A history of Hot Wheels

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hot Wheels is a brand of die cast toy cars, introduced by American toymaker Mattel in 1968. It was the primary competitor of Johnny Lightning and Matchbox until 1996, when Mattel acquired rights to the Matchbox brand from Tyco.

The original, and now famous, Hot Wheels logo was designed by California artist Rick Irons, who at that time worked for Mattel.

Originally the cars and trucks were manufactured to approximately 1:64 scale and designed to be used on associated Hot Wheels track sets, but by 1970 a series of 1:43 scale &8220;Gran Toros&8221; were introduced and more recently a range of highly detailed adult collector vehicles, including replicas of Formula One and NASCAR cars, have found success. However the brand remains most famous for the small scale free-rolling models of custom hot rods and muscle cars it has produced since the range first appeared.

Email newsletter signup

The Hot Wheels product line has also included various tracks, accessories, and other kinds of vehicles such as &8220;Sizzlers&8221; rechargeable electric cars, &8220;Hot Line&8221; trains, &8220;R-R-Rumblers&8221; motorcycles and &8220;Hot Birds&8221; airplanes.

Before Hot Wheels, the huge market for small car models dominated at that time by the British company Lesney with their Matchbox cars. Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel, decided to produce a line of die-cast toy cars for boys.

Although his executives thought it was a bad idea, he was able to capture much of this market by introducing a number of revolutionary features, including low-friction wheels suitable for racing on a track, and styling in tune with the times of customized, racing and show cars coming out of places like California.

There were 16 castings released in 1968, 11 of them designed by Harry Bentley Bradley, with the first one produced being a dark blue Custom Camaro. Although Bradley was from the car industry, he had not designed the full-functioning versions of the real cars, except the Dodge Deora concept car, which had been built by Mike and Larry Alexander. Another of his notable designs was the Custom Fleetside, which was based on his own heavily-customized &8217;64 El Camino.

Of the first 16 cars (sometimes called the &8220;Sweet 16&8221;) by collectors, nine were based upon customized versions of regular production automobiles of the era, and seven were based upon real show cars and cars designed and built for track racing. All of the cars featured &8220;Spectraflame&8221; paintwork, bearings, redline wheels, and working suspension.

The metallic &8220;Spectraflame&8221; paintwork also marked out these models from drab enamel of Matchbox cars. The attractive finishes were achieved by firstly polishing the bare metal of the bodyshells and then coating them in a clear colored lacquer, and featured such exotic colors as &8220;Antifreeze,&8221; &8220;Magenta&8221; and &8220;Hot Pink.&8221; Because &8220;Hot Pink&8221; was considered a &8220;girl&8217;s color,&8221; it was not used very much on Hot Wheels cars. For most castings, it is the hardest color to find, and today can command prices 10 times as high as more common colors.

Through the years, Hot Wheels cars have been collected mostly by children, but in the last 10 years there has been an increase in the number of adult collectors. Mattel estimates that 41 million children grew up playing with the toys, the average collector has over 1,550 cars, and children between the ages of 5 and 15 have an average of 41 cars. Most believe the collecting craze started with the Treasure Hunts in 1995. Mike Strauss has been widely hailed as the father of Hot Wheels collecting; he has organized two collectors&8217; events each year in some form since 1986. The first event was the Annual Hot Wheels Collectors Convention, normally held each year in the fall. The convention occurred in various locations around the country until 2001, when the first Annual Hot Wheels Collectors Nationals was put together. Since then, the conventions are held each year in southern California. The Hot Wheels Collectors Nationals rotate among cities outside of California during the spring. Strauss has also published the quarterly Hot Wheels Newsletter since 1986 and was one of the first to unite collectors all over the world. He also writes the &8220;Tomart&8217;s Guide To Hot Wheels,&8221; a book listing history, car descriptions and values. It is used by almost every collector to learn more about the hobby and their collection.

In 2001, Mattel saw how much collecting was affecting their sales and put together HotWheelsCollectors.com as an online way to unite collectors by offering limited edition cars, information about upcoming releases and events, as well as chat and trade boards. Each year, they sell memberships to the Redline Club, which gives members the opportunity to order additional limited edition cars, as well as access to areas of the site with information such as sneak previews of new cars.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of Web pages dedicated to Hot Wheels collecting. People are collecting everything from only new castings to only Redlines and everything in between. For the most part it is a relatively inexpensive hobby, when compared with coin collecting, stamp collecting or Barbie collecting, with mainline cars costing about $1 at retail.

The price has not changed much in almost 40 years. After the cars are no longer available at retail the cost can vary significantly. A common car may sell for less than retail, while some of the more difficult cars can sell for many hundred or even thousands of dollars.

The date on the base of a Hot Wheels car is a design copyright date, not a manufacturing date. (Specifically, the date is the copyright date for the design of the base of the car, but there are only a handful of cases where that is not the same as the copyright date for the design of the entire car.) The date is usually the year before the car was first introduced, but it is sometimes the same year.

Mattel reuses many models of Hot Wheels cars, both as part of the regular line and as &8220;commemorative&8221; replicas. As a result, a car with the date 1968 on the base could have been made at any time between 1968 and a few weeks ago.

&8212; From Wikipedia