Earth’s population recently passed eight billion. An incredible, jaw-dropping stat – until you learn Hot Wheels got there first.
Hot Wheels production reached 8 billion in a little over five decades, too, with its very first miniature car having rolled out of the factory in 1968.
Nowadays, there’s one made every 16 seconds; that’s a rate of around 500 million cars each year, with the ecosystem surrounding their design, engineering and manufacturing looking every bit as mature as those for the full-size cars they mimic.
So much more than a toy, Hot Wheels has become a phenomenon. In the case of those now occupying significant roles at parent company Mattel, it’s how their entire love of cars sprung into life.
- Over 8 billion Hot Wheels cars made
- Today, it’s one every 16 seconds – 500 million per year
- The brand’s first car was a blue Custom Camaro
“My first Hot Wheels car was the Z-Whiz [based around a Datsun 240Z] and my first Matchbox car was a Land Rover Defender 90,” says brand director Jimmy Liu.
“I love both dearly and still have them. Collecting these cars as a kid kept an interest in cars going into my adult life.”
It’s the expertise of Jimmy and his team that helps decide which cars occupy the blister packs hanging tantalisingly at the supermarket, perilously close to the wandering mitts of your kids. Or your own hands still engrained with the muscle memory of how much fun these things were in your youth.
“We look at trends in the market and really try to stay relevant with the industry,” Jimmy says with an assuredness you’d normally associate with more prosaic product lines.
“Since cars span across so many different sub-cultures, and we have long development lead times, it’s often difficult to predict what will be popular by the time we get the product in market.”
“If we’re targeting adults, then we skew towards real-life cars. However, our Basic range has a balance of both Hot Wheels Originals and licensed models. We like to insert some of our own personal favourites in the line occasionally, but at the end of the day, we’re trying to do what’s best for the consumer.
I personally love speaking with collectors and always welcome suggestions.”
A typical annual Hot Wheels range contains about 450 cars, of which around half will be brand new that year.
A recent addition to the company’s more premium line – which typically means a metal base, rubber tyres and an artfully designed pack that’s less likely to be ripped apart as the car’s flung at the skirting board – is a detailed recreation of the Alfa Romeo 155 DTM racecar of the Nineties.
Helping bring it to life was designer Mark Jones.
Known as The Godfather within his team, Mark’s CV includes design stints at full-size car manufacturers, something many – but not all – of Hot Wheels’ staff can claim. He’s been at Mattel for 36 years and can attach his name to over 300 cars in that time, with a beautiful ‘circle of life’ feel to how he ended up in the role.
“There was a Mattel toy years ago call the Vac-U-Form. You’d plug it in and vacuum-form little car bodies. I got it for Christmas aged 11.
“I made little signs and stuff. Then my dad showed me how to draw sections and make a little balsa wood buck.
So I started making bodies and putting them onto my slot cars.” Is it absurd to essentially be doing now what he was doing then? “Yeah, it’s kinda scary! I tried to escape into making real cars but I ended up coming back to toys.”
Nowadays, there’s one Hot Wheels car made every 16 seconds; that’s a rate of around 500 million cars each year
Designing Hot Wheels for a living is a touch more involved, however, with a 12 to 18 month sequence of design and verification prototypes that mimics the wider car industry. Mark’s career has seen vast changes and advancements, with the dawn of digitised design and 3D-printing (for prototypes, not the end product) sharpening the overall process considerably.
Mark will work with Mattel’s digital sculpting team to draw up models of the cars he’s replicating, occasionally having to alter some of the detailing along the way. It’s not simply a case of shrinking a real-life car down to a 1:64 scale mould; the design team must dig deeply into the character of the car they’re making in order to retain – and occasionally exaggerate – its key traits.
“One of the major hurdles with our development is we have standard-sized wheels, so we have to proportion the car around them. Sometimes we’ll move things around with the body if it won’t mess up the character lines too much.
“Hot Wheels is not known for scale; we’re trying to fill up our blister packs and give people good value while still trying to make the car look correct.”
“We need a 30-thousandths clearance [0.76mm] between the tyre and the body for rolling along the floor, too. We’re trying to get that lower, especially on the premium stuff.”
Indeed, every new product is tested on the brand’s iconic orange tracks (of which 6000 miles are sold every single year, incidentally) to make sure it can be played with as well as ogled.
Battles between design ambition and production reality amusingly parrot those of the ‘grown up’ car world, and it’s an area where the input of the manufacturers involved – and their inevitable right to sign off Hot Wheels’ recreations of their models – can prove a helping hand to Mark’s team rather than a stumbling block.
“The gentleman at Alfa Romeo was a designer himself which meant he could be a little more critical of what we’d done. I was able to use his input to force my manufacturing people to do the things I really wanted in the first place. It’s nice to be two-against-one in that scenario.”
And how complex is it to replicate a racecar livery?
“Some companies own the rights to everything which allows us to use the whole livery. But then it’s limited by our production budget and how many colours we can do. We’re running the production line so fast we don’t apply them as decals, we do a tampography rubber stamp or a laser print instead.
“This 155 looks like it has full tampo, which is a little tighter in detail than the laser. Lasering gives fuller coverage of the car.
“I was able to use his input to force my manufacturing people to do the things I really wanted in the first place. It’s nice to be two-against-one in that scenario.”
“I like race cars. So I have to try and control myself when we’re deciding what to make. We’re trying to hit all our customers’ wishes and desires. When I was first doing Basic cars I did a GT1 Porsche, Le Mans Mercedes, even an Alfa Bat. But at that time, race cars like that maybe weren’t big sellers. The main race cars that Jimmy recognises are like the Alfa 155.”
He knows that if this generation of kids wants to see a motorsport line, they want to see something more recognisable as a production car than a prototype racer. The computer games have really helped us; they’ve helped broaden our audience’s awareness of these cars.
“Those who were too young to see them run in races have now driven them in games. We’re two industries going hand-in-hand with our growth.”
“I managed to do the Lancia Stratos Group 5 with the big fenders. The only reason I got that gig is that – to Jimmy – it was also a Transformers character called Wheeljack.
“He remembered it, so we figured other people would remember it too. And I was thrilled because I got to do a pretty whacked-out race car that I love!”
As heroically accurate as his race cars undoubtedly appear, it’s the wild and wondrous little Hot Wheels Originals that illuminate the eyes of some enthusiasts.
Ian Callum is the designer responsible for huge handfuls of modern Aston Martins, Fords and Jaguars, and is proud of the way Hot Wheels sparked his creativity along the way.
“I loved the idea of custom cars and hot rods,” says Callum, who began collecting Hot Wheels in his early teens. “I bought them because they represented something which I admired and wanted to be a part of. They were the quickest line into having American car culture in my life.
“I fell in love with hot rods in general because they were rebellious. I was at that age in the Sixties when it was good to be rebellious; I had long hair and clothes my father didn’t approve of, and so my Hot Wheels cars were indicative of a lifestyle that suited me. They were aspirational. And I’m glad to say I ended up owning cars that looked a bit like them.
“Hot Wheels are always exaggerated and that’s what I always liked about them. It’s something I’ve tried to take though my design career – to always make the most of design features. I grew a love for oversized wheels and details at a young age.”
Ian has his own ‘circle of life’ moment, too, with the Jaguar F-Type among his numerous designs that have now been replicated in Hot Wheels.
“I saw this reel on Instagram that says there are only two people in life you need to impress: your eight-year-old self and your 80-year-old self.
“That a car I’ve worked on is now available as a Hot Wheels toy is very flattering. It’s that notion that you’ve become a part of the world that inspired you in the first place. I can look back at my younger self and think ‘you’ve done alright, kid’.”
We couldn’t possibly pin down how many of those eight billion Hot Wheels made their way through the Callum household, but there’s a rich seam of fully driveable sports cars which can lay some thanks at the door of Ian’s early automotive love.
Told you it was so much more than a toy.
The brand’s first car was a blue Custom Camaro
A little more…
Elliot Handler: The El of Mattel.
The company’s name is a portmanteau its two founders, Harold ‘Matt’ Matson and Elliot Handler, though the latter (and his wife Ruth) bought out the former a few years in.
The Handlers are credited with the development of some pioneering toys; Ruth introduced the world to Barbie, named after their daughter Barbara, but it’s the dawn of the Hot Wheels brand in 1968 that blips Elliot’s name loudly on our radar.
The brand’s first car was a blue Custom Camaro, with thousands of model lines – and billions of sales – following since. Handler lived to 95 and got to celebrate his 90th birthday at Mattel HQ.
Got a spare $250,000 for this one?
The most valuable Hot Wheels
With eight billion Hot Wheels cars having left Mattel factories, there are plenty (quite literally) knocking around households globally. But some are naturally rarer than others, and woe betide any nippers who get their hands on this Beach Bomb and whoosh it mercilessly across the kitchen floor.
Made in 1969, it was a pink VW bus that came complete with a rear-loading surfboard but proved too top-heavy to truly work on track.
The design was modified for production, but those original, flawed prototypes are actually the ones to have – if you have a spare $250,000, anyway.