40 Years of Hot Wheels, Part 1

September is supposed to be a miserable time of year for kids.  Summer is over, the hot weather is gone, and it’s time to get back to school.  However, there is one September that children the world over weren’t quite so blue.

On September 7th, 1968, the Mattel toy company released sixteen tiny little cars, based on both actual vehicles and imagined customs.  Among these was a front-engined VW Beetle, a Barracuda, Mustang, a modified T-bucket known as the “Hot Heap.”  Most famous among these first sixteen cars was the “Custom Corvette,” a miniature third-generation Corvette.  The reason behind the toy’s fame?  It was released several months before the public ever got their eyes on a real, actual third-generation Corvette.

The “Sweet Sixteen” as they have come to be known, had many features specific to those years.  For example, there were no lines indicating where the doors were, like the modern versions.  Chief designer Henry Bentley Bradley felt they would be invisible at that scale, but kids still complained about the linear lackings of their new toys.  Starting in 1969, the lines were back.

The first Hot Wheels also featured a plastic “bearing” in each wheel.  Basically, it was a cheap plastic bushing between the axle and the wheel that helped the toy reached speeds of a scale 200 mph.  The first cars also featured a torsion bar suspension and a red circle around the wheel.

In just a few short months, Hot Wheels became a runaway success.  Mattel was so impressed with their new toy’s success that they hired designer Ira Gilford away from Chrysler, who helped design and release 25 more cars in 1969.  Among them was the ’31 Woody, predecessor to the ’40’s Woody that has been in constant production since at least the early 80’s.

Also among the 1970 releases was the Twin Mill, one of the first Hot Wheels to be re-created as a real-life car.  As the 30th anniversary of Hot Wheels approached, top brass at Mattel decided to put together the famous little toy as a full-size, fully-operational road-going car.  The Hot Rod God himself, Boyd Coddington, was picked for the job of creating it from scratch.  Design assistance was provided by Boyd’s former employee, Chip Foose.

Just as the car started to take shape, Boyd shocked the world by declaring bankruptcy.  The car was saved from greedy receivers at the last second, and set out to rust in Mattel’s back lot until the 35th anniversary of Hot Wheels rolled around.  That’s when Hot Wheels Director of Adult Licensing, Carson Lev, stepped in to oversee Twin Mill’s completion.  The car came together in time for the 2001 SEMA show,where it was presented to the gearhead public for the first time.  It was also the first time that Twin Mill’s original designer, Ira Gilford, laid eyes on the full-size car.

As for the toy-sized Hot Wheels, the bearings were ditched in 1970, and the torsion bar suspension was replaced by a more reliable (yet far less awesome) straight axle wedged under a piece of plastic.  Although these were technically major modifications-a complete revamping of all two mechanical systems-kids were far more concerned with the new cars and designs coming out.  By the end of 1970, 43 more designs had been released, with another 50 coming in 1971.

Sadly, the economy decided to ruin everyone’s fun.  Increased inflation forced Mattel to cut back on costs, and 1972 only saw eleven new cars were released.  Things got a little better in 1973, with a total of 24 cars released.  However, sales were still slow, threatening the entire Hot Wheels franchise.

Tune in next week to find out how Hot Wheels pulled through this rough patch, and became every kid’s “first car.”  And in the following weeks, we’ll take a deeper look at how a tiny chunk of die-cast white metal could came to become such a big part of the gearhead world.


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