1973 Hot Wheels Promotion Leads to Collectible Toy Treasure Trove
What do you do when presented with 40 cases of collectible toys? Why, you sell about 25 percent of them for a down payment on a house and squirrel away the rest for a rainy day, of course.
This is exactly what my friend Erik did when his mother gave him three dozen unopened cases of vintage Hot Wheels some 24 years ago. Now that the financial outlook for most of us is not as rosy as it was just a year or even a week ago, that rainy day may be coming sooner than later.
Get to S’Cool’ on Time: The S’COOL’ BUS is one the more valuable Hot Wheels in Erik’s collection, having sold a handful of these stylized funny-car like school buses for upwards of $8,900.
While Hot Wheels were first produced in 1968, this particular story of collectible Hot Wheels begins in 1973. Erik’s parents have been owner/operators of a string Shell gas stations in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 40 years. In ’73, Shell held a promotion in conjunction with Mattel, offering a free Hot Wheel car with a fill-up. In the beginning, 10 specially selected Hot Wheels styles were handed out in a plastic bag printed with the Shell logo. Shell bought the cars from Mattel, and station owners, in turn, bought the cars directly from Shell, already in the collectible bags.
But the well-planned promotion had grown into a marketing monster. The demand for the cars was so great, Shell couldn’t print enough of the bags, and Mattel couldn’t supply enough of the 10 designated styles of Hot Wheels. So the toy company started shipping whatever they had in stock to the oil giant, which included Hot Wheels manufactured as early as the inaugural year.
When the promotion ended, Erik’s parents had some 40 cases left over and they wound up in the attic. Now, Erik knew of the toys in the attic, and they weren’t exactly left alone up there untouched. “When I was a kid, I’d sneak up there and take out a few to play with every now and then, or to use some as birthday presents,” says Erik.
In the mid 1990s, when Erik and his wife were looking to move out of a condo and buy a house, his mother gave him the remaining 35 cases of Hot Wheels to see if they were worth anything. Boy, were they.
At first, a business associate of Erik’s father wanted to know if the family had any Hot Wheels left. A Hot Wheels collector, he was looking to make an easy score and offered $20 a car. Each case contained 96 cars, so the haul would have been an easy $67,000 – more than enough for a down payment on a house, even in the spectacularly expensive Bay Area.
But Erik held off and did some research. This was 1996, when eBay was just getting started, and a time when Baby Boomers were hitting their stride, financially. They had money to burn and many of them had a desire to spend a good chunk of it on toys they played with as kids.
Got Pink? These pink painted Hot Wheels are rare simply because of the color. Most boys in the 1960 and ‘70s wouldn’t be caught dead playing with a pink car (unless they were blowing it up), so Mattel made fewer pink cars.
“I took the cars out of the cases, separated them by style, and decided to sell the ones I had the most of,” says Erik, who netted $100 to $500 per car on average (“Seasiders” and “Beach Bums” were the most common in his collection, totaling some 200 of each car). But other cars were rarer and went for much, much more. Depending on the color, style and rarity, some cars sold for more than 10 times those prices.
A stylized school bus, hinged at the rear so it opens – funny-car style – to show its chrome engine and christened “S’COOL’ BUS” sold for $8,900, and a pink “Seasider” brought $5,000.
“Pink cars sold for between $2,000 and $5,000 because they were pink. Boys didn’t play with pink cars, so they didn’t make many of them,” says Erik. “Pink cars were the ones that we were always blowing up on eBay.”
Erik isn’t actively selling the cars now. He says he’s hanging on to the remainder of his collection to pay for his sons’ college tuitions, and then as a hedge against any further economic uncertainties. But there is no guarantee that he’ll ever get the prices he did in the mid ’90s.
“Who knows? Maybe I should have sold them all years ago,” Erik says. “There were a lot of people out there who where playing with these cars when they were little, and they wanted them and they had the cash.”
But what about today’s Hot Wheels? Should someone looking to invest in collectible toys bother to stash away cases of 2015 cars? Erik says definitely, maybe.
Heavy Chevys to the Nines: These nine Heavy Chevys are exactly the same except for the numeral sticker on the door. A lot like this sold for $2,700.
“Recent cartons of Hot Wheels are worth more now than when they were made, so it is still worth collecting these cars, especially limited edition runs of cars. Although I have noticed the quality of the newer cars are poorer; they are more than likely plastic instead of metal, and the steel in the axes are not as hard as the originals, so they are prone to warp. And I may be biased, but the styling on the old cars are much better than the new ones,” says Erik. “And for as many cars as Mattel was making in the ’60s and ’70s, they’re crank them out by the bazillions now.”
Gregory Watkins is the editor of WorthPoint.
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