Coffee Break Design History: Hot Wheels

Coffee Break Design History: Hot Wheels

Alison Gerber
Nov 10, 2014
(Image credit: Hot Wheels Race Tracks)

Hot Wheels cars have been around for more than 40 years, and no doubt they will continue to be found in little kids' bedrooms and Christmas wishlists for another 40. But have you ever wondered where they came from? Or when they started looking the way they did? Or how they move so fast? Read on for a super-short looking into the design history of the Hot Wheels race car.

The Hot Wheels line was conceived by Elliot Handler, the co-founder of Mattel. The concept was to attempt to secure a portion of the small car models market dominated at that time by the long-time Hot Wheels rival, the Matchbox car.

The first Hot Wheels cars were released in 1968. (A detail from 1968 Hot Wheels packaging is shown above). 11 of the first 16 cars were designed by Harry Bentley Brady, designer from the (full-sized!) car industry.

(Image credit: Hot Wheels Wiki)

All 16 of the first cars featured Hot Wheel's special "Spectraflame" paintwork - a shiny metallic finish. Very few cars were released in pink, considered a "girls" color. As a result, pink cars are the most collectable. The highest price ever paid for a Hot Wheels car was $72,000 for a pink 1969 Volkswagen Beach Bomb (below).

(Image credit: Ebay)

Even in 1968, the Hot Wheels cars were designed to race on plastic track. An essential element to that design was the construction of the axel, wheel and suspension systems within each car. The wheels of early Hot Wheels cars had a tiny, narrow raised ridge on their inner edge. In the same way a thin wheel of a bicycle allows a cyclist to travel fast, these actually very thin wheels allowed the early Hot Wheels cars the ability to drive at up to 200 mph.

In 1969 Ira Gilford (from Chrysler) and Larry Wood (from Ford) joined Hot Wheels as designers. Ira Gilford designed the very popular Splittin' Image and Twin Mill (below) cars.

(Image credit: Hot Wheels Wiki)

In the 1970's the first powered Hot Wheels car appeared - the Sizzlers! Technically a spin-off from the Hot Wheels line, these cars contained a tiny motor and rechargeable battery.

(Image credit: Hot Wheels Race Track)

The 1970s also saw Hot Wheels' first slump in sales, which was then revitalized by the shift from their trademark "Spectraflame" colours, to less shiny enamel colours (still used today), as well as the addition of flashy decals and painted designs.

In 1983, Hot Wheels released a rubber-wheeled car known as the "Real Rider", which was short lived due to its production costs. For the first time they began production of cars based on economy cars, like the Pontiac Fiero or Dodge Omni 024. In the late 1980s the cars were packaged for the first time attached to the blue cards we see today (below).

(Image credit: Rambler Man)

In 2003, Hot Wheels released a feature-length animated movie to celebrate its 35th anniversary. You can watch its terribly dated trailer here.

2004 marked the first appearance of Hot Wheel's cartoon-ish looking cars - cars drawn out of proportion with big wheels (below), englarged bodies, stretched out fronts and so on.

(Image credit: South Texas Die Cast)

Since it's founding in 1968, more than 4 billion Hot Wheels cars have been produced - more than have rolled off the production line of Detroit's "Big Three", combined, since the start of the auto industry!

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