Hot Wheels entered a crowded die-cast toy car market in 1968, but these scale-model hot rods had an edge. By adding an axle and rotating styrene wheels (the brainchild of Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler), Hot Wheels were the fastest toy cars on the market.
They were also flashier than most of their competitors – brighter paint jobs, fancier models, all geared toward youngsters with a yen for speed and showiness.
At first, there were 16 model cars produced – the original Sweet 16 – 11 of them designed by Harry Bentley Bradley who had been involved in the production of full-sized custom vehicles like the Dodge Deora car and Chevrolet Custom Fleetside pickup truck.
In addition to models of those two vehicles, the Sweet 16 included the Beatnik Bandit; Custom Barracuda; Custom Camaro, Custom Corvette, Custom Cougar, Custom El Dorado; Custom Firebird; Custom Mustang; Custom T-Bird; Custom Volkswagen; Ford J-Car; Hot Heap; Python (aka Cheetah) and Silhouette.
To complement these little speed demons, Mattel also offered one of the most popular accessories in all of toydom: the Hot Wheels track system – A do-it-yourself kit of track sections, connectors, loops, curves, ramps, launchers, speedometers, and much, much more which enabled Hot Wheels fanatics to build elaborate and ever-changing speedways.
Even without the spring-loaded launchers and battery-run supercharger power boosters, the cars could get rolling along those tracks pretty fast with the force of gravity.
The Hot Wheels line continued to expand with cars rolling off the assembly line at a rate that eventually exceeded Detroit’s big three car manufacturers combined.
The track sets and other playsets became more and more elaborate, incorporating everything from the treacherous intersections of ‘Criss-Cross Crash’ to the erupting leap of ‘Volcano Blowout’.
A merger with Tyco in 1997 brought the Hot Wheels line into electric, slot-car-style racing, while the new X-V Racers line introduced motorised, chargeable cars that sped along without the aid of launchers and power boosters.
After more than 40 years, Hot Wheels remain one of the fastest die-cast cars on the planet, and Hot Wheels cars and track sets can still be found laid out on the bedroom carpet of many a young racing enthusiast.
Like an Erector set for the hyperactive, Hot Wheels tracks have become the building blocks of kiddie car dreams.