When I think back on all the toys I had growing up as a kid and even the toys I still have as an adult, many of them were little more than fads. They were hot and popular and every kid wanted them, but ultimately they didn’t hang around for long. Looking at the world of toys, very few have remained popular with kids throughout the years. Big ones that come to mind for most people are GI Joe and Barbie, but for this walk down memory lane I’m going to talk about a classic toy very near and dear to my heart – Hot Wheels.
The man behind Hot Wheels
The inventor of Hot Wheels recently passed away. His name was Elliot Handler and he was 95 years old, but let’s not discount the fact that the man also co-founded the entire Mattel toy empire, so his impact goes well beyond Hot Wheels. To be honest, I didn’t know his name until one of my friends posted about his death. That might be shameful of me to not know the man’s name but it got me thinking about how much we really take the toys we have for granted. Many toys, like Hot Wheels, have been around for so long that it’s easy to forget that someone actually had to invent them. Diecast cars are so ubiquitous these days that we rarely stop to think about how awesome they really are. Something so simple can be so much fun to play with and enjoy.
The passion grows
Staple childhood toys like Hot Wheels were not chosen by us, they were just given to us. I don’t recall the first time I told my mom I wanted Hot Wheels. It was a toy I just received without asking and from there my love of them grew. They were as popular then as they are now and because I’m a boy, friends and family always got them for me as presents. Hot Wheels were (and still are) cheap to buy and always put a smile on my face, so for boys they’re an easy “go to” gift. I don’t even remember how many Hot Wheels cars I had as a kid, hundreds probably passed through my hands…but I always wanted more. You could never have too many Hot Wheels.
When I think about all the toys I grew up with, I’ve learned that there is a common way to tell when a toy meant a lot to a kid…when you received the “rip off” versions of the same toy and got mad about it. It doesn’t matter what popular toy you’re talking about…Hot Wheels, GI Joe, LEGO…you loved them so much that you could spot, and would reject, imitations in a heartbeat. You could smell a fake a mile away, a skill our parents could never quite figure out. There was nothing worse than being excited about a present only to open it up and find some sort of bootleg version, and Hot Wheels was no different. Parents and grandparents would try to pawn off cheap Woolworth’s diecast cars as Hot Wheels but I knew better. The quality, the colors, the style and the fun just wasn’t there. If there’s one thing Hot Wheels is not, it’s being able to be copied.
Toys that are meant to be played with
Many of the Hot Wheels you see on the shelves today are little more than mini versions of real life car models…Corvettes, Porsches, Volkswagens, etc…but the other half of the Hot Wheels catalog were fantastic designs that could speak to every child. The crazy designs created by Hot Wheels looked like they came right out of the pages of my childhood sketch book. I loved Hot Wheels because they weren’t normal, whereas brands like Matchbox cars were all about accuracy. They were the “collector” cars…but really, what kid wants a Mustang when they can have a Sol-Aire CX-4? If you just wanted to put cars on a shelf, you got Matchbox cars. If you wanted cars you could play with, you got Hot Wheels. And don’t forget about all the “gimmick” cars that Hot Wheels released of the years; cars that changed color in water, cars with peepholes and pictures on the inside and cars that came “pre-wrecked” and flipped when they hit the wall. Mattel knew what they were doing and knew what kids wanted…and we wanted to play. Hard.
Hot Wheels are certainly the toy cars with the best performance when it came to play time. They are made to be played with. Hot Wheels are meant to be scooted across kitchen floors and flung off of ramps made of shoe boxes and magazines. Of course, what every kid really wanted was just miles and miles of the iconic Hot Wheels “orange track” that came with the playsets. I remember taking all of the Hot Wheels track I could find and connecting it all together to make a giant downhill track on the steps in my house. Sure, you’d toss your Matchbox cars and other dime store cars down your track too, but none of them could hold a candle to the real deal of Hot Wheels.
I’ll never forgive myself
However, as I grew up, my Hot Wheels found a fate that many of my toys experienced – total destruction. I’m not sure if every boy goes through a “blow everything up” phase, but I did and nothing was off limits, including my Hot Wheels. Most of my cars along with my GI Joe figures, Transformers, Construx and many other toys suffered a fate of low end fireworks, bonfires, brick smashing, dismantling and even the occasional drowning in my sandbox when it was filled with water. It’s hard for me to think back to that time because I’m not really sure what came over me that made me destroy all my toys. It makes me sad, and not because I’m thinking what all of those toys would be worth today…it makes me sad just because I loved them so much and I still do. Thankfully though, becoming an adult affords us all an opportunity to reclaim a little bit of our childhood, and I did just that when it came to Hot Wheels.
Picking up where childhood left off
As I mentioned before, Hot Wheels are still a very cheap toy to buy – they’re still only a dollar. Find me another toy that hasn’t changed its price in more than 20 years! In a world of $12 action figures and other expensive gadget toys, the simplicity of Hot Wheels combined with the attractive price cannot be beat. About 10 years ago I started collecting Hot Wheels again. I never left Target or Walmart without at least one car in my bag…usually a dozen or more, actually. It’s a great feeling to go on a Hot Wheels shopping spree and know you’ve only spent $20 for 20 cars. At first I was selectively collecting them, only buying the models I wanted and putting them on a display case my grandpa made me when I was a kid. It felt good to reclaim some of my childhood but putting them on a shelf to admire just wasn’t enough. It didn’t feel right, so I went about finding a way to have fun with Hot Wheels as an adult.
The solution turned out to be something I and all men are pretty good at – taking things apart. I started exploring the customization of Hot Wheels cars. I’d take them apart, paint them, modify their bodies, swap out tires…just about anything. Although, what kid didn’t paint their Hot Wheels at some point? I would take my mom’s acrylic paints and give my cars quite a covering, but now with better tools at my disposal, I could do the job right, effectively turning my Hot Wheels into very tiny model projects. I even brought a car that survived my childhood back to life. I took these experiences to the web and started blogging about what I was doing and how I was doing it. It was fun and got a few eyeballs but not until I took my Hot Wheels chop shop to the world of racing did things start to get interesting.
No other toy has done more for me
If you were ever in a club like Boy Scouts that did pinewood derby races, then you know what I’m talking about. Giving Hot Wheels new paint jobs and shiny wheels is one thing, but trying to make them faster in a downhill race is another thing entirely. I continued writing about my Hot Wheels racing and somehow it turned into an entire online game, a fantasy league for Hot Wheels drag races. The blog I started, Redline Derby Racing, was intended to be little more than a way to chronicle my custom work, but now it stands as what I believe is the only online Hot Wheels racing league around, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch it grow. Not only am I playing with my Hot Wheels as a 30-something adult, but it’s serving a purpose by entertaining quite a few people. What started as my return to the world of Hot Wheels has become a full time hobby and I’ve found myself in the middle of a community of people that are looking for the same thing I was…simple, nostalgic fun. I always get funny looks when I tell people I run a web site dedicated to Hot Wheels racing, but I always shrug it off because I know that everyone collects something…and chances are it’s “stupid” too (and probably more expensive). We all geek out about something and I just happen to go nuts for Hot Wheels. It could be worse.
Some people…most people…see Hot Wheels cars as nothing more than a cheap, disposable toy. Something to keep their kid from crying in the store or something to stuff in that Christmas stocking at the last minute. But for kids like me, Hot Wheels made quite an impact and despite a phase where I thought I had outgrown the toy, I returned to the brand with renewed interest (and a wallet full of cash) to finally have the fun I couldn’t have when I was a kid. I’m not sure any other toy has stuck with me as long as Hot Wheels. I can’t think of any other toy that I was able to enjoy so much as a child but then also as an adult. It’s easy to look back and remember how much you loved some toys, but how many of those toys can you still enjoy like that today? Hot Wheels made an impact on me then and continues to do so in a very positive way, and for that, I must thank Elliot Handler and the other people at Mattel that created Hot Wheels and the other toys we all love so much. His name may not be well-known and might be forgotten, but his toys will live on forever and continue to make kids of all ages happy.