Day 852: The Greatest Toy On Four Wheels

originally published May 1, 2014

I may have had a slightly distorted sense of value when I was a child. If I’d been on a sinking boat with the ability to save only a family of four or my Star Wars toys… well, I’m just glad it never came to that. And while I’d have leapt between a bullet and my cherished Kenner Greedo, my collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox die-cast cars were a close second. It was hard concocting narratives more complex and engaging than a Fast & Furious movie, but dammit I tried.

My Hot Wheels cars convinced me that a giant staircase was navigable terrain, provided I stick to slow-motion jump moves. They taught that treadless tires could propel a Datsun 280Z through thick shag carpeting. And while I knew back then that I’d never become the kind of guy who would stand and nod knowingly at a 455 crate engine with Edelbrock aluminum heads, I would certainly be the kind of guy who likes to roll stuff down ramps and watch them crash.

There are other brands, of course. Corgi, Husky and Lledo made passable mini-vehicles (though I always felt uncomfortable grabbing hold of a Dinky), but Hot Wheels and Matchbox made the superior products. Just as I wasn’t going to accept a Star Striker Spaceship in place of a Millennium Falcon, I had no use for a lime-green Husky-brand Studebaker station wagon. I wanted the good stuff.

The original Matchbox cars debuted in 1953 and were sold in – surprise! – matchboxes, or tiny replicas of matchboxes. Like Corgi and Dinky, their main competitors, Matchbox was a British company. The early models didn’t feature windows or interiors; they were looking to keep costs down, and assumed that British kids had enough imagination that they could formulate their own mental bucket seats if necessary. They were well-made and outrageously popular. Matchbox dwarfed the competition by 1968.

Then along came Mattel. ’68 was the year the first sixteen Hot Wheels dropped onto the market, beginning with a dark blue custom Camaro. “Custom” is the key word here – while Matchbox made a mint off of realism, offering miniatures of popular consumer cars, lorries and work vehicles, Hot Wheels went for souped-up modifications on muscle cars and racing machines. Of the initial 16 models, eleven were crafted by noted designer Harry Bentley Bradley. Bradley would later achieve fame for another iconic vehicle design.

The original Hot Wheels lineup (pictured at the top of this article) were done up in snazzy Spectraflame paint, with a working suspension and skinny little red lines on the wheels, reflecting a trend among muscle cars at the time. There was no noticeable groove where the doors would be cut, because the width of an actual door seam would be microscopic when shrunk down to that scale. That dash of accuracy was reversed later on, after product testing with kids revealed that the little ones really wanted to see where the door would be. Kids love doors, I guess.

In 1968 kids had the option of a pale grey Chrysler Newport Matchbox toy or a shiny magenta Beatnik Bandit, the likes of which had only been seen as a custom vehicle at car shows. Needless to say, Hot Wheels eclipsed the competition pretty early on. And it wasn’t just the colorful lacquer on the polished metal shells or the fancy and fun automobiles they were selling – Hot Wheels had another clear advantage up their sleeves.

Those trademark orange tracks were part of the Hot Wheels strategy from the very beginning. Mattel employed a low-friction plastic from DuPont known as Delrin to use as a bushing between the axel and the wheel, allowing the cars to accelerate up to 200mph. Well, 200mph to scale, but that’s still pretty damn fast. The tracks would come with a special C-clamp for attaching the starting point to a table or a tall but slow-moving uncle. They also sold a two-lane starting gate and finishing flag because young boys are competitive little fuckers.

The 1969 line was massive, including a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, a ’57 T-Bird, a police cruiser and the classic Volkswagen Beach Bomb, a tribute to the famous hippie vans that were speckling the American landscape that year. The original Beach Bomb featured two surfboards sticking out the back window. Unfortunately, this model was too skinny and top-heavy to navigate those orange tracks, so the bus was redesigned with a side-loading contraption for the board.

Thus was born the holy grail of Hot Wheels collectibles.

Back then, each car was manufactured in a variety of brilliant colors. Hot pink was the least-used color (obviously because it was considered to be a “girl’s color”), therefore any hot pink Hot Wheels car from the first few runs is quite valuable to collectors. Since the rear-loading Beach Bomb was only created in a limited run of prototypes, it’s believed there are only two hot pink ones in existence. These are the ones you want to find.

But you won’t, of course. The collector community knows exactly where those two are at, and they don’t show up on the market very often. It still wouldn’t hurt to scour the garage sales for classics though; an original-release side-loading Beach Bomb in good shape might be worth around $600. If you can find a rear-loading one, you’ll be able to unload it for a five-figure sum. In 2000, one of the hot pink models sold to a collector for $72,000.

That’s a university education for a single die-cast toy.

Collecting Hot Wheels cars is a much less expensive hobby than collecting stamps, coins or Barbies. There are a lot of toys out there to acquire, but they don’t cost too much. Of course you’ll want to get all the extras: the models with thermal paint (they changed color in cold water!), the ones with the crash panels, the Supercharger models with an electric motor, and so on. Mattel acknowledged the burgeoning collector’s market in 1995 when they introduced the Treasure Hunt Series, consisting of hard-to-find models with funky designs and rubber tires. The introduction of forced scarcity has worked; the Treasure Hunt cars are fetching a lot of money.

I never saw the point. Toys aren’t for collecting, they’re for enjoying in the moment, for playing with a passion and for terrifying the dog when a Corvette that’s 1/500th of her size comes whizzing at her across the kitchen floor.

I have none of my original Hot Wheels anymore. But that’s okay – I used them well and wore them out. Also, I didn’t let a rear-loading Beach Bomb slip through my fingers so it’s not like I lost a fortune.

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