This article provides the history of Hot Wheels.
Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel, decided to produce a line of die-cast toy cars for boys. His idea was to capture a portion of the huge market for small car models dominated at that time by the British company Lesney Products with their Matchbox cars. Although his executives thought it was a bad idea, the cars were a big success. There were sixteen castings released in 1968, eleven 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 '64 El Camino.
All sixteen of the cars featured 'Spectraflame' paintwork, bearings, redline wheels, and working suspension. Because 'Hot Pink' was considered a "girls color", 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 ten times as high as more common colors.
In order for the cars to go fast on the plastic track, Mattel chose a cheap, durable, low-friction plastic called Delrin to use as a bushing between the axle and wheel. The result was cars that could go up to scale 200 mph. The bushings were phased out in 1970. The early years of Hot Wheels are known as the Redline Era as until 1977 the wheels had a red line etched around the tire rim.
The "Torsion Bar" suspension was simple, but flawed. Inside the car, the axles followed a "C"-like shape that was connected to the chassis. When pushed down, the axles would bend like a real car. However the axles were hard to install on the chassis while being assembled and would become detached from the lugs on the baseplate if very hard pressure was applied. The suspension was redesigned in 1970. Packaged along with the cars were metal badges showing an image of the car so fellow collectors could identify each other and compare collections.
It was the combination of all of these ingredients — speed via the low-friction wheel/axle assembly and racing tires, looks due to Spectraflame paint and mag wheels, plus the inclusion of very American themes such as hot-rod designs based on true American prototypes not seen in great numbers in the competition's product lines — that laid the groundwork for the incredible success story Hot Wheels were to become.
As it turned out, the Hot Wheels brand was a staggering success. (This accomplishment must be put in its historical perspective: Basically, the series "re-wrote the book" for small die-cast car models from 1968 onwards, forcing the competition at Matchbox and elsewhere to completely rethink their concepts, and to scamper to try to recover lost ground.) Harry Bentley Bradley did not think that would be the case and had quit Mattel to go back to the car industry. When the company asked him back, he recommended a good friend, Ira Gilford. Gilford, who had just left Chrysler, quickly accepted the job of designing the next Hot Wheels models. Some of Hot Wheels' greatest cars, such as the Twin Mill and Splittin' Image, came from Ira Gilford's drawing board. Larry Wood also joined the Hot Wheels team in 1969 to help with the increased demand. He'd left Ford and longed to return to southern California.
The success of the 1968 line was solidified and consolidated with the 1969 releases, with which Hot Wheels effectively established itself as the most important brand of small toy car models in the USA.
The Splittin' Image, Torero, Turbofire, and Twin Mill were part of the "Show & Go" series and are the very first original in-house designs by Hot Wheels. Altogether, 24 new vehicles were released.
The initial prototypes of the Beach Bomb were faithful to a real VW Bus's shape, and had two surfboards sticking out the back window. During the fledgling Hot Wheels era, Mattel wanted to make sure that each of the cars could be used with any of the play sets and stunt track sets. Unfortunately, testing showed that this early version (now known as Rear-Loader Beach Bomb, or RLBB) was too narrow to roll effectively on Hot Wheels track or be powered by the Super Charger, and was too top-heavy to negotiate high-speed corners.
Hot Wheels Designers Howard Rees and Larry Wood modified the casting, extending the side fenders to accommodate the track width, as well as providing a new place on the vehicle to store each of the plastic surfboards. The roof was also cut away and replaced by a full-length sunroof, to lower the center of gravity. Nicknamed "Side-loader" by collectors, this was the production version of the Beach Bomb.
The Rear-Loader Beach Bomb is widely considered the Holy Grail of any Hot Wheels collection. An unknown number were made as test subjects and given to Mattel employees, and today there are only about 25 known to exist. A regular production Beach Bomb may be worth up to $600, depending on condition. Market prices on RLBBs however, have easily reached the five-figure plateau. Within the last decade, one of two existing hot pink RLBBs sold for reportedly above $70,000 to a well-respected and widely known Hot Wheels collector. The Hot Wheels Collectors Club released a new, updated version of the rear loading Beach Bomb in 2002 as a limited edition. There was some reproduction RLBB made by brightvision not by Mattel and there was even another cheap knock of the brightvision casting.
1970 was another great year for Hot Wheels. This was also the year that Sizzlers appeared. Howard Rees, who worked with Ira Gilford, had grown tired of designing cars in late 1969. He wanted to work on the Major Matt Mason action figure toy line-up. Rees had a good friend by the name of Larry Wood. They had worked together at Ford designing cars. When Wood found out about Hot Wheels at a party Rees was holding, Rees offered Wood the job of designing Hot Wheels. Wood agreed, and by the end of the week, Larry Wood was working at Mattel. His first design would be the Tri-Baby.
Another designer, Paul Tam, joined Larry and Ira. Paul's first design for Hot Wheels was the Whip Creamer. Tam continued to work for Mattel until 1973. Among the many futuristic designs Tam thought up for Hot Wheels, some of the collector's favorites include Evil Weevil (a Volkswagen with two engines), Open Fire (an AMC Gremlin with six wheels), Six Shooter (another six wheeled car), and the rare Double Header (co-designed with Larry Wood).
1972 and 1973 marked a slump for Hot Wheels; few new castings were produced, and in 1973 most cars changed from Mattel's in house "Spectraflame™" colors to less-shiny solid enamel colors, which mainline Hot Wheels cars still use today. Due to low sales, and the fact that many of the castings were not re-used in later years, the 1972-3 models are known to be very collectible.
In 1974, Hot Wheels began using the slogan "Flying Colors", and added flashy decals and tampo-printed paint designs, which helped revitalize sales. As with the low-friction wheels in 1968, this innovation was revolutionary in the industry, and — although far less effective in terms of sales impact than in 1968 — was copied by the competition, who did not want to be outmaneuvered again by Mattel product strategists. In 1975, Hot Wheels introduced its first motorcycles.
In 1977, the Redline Wheel was phased out, with the red lines being erased from the wheels. This cut costs, but also reflected that the red lines popularized during the era of muscle cars and Polyglas tires were no longer current.
What happened in the 1980s for Hot Wheels sent them in the path of what they are today. In 1981, Hot Ones wheels were introduced, which had gold-painted hubs and thinner axles for speed. In 1983 McDonald's first released Hot Wheels in their Happy Meals and the same year the Hot Wheels production plant was moved to Malaysia. In 1983, A new style of wheel called Real Riders were introduced, which had real rubber tires. Despite the fact that they were very popular, the Real Riders line was short-lived, because of high production costs. Mexico and France begin production of Hot Wheels. Ultra Hots wheels, which looked like the wheels found on a Renault Fuego or a Mazda 626, were introduced in 1984 and had other speed improvements. Hot Wheels started offering models based off of 80's economy cars, like the Pontiac Fiero or Dodge Omni 024. In 1985, Hot Wheels first appeared in Kellogg's cereal boxes. In the late 80s, the Blue Card was introduced, which would become the basis of Hot Wheels cars still used today. Also, the first Hot wheels collector's convention was held in Toledo, Ohio.
In 1990, Hot Wheels first introduced helicopters. Later in the decade, in 1995, a major change was brought to the Hot Wheels line, where the cars were split up into series. One was the 1995 Model Series, which included all of that year's new castings, 12 Models in the Model Series. 4-car series were introduced also. In 1996, the Model Series was renamed to First Editions. 1995 also saw the introduction of the Treasure Hunt series. The rest of the series included four cars with paint schemes that followed a theme. For example, the Pearl Driver cars all had pearlescent paint. Sales for the series models soared, causing stores across the nation to have shortages. Several new wheel designs were also introduced. 1995, 1996 and 1997 featured 12 new releases each year, while 1998 released 40 and 1999 relaesed 26.
In 1996 Hot Wheels released one of the hottest surprise castings to ever come out of Mattel's factory. The Volkswagen Drag Bus designed by Phil Riehlman. if you look on the bottom, at the rear differential, you'll see see his initials P R. This casting is the heaviest casting made to date.
In 1999 Hot Wheels Racing signed a licensing deal with five Formula 1 teams to manufacture scale model Formula 1 cars.
- See also: List of 2000 Hot Wheels
A new generation of Hot Wheels Designers came in. Eric Tscherne and Fraser Campbell along with former designer Paul Tam's son, Alec Tam, joined the design team. Many still work for Mattel today. Tscherne's Seared Tuner (formerly Sho-Stopper) graced the mainline packaging from 2000 to 2003. The Deora II, designed by Nathan Proch was released and remains one of only two Hot Wheels concept cars ever made into full-size, functional cars. The Virtual Collection was introduced the same year.
During this year Mattel issued 240 mainline releases consisting of 12 Treasure Hunts, 36 First Editions, 12 Segment Series with 4 cars each, and 144 open stock cars. Popular models that debuted include the Hyper Mite and Fright Bike.
For 2002, the mainline the consisted of 12 Treasure Hunts, 42 First Editions, 15 segment series of 4 cars each, and 126 open stock cars. Popular new models included the `68 Cougar and the Nissan Skyline.
Hot Wheels celebrated its 35th anniversary with a full-length computer animated Hot Wheels movie called Hot Wheels Highway 35 World Race. A collector program was also developed.
The movie tied into the Highway 35 line of cars that featured 30 classic Hot Wheels cars. 5 new models joined the lineup, Switchback, Zotic, Wild Thing, 1/4 Mile Coupe and 24/7 The special Highway 35 cars were grouped into 5 teams with special graphics and co-molded wheels. The animation was shown briefly on Cartoon Network in the US and was available in some products.
Another celebrating moment was the creation on the Hot Wheels Hall of Fame at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, California. Debuting at this event was the full size running, one of a kind, Deora II. It was built by Chip Foose and Mothers Polishes and Waxes to celebrate Hot Wheels and was also show at SEMA that year. The making of this car was featured on the TLC show RIDES.
Also in commemoration of Hot Wheels' 35th anniversary, recording artist and Hot Wheels supporter Rick Tippe was commissioned by Mattel to write a song about Hot Wheels. CD singles featuring the song were given out in grab bags at the 35th Anniversary Convention in California.
42 new vehicles were released this year.
In 2004, Hot Wheels unveiled their "Hot 100" line, comprised of 100 new models. These new models included cartoonish vehicles such as the 'Tooned (vehicles based on the larger Hot Tunerz line of Hot Wheels created by Eric Tscherne), Blings (boxy bodies and big wheels), Hardnoze (enlarged fronts), Crooze (stretched out bodies), and Fatbax (super-wide back tires and short bodies). These vehicles did not sell as well as Mattel expected, and many could still be found in stores throughout 2005.
Mattel also released 2004 First Editions cars with unpainted Zamac bodies. These "chase" pieces were sold exclusively through Toys 'R' Us and were made in limited numbers.
A 101st vehicle, the Customized VW Drag Truck marked as #000 was offered, via HotWheelsCollectors.com, to entice collectors to get all of the new models.
In 2005, Hot Wheels continued with new "extreme" castings for the 2nd year, debuting 40 distorted cars, in addition to 20 "Realistix" models. The distorted cars included Drop Tops (the top of the vehicle is flattened), Blings (Returned for second year), Torpedoes (Thin-shaped "torpedo" vehicles), and X-Raycers (See-through vehicles). The rest of the line included the standard 12 Treasure Hunts, 10 Track Aces, 50 Segment Series Cars, and 50 Open Stock Models. Four Volkswagen "Mystery Cars" were offered as a special mail-in promo. Each Mystery Car came with a special voucher. Upon collection of all 4 vouchers, one was able to send away for a special 13th Treasure Hunt, a VW Drag Bus.
Hot Wheels also unveiled its new "Faster than Ever" line of cars. These had special nickel-plated axles along with bronze-colored Open-Hole 5 Spoke wheels. The axles especially, reduced friction resulting in cars that are "Faster than Ever." The first run of these cars were available for a limited time only, from the beginning of October towards the end of November 2005.
Also in 2005 Hot Wheels launched a second animated feature, Hot Wheels AcceleRacers. It began two years after Vert Wheeler won the World Race. It was featured in four movies that again ran at key points in the year on Cartoon Network. Many short segments were created and shown on the web with the drivers (grouped into teams: Teku, Metal Maniacs, the evil Racing Drones, and the stealthy Silencerz) handling many different racing conditions in "realms". All of the shorts and previews of the movies were placed on a temporary website that was deleted shortly after the last movie. All Acceleracers cars were developed with optimized track performance as a key feature. This lead to plastic bodies with Zamac chassis throughout the AcceleRacers lineup.
The 2006 releases consisted of 38 First Editions (all realistically proportioned), 12 Treasure Hunts, 12 Track Aces, 60 Segment Series, 96 Open Stock Models and 5 Mystery Cars. At this point Mattel shelved most of the odd cartooned tooling and it rarely is used since.
Some limited editions produced in 2006 include a Honda Civic Si sporting a Dropstars logo that was only available at the 2005 SEMA convention and the CUL8R with Faster Than Ever (FTE) wheels which was only available by mail. 2006 is also the year that Sizzlers were re-released as Target Exclusives.
Mattel released 36 New Models (formerly First Editions), 12 Treasure Hunts (with a hard-to-find regular version and even rarer "super" version of each), 12 Teams of 4 cars each (formerly Segment Series), 24 Code Cars (codes imprinted on underside of the car that can be used to unlock web content), 12 Track Stars (formerly Track Aces), 24 Mystery Cars (packaged on a card with a blacked-out blister, so the buyer cannot see which car is inside without opening it), and 24 All Stars (formerly Open Stock).
In late 2006, a new package design for 2007 was released. Some 2006 cars and all 2007 cars released were packaged on a blister card with the new design.
In 2008, Hot Wheels released 40 New Models. 12 Treasure Hunts, with Super Hunt variants and an assortment of Team Cars and other mainline releases.
2008 was Hot Wheels 40th anniversary and to celebrate a number of promotions and products came to be. To start it off, SEMA 2007 (Nov.) Design Director,Alec Tam debuted the Designers Challenge vehicles featuring designs from real automotive studios like Mitsubishi, Ford, Chevrolet, Lotus and Honda. 3 current or former HW designers had models represented. Steve Gilmore (Ford) and Gary Ragle (Mitsubishi) had formerly interned with the Hot Wheels Design Team and their submissions made the cut. Jun Imai's HW40 was kept under warps until the show.
Also in 2008, Hot Wheels featured a cross country tour with Larry Wood as the prime face of the event. Other HW pesonalities joined Larry at stops in Bonneville, Watkins Glen, Detroit, Indianapolis and Speed, Kansas.
42 New Models were announced and it is expected that 12 Treasure Hunts will again be slated for launch. A number of mainline repaints and Team Cars will join them.
2009 Also saw the end of an era. Chief Designer Larry Wood retired after 40 years, effective January 2nd. It was largely ceremonial to have him reach the number 40 but Larry continues to be involved in the hobby and consult with the Designers. 40 years seemed fitting coinciding with the brand celebrating the same milestone the year previous.
Mattel released its first ever 3D CGI animated episodic television series called Hot Wheels Battle Force 5. The US-version of the series was debut on Cartoon Network on August 29, 2009.
Hot Wheels introduces its first line of Character Cars with the launch of Toy Story Character Cars that year. Since the launch, Hot Wheels has created tons iconic entertainment characters.
As part of the Hot Wheels Fearless at the 500 event, Rallycross driver Tanner Foust (shown right) successfully lands a ramp-to-ramp distance jump of 332 feet. Foust smashes the previous world record by an impressive 31 feet at the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.
- Mattel's Hot Wheels Racing finalizes licensing agreements with top five Formula One race teams. PR Newswire for Journalists (1999-10-11). Retrieved on 2006-10-16.
- HotWheelsCollectors.com article: "2007 Mainline Cars Headed Your Way!"