The Hot Wheels series of diecast cars began life in 1968 with the Mattel toy company. In many ways it was a direct response to Matchbox, which had already been in production by Lesney Products & Co from the UK for 15+ years prior, but these Hot Wheels were designed and manufactured in the USA. There is a huge amount of detailed information about Hot Wheels history online, and a good starting point is of course this wiki page, and this wiki fan site for the extensive back catalog. Hot Wheels had a number of key differences that translated into a bit of a run-away success story almost upon release. Here are some of key points of difference:
- The cars themselves were not bound by a strict reproduction of real life vehicles (as with Matchbox at the time), they could/did include fantasy elements and details not found on existing cars.
- They were fast, with much thinner axle and wider wheels these were designed for speed which were not features present in Matchbox
- And following from the previous point, there were the track sets, this was probably one of the most important differences, almost right from the get go Hot Wheels had another dimension, the ability to build tracks out of connectable orange pieces with bends, “boosters” and loops. The cars could move on these things in a way where Matchbox could not keep up – until they came out with the “Superfast” series as a direct response to Hot Wheels success.
So this is really a classic market disruptor story, where Matchbox were essentially blindsided by a new and innovative take on their market where they had assumed superiority. Matchbox adjusted their tooling to create faster cars, copying the Hot Wheels design, and added tracks, however there were still a lot of models that were not track compatible and Matchbox struggled to compete with the Hot Wheels fantasy element in both car and accessories. They would remain in direct head to head competition for decades, until eventually coming under the same ownership when Mattel purchased Matchbox owner Tyco Toys in 1997.
I’m not going to go into great length documenting all the many and varied models of Hot Wheels and accessories that have been released over the last 50 odd years, that would take forever, I’ll leave that to many collector sites and pages out there. But what I will do is make some blog entries about some cool things you can do with these and the various tracks you can find, and some hacks that might be useful for kids to try.
Also a key point, from this blogs point of view, is that these are all things you can easily get cheaply second hand, and in many ways these cars look better with a bit of wear in my opinion. Also reuse is a good thing from a consumer point of view where it makes sense. There are thousands of kilometers of Hot Wheels track out there that is perfectly fine for kids to build some kind of unique track design from, and you definitely don’t need to buy that new. You can also often pick up big sets of Hot Wheels cars relatively cheaply from parents out there who are clearing the clutter, check any of numerous buy/sell marketplaces out there and you’ll find them.
If you want to see some cool photos (including very well worn & new models), spanning from 1968 to present, then look no further than these awesome albums from Bas de Graaff:
Hot Wheels 1968-2000 (107 photos)
From 2000 onwards – see bottom of this page – about 1,500 more!
Like I said in the start there though, from a toy point of view, one of the best things about Hot Wheels is the track making, that’s where kids (with a little help from parents if they’re younger) can really get creative, build things, then test them out and refine, re-test and race. Here’s an extreme example, you’ll probably want to set your sights a bit lower for home:). You don’t have to get boosters (battery powered track add-ons that accelerate any car going past), but they make the tracks a lot more fun for kids, and there’s a lot of good design thinking in where to place a booster on a track. A great process for kids and a great one to do together with their parents – who will enjoy it as well!