50 years of fun things that roll: Celebrating a half-century of Hot Wheels in the heart of the Motor City
When the world’s most successful automaker (by volume, anyway, and with the caveat that the autos in question are palm-size) turns 50, there’s only one way to celebrate: You’ve gotta go big.
Hot Wheels started producing its highly detailed, irresistibly zoomable toys in 1968, and we at Autoweek decided to celebrate its milestone birthday with something special. And so this past Monday, we unveiled a massive Hot Wheels display on the banked surface of the Lexus Velodrome, a state-of-the-art bicycle racing facility in the heart of Detroit.
Part temporary art installation, part miniature traffic jam, our one-of-a-kind automotive sculpture is a dramatic representation of the outsize influence these toys have had on two generations and running. Everybody seems to have a Hot Wheels story; for many of us, a scale model car in a blister pack was our point of entry into what would become a lifelong obsession. Like the cars themselves, these stories might seem small individually. But add up the impact of every car sold -- a mind-boggling 6 billion and counting -- and all the memories each of those cars created, and the impact of Hot Wheels becomes impossible to ignore.
To create our installation, we started with 10,000 new-in-packaging cars graciously donated to Autoweek by Mattel. We ripped the vast majority of them out of their boxes and after countless man-hours spent sticking thousands of cars (8,200 of them, in fact -- and if you don’t believe us, you can count 'em) to the track, we invited Hot Wheels vice president of design Ted Wu to check it out.
And then -- because Hot Wheels are, after all, for kids -- we invited about six dozen local school kids to see it too. The students brought sketches of their own dream cars for Wu and Autoweek publisher Rory Carroll to inspect (we saw a rad rally racer, a transformable limousine, exotics, hot rods and more) and had a chance to watch College for Creative Studies student Calvin Kim and Danielle Ward, communications department art director at Crain Communications, create automotive sketches right before their eyes.
There’s no telling where the next Hot Wheels designer is going to come from, so it’s good to get those young imaginations firing on all cylinders -- and great design is, along with easy-rolling nylon wheels, one of the things they had nailed down from the very beginning.
“We pay special attention to the design and detail of the cars,” Wu says. “Our team is made up of real designers, enthusiasts -- there are guys that have worked in the industry or for actual manufacturers. All the details are correct, so you can go as deep as you want. Everything about say, a Datsun 510 wagon is going to be right. Or, if you just like the color and shape of a car, that’s cool too.”
Before they left, we asked the students to help with cleanup by grabbing as many of the cars as they could off the track to take home with them. (“I love Camaros!” one girl, clutching a handful of silver Dodge Chargers, told us excitedly.) And in less than an hour, with the help of the kids, a display that took untold man-hours to set up was completely dismantled. Worth it? Totally.
Additionally, and with the help of Lexus, we brought 10 boxes of unopened cars -- 720 in all -- to the Detroit Children’s Hospital Snowpile charity. We’ll continue to share our toy car trove with good causes going forward.
The influence that Hot Wheels have had over the past half-century is undeniable. But what makes the brand so remarkable is that its strength doesn’t seem to be waning -- even as we’re assured that kids don’t care about cars anymore (or anything that isn’t on a screen, for that matter). So why have Hot Wheels, a distinctly analog toy, continued to thrive in this increasingly digital era?
“There’s so many ways to get into (Hot Wheels) at a very young age,” Wu says. “All kids go through the development phase of fun things that roll and of identifying the things around them. Cars will always be fascinating to kids as they grow up, and a lot of those kids, as they get older, will turn into car enthusiasts.”
If the looks on the schoolkids’ faces as they scooped up Hot Wheels by the handful were anything to go by, the future of fun things that roll both small and large looks very bright.
Look for our Hot Wheels installation on the cover of the Jan. 14, 2019 issue of Autoweek. The issue will include a special feature on Hot Wheels and its ongoing significance on car culture with commentary from Bill Goldberg, Adrian Newey and more. Don’t miss it!
Special thanks to Hot Wheels for providing more toy cars than we’ve ever seen in our lives; Detroit Public Schools Community District, Charles L. Spain Elementary and Middle School, and Detroit Edison Public School Academy kids for bringing their enthusiasm (and cool car sketches); the College for Creative Studies; the Detroit Bus Co. for providing transportation; and to Lexus and the Lexus Velodrome for letting us take over a corner of their beautiful cycling facility for a few days.