You Little Beauty

21st November 2018

Launched in 1968 as a competitor to Matchbox, Hot Wheels die-cast miniature cars grew in popularity to become the most successful toys of all time. As the brand celebrates its 50th anniversary, we salute these tiny marvels.

Words by Peter Hall

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When the editor of this magazine asked me to write a short appreciation of Hot Wheels cars to mark the miniature motors’ 50th anniversary, celebrated in a vibrant new book, published by Assouline, my mind immediately raced back half a century, a flashback accompanied by the whooshing sound of four small plastic wheels on a vertiginous length of bright orange plastic track hung between curtain rail and living room carpet.

It was my younger brother’s Christmas present, and frankly I didn’t think much of it. The extraordinary speed afforded by low-friction plastic wheels and spindly axles was all very well, but these tiny American hot-rods seemed a poor substitute for larger and more realistically detailed Dinky and Corgi cars. Those had proper wheels and tyres, and some had suspension and steering, not to mention spring-loaded bumpers and ejector seats. Even Matchbox cars were better than Hot Wheels. Although no bigger, at least they looked like real cars.

They still roll off the production line at a rate of 10 million per week!

My attitude had softened by the time I splashed out a week’s pocket money on a Twin Mill, a mutant road rocket with two engines and “Spectraflame” purple paint. It was too lovely to ever be crashed into a skirting board – and therein lay the secret of Hot Wheels’ success. These brightly-coloured, strangely named cars looked odd at first but they were created by realworld car designers and would rapidly become collectors’ items.

The initial range of 16 vehicles was modelled by former General Motors and custom car designer Harry Bentley Bradley, which explains why they so accurately reflected contemporary trends. Based on Chevrolet’s new C3 Corvette, the Hot Wheels Custom Corvette actually went on sale before the real thing. Bradley quit Mattel in 1969, not expecting the toys to be a great success, but they were already flying off the shelves, selling 16 million in the first year. Mattel asked him back but instead he recommended former GM colleague Ira Gilford, who had just left Chrysler. Gilford produced Mattel’s first in-house designs – the Twin Mill among them – and set the little cars on the road to international popularity. They are now the world’s best-selling toy: more than six billion have been produced and they still roll off the production line at a rate of 10 million per week.


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Now might be a good time to dig any old Hot Wheels cars out of the toy box, but do check their value before firing them across the floor; a 1968 Volkswagen Beach Bomb with rearmounted surfboards is now worth around $70,000 (£54,000).

This article was taken from the Autumn 2018 issue of the Goodwood Magazine.

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