A fanatical toy car collector takes us inside the Hot Wheels 50th Birthday Bash – to a simpler world where the biggest questions are: Snake or Mongoose? George Barris or Big Daddy Roth?
It began May 18, 1968, when Mattel rolled out a new product line. So the story goes, company co-founder Elliott Handler wanted a toy that would be as successful in the boys’ market as wife Ruth’s Barbie dolls were for girls when introduced a decade earlier. And he decided to go after the car market, creating an American answer to Lesney’s popular Matchbox cars – which, hailing from England, obviously had a British/Euro slant.
And where better to create this new car line than the epicenter of American car culture? The land of freeways, drag racing, street racing, cruising, months of sunshine, customizing, and wild monstrosities from the fertile minds of the likes of George Barris and Big Daddy Roth? And so Hot Wheels’ Original 16 were introduced to the public – all with mag wheels and redline tires, most of them in dazzling Spectraflame colors.
In that first year, Hot Wheels’ models were all miniatures of real cars. Twelve of the cars were models one could buy at a dealership. (Actually, make that 13 – Chevy’s radical new Corvette was available in 1:64 scale weeks before dealers were selling the real thing.) There was also one real race car (Ford’s rare J-Car), as well as two famous customs: Big Daddy Roth’s bubble-topped Beatnik Bandit, and the Dodge Deora car/truck hybrid – after all, Mattel’s first Hot Wheels designer, Harry Bradley, designed the real original.
The cars came in blister packs with metal badges and one intangible: a cache of cool. Just owning one of these sporty Hot Wheels could make the dweebiest, most picked-on kid feel like at least a little bit of a badass.
Fast-forward 50 years to a weekend this May. While the iconic Barbie rules the Mattel and doll landscapes, Hot Wheels now dominates the toy car market, so much so that it bought Matchbox in 1997 (and maintains it as a separate line). And since the mid-’90s, there have been two distinct target markets for Hot Wheels: the kids who have always bought any of the 10,000-plus models—from actual cars to outlandish pipe dreams—off the pegs at stores; and adult collectors, mostly now middle-aged and older, searching for cars to replicate the ones from their childhoods, as well as hard-to-find Treasure Hunts and other rarities.
Which is part of what led me to the Wild Weekend of Hot Wheels, aka the Hot Wheels 50th Birthday Bash, in Manchester, CT. It was the seventh such event organized since 2000 by Randy Price, owner of Randy’s Wooster St. Pizza in Manchester (and, like Legs McNeil of Please Kill Me, a Cheshire native, though a few years younger). He’s an athletic, driven man with a knack for pizza (he apprenticed for a year at New Haven’s legendary Pepe’s Apizza in his 20s), autos (he built his own Batmobile while in high school) and marketing (a combination of quality pizzas, packaging and promotion that saw his restaurant featured once on Man v. Food). And since the mid-’90s, when the collector craze was at its most rabid, he has held club meetings the fourth Sunday of each month for what’s now known as the Connecticut Hot Wheelers. And his restaurant is decked out in a primarily Hot Wheels motif; most of the booth tables have glass tops with different pieces of his vast collection, while the walls are lined with cases of cars from across the line’s history.
Randy Price goes all-out when he does something. He had some special premium cars made for this year’s event, and he also had some special guests. The featured guest would be Mr. Hot Wheels himself: Larry Wood, another Connecticut native (Haddam), an engineer who had design stints at Ford in Detroit and as a freelancer before joining Mattel in 1969 to design Hot Wheels. He “retired” in 2009, but he’s still a consultant and still occasionally comes up with creations. If you own Hot Wheels, chances are you have at least one and probably several of his babies: the Snake and Mongoose funny cars, the Purple Passion (a Merc lead sled), the Tri-Baby (his first custom design), the Bone Shaker (a contemporary rat rod) and hundreds of others. And he’s probably signed more autographs (mainly cars and one-sheets) than many athletes, and would graciously do the same on this weekend.
So what the hell was I doing there, a middle-aged woman who’s spiritually 30 but whose bad knee has been telling her 70 of late? And why am I buying toy cars?
It all started in 1969. My younger brother Jim was the first to have Hot Wheels in our house: a single strip track with a green Custom VW (one of the Original 16); then an olive Turbofire, which came with the Supercharger oval track he got for Christmas, and a red Lola GT 70 race car. But my turn would come soon.
My very first one was a red Ford Mk IV race car, which I bought one cloudy Saturday afternoon in late ’69/early ’70 at the G.C. Murphy five-and-dime in downtown Naugatuck. I saw the Hot Wheels in a bin at the center of the store, and Mom let me pick out one. I chose it because it was unusual at the time (rather than Spectraflame, it was painted in enamel), it was sleek … and it was a race car, and I liked auto racing (favorite drivers at the time: Speed Racer and Richard Petty), and so I got to put on all the cool decals that came with race cars.
I liked both Hot Wheels and Topper’s short-lived rival line, Johnny Lightning. But while some of the more outlandish Johnny Lightnings were radical enough and fast enough (I liked the bubble-top Custom Turbines) – and there was the added factor of Al Unser driving the Johnny Lightning Special to Indy 500 wins in 1970 and ’71 – there was just something about Hot Wheels. As I mentioned, simply owning Hot Wheels made me feel that teensy bit cool, and I was as dweeby and uncool and tormented as they came in my hometown of Prospect.
In all, I had 15 Hot Wheels in childhood. And none were cooler than the Snake and Mongoose. Tom “Mongoose” McEwen had pitched Mattel with the idea of sponsoring his funny car, then brought his reluctant chief rival and frenemy, Don “Snake” Prudhomme, to a meeting, and from that came the most famous rivalry in drag racing history, infusion of corporate sponsorship that sent the sport to another level – and the most famous Hot Wheels set Mattel produced, the Mongoose & Snake Drag Race Set, complete with two funny cars with hinged bodies, twin loops, a checkered flag, and small boxes at the end that released mini-drag chutes.
A random Saturday afternoon in the late winter/early spring of 1995, killing some time at the Toys R Us in East Haven. And for some unknown reason, I meandered to the toy car aisle. And there, up on the pegs, were several cars on the old-school, flame curved-cut Hot Wheels cards. The Vintage Series. And then I focused on what was in the blisters. A Snake. A Mongoose. And about six other models. I was stunned – a true “Holy shit!” moment if there was one. Unlike the enamel-painted cars of my youth, this Snake was painted in gold metalflake and the Mongoose in metallic red, but it didn’t matter – it was the Snake and Mongoose!
Suddenly, I was 9 again, and this time, with at least a little disposable income. And from there, I eventually drifted into hitting various stores (Toys R Us, Bradlees, Kay-Bee, Caldor, Wal-Mart) seeking all the new releases and themed series from ’95, as well as the earlier series from the early-to-mid-’90s. And, in this post-ironic, post-punk retro era, it felt cool having Hot Wheels again.
And there I was in Manchester on a Saturday afternoon this May with a lot of the old familiar faces. Some of them a bit older. (I shouldn’t talk; when I began collecting in earnest, I was 33. I’ve since turned 57.)
After picking up my laminate at the base hotel, the Homewood Suites – not to mention the VIP car, a blue ’67 Camaro packaged in a small pizza box – it was on to my first stop: the Ladies’ Luncheon at Randy’s, where Shirley Wood, Larry’s wife of nearly 5 ½ decades, was the guest of honor.
The Ladies’ Luncheon traditionally has had some of the best and most-wanted cars, because it was ladies only and the production runs are low. This would be my first; I transitioned genders in 2008-2009, while in Fresno, and it was my first Wild Weekend since 2002. I sure as hell picked the right year to come for my first one. Packed in a tiny box shaped like a purse and sealed in plastic was a ’66 Batmobile – painted in brilliant pink. Whoa! One of 50.
The funny thing about the hobby is that the most desired collector color for original Redlines is pink; boys didn’t want to play with pink cars, so they were the rarest color in the earliest days, and were usually in the best shape. And this one was gonna be desired by more than a few of the guys in attendance. Being on the girls’ team sometimes has its advantages – though I wouldn’t recommend transitioning as a way to get a toy car.
From there, back to the hotel for an essential part of any collectors convention: the in-room trading. About a dozen rooms were open for business.
If my mindset has changed, so have those of many collectors I’ve met. I might have some money now, but for one thing, I don’t have room in the house. For another, I’m still being frugal.
I had three priorities coming in: catching up on the Treasure Hunts I’ve missed out on the past few years; finding the last couple of baseball giveaway cars (both from the Padres); and finding Holiday cars. Anything else would be gravy. I don’t have to have every little thing. I did, though, promise myself just one huge splurge if the situation arose; Snake or Mongoose, anyone? But the money wasn’t burning a hole in my purse.
There were two rooms with bigger-ticket items. One dealer had the last of Larry’s fabled collection: dozens of immaculate Redlines under glass, Spectraflame paint gleaming, with no or next to no discoloration, and the chrome on the wheels intact. There was also a room that had dozens of assorted cars from various decades, still in the blister packs. But it was generally people who had spare cars of more recent vintage to sell. I ended up with several later Treasure Hunts for a buck or two, and a Ghostbusters Ecto-1 for $5. After that, there was an autograph session with Larry and Bob Parker of Orange, CT, a noted collector who created some of the earliest Hot Wheels collectors’ price guides.
Sunday, the final day, everything except the banquet would be at Randy’s, including a toy show inside the restaurant until 11 a.m. Not much struck me, though, except for a couple of Red Line Collectors Holiday cars.
Then I saw it. One of the dealers I had visited the day before had a Redline I had missed. It was an unopened Ford Mk IV. In red enamel. The car that got me started on this trip when I was eight. The card was a little beaten-up, but then again, I was a little beaten-up by the time I got to 50, too. So here was my splurge. I had Larry sign it. (I had him sign most of my cars, including the Ladies’ Luncheon car, as he had designed Mattel’s version of Barris’ classic Batmobile. Then I had Shirley sign it; after all, she was the guest of honor, and right is right.) This was a keeper, and it was coming home with me.
Here’s a link to a YouTube reel of 1970 Hot Wheels commercials. A couple of the voiceovers sound awfully familiar: William Conrad (5:14) and Rod Serling (8:19):