Hot Wheels has been around 1968, when it released its first run of 1:64-scale vehicles, and in the 54 years since it has become the world’s number one best-selling toy—popular all over the world, in Brazil and Mexico as well as in Japan (where there’s a keen collector community). It helps that you can still buy the cars for $1. More than eight billion have been sold, and they’re available in 150 countries.
Mattel, which owns both Hot Wheels and Matchbox, was in New York April 6 for the kickoff of the 2022 Legends Tour, which will travel around the US through October, stopping mostly at Walmarts (a sponsor along with Mobil 1). Yes, there are displays of the little cars, including the now very valuable “Original Sixteen” lineup from ’68, but they will be side-by-side with the Legends cars—life-sized versions of the diminutive, people-powered racers. The Legends Tour was launched in 2018 as a way to engage the car builder community, the company said.
Seventy-one-year-old Lee Johnstone from Bridgwater in Somerset, England, was in New York with daughter Victoria Upham to represent the family’s 1969 Volvo 1800S Gasser, an unlikely drag racer built on a shoestring $16,000 budget and powered by a big-block Chevrolet engine. Not only does it do 10-second quarter miles, but it was also the winner of the 2021 tour, which means it is now available in a Hot Wheels blister pack.
Johnstone said the Volvo’s celebrity won’t keep it in the garage or show stand. “I’ll still race it, because that’s what it was built for,” he said.
The Volvo, nicknamed “Ain’t No Saint” in a nod to the 1800-starring TV show, was back in England. But many other Legends cars were on the floor at Classic Car Club Manhattan. Hot Wheels decided early on to feature custom cars, and that tradition continues. In each case, the car display also featured the Hot Wheels interpretation.
Gas Monkey Garage Corvette
Also known as “Midas Monkey,” the Gas Monkey Garage Corvette was built in 2016 as a vision in bright gold metal flake, powered by a blown 427 big-block Chevy engine with dual Holley carbs and a four-speed manual transmission. Quad exhaust pipes exit from a port on the front left fender. Surprisingly, it’s the original engine. The interior, trimmed in white leather, was relatively subdued. The build was detailed on the Fast N’ Loud TV show.
Deora II was designed by Nathan Proch and built by the legendary Chip Foose in 2003, at a cost of $750,000. It’s in the ballpark of a 2050 El Camino, and echoes the original Dodge Deora Concept that Hot Wheels introduced in 1968. Both iterations have twin surfboards mounted on the rear cover, and on the more streamlined II it lifts for storage. Power is from a 400-horsepower Cadillac Northstar V8. As with all of the Legends cars, it’s a runner and capable of 150 mph.
The close-to-1400-horsepower Twin-Mill Corvette was commissioned for Hot Wheels’ 30th anniversary in 1998 and debuted at the SEMA show in 2001. The front-mounted engines sit side-by-side in front of the driver, and they’d present a visibility challenge if this were anything but a show car. Ira Gilford designed it, and Carron Custom Industries and Action Vehicle Engineering were the builders.
The hot rod pickup was a 2011 build based on Hot Wheels Chief Designer Larry Wood’s 2006 die-cast toy. It’s got 402-horsepower Chevy 350 power, and a top speed of 160 mph. The death’s head “grille” would entice any school boy.
Mattel dodged a question about the percentage of the toys sold to females, claiming not to have the breakdown. But according to Ted Wu, vice president and global head of design for vehicles at Mattel, “We welcome both males and females. We’re simply an automotive brand, appealing to whoever likes cars—we would never ‘pink wash’ just to get more female buyers.” Hot Wheels has built Barbie cars, though.
Wu led a tour through Hot Wheels history. “We were born from California custom car culture,” he said. “We’ve always been about pushing design forward.” The original release included the Beatnik Bandit, the original Deora Concept, the Ford J-Car, Hot Heap and Silhouette. Intact sets of the re-release of that first grouping in 2018 are now soaring in value, with a display set on eBay for $7500. By 1991, the first billion Hot Wheels cars had been sold.
Today Hot Wheels has diversified, with upscale membership-required Redline Club cars, larger limited-edition $400 to $500 radio-controlled cars of such icons as a modern Batmobile and the Tesla Cybertruck (sold out in minutes) and even NFTs. There are co-branding opportunities such as the Gucci Cadillac Sevilles (with special pouch and box!), a Schaffhausen Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Edition, X Super73 electric motorcycles, and more.
The company estimates that 25 percent of its output is bought by collectors. One such adult, with 7000 rare Hot Wheels toys including prototypes, has insured his collection for $1.5 million. Is your kid playing with a 1969 Rear-Loading Beach Bomb prototype? Be careful, it’s worth $150,000.
Hot Wheels appears to be a fun place to work. Playing with toys is encouraged, and there’s an opportunity to turn your hobby into gainful employment. Brendon Vetuskey is a Mattel staff designer, and like many players in the company is a total gearhead. Cars he built in real life have become Hot Wheels cars, including a custom 1967 Pontiac Firebird and his ‘55 Chevy Bel Air gasser with big-block power, a/k/a “Triassic-Five,” intended to look like “a weathered survivor.”
Ex-Honda Bryan Benedict, Mattel design director and a 17-year Hot Wheels veteran, showed how the cars are styled and built, starting with computer sketches and proceeding through counter drawings to the digital “sculpture” stage. The cars in four pieces—body, glass, chassis and interior—are then executed via 3D printing for evaluation purposes. The final stages are rendering in bare-metal cut steel, putting color and graphics on, making sure the packaging is spot-on, then tasking the factory (in Malaysia, as well as some work in Thailand and China) for mass production.
Hot Wheels cars can be launched by hand, via spring launch or battery-powered booster. Building the snap-together tracks with loop-de-loops, tight curves, and other obstacles into large layouts is the fun part. But it’s all about fun with Hot Wheels, isn’t it?
Check all the stops on the schedule for this year’s Hot Wheels Legends Tour here. Meanwhile, tell us about your favorite Hot Wheels model or share your fondest memory of playing with the 1:64-scale toys in the comments below.
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