An 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 Spectra-flame 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. (Read more about how Hot Wheels designs its toys today.)
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 cutting-edge 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 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.”