MotorCities National Heritage Area
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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of Robert Tate's collection
Posted: 11.07.2016

file 20161107115733 History Hot Wheels

The year was 1968 and the automobile industry was doing very well with huge sales and profits among many of the automotive customers and consumers.

Building on the success of domestic auto sales and America’s growing love of muscle cars, the Mattel toy company started making their own history with the introduction of its now famous Hot Wheels line of die-cast toy cars.

The Hot Wheels creative line of toys was designed for children and young adults who wanted something different in the way of miniature die-cast cars. Hot Wheels changed the culture among many children and created many new fans as well. They were highly popular toy cars with great features such as the red line tires. Even myself as a child, I thought they were great looking toy replicas.

file 20161107115757 History Hot Wheels

To start with this story, let’s go back to the early days when Mattel toys introduced the first 16 die-cast toy models for the consumer market. The models were painted in spectra flame colors with black tops and red line tires – they became a huge sensation overnight.

I remember being in elementary school at the time when Hot Wheels were introduced and sold in Arlan's Department stores. The next day, it was the most talked about subject school among my friends and other students. Because of the way the toys looked with their bright colors they created that muscle car excitement.

Some of the individuals who were part of the early process of Hot Wheels were Ira Gilford, whom had worked for the Chevrolet design team the previous four years and had designed some of the 1968 product line. Another was Rick Irons who designed the metal buttons included in each package and the box art design for many of the earlier sets was also a part of the process. Many of the first 16 models were designed by Harry Bentley Bradley, with the first one produced being a dark blue Custom Camaro.

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 Hot Wheels’ Arthur Michael Thomas Strauss said “The Hot Wheels concept, aided by extensive television advertising, had taken the market by storm. Touted as the fastest metal cars in the world, they became an overnight phenomenon.”

In 1970, Hot Wheels introduced the Snake and Mongoose toy cars which sold very well in the consumer market. That also was marked year that the first Hot Wheels collectors clubs began appearing in the U.S., the clubs featured club kit material along with books, patches and a membership certificate which many kids admired.

The boom that U.S. auto experienced in the late 1960s experienced a downturn in 1973, and that dip coincided with losses from the toy manufacturers as well due to the oil crisis. Inflation caused Mattel toys to cut their expenses which resulted in inferior products being made. The die-cast cars were only issued once in 1973 because of the poor quality.

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The spectra flame paint, which so many kids really had enjoyed, was discontinued as the toy company used other types of enamel paint brands for its Mattel products.

Mattel discontinued the once-popular red-line tires in 1977. For collectors, the Hot Wheels with red-line tires are extremely difficult to find and are among the most expensive Hot Wheels toy die-cast models to collect. The Red Baron model, that is a part of this story, was created by Tom Daniels custom car designs. The Red Baron was very popular among young adults and kids.

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Hot Wheels die-cast cars were introduced and packaged individually and sold with five play-sets that included the Jump Ramp accessory pack or the popular competition pack which became very popular among kids everywhere.

In conclusion, Hot Wheels today retains a huge following that range from young kids to older adults. Car and Driver magazine once stated, “Hot Wheels are consistently the most populous eBay category, with an average of 25,000 vehicles up for auction at any time.” Today, among collectors some Hot Wheel toy die-cast models can sell for as much as $900 dollars from many private toy collectors or many popular toy auctions.

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A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for contributing this story to the MotorCities Story of the Week Program.

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area. (Bibliography: Strauss, Thomas Michael. “Tomart's price guide to Hot Wheels,” Authorized by Mattel, Inc 1993.)