Fifty years ago today, the world was introduced to what just might be the most influential cars ever made. The automotive world was forever changed on May 18, 1968 when Mattel introduced the Hot Wheels brand of toy cars to the world. For half a century, billions of diecast miniatures have entertained children and adults alike. Though the cars have evolved over the decades, one thing has remained consistent — they are responsible for spawning more car enthusiasts than any other toy.
The Redline Era
To understand the impact Hot Wheels had, one must look at the landscape of toy cars in early 1968. Before Hot Wheels, they were largely marketed as faithful replicas of real ones. Many had rubber tires, which meant they had a lot of friction and didn’t do much other than sit on the shelf.
Hot Wheels launched — literally — into living rooms with innovations such as nickel-plated axles to reduce rolling resistance, their famous redline plastic wheels that seemed to spin for days, and the trademark orange plastic track designed specifically for the cars to perform incredible stunts on.
Based in El Segundo, California, parent company Mattel sat at the epicenter of southern California car culture during the golden age of motoring in America. Within a stone’s throw stood legendary shops like Brock Racing Enterprises, who campaigned SCCA-winning Datsun race cars in the US; Electramotive, which carried on the tradition with IMSA-winning Nissans; and Kent Racing, which built RX-7s for Mazda’s US motorsports program. SoCal was a hotbed of hot rodding and racing activity.
As such, Hot Wheels creator Elliot Handler designed and marketed the cars as California Customs, with raked chassis, staggered wheels, and eye-popping “spectraflame” paint jobs. Many had exposed engines or side pipes, corresponding with prevailing hot rod trends of the day. Unlike cars from other toymakers, Hot Wheels were fun.
They became an instant hit, sending a tsunami of change throughout the industry. Rivals such as Matchbox completely revamped their lineups to make them more kid-friendly, kicking off the Superfast era. New competitors like Johnny Lightning and Fast 111s came up. Without Hot Wheels, no one would’ve been making diecast dragsters, hot rods, or show cars festooned with bright colors and racing stripes.
The original 1968 lineup consisted of 16 cars, commonly referred to as the Sweet Sixteen by collectors. Rather than stuffy, accurate model names, they bore exciting ones like Custom T-Bird and Hot Heap. Like today, the lineup was comprised of both real cars and fantasy designs.
However, Hot Wheels’ influence was not limited to toys. For example, in the 1970s during drag racing’s funny car boom, Hot Wheels became the first non-automotive company to sponsor an NHRA race team. Don Prudhomme’s Snake and Tom McEwen’s Mongoose went on to form the biggest rivalry in drag history.
Even more notably, the Custom Corvette, based on the actual C3 Stingray, was released in Hot Wheels form before Chevrolet could show the real thing to the public — the designer of many of the original 16 was Harry Bentley Bradley, a stylist for GM before jumping ship to Mattel.
The Blackwall Era
In fact, all Hot Wheels designers have backgrounds in actual car design. That’s because there’s a lot more to them than simply shrinking down 1:1 scale counterparts. To fit standard-sized wheels, all the proportions must change. Yet, the toy must still retain the look and spirit of the original car. Non-stock aspects, colors and graphics, and fantasy cars have to be designed as well, all while keeping true to the brand’s themes of customs, style and speed.
Perhaps the most famous example lies in Larry Wood, a name that defined Hot Wheels for most of its life. An ex-Ford designer, he came aboard in 1969 and stayed with Mattel for 40 years, penning over 400 cars. Those who came of Hot Wheels age in the pre-video game years will surely recall his work in icons such as the Hot Bird (Firebird Trans-Am), ’57 Chevy, ’67 Camaro, ’40s Woodie, Purple Passion Mercury and many, many more.
Of particular note, Wood created the first Japanese car to be included in the Hot Wheels lineup, the Z-Whiz. The car was based on the S30 Datsun Z and introduced in 1977, just when the redline wheels were getting phased out in favor of “blackwall” tires (following real-world rubber trends).
The Z-Whiz models shown in these photos are from the personal collection of Mattel marketing manager Jimmy Liu. Jimmy graciously opened the doors to their design studio to give us a peek at some of the treasures hidden within.
To the car nut, a trip to the Mattel design center is as close as one can get to winning a golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Inside are walls and walls of cars commemorating past models, towering boards with photos of real cars pinned as inspiration, and complete renderings of lineups for 2019 and beyond.
There’s a wall devoted to color samples, bins of wheels that would blow the minds of any customizer and, just like a real automaker, a giant private test track (only here’s it’s indoors and orange).
There’s even a life-size replica of the famed rear-loading Beach Bomb, a Redline Era chopped VW Bus in spectraflame pink that holds the world record as the most expensive Hot Wheels car sold to date. It was, no joke, $72,000.
In addition to many upcoming products that can’t be revealed just yet, one of the most hallowed parts of the visit included a look at a stash of Blackwall Era cars, all still in their original packaging (some with even the peg hole unpunched) accumulated by Larry Wood himself, now a part of the permanent collection.
In his years there Wood captured nearly every facet of American car culture, from muscle cars to street rods to trucks, but he also created some memorable Japanese cars. Even if they weren’t terribly frequent.— after the Z-Whiz in 1977 there were no Japanese cars until 1982 — it was still important to see the S110 Datsun 200SX and revolutionary A60 Toyota Supra enter both public consciousness and the Hot Wheels lineup.
That was followed in 1985 by the Z31 Nissan 300ZX, but after that there was another multi-year lull in J-tin (unless you count Chrysler-branded Mitsubishis like the Plymouth Arrow funny car). That’s because until now, Hot Wheels were still ostensibly a child’s toy.
Mattel had yet to really address collectors. The entire lineup consisted of 80 or so cars that stayed consistent from year to year. Unlike now, only a handful of new models and recolors were introduced each year. Whereas a new year today brings 150 or so new cars, there simply wasn’t a lot of turnover to create space for new castings yet.
The Blue Card Era
In 1989, Mattel got wise to the fact that collectors were buying loads of tiny metal cars. They began releasing dozens of new models, each with a collector’s number and a newly designed card with a mostly-blue background that still carries over to this day.
During this period, cars like the Nissan Hardbody 4×4, Suzuki Samurai, Lexus SC, Z32 Nissan 300ZX, and NA Mazda Miata finally got the Hot Wheels treatment.
Still, it must be said that Hot Wheels came late to Japanese cars. The rise of Japanese “tuners” was in full swing, but the Hot Wheels didn’t really reflect that. The SW20 Toyota MR2, a fantastic casting in its own right, was designed as a rally car, for example. Other Japanese cars such as the Toyota RSC Concept, Pikes Peak Celica or Tacoma, and Isuzu Vehi-Cross only seemed to enter the lineup if it happened to catch a designer’s whim. Meanwhile, there seemed to be no shortage of Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, assorted Mopars and hot rods.
It wasn’t until 2000 that Hot Wheels finally dipped a toe into the so-called import scene. That year saw the debut of the Sho-Stopper (also known as the Seared Tuner), a fantasy car loosely based on a customized Mitsubishi Eclipse.
Finally, in 2001 the first real tuner cars appeared in the lineup in the form of an EM1 Honda Civic Si and T230 Toyota Celica. Both were fitted with questionable Wings West-style body kits and spoilers thought to be popular at the time. Even so, Mattel seemed scared to veer too heavily eastward, bolstering the 2001 offerings with a IDRC-style drag Ford Focus and another tuner stereotype fantasy car called the MS-T Suzuka. It was a start.
The Jun Imai Era
Thirteen years ago we were at the annual SEMA automotive aftermarket trade show in Las Vegas when we happened upon the Hot Wheels stand and met a young designer manning the booth alone. He had just started with Mattel and had only a few models to his name. That name was Jun Imai.
We quickly developed a friendship based on a common interest for Japanese cars, and being the otaku we are, often asked about the possibility of more Nihon Hot Wheels in the following years. Jun was game, and wanted to do them himself — one of his projects at Art Center College of Design was a neo-Toyota 2000GT which eventually became the Nerve Hammer — but the powers that be were terrified of a potential flop.
Slowly, though, Jun was able to convince his bosses that cars like the Toyota AE86, which made its Hot Wheels debut in 2006, were worthy of inclusion. When it came out, cries of protest from traditional collectors weaned on a non-stop flow of Detroit iron echoed from the diecast hilltops. “Why would I want a Hot Wheels Corolla!?” they howled.
Jun’s next foray would be the wonderful Datsun 510, which debuted in 2009. It was met with slightly more favor, but still wasn’t as rabidly hoarded as most Japanese castings are today. Though it’s worth $20 to $30 on eBay now, let us not forget that early versions were pegwarmers. That’s right, kiddos, there was a time that you could buy diecast Bluebirds to your heart’s content at any Target you visited. Even the BRE-liveried version from the Vintage Racing series, now worth $300 a pop, was pretty easily found.
Nowadays, of course, it’s almost impossible to find Japanese cars on retail shelves. They’re the most popular Hot Wheels, period. Jun had been slowly working up to it, but the pivotal moment came in 2011 when he penned the Hakosuka Nissan Skyline in its works racing livery.
Unlike previous tuners, its details were authentic to the proper Japanese look, with its external oil cooler and bolt-on flares. It was a car you had to be steeped in Japanese car culture to appreciate, and it took the diecast world by storm. The Hako caught the attention of a new generation of collectors, ones that had grown up with Nissans, Hondas and Toyotas rather than Chevys, Fords and Dodges, and it was the first Japanese car that was a challenge to find in the wild.
The J-tin fires were further fanned by a one-two punch when Jun quickly followed the Hako with the Kenmeri Skyline GT-R. Funnily enough, that almost didn’t happen. The Kenmeri was a last-minute substitution because another casting had fallen through.
No matter, back-to-back releases of JDM icons hit the Japanese car scene like an earthquake. Suddenly, enthusiasts that hadn’t thought about small toy cars in decades were scouring every Walmart in the nation for these miniature JDM treasures.
Jun quickly followed the Skylines with an SA22 Mazda RX-7, A20 Toyota Celica, and many, many more. More designers interested in Nihon steel joined the team, like Honda NSX owner Ryu Asada and 240Z owner Alton Takeyasu, and the Japanese castings multiplied.
Years of patience and persistence had paid off. With proof that Japanese cars sell and having brought in an entirely new demographic, Jun quickly ascended through the ranks to become the head of the Hot Wheels team. You could say he’s the Larry Wood of J-tin — he even got his own cars, a Datsun 510 wagon and Datsun 260Z, into 1:64 scale.
Hot Wheels still has domestics, Euro exotics, and fantasy cars, but with the inclusion of seminal Japanese cars the marketing term coined 50 years ago, California Customs, rang true once again. Other American toy companies began diving into nostalgic J-tin as well. It was like 1968 all over again. We at JNC are honored to have been a partner of Hot Wheels on this journey, and we hope continue for many more years to come.
50 Years On
With 50 years under its belt, Hot Wheels is poised to evolve once again, but not before celebrating their history with one big hurrah. The 50th anniversary celebration begins today, with the release of several lines representing various periods in Hot Wheels history. There’s a Redline Era set, a retro colors-inspired set of muscle cars, and a set of fan favorite castings (that includes Jun’s 510 wagon, naturally).
Hot Wheels is even going on tour with the Hot Wheels Legends 50th Anniversary Tour, that promises to select one fan’s real car from each of each of 15 cities that will compete be made into a toy car. And last but not least, it will be a year of many special releases like the second Japan Historics set featuring iconic classics from the Land of the Rising Sun.
It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about Hot Wheels. After all, there are many things to like about them. They were the first toys to capture not just cars, but car culture. They’re available an all corners in the world and as a result we’ve seen the JNC inkan everywhere from Bora Bora to Moscow. And, after all this time, they still only cost a buck. Whether it’s the wild designs, dazzling variety or looping tracks, Hot Wheels have always been limited only by the imaginations of the kids playing with them. We’ve just never stopped.