During the height of the muscle car craze of the 1960s, Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler wanted to create toys that better reflected what was going on in the burgeoning hot rodding scene. He hired Jack Ryan, an engineer who had previously worked on guided missile systems for Raytheon Technologies, and Harry Bentley Bradley, a car designer at General Motors, and gave them a simple task: Design a better toy car. The team focused on creating something that was both eye-catching and more fun to play with than the diecast cars that were on the market at the time. “One day they brought in a prototype, put it on Handler’s desk, and flicked it with a finger,” explains Mattel’s Scott Shaffstall. “It rolled across the entire desk and Elliott said, ‘Wow—those are some hot wheels!’”
The company launched its first set of cars—now dubbed the Sweet Sixteen—in 1968. Since then the brand has grown to become a legitimate toy empire, boasting not only sales that are measured in billions of units but also lending its unique designs and aesthetic to video games, apparel lines, and even high-end collector items. “A good example of that is the Gucci car,” says Ted Wu, Hot Wheels’ VP of design. “They came to us for their 100th anniversary and asked if we could create a Hot Wheels car out of the 1982 Gucci Cadillac Seville.” Even at a retail price as lofty as $120, the demand for the collectible was so great that Gucci’s global web servers immediately crashed when the toy went on sale.
Hot Wheels also turned fantasy into reality when they built the first life-sized version of the Twin Mill, one of the brand’s most beloved diecast creations. Its name is a reference to the two supercharged Chevrolet big-block V8s that power the Speed Racer-esque coupe. The combination dishes out upwards of 1,400 horsepower in the fully functional custom one-off machine that followed the original tiny version, though that power and style does admittedly come at the cost of your ability to see anything in front of you when behind the wheel.
Over the past two decades Hot Wheels has produced a steady succession of life-sized versions of their custom toy cars, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the brand they also created the Hot Wheels Legends Tour back in 2018, a global initiative that takes this relationship between toys and real-world cars a step further. The initiative gives enthusiasts’ builds a chance to be judged for a shot at the Legends Tour grand prize: Having their car turned into a 1:64 scale Hot Wheels diecast model. “At first it was basically a local show,” says Wu. “But over the years it has expanded to five different continents and sixteen different countries, and hundreds of thousands of people have submitted their cars to be a part of it.”
On the day before the 2022 Legends Tour made its stop at Mattel’s headquarters in El Segundo, California, the folks at Hot Wheels gave PopSci a chance to check out their design center to see how these iconic toy cars go from concept to reality. While it might be easy to assume that creating models is a relatively low-tech affair, the reality is that the company uses some sophisticated engineering to ensure that their products continue to meet the standard that was set 54 years ago.
Laying the groundwork
The earliest iterations of new Hot Wheels cars start as sketches that are not unlike what you’d find in the design studios of major automakers. But while a car company’s sketches typically capture the general look of a design before it’s toned down in the name of production feasibility, safety, and other factors, Hot Wheels design sketches are more focused on plotting out the elements of a car that define its overall vibe and adjusting the proportions to work at 1:64 scale. That task is relatively straightforward when you’re designing a custom diecast car like the Twin Mill from scratch, but the situation gets more complicated when the Hot Wheels design team is creating something based on an existing automobile.
“If you took a life-sized car and just shrunk it down the wheels would look too small, the roof would look too big, and a lot of the important details would be lost,” says Hot Wheels designer Brendon Vetuskey. “We have to exaggerate and adjust those details so that when you look at the car in 1:64th scale, it still looks good. You have to finesse the proportions and the characteristics of the car to make it look right at that size.”
Vetuskey uses 2020 Legends Tour winner Riley Stair’s 1970 Pontiac Trans Am as an example. “We had some modeling files of another Trans Am and modified those based on the details that are unique to this car. Things like the open engine bay, the side-exiting exhaust pipes, and the extended fender flares were applied to that model and adjusted so the proportions would make sense at 1:64th scale.”
For the Hot Wheels design team, it often comes down to identifying the elements that give the car its visual personality—the things that make a car look cool—and emphasizing those elements while potentially sacrificing less-important details due to the limitations of diecast manufacturing.
From there the design is handed over to a computer-aided design (CAD) modeler who further sculpts it using the Geomagic Touch X, a tool which was originally developed to train surgeons in medical schools. The tool’s pen offers haptic feedback that allows the modeler to run along the surfaces of the model in virtual space in much the same way that clay models are refined in the real world, but the software can also indicate where the design’s components would overlap or need tweaking in some other way. And unlike clay, these CAD files can be sent straight to the prototyping team once the design has been finalized.
“A lot of us here are traditional sculptors, so this makes the transition from analog to digital much more natural,” says Hot Wheels modeler and designer Manson Cheung, who demonstrates the software using the CAD model for the 2021 Hot Wheels Legends Tour-winning 1969 Volvo P1800 Gasser. “Most of the time I will work with a solid car and then the designer will sketch out how they want to part out the components for manufacturing. But since I was the sculptor and the designer for this one, I parted that out myself. For me it makes it easier to visualize how I want to do it and execute that.”
Cheung notes that there are occasions when manufacturing will come back with design revisions that are required in order to put that model into production, and the reasons can range from production efficiencies to safety concerns. “For instance, I initially designed this front grille differently, but during pull and crush testing they discovered that the design compromised the strength of the body too much. We decided to use a design that separates the grille from the body to correct that, and it made the piece much stronger.”
Once a CAD model becomes a candidate for production, it’s sent to Mattel’s on-site 3D printing lab so a physical rendition can be produced, a technology that the company has been using for more than three decades to create prototypes of various products. Although they’re not as refined and detailed as a production version would be, these polymer analogues provide the design team with a better sense of what the manufactured toy will look like in the real world.
In the spirit of Hot Wheels’ original edict, all new car designs go through a range of track tests to ensure compatibility. While this might just sound like an excuse to launch Hot Wheels off of giant ramps—and hey, who are we to judge—the tests are necessary to vet the good designs from the bad ones. “Beyond just looking cool, the cars need to be functional on these tracks, and they’re all different shapes and sizes,” says Vetuskey.
The company not only makes a wide array of track set designs, they also produce different types of car-launching mechanisms, and a would-be production car needs to be able to reliably perform with all of them. And that means there are times when a sharp design might need to be sent back to the drawing board so that the team can produce a car that plays as good as it looks.
With the less-than-flat transitions between pieces of track and the steep incline angles of the loops in the sets, low-hanging elements of the car can potentially catch on track features and reduce its momentum. “So it’s important to limit the amount of overhang in front of the front wheels and behind the rear wheels. If it’s too long and flat, the car physically won’t be able to go through the radius of a loop because it’ll just get hung up at the ends of the car,” Vetuskey says. Testers are also on the lookout for parts protruding from the sides of the car that could get snagged on the walls of the track. High speed cameras record the launches and the cars’ progress down the tracks so that any potential issues in a design can be easily identified during slow-motion playback.
Hot Wheels track designer Paul Schmid points out that when testing new track sets and launcher designs, the team also has to consider who the end user is. “Adults have the motor skills required to understand if they need to hit something a little bit harder or a little less to get the result that they want, but kids can’t do that as well.” To get a better sense of the results that children would see when using the launchers and track sets, the team created a custom jig that replicates the force applied by kids of various ages. “We can set that to replicate the slam force of a 3-year-old, or the average force that a 4-year-old uses, and so on.”
Getting it on the shelves
Before finalized designs are sent off for mass production, they also need new retail packaging design to go along with the new car. The team does approximately 400 unique designs for new models each year, and as Hot Wheels lead packaging designer Matt Gabe notes, a good design should catch your eye while also being thematically consistent with the type of car it’s housing.
“Themed assortments are where I get to have the most fun,” Gabe says. “For instance, a few years ago we did this pack for Walmart called Cool Convertibles. With a pack like that, after the powers that be have decided what cars should be included in a collection, the design team will pick out the colors and other elements, and then it’s sent to me.”
Gabe tells us that he’ll work a few different sketches and concepts for this type of project. In the case of Cool Convertibles the theme was coastline driving, but nailing down the artwork style was a collaborative process: One packaging design concept he created was like a linoleum print, one was like vintage poster, another was more photo-realistic, and another one was like contemporary modern art, by his estimation. “I worked those up and delivered it to our marketing team—they make the decision about which design to go with.”
Ten cars were part of the Cool Convertibles series in total, and Gabe created the three different backgrounds that were used in the series. The artwork for other series like Hot Wheels Stars and Stripes might seem abstract at first glance, but when the packages are lined up alongside one another, the set’s artwork actually fits together like puzzle pieces to create one larger design. It’s a nice surprise that also incentivizes completing the set.
In an era filled with high-tech distractions for kids and adults alike, the fact that a company that is built around a half-century-old concept is currently enjoying its fifth consecutive year of record sales feels like a stunning achievement. And even as Hot Wheels expands its reach into unlikely avenues like high-end watches and NFTs, it’s reassuring to know that the company is still keenly focused on the fundamentals: Making cool toy cars that are fun to play with.