idea with a limited series called Treasure Hunt, of course, is that they're difficult to find, and rewarding when you do. But the series got really popular with collectors, so while there are still only 12 models each year, they made the decision to make more of them. Which makes them less rare. Which also makes them less collectible, one would think.
The next year, the inevitable happened. Mattel bought their old rival Matchbox. All your tiny cars are belong to us.
Back in the day, designers who wanted to create a Hot Wheels car based on the real thing would have to get the measurements of the real car and then scale it down. Sometimes, like when Harry Bradley "obtained" the plans for the new Corvette, the measurements were already provided for the designers. But sometimes it was a matter taking a tape measure out to the parking lot and doing it the old-fashioned way.
In the digital age, however, no one measures anything in real life. Nor do they have to sneak in the unlocked cafeteria door. Since 2004, auto manufacturers have just sent CAD files of their cars to the Hot Wheels designers. Even with this technological advance, designers still have a difficult job to do. It turns out that when you hit a real-life car with a shrink ray, it looks weird. The proportions get sort-of funky. The little version is too skinny, and the wheels are in the wrong place. The designers start by adjusting the wheelbase to make the die-cast car look right before adjusting everything else.
Only about half of the cars Hot Wheels puts out in a year are replicas, though. The other half spring fully formed from the designers' imaginations. These are sketched out either on paper or using software to begin with, and then they're transferred — like every other image in the known universe — to Photoshop, where the design can be manipulated. Lately, because we live in the future, Hot Wheels designers have been able to send their designs to a 3D printer for prototyping so they can see what it looks like at the right size and in the real world. Once the designer has created the car he imagined, he hand-finishes the body to make sure it's exactly right.
At this point, the car is sent to the factory to make the die from which it will be cast. That's why they're called "die-cast" cars. Basically, the prototype is used to make a mold, or die, which is then filled with molten metal under high pressure. Once the die is cast, it's also hand-finished to smooth out any imperfections before the car goes into full production.
Hot Wheels are also hot properties. How hot? Well, according to Mattel, some collections of these little toy cars are valued at over $1 million. The absolute hottest was a VW bus that sold for $72,000 in 2000. There were several things contributing to what sounds like (and maybe is) an insane price for a van you can't even drive. First, the Beach Bomb, as the model was known, was Hot Pink — a color that was associated with girls and therefore not popular with the boys who generally bought Hot Wheels in 1968. Second, it was a Rear-Loader Beach Bomb. Its little surfboards stuck out the rear window, which turned out to be difficult to produce at the factory. It didn't work with the track anyway, so it was redesigned with a wider body and the surfboards loaded in the side. And to top it all off, there are only 25 of these prototype Rear-Loader Beach Bombs known to exist. Ergo, this little guy sold for the price of a drivable Cadillac Escalade rather than the $600 a "regular" 1968 Beach Bomb by Hot Wheels would go for.
While there are other rarities that have fetched high prices, none are even close to that record. There was the "Cheetah" of 1968. Its name was changed to the "Python" pretty quickly when Mattel found out GM exec Bill Thomas owned the Cheetah name; it was his race car rival to Carroll Shelby's Cobra. If you can get your hot little hands on a Python model that still says "Cheetah" on the chassis, before it was changed, you can fetch about $10,000 for it.
Collectors have been holding Hot Wheels conventions since the 1980s, and they've got a few pointers for you, just in case your nostalgia gets the best of you and you want to line your bookshelves with cool cars:
- Check the car's condition carefully — chipped paint or scratches can lower a car's value
- Redline tires show that the car was produced between 1968 and 1977
- But double-check the date on the chassis, too, since Redlines and other popular car models have been reissued decades later
- There's no other telltale sign of an early Hot Wheels car like Spectraflame paint
If you really want to geek out, there are groups of Hot Wheels collectors all over the place. Hotwheelscollectors.com alone has more than a quarter-million users. Go ahead — make it a quarter-million and one.
Author's Note: How Hot Wheels Work
When I was growing up, I had a cardboard case full of Hot Wheels. Hundreds of little metal cars. My brother had another box full. And I'm old enough now that if I had kept those cars, I would probably be a millionaire. Except that we all know that isn't true.
We played with those cars hard. Really hard. I remember one of our favorite games was to start at one end of our small kitchen with the cars lined up with their noses at a line in the linoleum. Then we would shove them as hard as we could toward the other end of the kitchen. The car that hit the baseboard of the opposite wall with all four wheels still on the floor won. That game was quickly killed when our parents noticed what die-cast metal cars do to wood baseboards.
By the time we grew out of them, our Hot Wheels looked as terrible as the baseboards in the kitchen. Collectors say to look for dents and paint scratches; ours were made of nothing but dents and scratches. So, yeah. Maybe not a millionaire.
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