It must be the easiest job in the world, right? Manufacturers send 3-D renderings of production cars to the Mattel Design Center then artists scale it down from 1:1 to 1:64, add a snazzy paint job, and clock out. But Hot Wheels design is far more complicated than that.
“You would think you take a car and shrink it down 64 times, and you have a Hot Wheels car,” VP of design Ted Wu said. “The funny thing is, when you look at cars and you look at 1:64 scale, it’s hard to get the essence of a car when you’re just shrinking it down. So there’s a lot of creativity, there’s a lot of design that goes into that.” (Read more about the history of Hot Wheels.)
Every licensed Hot Wheels model you’ve ever shot down the famous orange racetrack or rolled across your desk was designed from a clean sheet. Pictures and 3-D renderings of the actual car are invaluable reference material, but the final design is all original. For example, look closely at Hot Wheels’ version of the 2018 Camaro SS: It’s not a carbon copy.
“When you scale something down, it loses its character and its drama, so you have to exaggerate some aspects of the car at that small size to keep its character,” said Adam Barry, senior creative designer for the real exterior of the sixth-gen Camaro. “In general, what they do is they make the wheels a lot bigger, crush the roof down, maybe even widen it, and they distill the design down to its caricature.”
Concepts and pre-production cars present the largest challenge.
“Sometimes the manufacturer releases an image before the car is approved for production,” Manson Cheung (above), a Hot Wheels designer and 3-D modeler, said. “So we’re getting a basic image, with no extra angles, and I have to translate that into 3-D; it’s not ideal. The [C7 Corvette] Stingray was one of the tougher ones. It changed so much before the official launch; I started with a C5 or C6 as the base and had to modify as the concept changed.”
In a way, Hot Wheels reverse-engineers the car back to its raw form.
“We have to do that in a certain way when we design a real car, too,” Barry said. “So what we do is, when I draw a picture of a car, it’s also a caricature. It’ll be wider, lower, sleeker, bigger wheels and tires, meaner-looking. Now, I know it’ll never be as cool-looking as I drew it. But the thing is that my job will then become trying to retain as much of that vibe and feeling of that sketch through the five years of development and all the requirements of covering an engine, rolling down a window, crashing into a barrier for safety, aerodynamics, performance targets, and all these things that they’re going to throw at this shape.”
The same top-down process applies for Hot Wheels Originals. These wild fantasy models account for a little less than half of the yearly lineup, ranging from simulacra of hot rods and muscle cars to a big-block-powered shopping cart or a four-wheeled cyborg shark. Although not as popular among serious collectors, Originals are a big part of the company’s approach.
“It’s a fine balance,” Wu said. “Hot Wheels is such a special brand; it’s got such wide appeal and depth. And while we have ties to automotive authenticity, we also know that we are a kids’ brand as well, and we have to make sure we’re making stuff that kids want to play with.”