*People always talk about the Big Three American car companies when really there are four. This company has been in business since 1968 and has sold billions of cars, with many of them becoming collectible. We've all had a least one; chances are it was the first car we ever owned. But we were probably seven years old at the time, so maybe that doesn't count. Nevertheless, Hot Wheels cars have grabbed the imagination of many children and never let go.
Who needs video games when we can have a tangible metal car and an orange plastic track? No doubt we learned more about momentum and centrifugal force playing with Hot Wheels than in any physics class. Not that we realized it at the time. We were too busy enjoying wild-looking cars that could never work in real life but managed to achieve the equivalent of 200 mph, albeit in 1:64 scale
Hot Wheels were the die-cast creations of Elliott Handler, cofounder of Mattel. The other founder was his wife Ruth, who came up with Barbie (would have been great having them as uncle and aunt). The rest of the boardroom suits weren't convinced, but that's the good thing about being boss.
An initial 16-car range was produced (now known to collectors as the Sweet 16). The first was a dark blue custom Camaro and many of them were designed by Harry Bentley Bradley, an actual car stylist, inspired by the hot road and muscle car customization culture coming out of California. There was one scoop too. The original Hot Wheels Corvette was the first time the public could see how the real 1969 model would look. The cars had redline tires, a working suspension and bearings, finished off in resplendent Spectraflame metallic paintwork. Big rivals at the time were Matchbox cars, but they looked duller and never had that special thing that made Hot Wheels hot: Delrin.
Delrin is DuPont's brand name for the far less catchy sounding polyoxymethylene plastic. Used extensively in engineering, it has the wonderful properties of being lightweight, wear-resistant and low-friction. That last property is how the cars manage to reach those manic speeds, thanks to Delrin bushings between the axles and wheels.
Hot Wheels sold like hot cakes. The next year saw 25 new models being released, with the brand picking up momentum like it was fired out of a car launcher. Oh yes, it wasn't just about cars. Mattel sold track sets (the Mongoose & Snake drag set was popular, as was the later Treasure Hunt), lap counters, speedometers and, naturally, launchers. Fuel crises came and went, but Hot Wheels stayed at the top of the game.
The number of different styles is something like 10,000 now. In the 1970s, 1:43-scale models were introduced and Mattel also makes some 1:18 models. As well as styles not found anywhere else, there are NASCAR and Formula One replicas-including versions celebrating Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. There have been Sizzlers, Tunerz, Stockerz, classic re-issues and limited editions in partnership with FAO Schwarz, Shell, and (inevitably) McDonald's (to name just three).
Despite the many cars made, a lot of them fetch good prices in the collectors' market. Early cars in what was considered a girly Hot Pink finish are much sought-after these days. Because of a reduced range in 1972 and 1973, cars of that vintage are also highly prized. The Hot Wheels Holy Grail, of which only 25 examples are known to exist, is the Rear-Loader Beach Bomb, based on a VW Bus. A Hot Pink version once sold for $70,000.
The most expensive Hot Wheels car, however, must be the one-off model made in 2008 to celebrate the brand's 40th anniversary and the fact that the company had reached the landmark of four billion cars produced. It's a 1:64-scale Custom Otto, encrusted with $140 million-worth of diamonds, plus some rubies for the taillights and a splash of white gold here and there.
At the close of business on February 5, 2009, Mattel's share price was $12.68. Compare that to General Motors' $2.86. With some Hot Wheels products performing better than many stock portfolios and Mattel worth more than GM, if there's one piece of wisdom we can pass on to future generations, it's hang on to your toys.