Bells and whistles can be a lot of fun but nothing beats the basics. It’s too bad the basics are hard to come by these days.
You’re never too old for Hot Wheels
I’m a Hot Wheels guy. Like most kids, I had a ton of Hot Wheels growing up that were heavily used and abused, and it was wonderful. When my Hot Wheels weren’t being buried in my sandbox or blown up with M80s firecrackers, they were racing on what little Hot Wheels track I had…the classic orange track. You could never have too much track and I always wanted more, but playsets were the most common way to get track and that meant you didn’t get more track pieces often. This was a problem I had to deal with as a kid but one I was able to easily make up for as an adult…or at least I thought would be.
A couple of years ago I started an online community for Hot Wheels racing, guys like myself that still love to collect and play with Hot Wheels. Along with a message board, Redline Derby Racing features an online game that has required me to have a lot of Hot Wheels orange race track on hand. I started shopping around and was faced with two options: buy a Hot Wheels playset or buy individual pieces. The playsets came with track but either not very much or came with a bunch of extra crap I wasn’t really interested in. You could find individual pieces of track but you paid premium, so do you want to pay less for stuff you don’t need or pay more for stuff you do? I did a little bit of both and it served me well, but just recently a friend on the message board posted a link to a photo blog that reviews old Hot Wheels playsets…and I was instantly jealous.
A look back at Hot Wheels playsets
The blog highlights Hot Wheels playsets circa 1968 to 1971 and there you’ll find a lot of great photos of these old playsets, boxes and all. Hot Wheels was introduced in 1968 (a good 10 years before I was born), so if you were lucky enough to be a kid then you were in race track heaven. As I flipped through photo after photo of these gorgeous old playsets it hit me just how much track came with some of them.
You didn’t get a lot of fluff…there wasn’t a “theme” to speak of outside of race track motif with a pit stop and garage. The gimmick of fantasy wasn’t needed in 1968 to launch Hot Wheels; the idea of toy cars going really fast over vast stretches of track was enough. I mean, just look at this playset from 1969, the Hot Wheels Super-Charger Rally ‘N Freeway Set.
As I said, there’s not much to it besides 25-feet of orange track and some garage structures. But let’s think about that length of track for a moment…25-feet…that’s probably enough to run all the way from your kitchen into your living room and then some. That track configuration alone covers probably 32 square feet on the floor, and this playset has several different ways you can arrange things. The blog covers numerous playsets from the era and each of them are basic in theme but overwhelming in the possibilities. If only I had been born a decade earlier I could have found one of these under my Christmas tree. I admit that by the time the mid-1980s rolled around when I was a kid, I had some kick ass playsets that included a lot of track too but my generation witnessed a huge shift in the complexity of not just Hot Wheels playsets but most toys in general.
Fancy gimmicks will never beat imagination
Now shoot ahead another decade or more and today’s Hot Wheels playsets are…well, kind of weak when compared to those old playsets. That’s not to say Mattel hasn’t put a lot of thought into their Hot Wheels toy line but when I walk down the aisle and see playsets with dinosaurs, color changing car washes, and wacky wall walkers, I wonder just how much difference these gimmicks make in the longevity of the toy. I admit that a T-Rex and a volcano are very enticing to a small boy – I would have wanted them too – but I also know that after the initial novelty of the gimmick wore off, I would have stripped out the track and made my own playset.
This same “problem” lies in almost every toy, especially when you look at something like LEGO playsets. We all wanted LEGO sets that were spaceships or castles, and you built the thing as designed maybe once, then you took it apart and used all the pieces to make your own creations. The theme might have gotten your attention but in the end you just wanted more pieces in your box…the same thing goes for Hot Wheels. Lots of sound effects and flashing lights are attractive on the shelf but just don’t make a toy last. And in the specific case of Hot Wheels, a lot of the orange track you get is custom made for the item so it’s hard to separate and use separately. The cars you collect as a kid can last forever, as can the track itself, but the fantastic themes do not. Those playsets from 1968 look just as impressive today, more than 40 years later, as they did when they were new and blowing the minds of kids all across the country.
I know that gimmicks sell and they are unavoidable, but I often wonder if they are really necessary. Are makers like Mattel trying to sell the fun of Hot Wheels, or are they selling the fun of dinosaurs? I was a kid that liked crazy gimmicks too but I was also a kid that would have loved a playset without all the glitz…if it had come with a ton of track. Give a kid a simple toy and they’ll find a way to make it do things you couldn’t imagine. You did it. I did it. Toys like Hot Wheels don’t need to fill in so many blanks. Just give a kid the basics and that’s all they need…their imagination will take care of the rest.