Muscle Car Review - - Contents - Drew Hardin mcreview@sbc­global.net

Ready to feel old? Hot Wheels, the brightly painted lit­tle diecasts that sent many of us on our way into the car hobby, is cel­e­brat­ing its 50th an­niver­sary this year. Mat­tel marks Hot Wheels’ an­niver­sary each May be­cause it was in May 1968 that the first Hot Wheels car, the Cus­tom Ca­maro, hit store shelves.

Mat­tel’s co­founder El­liot Han­dler—whose wife, Ruth, cre­ated the Bar­bie doll—came up with the idea. He was play­ing with die-cast cars with his chil­dren in 1966 (Match­box cars, prob­a­bly, or maybe Cor­gis), and he felt they were “lack­lus­ter” and “not very ag­ile,” ac­cord­ing to Mat­tel. Want­ing a line of toys that could dom­i­nate the boy’s toy cat­e­gory like Bar­bie did for girls, he chal­lenged his de­sign team to make cars that were cooler and faster.

That team in­cluded Harry Bradley, a de­signer from Chevro­let who was in­stru­men­tal in the cus­tom­ized look of the cars. Also on the team was a for­mer Raytheon en­gi­neer named Jack Ryan, who is cred­ited with for­mu­lat­ing the bear­ings on which the cars’ axles (made of thick gauge mu­sic wire) turned. That axle/bear­ing combo, spin­ning hard plas­tic red­line tires, is what gave Hot Wheels the speed Han­dler was look­ing for.

Han­dler is also cred­ited with nam­ing the cars, though there are sev­eral ver­sions of how it hap­pened. In one, he spot­ted Bradley’s hot-rod­ded El Camino in the Mat­tel park­ing lot and said, “Those are some hot wheels!” In another, he made that same com­ment when he first saw a pro­to­type die-cast car rolling across the floor.

The ini­tial Cus­tom Ca­maro was fol­lowed by 15 more Hot Wheels in 1968, earn­ing that orig­i­nal re­lease the nick­name Sweet 16. As you can see from the vin­tage ad re­pro­duced here, the cars were a mix of wild hot rods and pro­duc­tion cars cus­tom­ized by Bradley, all coated in bright Spec­traflame paint.

In that first year Mat­tel sold some 16 mil­lion Hot Wheels cars. To­day it is con­sid­ered the num­ber-one-selling toy in the world, says Mat­tel. More than six bil­lion have been sold since 1968, with 16.5 sold ev­ery sec­ond. When they were in­tro­duced, Hot Wheels cost about a dol­lar. They still do.

(Trivia side­track: In Hot Rods by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, cowrit­ten by Roth and Tony Thacker, Big Daddy says Mat­tel paid him “about 800 bucks” for the rights to re­pro­duce the Beat­nik Ban­dit as part of the Sweet 16. And a re­cent story in Au­toweek about the Detroit car cus­tomiz­ers the Alexan­der Brothers said they sold their rights to Mat­tel to re­pro­duce the De­ora for just $300.)

I’m old enough (or young enough, depend­ing on how you look at it) to have been there at the start of the Hot Wheels craze. Be­tween my brother and me we had a few of the orig­i­nal Sweet 16 cars, in­clud­ing the Beat­nik Ban­dit, De­ora, and Hot Heap hot rods, plus the Bar­racuda, Cougar, El­do­rado, Thun­der­bird, and Volk­swa­gen. I had the dragstrip track, Tim the stunt set. I still have some of the cars and the bat­tered stunt set box that holds the re­main­der of our orange track and red, tongue­like con­nec­tors. I’m sure their sen­ti­men­tal value far out­strips their ac­tual value, as they bear the scars of be­ing well played with.

I didn’t know it when I was 10, but I reen­acted El­liot Han­dler’s “Eureka!” mo­ment ev­ery time I put one of my Match­box cars on the track next to a Hot Wheels. The Hot Wheels would move so fast it looked like it just dis­ap­peared, while the poor Match­box car, ac­cu­rately de­tailed as it was, could barely roll, let alone race or do a loop on the stunt track.

Not be­ing a se­ri­ous col­lec­tor, I had no idea of what Hot Wheels com­manded un­til I started re­search­ing this col­umn. The Sweet 16 are among the most col­lectible, as are the other early Hot Wheels with red­line tires. Out of the pack­ag­ing and played with (like mine), they are rel­a­tively cheap, but prices rise into the hun­dreds of dol­lars for those still in their pack­ages.

The top of the col­lectible heap is a pro­to­type 1969 VW

Bus called the Rear Loader Beach Bomb. Though the bus was deemed too nar­row and top-heavy to work on the track, a few pro­to­types were made. A bright pink one sold to Hot Wheels mega-col­lec­tor Bruce Pas­cal for $72,000 in 2000. Pas­cal, whose col­lec­tion tops 3,500 Hot Wheels with an es­ti­mated to­tal value of $1 mil­lion, fig­ures the Beach Bomb is now worth about dou­ble what he paid for it.

Hmm. Maybe I should dust mine off af­ter all.

“More than six bil­lion have been sold since 1968”

n The orig­i­nal Sweet 16 Hot Wheels from 1968. How many did you have?

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