Hot Wheels

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hot Wheels, the little cars that are the number-one selling toy in the world. Manufacturer Mattel has a 16-city tour in progress that includes a design contest, life-size fleet, die-cast historical display, and Forza X-Box gaming.

My mother, who was 42 years old when I was born (her father was born in the impossibly-distant 1883), disliked the cars. She had played with china dolls when she was a child and still had them in her attic 80 years later. When she witnessed the revolution of synthetic materials in manufacturing she called it all “plastic junk that would never decompose in the landfill.”

Mattel was co-founded by Ruth Handler, “the brains behind a little famous icon named Barbie,” and her husband Elliot, who “wanted to do for boys what Ruth did for girls” with Hot Wheels, according to the company’s website. But Hot Wheels were not primarily plastic; they had die-cast metal bodies with low-friction, plastic wheels, which allowed them to roll the way a super ball (another new technology) bounced.

It was true, though: something big had changed in my mother’s lifetime, as surely as when video games came along later.

I liked Hot Wheels because I loved Matchbox cars, which were also die-cast scale replicas. Matchbox cars not only looked like the real thing, they looked even more like the real thing as they age. Hot Wheels became their main market competitor, and there were strong opinions and frictions between Hot Wheels and Matchbox devotees from the start. (Matchbox fans were alarmed when Mattel bought out Matchbox in 1997.)

I had the Hot Wheels Beatnik Bandit and Silhouette future car, with their bubble windscreens and exposed engines like a rat rod’s, but I liked their T-Bird better because it was realistic. Their Cadillac Custom Eldorado looked a lot like the one my seven-foot cousin Billy Joe drove around in to collect vending machine proceeds for the guys with bent noses. In their second production year Hot Wheels came out with a realistic Mercedes 280 SL, a Rolls Silver Shadow, and a Maserati Mistral I lusted for.

I always liked small, workable things that were like their bigger counterparts—miniature luggage locks I tried to pick with a hairpin, small clocks I took apart and ruined—and toy cars were no different. I lost interest in Hot Wheels when designers leaned toward fantasy designs and invented a printing technology that allowed for wild graphics that made the cars look cluttered and garish. Or was I just getting old? I was 11.

Now, of course, there are all manner of Hot Wheels, including monster trucks, robot cars, and movie tie-ins with the likes of Jurassic Park. By 1991 Mattel had manufactured one billion cars; the number appears to be over four billion now. That amounts to 154,000 tons of toy cars, the equivalent of 102,667 actual Honda sedans. Most of them are probably in the landfill by now, truth be told.

The non-threatening, representational quality of toys helps children ease into the bigger world. It should come as no surprise that we do not put away childish things so much as create grown-up counterparts.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!