Hot Wheels celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 18, 2018. Over those five decades, the ride has been as thrilling as the looping and snaking orange plastic tracks that are part of the Hot Wheels experience. And we have the Chevy El Camino to thank for at least some of it.
Yes, that odd-but-cool pickup/coupe from the mid-to-late 20th century, the era in American history when John Glenn became the first American in space, the Ford Mustang made its debut, and Elvis Presley was just getting into movies. The story goes that toy-car designer Harry Bentley Bradley owned an El Camino. When Elliot Handler (one of the founders of Mattel and the reason why that name ends in “el”) walked past it in the company’s parking lot, he said something to the effect of, “Those are some hot wheels you got there, Harry.”
Mattel (co-founded by Harold “Matt” Matson) is based in Southern California, where the custom and hot rod world has thrived. The company’s owners wanted their toy cars to reflect this exciting scene, which is why many Hot Wheels products are not straight copies of actual factory vehicles. However, Bradley’s El Camino was the inspiration for one of the first batch of Hot Wheels toys to hit the market. This initial offering—now known as the “Sweet 16”—included 11 of his designs. They also had a red pinstripe on the sidewalls of their “tires,” which gave rise to the Redline series that lasted until 1977.
Bradley’s previous employment was as a designer for General Motors. Several other Hot Wheels creators also had jobs in car-company studios before getting the Mattel gig. Howard Rees (Demon/Prowler/Mighty Maverick) and Larry Wood (absolutely loads during a 40-year career, but one of his earliest models, the Ramblin’ Wrecker tow truck, had his real home phone number on the side) were both at Ford. Ira Gilford (who originated the most collectable Hot Wheels, the Rear Loader Beach Bomb, based on the Volkswagen Bus) was at Chrysler.
There’s a secret ingredient, though, beneath all these wacky designs, the thing that puts the “Hot” into Hot Wheels. And the man responsible for its inclusion was someone who had developed missiles.
John “Jack” Ryan (no relation to this writer, sadly) came up with the low-friction bearings that allow Hot Wheels cars to reach such high speeds. Scale them up from their original 1:64, and we’re talking in the area of 300 mph. Those bearings are made of polyoxymethylene, better known by DuPont’s trade name of Delrin. Ryan spent 20 years at Mattel and even helped create the Barbie doll. He also became Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sixth husband.
In a way, it would have been more surprising if an iconic car line had never sprung out of this meeting of brilliant minds. Rees and Handler both attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (where many big names in automotive design like Larry Shinoda, Chris Bangle, Frank Stephenson, Freeman Thomas, and J Mays also studied). And Harry Bradley’s middle name was Bentley, for goodness sake.
Hot Wheels not only revolutionized toy cars, they are among the best-selling toys in the world. As children grow up to be adults, they often place high value on their former playthings. So despite the more than four billion (and counting) Hot Wheels toys produced by Mattel over 50 years, some of them are highly desirable and fetch sums of money that would buy a perfectly good actual car—even a fully restored VW Bus.
The aforementioned 1969 Pink Rear Loader Beach Bomb, complete with two plastic surfboards sticking out of the back window, is a limited-edition rarity and was sold to a collector for $125,000. The most valuable Hot Wheels, however, is a one-off Custom Otto (based on a Larry Wood design) covered in diamonds and 18-carat white gold, with rubies representing the taillights. It was made to commemorate the brand’s 40th anniversary, and the gemstones themselves are worth more than $140,000.
The rest of us should keep our eyes peeled at flea markets. Come across something like a 1971 Oldsmobile 442 with purple paintwork and it would be worth a few thousand. Even some more common cars can still command three figures. Versions with pink paint tend to command a premium. And if your Hot Wheels collection doesn’t ultimately make you rich, you can still play with them.