How Hot Wheels Became the Fastest Selling Toy in America

The Mattel brand remains popular in part through the full-size cross-promotion of its cars

“Those are some hot wheels!”
“Those are some hot wheels!” Trent Joaquin
Headshot of Robert Klara

In 2017, a graying, bespectacled gentleman appeared on the PBS program Antiques Roadshow, along with a tiny die-cast metal toy car he’d brought in for appraisal. It wasn’t much to look at: a 1969 Volkswagen bus in a rose metallic paint job, with two tiny surfboards sticking out the back window. Many are the toy collectors who think that his childhood treasures are worth money, but this man was in luck. His car happened to be an original prototype Rear-Loader Beach Bomb. Hot Wheels had made a mere 40 of the vehicles, which made them instantly collectible.

So collectible, in fact, that the appraiser put the little VW van’s auction value at $150,000.

Even in the digital era, the average American kid still owns 50 Hot Wheels cars. So how is it, then, that these low-tech toys remain in the fast lane of consumerism? Hot Wheels is the No. 1 selling toy in the world, with over 20,000 designs and 6 billion cars produced. And while few people own a Rear-Loader Beach Bomb, these little cars continue to be cherished acquisitions.

Hot Wheels is, in short, a case study in cross-platform branding. Not only are its toy cars tricked-out versions of real production models conceived by actual automotive designers, Hot Wheels also builds street-size versions of its most popular machines, deploying them everywhere from car shows to its YouTube channel, creating an intergenerational cult of fans.

“Hot Wheels has been around for 50 years and it’s at the center of car culture,” said head of marketing Ricardo Briceno. “In the car world … everyone’s first car was a Hot Wheels car.”

Hot Wheels debuted in 1968 with 16 cars that riffed on actual Detroit production models (1). Elliot Handler and his wife Ruth put early Hot Wheels cars through their paces (2). The holy grail of Hot Wheels remains the Rear-Loader Beach Bomb, valued in the six figures (3). Hot Wheels has sustained its popularity in part through commissioning full-size versions of its cars.
Courtesy of Mattel

In 1967, Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler tasked his designers to come up with a toy car that was faster and cooler than the toys already on the market—which meant Lesney Products’ Matchbox, a popular 1:64th scale toy launched in the U.K. in 1953. Heretofore, scale-model cars were essentially replicas—accurate facsimiles of production-line sedans. By contrast, Mattel’s new cars would be souped-up versions with custom accessories, flashy paint and most importantly, mag wheels that made the cars fast. Inspecting the agile performance of the prototypes, Handler remarked: “Those are some hot wheels!”

Borne out of a partnership with Detroit’s Big Three, 1968 debut cars like the Custom Camaro established a template that continues to cross-promote both Mattel and automotive nameplates today. Last month, Jaguar announced a partnership that would not only produce a 2021 F-Type model car but create an engineering contest to break the world record for most loop the loops. How does a $1 Hot Wheels Jag help benefit sales of the $85,000 street model?

Off to the Races: Early on, Elliot Handler understood that the best way to enjoy a fast toy car was to run it on a stunt track. An engineer named Marjorie Ann M. Smith created the flexible, joinable test track—including the signature 360-degree loop. Debuting in 1968, the tracks sported the same bright orange color they still come in today, and Hot Wheels continues to issue new track sets annually, encouraging kids to “race, crash and smash their Hot Wheels vehicles,” according to the company literature.
Timm Schamberger/Getty Images

“Sports cars are inherently fun and typically driven by automotive enthusiasts, many of whom would count a Hot Wheels model to be their first car,” said vp of marketing Kim McCullough. “They might have even dreamed of owning a Jaguar one day, so there is a natural link between the two brands.”

Meanwhile, Hot Wheels continues to extend its brand into other segments by building cars inspired by mega movie franchises like Toy Story and Star Wars and licensing its cars for popular video games such as Need for Speed and Asphalt 8: Airborne.

“Anyone who’s into cars is a Hot Wheels fan,” Briceno said.

And that obviously includes the fortunate 40 who happen to own a 1969 Rear-Loader Beach Bomb.

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.