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Exploring the History of Hot Wheels

El Segundo resident, model-car enthusiast, and president of Model Citizen Diecast scale-model car company Patrick Strong details Hot Wheels' origins and ties to El Segundo.

By Patrick Strong

An original 1968 Hot Wheels car owned by Patrick Strong
This Custom Camaro, made in 1968 and offered as one of the original "Sweet Sixteen" Hot Wheels cars, is described by author Patrick Strong as the "pinnacle piece" of his personal Hot Wheels collection. Patrick has owned this car since 1987, and it remains in mint condition.

When you think of the great car-making cities of the world, you probably think first of Detroit, or perhaps Tokyo or Stuttgart. However, it might surprise you to learn that the world’s largest automaker is headquartered right here in El Segundo: Mattel. With annual production of 519 million vehicles, the output of Mattel’s iconic Hot Wheels brand dwarfs that of all makers of real cars combined!

The history of Hot Wheels is well-known to avid diecast car collectors, but to most “civilians,” the brand name is simply shorthand for “toy cars.” Even here in their hometown of El Segundo, the origins of these ubiquitous toy cars might be unknown to average consumers.

The legend of Hot Wheels begins in 1966, when Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler observed his grandson playing with his favorite toy car: a British-made Matchbox vehicle. Matchbox products were high-quality and well-detailed, but for the most part were models of staid family sedans and commercial vehicles. More critically, due to their thick metal axles and clunky wheels, Matchbox cars were far from fast—and Handler knew that when it came to car-crazy American kids, speed was king.

To develop a new breed of toy car that offered modern speed and style, Mattel assembled a design team that included former automotive designers, custom car fabricators, and aerospace veterans. To bring the speed, they developed an innovative combination of thin wire axles, tiny ball-bearing hubs, and two-piece wheels for reduced friction. Mattel’s new cars proved to be incredibly fast when rolled down plastic track, leaving their boring British competitors in the dust.

Speed was only one key to Mattel’s new toy car concept; arguably more important was the cars’ look. Handler knew that eye-catching styling was critical to getting parents to open their wallets for these new toys. According to legend, the template for Hot Wheels style was set when Handler first laid eyes on the personal vehicle of one of his designers, a former General Motors stylist named Harry Bentley Bradley. Bradley’s truck, a 1964 Chevy El Camino, had been modified in the contemporary “California Custom” style, meaning 5-spoke mag wheels mounted on red-striped tires, a “power bulge” on the hood, and a wild, candy-colored paint job. According to legend, when Handler first saw Bradley’s truck, he exclaimed, “Those are some hot wheels!” Handler mandated that this would be the formula for Mattel’s new cars. Thus, one of the most iconic brands in the history of toymaking was born.

Despite the new Hot Wheels cars’ impressive speed and style, at the time of their introduction many toy executives did not believe that the new product would be a success, as the Matchbox brand had a solid lock on the marketplace. Those naysayers included Mattel’s own marketing department, which predicted annual sales of only 5 million units—hardly a needle-mover for the company’s bottom line when considering that the retail price of a Hot Wheels car would be less than one dollar.

This gloomy forecast was obliterated in an instant, however, when a private viewing was held for a lead toy buyer for Kmart (still a retail powerhouse at that time) in early 1968. After watching a drag race in which a Hot Wheels prototype thoroughly humiliated a clunky Matchbox car, Kmart placed an initial order for 50 million units on the spot. Clearly, Mattel had a hit on their hands.

The first Hot Wheels cars hit store shelves on May 18, 1968, with sixteen different models available in a variety of vibrant colors using Mattel’s proprietary “Spectraflame” paint, a clear lacquer applied to the cars’ polished zinc-plate body. Included in the mix were original Hot Wheels concept designs, as well as licensed replicas of popular muscle cars of the era such as the Ford Mustang, Pontiac Firebird, and, controversially, the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette—a car that General Motors had not yet unveiled to the public!

A print ad from 1968 advertises the original 16 Hot Wheels miniature cars.
A print ad for Hot Wheels from 1968. Photo provided by Hot Wheels.

True to the predictions of that first Kmart buyer, Hot Wheels cars were a runaway success—so much so, that they comprehensively changed the toy car industry. Almost overnight, competing manufacturers were forced to change their entire product philosophy in order to maintain any market share in the face of Mattel’s newfound dominance. Some, like Matchbox, introduced new low-friction wheels and outlandish designs, and survived. Others, like British brand Dinky, could not keep up with Mattel’s resources and innovation, and perished.

Mattel steered the Hot Wheels brand through the economic ups and downs of the 1970s thanks to constant innovation (such as the introduction of “tampo” pad printing technology to allow for even wilder paint schemes), by keeping up with trends in the car enthusiast community, and perhaps most importantly by holding the price of a model at around one dollar for years. The long-term staying power of Hot Wheels cars resulted in the birth of a strong adult collector community in the 1980s. The first-ever Hot Wheels Collector Convention was held in 1987 and has been an annual event attended by thousands of diehard fans ever since.

Hot Wheels became a part of El Segundo’s business community in 1991, when corporate parent Mattel relocated here from Hawthorne. The Hot Wheels Design Center’s not-so-secret location on Mariposa Avenue is home to some of the toy industry’s most talented designers, who develop dozens of exciting new models every year. Recently, the Design Center has also played host to the Hot Wheels Legends Tour, a car show that offers the public a chance to show off their unique full-sized vehicles in hopes that their ride will be immortalized as a Hot Wheels car! This level of fan engagement, coupled with a constant stream of new and compelling models, has kept Hot Wheels cars relevant in an era when videogames and smartphone apps compete for the attention of kids and grown-ups alike. The public’s insatiable appetite for these three-inch dream machines means that El Segundo will continue to stand as the car-producing capital of the world—even if only in miniature form.

Patrick Strong is president of diecast model car company Model Citizen and lead singer of The Main Street Band in El Segundo.

This story appears in the August 2019 issue of The El Segundo Scene.

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