In 1968, the toy manufacturer Mattel launched a new line of small model cars. The move was perhaps a bit of a gamble, as there was no shortage of other toy cars and trucks already on the market.
But Mattel’s new “Hot Wheels” had a special trick up their sleeve:
They. Were. Fast.
You see, other toy cars often had rudimentary axles and chassis. So when you rolled them along a kitchen floor, they wouldn’t get that far. Mattel sought to change all that. Thanks to some clever engineering, its Hot Wheels could zip along the baseboards and between table legs faster than any other toy car around.
Suffice it to say, that was a big selling point.
Even better, Mattel secured rights from Chevy, Ford, and Chrysler to make authentic miniature versions of popular models sitting right on the dealer lots. And then Mattel customized the cars in the 1960s hotrod style.
All told, the first Hot Wheels car rolled off the assembly line and onto store shelves on May 18, 1968.
It was a custom Camaro, and included trick features like Keystone-style wheels, a suspension rake, side-exit headers, and redline tires.
Other Hot Wheels soon followed, rounding out an initial launch line of 16 toy cars, now referred to as the Sweet 16. These original 16 cars are some of the most collectable Hot Wheels of all time and can go for big bucks in vintage toy auctions.
Take it To the Track!
One of the other key differentiating factors between Hot Wheels and its competitors, was that Mattel soon launched a series of tracks and accessories so kids could really let the cars fly around the living room. These flexible tracks included loops, banked curves, and even daredevil jumps that added to the cars’ play factor.
And without the need for electricity, many parents saw Hot Wheels as an easy (and cheap) alternative to a slot car track. You could just connect more and more tracks, without worry of compatibility or running out of juice.
That accessory line gradually expanded to include bigger playsets, stunt tracks, storage cases, gas stations, car washes, airports—heck, there was even a Hot Wheels McDonald’s drive-thru.
Basically, Mattel knew that the success of Hot Wheels was reliant on more than just the cars.
Drag Racing Comes to Your Living Room
And speaking of tracks, Mattel’s marketing team fully realized the overlap between drag racing’s popularity and toy car sales. In one of racing’s most famous sponsorships, the Hot Wheels logo was painted prominently on the dragsters of Don “Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “Mongoose” McEwen as the two racers squared off throughout the 1970s.
The toys were designed to be raced and, as a result, are plenty durable too. You can roll a Hot Wheels car through mud, launch it off the stairs, and crash it through Barbie’s Dream House—after a dunk in the kitchen sink, it’s as good as new.
The Lesney/Matchbox Rivalry
No conversation of Hot Wheels cars would be complete without mentioning Lesney. Starting in the early 1950s, UK-based Lesney Products was cranking out small die-cast cars and trucks as England dug out from World War II.
Lesney’s toy cars were small enough to fit in a matchbox, hence they became known as Matchbox Cars. The line gradually grew to include all manner of cars, buses, tractors, and trucks.
If you’re into scale numbers, though it’s not always consistent, all of these cars are generally considered 1:64 scale. Historically though, early Lesney-branded Matchbox cars (AKA 1-75 series) are smaller than their Hot Wheels counterparts, but the cars grew in physical size and gradually eclipsed Hot Wheels as the toy line evolved. Learn more about model scale here.
It wasn’t until Hot Wheels showed up in the late 1960s that Matchbox faced any serious competition in the 1:64 scale toy car market. The two brands would be fierce rivals for decades, before Matchbox’s financial troubles ultimately allowed Mattel to buy the brand in the late 1990s.
Yup—Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels are now both owned by the same company. Weird, huh?
Hot Wheels’ Continued Popularity
In over a half-century of continuous production, Hot Wheels have garnered legions of toy car aficionados across multiple generations. That means the earliest Hot Wheels fans are now old enough to buy Hot Wheels for their grandkids.
And frankly, Hot Wheels makes it really easy to do it.
In addition to some wild custom designs, the Hot Wheels garage includes faithful reproductions of classic Detroit musclecars, vintage race cars, and 1990s-era imports. Even better, these cars are often fitted with authentic details and accurate race liveries.
…Regardless of whether you have kids or not.