Hot as Ever

50 years af­ter its wares first hit shelves, Hot Wheels stokes au­to­mo­tive pas­sions

Automobile - - Contents - By Con­ner Golden

For more than 50 years, 1:64-scale die-cast mod­els have rolled across floors and whipped along those sig­na­ture or­ange tracks, de­light­ing mil­lions of chil­dren young and old. Hot Wheels trans­formed the way we in­ter­acted with toy cars and pushed the bound­aries of cre­ativ­ity, and the com­pany re­mains com­mit­ted to an ana­log fu­ture.

AAN IN­VEN­TOR, AN au­to­mo­tive de­signer, and a rocket sci­en­tist walk into a bar … wait, that’s not quite right. Let’s try again: In 1966, El­liot Han­dler, co-founder of Mat­tel Inc. and noted toy in­ven­tor, put to­gether a team of crack de­vel­op­ers that in­cluded an au­to­mo­tive de­signer and a bona fide rocket sci­en­tist. Six bil­lion toy cars later, Hot Wheels has played a key role in pro­pel­ling Cal­i­for­nia-based Mat­tel to its present sta­tus as the world’s sec­ond-largest toy­maker be­hind only Lego, em­ploy­ing al­most 26,000 peo­ple and shap­ing the child­hoods of mil­lions more.

Hot Wheels has come a long way in the past 50 years, along with many of those happy cus­tomers who trace the source of their au­to­mo­tive ob­ses­sion back to their days of rac­ing the 1:64-scale die-cast cars across the play­room floor. And to­day, de­spite the rapid on­set of so­ci­etal dig­i­ti­za­tion and a to­tal an­nual pro­duc­tion reach­ing into the mil­lions, the brand’s mis­sion re­mains true to its roots.

Be­fore Mat­tel un­veiled the first 16 Hot Wheels mod­els at the 1968 New York Toy Fair, die-cast toy cars were staid, pro­duc­tion-based repli­cas that of­ten ap­pealed more to col­lec­tors than to bud­ding en­thu­si­asts. Those orig­i­nal Sweet Six­teen, as the com­pany calls them, changed things; each dripped with trade­mark Spec­traflame candy/chrome paint and rode on red-rimmed mag-style wheels known af­fec­tion­ately as Red­lines. The new of­fer­ings were a rev­e­la­tion: In­stead of fo­cus­ing on fac­tory-fresh real­ism, Hot Wheels took in­spi­ra­tion from the era’s hopped-up pony car cruis­ers and wacky con­cept ve­hi­cles. Car-crazy kids were hooked.

The next 20 years were just as col­or­ful, even as Spec­traflame dis­ap­peared and was re­placed by bright graph­ics and in­creas­ingly avant-garde de­sign. These wild fan­tasy mod­els, known of­fi­cially as Hot Wheels Orig­i­nals, in­cor­po­rated con­tem­po­rary graphic de­sign and cues from pop cul­ture. De­fec­tors from au­tomaker de­sign de­part­ments joined Mat­tel from day one, in­fus­ing Hot Wheels with both de­sign cred­i­bil­ity and au­to­mo­tive shapes that could never es­cape car man­u­fac­tur­ers’ draft­ing boards.

From the very be­gin­ning, all na­tion­al­i­ties were rep­re­sented in the Hot Wheels lineup, but Amer­i­can mus­cle dom­i­nated. The brand was built on the bed­room floors of baby boomers and Gen Xers, and mod­els of Detroit’s finest were peren­nial best-sell­ers. It wasn’t un­til a few years ago that a grad­ual shift to­ward a new gen­er­a­tion of en­thu­si­ast oc­curred, with an un­prece­dented num­ber of new cast­ings rep­re­sent­ing cult fa­vorites from Ja­pan en­rap­tur­ing fresh afi­ciona­dos. The clas­sics are still here—think ’57 Chevy, ’67 Fire­bird—but they joined store pegs now filled with JDM leg­ends and semi-ob­scure Eu­ro­pean hot­ness. If Twin Mill and Cus­tom Ca­maro were the iconic first-gen Hot Wheels poster chil­dren, then cast­ings like the Dat­sun 510 and Nissan C10 Sky­line Wagon were cat­a­lysts for nascent mil­len­nial col­lec­tors who value In­te­gras and 240Zs more than ’Cu­das.

The yearly lineup is geekier now too. A Honda City Turbo II shares peg space with an Audi Sport Quat­tro, both down­wind from a Lamborghini Coun­tach Pace Car— an ob­scure ref­er­ence to when a Coun­tach served briefly as For­mula 1’s safety car in the 1980s. Mean­while, mo­tor­sports anoraks fill their desks with pint-sized ver­sions of the Porsche 934.5, Mazda 787B, and Cadil­lac ATS-V R.

It’s a younger brand in­side and out, and it shows. Just as the Sweet Six­teen re­flected the orig­i­nal era’s hot-rod men­tal­ity, to­day’s Hot Wheels team is im­mersed in cut­tingedge trends. The on­go­ing Car Cul­ture se­ries is one of the brand’s big­gest re­cent suc­cesses, pulling in­spi­ra­tion from shows, com­mu­ni­ties, and in­dus­try celebri­ties like Gas Mon­key Garage, Mag­nus Walker, and Rauh-Welt Be­griff.

“Hot Wheels was born out of authen­tic au­to­mo­tive her­itage,” de­sign VP Ted Wu (at right) said. “Every­thing we’ve done has re­flected the car cul­ture of the time. I think that, es­pe­cially re­cently, we’ve tried to con­tinue on that tra­di­tion and try to re­ally look at what is go­ing on. Our team is full of guys that are tapped into what’s go­ing on with car cul­ture. They’re pas­sion­ate about cars. They’re car en­thu­si­asts. They know what’s go­ing on with cars, and they want to re­flect that in what they’re do­ing.”

Hot Wheels works hard to main­tain rel­e­vance as dig­i­tal en­ter­tain­ment and video games con­tinue to en­croach on phys­i­cal toy sales. Aside from some early suc­cess it had in the gam­ing space, Hot Wheels en­joyed both vir­tual and phys­i­cal tie-ins with some of the big­gest names in the busi­ness, in­clud­ing “Forza,”“Gran Turismo,” and “Rocket League.” Ac­cord­ing to Hot Wheels’ global brand gen­eral man­ager and head hon­cho Chris Down (below right), Xbox’s best-sell­ing bun­dle fea­tured the Xbox One S con­sole, “Forza Hori­zon 3,” and a Hot Wheels ex­pan­sion pack; sales out­paced even the “Call of Duty” and “Minecraft” bun­dles.

“If you’re 4 years old and you’re get­ting your first Hot Wheels car, where are you go­ing to go from here? You are at that point just a player,” Down ex­plained. “Then you’re 5 years old, you be­come an ac­cu­mu­la­tor; ‘I’m get­ting all the red cars.’ Then, ‘I’m 8,’ I might then say, ‘I’m done with toys, so I’m go­ing to video games. I love Hot Wheels. Hey, I’m go­ing to play “Race Off” on my mo­bile app. I’m go­ing to play “Forza Hori­zon” on the Xbox … ’”

So far, this dig­i­tal syn­the­sis ap­pears sound, re­sult­ing in a record year of Hot Wheels toy sales in 2018. “We are a phys­i­cal toy com­pany,” Down re­as­sured. “Hot Wheels is rooted as a phys­i­cal toy ob­ject that re­flects trend and cul­ture. We’re go­ing to con­tinue to be that as a cen­tral phi­los­o­phy while we’re ac­knowl­edg­ing how kids are be­hav­ing to­day. There will not be a day in the fu­ture that I see where a 1:64-scale die-cast car does not ex­ist for Hot Wheels, and lots of them. That’s fun­da­men­tal.” AM

OR­ANGE CRUSHEl­liot and Ruth Han­dler play with an early Hot Wheels track setup. The bright or­ange tracks played a large role in the toy’s suc­cess.

The Sweet Six­teen, pic­tured above, were in­di­vid­u­ally of­fered in a wide range of col­ors, each inHot Wheels’ trade­mark Spec­traflame paint.

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