How Hot Wheels became the world’s largest toy car

The story of the world’s best-selling toy car, which has inspired kids to race sofa dragsters for five decades, began with a cute old-fashioned encounter.

It was in Denver in the early 1930s that Ruth Mosko, driving her brand new ’32 Ford down the street, saw a young man with “black, curly locks. [who] caught his eye on sight.

She again saw the man, Elliot Handler, at a charity dance soon after. “He looked at her like she was the one he had come to meet,” writes Kris Palmer in the new book “Hot Wheels: From 0 to 50 in scale 1:64” (Motorbooks), released this year at occasion of the brand’s 50th anniversary. birthday. “The dances cost a nickel each, and Elliot borrowed from friends to monopolize Ruth all night.”

In addition to their romantic vibes, the two, both children of immigrants, matched perfectly on a more practical level as well, with Mosko an aspiring businesswoman and Handler an artist looking to design practical products.

The couple married and moved to Los Angeles in 1958, and the following years found them cycling through new businesses as Elliot made items like ashtrays and lamps that Ruth would sell.

“Mattel missed its chance by almost a generation”

Renting a small store, they teamed up with investor Zachary Zemby to form Elzac, named after Elliot and Zachary. A friend of Elliot’s named Harold “Matt” Matson also worked for them around this time.

By 1944 Elzac had 300 employees and $ 2 million in annual sales, but Zemby and Handler did not get along. So when Matson asked Handler if he could sell some of his designs, the couple and Matson left Elzac and formed Mattel – this time for Matt and Elliot – with Matson.

The twinning with Matson was short-lived, but the name stuck. Over the next two decades, Elliot and Ruth made Mattel the world’s largest toy company, largely thanks to their 1959 introduction of the Barbie doll, created by Ruth and named after the couple’s daughter, Barbara.

While the Handlers were innovators in creating the first doll inspired by a young woman instead of a baby, they were behind the oversaturated small car market, which they only considered in the midst of the 1960s.

Matchbox cars, made at 1/64 scale of real cars, were introduced in 1953 and were already an established hit with many competitors. For people in Mattel’s marketing department, “Mattel had missed its chance by almost a generation.

For Elliot, the desire to not only enter but dominate the small car market had a personal component. While he and Ruth owned the most successful toy company in the world, their grandson’s favorite toy was a car made by another company.

Elliot and Ruth HandlerPA

Elliot paired toy designers with engineers who had worked for Chrysler, General Motors, and other automakers. Finding the competition dull and uninspired, they developed a series of cars that “were brightly colored and” raised “, with wide tires and mag wheels.

Mattel also understood that kids wanted fast little cars. Their competitors’ toys were not, as they used bulky steel rods as axles, resulting in “a ride that looked like a cart at best.”

Previously, Mattel had tried to design a guitar that would not go out of tune. The project came to naught due to costs, but the company had sourced expensive mandolin wire. A Mattel engineer realized that at a scale of 1/64 mandolin wire was a quick substitute for a car axle.

With “a smaller running surface and reduced friction against the wheel,” the wire, combined with plastic bearings and bevel wheels, made the new cars the toy equivalent of “The Fast and the Furious,” company engineers claiming they could reach speeds of “200 mph.” The cars were colored with “Spectraflame gloss paint, which was applied to die-cast bodies without a primer to allow the underlying zinc-plated metal to shine.”

Mattel released the first 16 Hot Wheels models in 1968. Inspirations included the Camaro, Corvette, Firebird, and even the bright yellow 1964 Chevrolet El Camino owned by one of the project’s designers.

The company’s marketing department predicted sales of 5 million cars in the first year.

But after comparing a Matchbox car to a Hot Wheels car for a Kmart buyer, and seeing the Matchbox tumble down a track while the Hot Wheels car was practically flying, they were stunned when Kmart placed an order for 50 million. of cars.

Hot Wheels is now the best-selling toy in the world, having sold its 4 billionth car this year. The company has created specialty versions inspired by everything from Spider-Man and Darth Vader to the Batmobile, to which Mattel owns the rights, and the company estimates that “10 Hot Wheels cars are bought every second.”

But if there’s any sign of Hot Wheels’ special place in our culture, it’s thanks to an unlikely source, billionaire Elon Musk, who pulled a Hot Wheels car into space.

“In February 2018,” wrote Palmer, “[Musk’s company] SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket topped with a cherry red Tesla Roadster, with a 1/64 scale Hot Wheels version of the roadster on its dashboard.

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