AutoMatters: Hot Wheels®
By Jan R. Wagner
Buried deep in one of my filing cabinets, I recently discovered a wonderful history of Hot Wheels® from Mattel. If memory serves me correctly, they distributed it at their 40th. anniversary celebration of Hot Wheels®, back in August of 2008.
Their guest of honor, at 92 years of age and still going strong, was the person responsible for what would become a true automotive icon – in miniature. His name was Elliot Handler. You might not recognize that name but who hasn’t played with his creation: Hot Wheels®?
The story of Hot Wheels® really began back in 1945. It was in that year that Elliot Handler, his wife Ruth and Harold “Matt” Matson started the company that was, at first, called Mattel Creations. They operated out of the Handler’s garage in suburban Los Angeles. Their new company would eventually grow beyond their wildest dreams to become Mattel, Inc., reputed to be the world’s largest toy company.
Before Hot Wheels® came the Barbie® and Ken® dolls, introduced in 1959 and 1961 respectively. You might be interested to learn how their names were chosen. Barbie® was named after the Handlers’ daughter Barbara’s nickname, and her boyfriend Ken® was named after the Handlers’ son.
Fast forward to 1967 and the development of a tiny, but ever so important, little wheel. Elliot had envisioned a line of die-cast miniature automobiles that would incorporate speed, power and performance. So, at his request, Jack Ryan, Mattel’s head of design, developed a high-speed wheel and, in 1968, Mattel Hot Wheels® die-cast cars were introduced to the world.
The name “Hot Wheels®” was chosen after Elliot saw Harry Bradley’s custom Chevy El Camino in the Mattel parking lot. He commented that “Those are some hot wheels” and the name stuck. That El Camino was the inspiration for the look of Hot Wheels®.
In 1969, Larry Wood joined Mattel as a Hot Wheels® designer and, in 1970, the first of what would become many years of professional auto racing sponsorships began, with drag racers Don “the Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwan. 1970 was also the year that promotional cars were introduced into fast food chains, in Jack in the Box® restaurants. Battery-powered cars called Sizzlers® made their debut.
The next innovation came in 1974, with the “Flying Colors” series of cars. They featured enamel paint and colorful printed decals. In 1978, Hot Wheels® celebrated its tenth anniversary and in 1979, cars featuring Marvel Comics® superheroes were introduced.
To celebrate Hot Wheels® 15th. anniversary in 1983, the ‘68 Camaro was brought back, along with a birthday belt buckle. Then in 1987 the first Hot Wheels® collectors’ convention was held in Toledo, Ohio. In 1988, to mark Hot Wheels® 20th. anniversary, the vehicles featured chrome- and gold-colored bodies, along with a 20th. anniversary design cast into the cars.
In 1991, a joint Barbie® and Hot Wheels® promotion was created for McDonald’s®. To celebrate Hot Wheels® 25th. anniversary in 1993, eight 1968 design models were produced with red-lined tires, vintage packaging and collector tokens.
In 1997, continuing with the Hot Wheels® tradition of auto racing sponsorships, a licensing agreement was established with Kyle Petty and featured cars from NASCAR®. These Hot Wheels® Collectibles cars featured highly detailed bodies, trim detail and synthetic rubber tires.
Life-sized versions of miniature cars were made, including the famous Twin Mill® which was based on the 1969 model. Its two Chevrolet big-block engines generate more than 1400 horsepower.
During the 30th. anniversary, in 1998, the two billionth Hot Wheels® car was produced. The racing line expanded to include large, 1:18th. scale Formula 1 cars. That was followed in 1999 with an exclusive Ferrari line of die-cast cars.
For the 35th. anniversary in 2003, the Hot Wheels® Museum and Hall of Fame was established at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, featuring a life-sizes Hot Wheels® Deora® II.
This brings us back to 2008, where this AutoMatters story began with the 40th. anniversary celebration. By then, four billion Hot Wheels® cars had been produced. To commemorate that incredible accomplishment, the most expensive 1:64 th. scale Hot Wheels® car ever was created. Valued at $140,000., it contains nearly 3,000 diamonds.
Sadly, Elliot Handler is no longer with us. He passed away in July of 2011 but the Hot Wheels® cars that he created keep rolling along, bringing joy to millions of children and collectors around the world.
As always, please write to me at AutoMatters@gmail.com with your comments and suggestions.
Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #291r1 AutoMatters
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