Hot Wheels? 40th anniversary celebration inspires new miniature hot rods
By Chuck Miller
As part of the 40th anniversary of Mattel’s Hot Wheels diecast cars, designers from six automobile manufacturers were challenged to build brand new Hot Wheels cars with the same performance, speed, power and attitude that has thrilled toy collectors and car enthusiasts for generations. The designers rose to the occasion, building such cars as the Ford Gangster Grin (top), the General Motors Chevroletor (middle), the Mitsubishi Double Shotz, and the Dodge XP-07 (bottom). The cars, both in highly detailed 1:5 scale and in the standard Hot Wheels 1:64 scale, were unveiled at the SEMA trade show in Las Vegas last October.
For Amaury Diaz Serrano, a General Motors designer whose Cadillac 16 concept car was featured on the covers of more than 25 magazines, the opportunity to create a General Motors-themed Hot Wheels car was a dream come true. His creation, a car blending the imagery of a 1957 Corvette SS with a World War II fighter bomber, became the “Chevroletor,” the winning General Motors Designer’s Challenge finalist.“The most important thing for me in creating the Chevroletor was to make the design immediately recognizable as a Chevrolet to the average person,” he says. “The front grille was borrowed from the ’57 Corvette; the horizontal bar in the front grille, though, is from a Chevrolet pickup truck. The side curve graphic is a classic ’57 line, while the two headrests on top of the car emulate WWII fighter bombs to add a unique touch.
“After so many years of playing with and collecting Hot Wheels, to see my ‘Chevroletor’ in 1:64 scale was probably one of the most exciting moments in my entire 27 years as an industrial designer,” he continues. “For me, it’s as close as I can get to winning an Oscar.”
Hot Wheels first hit store shelves in 1968 and were an immediate hit. Everything about the cars was radically different from the Matchbox and Corgi cars kids pushed with their fingers around the kitchen tabletop. Hot Wheels cars had thick plastic mag tires with foil-stamped, red-lined edges, with axles that contained a “torsion-bar suspension,” which gave the cars built-in shock absorbency and wheel bounce. The chassis were painted bright candy colors using “Spectraflame,” a translucent paint that allowed the shine of the polished metal chassis to show through. The original 16 cars that made up the 1968 line were all designed for speed and attitude. There were no station wagons or dump trucks in that first season — the diecast line included customized Ford Mustangs, Pontiac Firebirds, Plymouth Barracudas and Cadillac Eldorados. Also included in the line were the Beatnik Bandit, designed by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (famous for designing the Rat Fink cartoon character), and the Silhouette (a bubble-domed hot rod inspired by a real-life Bill Cushenberry concept car). Mattel sold 10 times as many Hot Wheels cars as it had originally projected, and spurred a line of new diecast cars like the Matchbox Superfasts, Aurora Speedline and the entire run of Johnny Lightning cars.
Another Hot Wheels design challenge winner, Jun Imai, previously built several collectible Hot Wheels cars, with such brand names as Rocketbox, Dieselboy and Dragtor. Imai’s winning car, the HW-40 (opposite page, top), was inspired by four decades of Hot Wheels’ collectible speedsters.
“My main focus of inspiration for the HW-40 was classic Hot Wheels cars like the Twin Mill with its proportions, surfaces, powerplant (big engine) and oversized wheels and tires,” says Imai. “The HW-40 had to look fast standing still. Details like the exposed turbine engine, transparent hood and glass combination are signature Hot Wheels design features. For me, it was the best feeling to see all the hard work, inspiration and team effort to create the HW-40 vehicle and then watch it scream through the orange test track.”
“The Hot Wheels Designer’s Challenge was created as a way for us to honor our automotive partners and have them actively participate in our 40th anniversary, since they contributed to our success over the years” says Alec Tam, director of design for Hot Wheels and the lead director on the Designer’s Challenge project. “The Designer’s Challenge was the first time in Hot Wheels’ history that we went outside of our in-house design team to seek new car designs.”
As a child, Tam saw firsthand how the cars went through the design stages from concept to completion — his father, Paul Tam, was a designer for Mattel in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, when Alec became part of Mattel’s design team, he created a car inspired by one of his father’s popular design concepts, the Whip Creamer. “As a kid, I remember playing with the completely transparent, see-through versions of the cars that were never available for sale,” Tam says. “I found out later those were evaluation prototypes.”
Today, Hot Wheels are more popular than ever. Three billion cars have rolled off the assembly lines since 1968 — that’s an average of one Hot Wheels car for every two people on Earth. Hundreds of Hot Wheels websites, both company-supported and fan-based, give fans the opportunity to share their Hot Wheels collecting stories and communicate with each other about where to find the latest rare and popular pieces.
And today, with the base cars still available in their blister packs for around a dollar a car, a good-sized collection can be assembled, even on a frugal budget.
Not to mention that Hot Wheels cars still run on the cheapest fuel in the world — gravity from the inclined plane of a plastic orange track.
Hot Wheels Trivia
The most money ever paid for a Hot Wheels diecast car was $72,000 for a rare pink Volkswagen Beach Bomb minibus.
The most collectible Hot Wheels cars were made from 1968 to 1977 and are called “redlines” because their tires had a red border on the outer rim.
In 2006, thousands of Hot Wheels fans attended a day-long fan convention in, of all places, Speed, Kan.
ABC Television ran a Hot Wheels cartoon series on Saturday mornings from 1969 to 1971.
Drag racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoose” McEwen were the first racers to have their cars replicated in diecast Hot Wheels sets.
From 1997 to 2000, Hot Wheels sponsored Kyle Petty’s #44 NASCAR Pontiac.
More than 3 billion Hot Wheels cars have been manufactured since 1968 — the equivalent of one car for every two people on Earth.