Mattel’s Hot Wheels, the ultimate stocking stuffer, turned 40 this year and is still the king of die-cast collectibles, with a staggering two cars sold across the globe every second of the day. Detroit’s Big Three automakers, eat your hearts out!
According to Mattel’s Web site, more than 15 million boys in the 5-15 demographic are die-hard Hot Wheels collectors, and the average enthusiast owns at least 41 cars. Originally priced at around 59 cents in 1968, Hot Wheels are still among the most allowance-friendly collectibles, selling for about a buck apiece.
The brand began developing by fits and starts in 1966 when Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler decided to go bumper to bumper with Britain’s Lesney Products and Co. Ltd., whose Matchbox cars had long dominated the die-cast toy-car market. Handler lured Harry Bentley Bradley away from his job building real cars at General Motors to head his design team, and a collectibles legend was off and running.
With Mattel research-and-development whiz Jack Ryan heading up a creative team of 80 artists, designers and engineers, the brainstorming began.
At Handler’s urging, head designer Bradley drew on his own customized El Camino for inspiration, imbuing his early sketches with muscle-car features—red-striped slicks with mag wheels, exposed engines, pipes, power bulges and other nuances that reflected California car culture and styling—that would become the brand’s hallmarks. The Spectraflame finish—a custom paint blend that gave the little hot rods their candy-colored panache—was also a by-product of Bradley’s Detroit background.
Early production sketch of Custom Fleetside by Harry Bradley (Image courtesy of Bruce Pascal)
Next, the team addressed the all-important playability factor, employing a bent-axle, torsion-bar suspension that let the 1/64-scale cars bounce like their full-size counterparts and wheels that turned independently on their axles, thanks to inner-wheel bearings. The nylon wheels themselves were slightly conical, with a thin ridge on the inner edge designed to reduce friction. As a finishing touch, red stripes emblazoned on the tires signified some, well, really hot wheels that would zoom 200 miles per hour—scale, of course—on the orange plastic track designed to showcase the cars’ speed and acrobatic prowess.
Numerous anecdotal accounts cloud the origin of the name Hot Wheels, but there is nothing muddy about the nascent brand’s classic flame logo, designed by Mattel graphic artist Rick Irons in 1967, and the pulse-quickening packaging, illustrated by freelancer Otto Kuhni.
Otto Kuhni’s original art for Hot Wheels Super Charger accessory (Image courtesy of Bruce Pascal)
Ira Gilford, another Detroit refugee who would become the brand’s genius bellwether, arrived in 1968 to replace the departed Bradley (who was reportedly skeptical over Hot Wheels’ chances for success) and oversee the remaining inaugural 16 car designs in time for their retail debut. With Kmart and Sears placing advance orders for millions of Hot Wheels, production in the U.S. was stepped up with factories in Hong Kong taking up the slack.
Hot Wheels store display, 1968 (Image courtesy of Bruce Pascal)
When the cars hit the shelves in the summer of 1968, it was clear that Hot Wheels definitely weren’t your daddy’s die-cast cars. Tucked inside plastic bubbles that allowed the cars to be viewed in all their souped-up, candy-colored glory, the “California custom miniatures” screamed “Play with me!” from their colorful blister cards, which also contained a matching collector’s button in the shape of, what else, a tire. Smitten boys plunked their money down for millions of what collectors would come to call the Sweet 16. The fabled Redlines era (1968-1977) of Hot Wheels had begun, and the toy world would never be the same.
Hot Wheels Sweet 16 – 1968
To commemorate the brand’s 40th anniversary and the production of the four billionth Hot Wheels car, Mattel commissioned a one-of-a-kind car—based on the so-called lost Hot Wheels car designed by Otto Kuhni for use on early packaging but never actually produced—laden with 2,703 multicolored diamonds and rubies. Housed in a custom-made case complete with mirrored bottom and rotating base—not to mention 40 more commemorative diamonds—the car, valued at $140,000, sold at auction in October for $60,000, with the proceeds going to charity.
Hot Wheels 40th anniversary jewel-studded car
“Hot Wheels: 40 Years,” a lavish coffee-table book with text by Hot Wheels collector Angelo Van Bogart and mouth-watering photography by automotive historian Doug Mitchel, also celebrates the anniversary. And of course, there are the cars. The Hot Wheels 40th Anniversary 40 Car Set gathers one iconic car from 1968-2008. The anniversary cars are also being sold separately.
40th Annivesary 40 Car Set
The world of Hot Wheels collecting has few rivals in terms of intensity and enthusiasm. One of the most joyously outspoken devotees is Bruce Pascal, a Washington, DC-area ubër-collector renowned in collectors’ circles for his cherry-picked collection of rare production and prototype cars, including a pink, ultrarare Rear Loading Beach Bomb prototype that inspires buffs to drop to their knees and chant hosannas on those infrequent occasions when he shows it off. He paid a hush-rush price for it in 2000 that is believed to be a record.
“In 1968, I had just turned seven when Hot Wheels came out, and I still remember the cars and the orange track like it was yesterday,” says Pascal, 46, a commercial real-estate agent who owns about 5,000 cars. “I think Hot Wheels are so enduring because they represent the automobile culture of our youth. What little boy did not like looking at cool cars growing up? For us youngsters then, Hot Wheels were like having the cars our dads or maybe our big brothers drove.”
As for the reason why grown men of a certain age still buy Hot Wheels, old and new, Pascal has a theory. “Buying one today reconnects us with our youth. And they are still small enough to have many in your house without taking up too much room—I call that wife friendly—they’re still affordable, and they’re remembered fondly by almost everyone.”
Pascal advises collectors to look for four important factors: condition, color, interior color and variations. “Always buy the best condition car you can find is the most important advice,” he says. “A perfect common car can be more valuable than a beat-up rare car. Always research the rarity, too. A pink Camaro is certainly 100 times more rare than a blue Camaro. And educate yourself on subtle variations. For instance, a dark interior Red Baron is far less valuable than a white interior Red Baron.”
Hot Wheels 67 Camaro
Pascal also warns collectors to bone up on their ability to spot fakes. “Fakes are getting better and better, and sometimes even the most educated collectors need advice from others.”
From the slew of Hot Wheels price guides available, Pascal recommends two. “Jack Clark’s ‘The Ultimate Redline Guide’ is considered by many collectors to be the best guide overall. For later years, Mike Strauss’ ‘Tomart’s Price Guide to Hot Wheels’ is the best.”
Not surprisingly, early Camaros—which Pascal confirms were the first mass-produced Hot Wheels— are very desirable. “A common blue car with a black top in mint condition can be found for $150 loose, a little over $400 in a nice package,” says Pascal. “But the same car in pink would be over $1,000 loose and in the thousands of dollars, easily, in a package.”
Pascal is also partial to Beach Bombs—blue-mint examples go for around $100 loose and $225 or more in the package. Rear Loading Beach Bombs are another excellent investment.
Rear Loading Beach Bomb
“But with less than 40 known, they rarely trade hands,” says Pascal, who ought to know. In addition to the fabled pink RLBB that he mostly keeps under wraps, he was lucky enough to find a second pink RLBB, which he sold several years ago for—are you sitting down?—$55,000. That same vehicle changed hands last November for—don’t get up yet—$70,000.
Kevin Cook is a popular-culture junkie and writer living in McDonough, Ga.
Other stories by Kevin Cook:
Monster Mash discs: Graveyard Smash
The Truth Is Out There: X-Files Collectibles
WorthPoint—Get the Most from Your Antiques and Collectibles