Hot Wheels at 50: Looking Back on the History of the Most Famous Toy Cars in the World

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting

Are you ready to feel old? Those diecast cars you’ve got kicking around in desk drawers, displayed in a place of honor in your garage, or that you step on after your kids left them out on the carpet are now officially middle-aged.
Now that Hot Wheels are turning 50, it has proved how much staying power there is in tapping into the imaginations of children and adults alike with both realistic and rip-snorting metal-and-plastic dream vehicles whose shapes are limited only by the fevered grey matter of Mattel’s designers.

Check out these key moments from Hot Wheels’ first 50 years.

Picture Frames to Doll Houses to…World Domination?

It’s rare that a company gets to come up with an idea that revolutionizes an entire industry, but Mattel, the company behind Hot Wheels, managed to do it not once, but twice. Originally formed in 1945 by Harold Matson, Elliot Handler, and Ruth Handler (wife of Elliot), Mattel initially focused on picture frames, of all things, but quickly branched out into building doll houses with all of the spare materials they had lying around.

Finding a welcome home in the growing toy niche, Mattel trundled forward for 15 years tackling a variety of toys before Ruth hit upon the Barbie bonanza. As if launching a franchise that would sell more than a billion dolls wasn’t enough, nearly decade later Elliot would introduce 4-billion-sold Hot Wheels line of diecast cars, creating the one-two punch that would ensure essentially eternal cash flow for the once-modest company.

ALSO SEE: The 10 Best Hot Wheels Track Sets

Different Than The Rest – By Design

Elliot Handler didn’t invent the concept of selling diecast cars to kids, as companies like Matchbox and Korgi had already had substantial success in that area. What Handler did differently was to shy away from exclusively producing realistic replicas of road-going vehicles and instead focus on exotic hot rods and interesting custom cars created by a rotating stable of designers. Elliot’s logic was that if he could tap into a child’s imagination, he could get them more interested in something that looked like a rolling shark instead of a school bus.

ALSO SEE: This is the Most Epic Hot Wheels Video You’ve Ever Seen

He was right, and it certainly didn’t hurt that he engaged some of the most creative minds in the car business – miniature or otherwise. From early designers like Larry Wood, Ira Gilford, and Harry Bentley Bradley to current team members like Bryan Benedict, a significant percentage of the Hot Wheels brain trust hailed (and continue to hail) from the full-size auto industry.

The Science Of Play

Hot Wheels had another advantage over Matchbox et al, and that was the level of attention paid to how they were engineered. Although much of today’s HW talk centers around collectors, back in the ’60s and ’70s, Handler wanted to make sure that kids actually played with the cars after their crazy cool designs had convinced them to take them home.

He knew that toys that were played with stuck better in the minds of the young than those that just sat on a shelf, and so he hired people like Jack Ryan, a former Raytheon employee, to initially come up with low-friction wheel bearings (made of a material called Delrin), thin axles, and plastic or rubber tires that would let Hot Wheels cars glide significantly farther and much, much faster than their Matchbox rivals (which used a nail axle that was too thick to spin quickly, connected to heavy metal wheels). He also made sure that his toys were a perfect fit for the tracks and playsets that Mattel sold alongside the cars.

It was an onslaught that caught Matchbox completely off-guard and forced then-parent company Lesney to come out with their own, more play-oriented models called ‘Superfast’ a few years later. Some of these early Superfast models had unusual wheel proportions as Lesney was unable to quickly change its castings. Eventually, the entire industry, including Corgi and Majorette, would make the swap to the Hot Wheels fast-axle design style.

Blistering Up

Another revolution brought on by Hot Wheels had to do with how the cars were marketed in stores. In 1968, very few diecast companies were using blister packs, preferring instead to hide their cars inside small boxes (indeed, the genesis of the entire Matchbox brand name) and rely on art to represent the vehicle. Hot Wheels went fully in the other direction, prominently displaying not just the vehicle itself encased in its plastic bubble, but going whole-hog in using the HWs logo, bright colors, bonus pieces and parts, and fantastic, exciting art on both sides of the card to highlight their models.

The man to thank for this strategy was Otto Kuhni, a long-time Mattel hand who spent more than 30 years working in the toy business. Again, this plan of retail attack was soon copied by the competition, indicating just how groundbreaking Hot Wheels was as a market force when it first arrived on the scene.

’70s Bring Changes, ’80s Brings Stability

With the rest of the industry scrambling to catch up, Hot Wheels used the ’70s to experiment with wheel and paint options in a bid to balance costs and style. Until 1977, Mattel built ‘Redline’ wheels which had a thin red line painted around the outside edge. Highly desirable today, these models were phased out once the muscle car craze had died down. Mattel also retired its ‘Spectraflame’ paint schemes in the middle of the decade in order to embrace more affordable, and realistic paint colors. The addition of decals and prints on vehicles in 1974, however, would set the tone for the brand heading into the next decade, and for a third time causing rival toy companies to get more creative with their own diecast presentation.

ALSO SEE: Is This Guy’s $1-Million Hot Wheels Collection Crazy or Crazy Cool?

By the time the ’80s rolled around, Hot Wheels was starting to add more ‘everyday’ cars to its fleet, broadening its appeal to include buyers less interested in hot rods. Axles got even thinner, making vehicles faster, and real rubber tires on the ‘Real Riders’ line of cars additionally made their debut, a feature that would be available on and off for Mattel’s foreseeable future. Also important: the blue-backed card on the blister packs which made it onto shelves at the end of the decade, and then never left.

Corvette Chaos

Mattel has always had a close relationship with most automakers, but things got a little too intimate for Chevrolet’s comfort in 1983 when the brand released a diecast of the upcoming C4 generation Corvette before that vehicle had actually gone on sale. Production woes had delayed the C4’s on-sale date to the 1984 model year, but Hot Wheels had already seen a prototype of the vehicle in 1982 and went ahead with their 1:64 edition of the vehicle before the car had been finalized. The end result was a Hot Wheels ‘Vette that wasn’t quite true to the actual C4 spec, but still close enough to generate significant heat towards the brand at GM headquarters. Only 43 actual Corvettes were built for the non-existent 1983 model year, and only one survives to this day.

Spinning Off The Series

By the time the ’90s rolled around, Mattel saw significant value in starting to service the collectors that were driving up prices on their older castings. This is when Model Series, First Editions, Treasure Hunt limited editions, and collector numbers on blister packs started to appear. Things branched out even further in the 2000s, what with Segment Series, Formula 1, anniversary editions, and subsets like Tooned, Blings, Track Aces, Mystery Cars, and All Stars each making an appearance. Further tie-ins with movie productions, special events like SEMA, brands like Little Debbie, Major League Baseball, as many retailers as you could possibly imagine, and of course the racing world further legitimized Hot Wheels’ place as a pop culture icon.

Buying Out the Competition

Is there a sweeter sensation in the business world than purchasing the assets of your biggest rival? Mattel did exactly that when it acquired Tyco Toys Inc., in 1997, and along with it, the Matchbox brand. Sure, it only cost $700-million or so, but how can you put a price on total diecast dominance? For the most part, Mattel continued to operate Matchbox along its traditional “real world cars only” lines, but there have been a number of fantasy-type vehicles that have slipped into the mix in the decades since the purchase. Matchbox itself turned 50 all the way back in 2002, which was right around the time Mattel decided to start more aggressively expanding its offerings beyond what came in the once-yellow box.

Named After an El Camino?

Finally, you’ve probably wondered your entire life how Elliot Handler came up with the Hot Wheels name. Would it surprise you to learn that there’s no consensus of what, exactly, inspired a brand name so famous it became synonymous with 1:64 cars?

Some brand lore ties it to a casual conversation about the wheels on Harry Bradley’s Chevrolet El Camino. Apparently, Handler was walking by the car in the corporate parking lot one day and happened to tell Bradley, “Hey, those are some hot wheels.”

An alternate version of this story has Elliot talking about a prototype car being driven by vehicle designer Fred Adickes. Handler has also said that Mattel employee Alexandra Laird had suggested the term “Big Wheels,” which got him thinking down the track the led to Hot Wheels instead.

We’ll let you choose your own adventure on which story you decide to believe. And now, if you’ll please excuse us, we’ve got some tracks to build and cars to crash.

Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting

More by Benjamin Hunting

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