My introduction to Hot Wheels collecting came early on in my professional career. As a store manager for a national retailer, I was always amused by the familiar sight that greeted me every morning when I opened the doors for business. Without fail, a handful of middle-aged men were congregated at the entrance of the store, nervously pacing back-and-forth, uncomfortably making small talk with one another. As I approached the doors, they began to jockey for position, and with the thud of the lock sliding back into the door, they were off to the races. First one to the toy aisle won the right to claim first dibs on newly stocked Hot Wheels! Talk about fanatical collecting!
Such fervent fandom peaked my curiosity in the genre of Hot Wheels. Here’s what I learned.
For those that may be interested in starting a Hot Wheels collection, it’s important to understand the history of the brand, types of collectors, collectible eras, where to start, and how to properly display and store a Hot Wheels collection.
A Quick Hot Wheels History Lesson
In the 1960’s, Elliot Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, Inc., set out to create a die-cast car that would eclipse the English Matchbox brand while giving Mattel’s boy’s division a flagship toy, much like Barbie had done for the girl’s division.
While he wanted his toy cars to look real, he didn’t want to produce boring replicas of cars rolling off the assembly lines in Detroit. He wanted his cars to be powerful, stylish, and bold. To accomplish this, he tapped Harry Bradley, a well-respected auto designer from Chevrolet, to lead Mattel’s toy car design team.
In addition to being an accomplished auto designer, Bradley was also the owner of a supped-up El Camino. According to Mattel lore, when Elliot Handler saw Bradley’s El Camino in the parking lot, he commented “those are some hot wheels.” The “Hot Wheels” name stuck. In addition to naming credits, Bradley’s El Camino was also the inspiration for the California custom styling so evident in the Hot Wheels toy car lineup.
Under Handler’s leadership and Bradley’s design, Mattel released its first line of Hot Wheels cars in 1968. Kids jumped at the chance to get their mitts on one (or all) of the 16, 1:64 scale, replica muscle cars. Not so coincidentally, one of Bradley’s designs included in the first ever Hot Wheels release, was a sneak preview of the 1969 Corvette!
In addition to their bold and bright looks, Hot Wheels also came fully equipped with an axle and rotating polystyrene wheels, making them the fastest and most durable toy cars on the market. One of the most iconic accessories soon followed: the Hot Wheels track system. The flexible, interlocking track could be built and rebuilt time and time again, and would become the symbol of the Hot Wheels brand for generations to come.
Most believe the collecting craze took off in 1995 when Mattel introduced Treasure Hunt cars. The series consisted of 12 cars produced every year; (15 beginning in 2011) with one or two released per month. The original production run was 10,000 pieces worldwide but has since escalated due to increasing demand among collectors. Due to the limited quantities produced each year, the Treasure Hunt (or T-Hunt) cars became instant collectibles. A year later, in 1996, Mattel purchased the rights to Matchbox cars.
Since 1968, Hot Wheels has never looked in the rear-view mirror. Since the first car was cast in 1968, more than 4,000,000,000 have been produced. That’s right, four billion… with a “B”.
Two Camps of Hot Wheels Collectors
Generally speaking, collectors can be divided into two groups: traditionalists and players.
Traditionalists are collectors who only deal with Hot Wheels in original packaging. The group of collectors that raided the toy aisle every morning were traditionalists. They were hunting for Treasure Hunt cars to add to their collections as an investment.
The other category of collectors are players. Players are hands-on collectors, preferring their Hot Wheels out of the package, so they can be handled and played with. True kids at heart! Unpackaged Hot Wheels are more abundant and affordable than their packaged counterparts, making them an attractive entry point for new collectors.
Three Eras of Hot Wheels
Hot Wheels are defined by three distinct eras: Vintage (1968-1980), Modern (1980-1989), and Contemporary (1990-Present). While specific models from each era can fetch hundreds of dollars, value is typically driven by the number of cars made per model and a how much a collector is willing to pay for it. Similar to other toy collectibles, most of the cost is driven by the buyer’s personal nostalgia.
Starting a Hot Wheels Collection
Just with any other collectible, just collect what interests you the most! That said, if you’re looking for an easy entry point into Hot Wheels collecting, you may want to consider collecting within the Contemporary era of Hot Wheels, with a focus on more recent years. Cars from this era will typically be easier to find, in better condition, and generally more affordable.
Within the Contemporary era, consider starting with the “Mainline” series for a specific year. The Mainline series offers an assortment of basic cars (originally retailed for about $1), featuring new models and previous models with a new look. Within each year’s Mainline, there are typically several themed segments like the above mentioned Treasure Hunt models. While locating cars within a year’s Mainline series is fairly doable; completing a given year’s specialty segments can be a bit more challenging, but that’s the fun of collecting right!?
Once a collector has amassed a respectable collection of cars, they can look to accessorize by adding racetracks or stunt tracks to their collection.
As with cars, tracks will vary in value depending on condition, era, and number of units produced.
Storing & Displaying Hot Wheels
For most collectors (of just about anything), display and storage space inevitably becomes an issue. The following guidelines are especially relevant to the “traditionalist” Hot Wheels collector.
Regardless of how one chooses to display and store their cars, it’s important to keep them out of direct sunlight and avoid handling packaging and cars with bare hands. Sunlight will fade the car’s color and its cardboard packaging. If handled frequently, oils from a collector’s fingers can stain the car’s finish and its packaging.
When not on display, collectors often utilize a wide variety of carrying cases to protect their cars while in storage or transit. Collectors can also use an application like RelicRecord.com to archive their cars online – just like a virtual garage!
The World’s Most Valuable Hot Wheels Collection
Extreme collector Bruce Pascal picked up his first Hot Wheels car at the age of 7 and has been collecting ever since. Today he boasts the world’s most valuable Hot Wheels collection – worth over $1 million.
Off to the races!