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?