From the wacky to the won­der­ful, it’s been the en­try point into the world of cars for mil­lions of young­sters (and big kids) around the globe. And 50 years on Hot Wheels is still…


The world’s big­gest car man­u­fac­turer turns 50 this year, so what bet­ter ex­cuse to get the toys out and cel­e­brate the land­mark an­niver­sary

VOLK­SWA­GEN, CON­TRARY TO what you might have read else­where, is not the world’s big­gest car maker. True, it may have pro­duced 10.7mil­lion cars in 2017 – enough to put it ahead of Toy­ota and Re­nault-nissan – but there’s one com­pany, cel­e­brat­ing its 50th an­niver­sary on 19 May, that can match that fig­ure vir­tu­ally ev­ery week.

I’ll not draw out the anal­ogy too much longer as the im­ages on this page will have given the game away some­what, but just as Lego makes more rub­ber tyres than any other com­pany on the planet, so Hot Wheels can stake a pretty good claim to be­ing the world’s largest car maker.

Gim­micks aside, is it a com­pany de­serv­ing of space in evo? Ab­so­lutely. Ahead of even Scalex­tric, Tamiya, or videogames such as Gran Turismo, the brand has served for many of us as the first step into that long jour­ney to be­com­ing a petrol­head. You might not re­mem­ber your first Hot Wheels car (or per­haps your first Match­box car; the Bri­tish brand was bought by Hot Wheels owner Mat­tel in 1997), but from the mo­ment you were old enough to grind them against the skirt­ing board rather than at­tempt­ing to swal­low them, the lit­tle diecast mod­els were act­ing as your first point of ref­er­ence for au­to­mo­tive colour, style, brand and – on some level, at least – driv­ing fun.

Hot Wheels was the brain­child of Mat­tel founder El­liot Han­dler, whose wife Ruth had, in 1959, cre­ated that other mid- cen­tury toy icon, Bar­bie. First mooted in 1966, the idea be­hind it was to cre­ate a new and ex­cit­ing way for kids to experience ‘ ve­hi­cle play’ and the thrill of the cus­tom hot-rod cul­ture that de­fined the Amer­i­can au­to­mo­tive land­scape post-war. It was Han­dler who coined the name, too. Re­mark­ing on the de­sign and the speed at which one of the pro­to­types rolled along the floor, he was said to have ex­claimed: ‘ Those are some hot wheels!’

This idea spawned the first line of 16 ve­hi­cles that de­buted in 1968, known as the Orig­i­nal Sweet 16. Eleven of these were the work of Harry Bentley Bradley, an au­to­mo­tive de­signer who had worked with Gen­eral Mo­tors be­tween 1962 and 1966 and penned sev­eral de­signs for Detroit-based cus­tomis­ers the Alexan­der Broth­ers.

His most fa­mous de­sign, the Dodge De­ora for­ward- con­trol pickup, would be­come one of the Orig­i­nal Sweet 16, but the very first car pro­duced by Hot Wheels was the Cus­tom Ca­maro. Based on the brand new 1967 Chevro­let Ca­maro – it­self hot prop­erty at the time – it was joined by other con­tem­po­rary pony cars such as the Mustang, Cougar, Bar­racuda and Fire­bird. Each fea­tured a sparkling ‘Spec­traflame’ paint scheme – a coloured lac­quer over a zinc-plated cast­ing – and other unique touches that echoed the era’s car cul­ture, such as side- exit ex­hausts and stag­gered wheel set-ups.

An al­most end­less list of iconic de­signs quickly fol­lowed, from the Twin Mill – a dart-like hot-rod pow­ered by a pair of 8.2-litre su­per­charged big-block Chevy V8s – to the Beach Bomb, a VW cam­per van equipped with a pair of surf­boards. To­day, rare early de­signs can com­mand big money: a hot pink pro­to­type ver­sion of the Beach Bomb was bought for $72,000 by its cur­rent owner, renowned Hot Wheels col­lec­tor Bruce Pas­cal. It’s since been val­ued at up to $150,000, or around half the most ever paid at auc­tion for a real split-win­dow VW Type 2…

Over its first half cen­tury Hot Wheels has pro­duced a diecast of pretty much ev­ery ve­hi­cle you can think of, and with a tra­di­tion of de­sign­ing com­plete ground-up cus­tom mod­els, a good few you’d strug­gle to even imag­ine. More

than 20,000 dif­fer­ent mod­els have been cre­ated to date, and cur­rently over 130 new car de­signs are in­tro­duced each and ev­ery year. A ded­i­cated team works to ren­der real-world cars in minia­ture form and come up with en­tirely new ve­hi­cles: it could be a branded car for one of the com­pany’s 350 part­ners – ev­ery­one from mo­tor­ing per­son­al­i­ties such as Mag­nus Walker to big-name man­u­fac­tur­ers – or a new vari­a­tion on the hot-rod theme, or a Star Wars or Toy Story char­ac­ter car.

That va­ri­ety is one of the highlights of the job, ac­cord­ing to Jun Imai, who has been at Hot Wheels for 14 years and leads the trans­porta­tion de­sign team. About three-fifths of the de­signs the team works on are li­censed ve­hi­cles repli­cat­ing the kind of mod­ern cars and clas­sics you’ll see on the road, while the re­main­der are what the com­pany calls Hot Wheels Orig­i­nals, from the pop cul­ture-themed toys to fan­tasy ve­hi­cles di­rectly from the minds of the de­sign­ers.

As car en­thu­si­asts, the team take par­tic­u­lar plea­sure in repli­cat­ing some of their favourite shapes in minia­ture. Imai’s own passion is in older Ja­panese metal and clas­sic Porsches. He owns a clas­sic Dat­sun 510 wagon and 260Z, and a 1985 911 Car­rera, all mod­i­fied, and changes Imai has made to his Dat­suns in par­tic­u­lar have in­spired some of the cus­tom 510s and Z- cars avail­able in the Hot Wheels line-up. ‘Real-world and toys go hand-in-hand for me,’ says Imai. ‘I’ll some­times try some­thing out on one of my cars, and it might in­spire one of my de­signs the next day.’

Along sim­i­lar lines, fel­low de­signer Ryu Asada has pushed sev­eral Honda de­signs onto the shelves over the years, and true to form owns both an S2000 and a first-gen­er­a­tion NSX. Other mem­bers of the de­sign team are Porschep­hiles, while some own and covet mus­cle cars. This va­ri­ety heav­ily and un­avoid­ably in­flu­ences each year’s di­verse wave of new 1:64-scale mod­els.

This passion for cars has opened a few doors, too. Hot Wheels has formed some high-pro­file col­lab­o­ra­tions in re­cent years, pair­ing up with names such as Fast & Fu­ri­ous fran­chise star Sung Kang and the afore­men­tioned Mag­nus Walker to cre­ate minia­tures based on cus­tomised real-world ve­hi­cles.

A fan of Sh­effield-born Walker since watch­ing the cult Ur­ban Out­law doc­u­men­tary, Imai de­scribes the col­lab­o­ra­tion that fol­lowed as a ‘ very or­ganic process’, with Walker’s en­thu­si­asm and ideas in­spir­ing a line of Ur­ban Out­law cars, from 935s and GT3S to a replica of his fa­mous ‘ 277’, as driven in evo is­sue 209. Kang, too, is a petrol­head to the core, mak­ing the

‘A pro­to­type hot pink VW cam­per van was bought for $72,000, and has since been val­ued at up to $150,000’

5 0 Y EA RS O F H OT W H E E L S

Above and be­low: the Orig­i­nal Sweet 16 from 1968. Left: a Coun­tach on that un­mis­tak­able or­ange track

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