The cost of entry to the world’s most popular toy is just $0.99.
For less than a dollar, Hot Wheels has spent the last 54 years cultivating car enthusiasts since before they could speak, leaving a seemingly unmeasurable impact on the auto industry. For many, playing with these toy cars early on sparked an unstoppable interest in four-wheeled vehicles that routinely morphs into a life-long passion.
(All Images by Photographer David Chickering)
It would be easy to assume that making a toy car is a simple task. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The process involves dozens of departments, designers, and hundreds of careful decisions accounting for even the tiniest details. When you’re engineering a product for the youngest members of society, there’s little room for error. The mere fact that toy-making looks easy on the surface is a testament to the insane level of detail behind the scenes. We recently took a trip down to Hot Wheels’ design studio in El Segundo, CA, to find out precisely what it takes to turn a car into a toy.
It All Started In 1968
The Hot Wheels story began in May of 1968 when Mattel co-founder Elliot Handler created the toy line as a competitor to the then-segment leader Matchbox. However, instead of following in Matchbox’s footsteps and focusing on realism, the Hot Wheels cars concentrate on designs that resemble concept cars, hot rods, and many muscle cars. This also meant giving the cars larger wheels, a more aggressive stance, and many bright non-factory colors.
The first line of 16 cars produced in 1968 is known as The Original Sweet 16. In addition to the cars themselves, Mattel also sold track sets characterized by their connectable bright orange road pieces. Battery-powered “SuperCharger” stations with spinning wheels inside helped propel the cars down the tracks, making them properly fast. This attracted a solid customer base early on, which boosted the brand to early success. Fifty-four years later, the track sets still follow a similar formula and color scheme, tying directly to the brand’s origins.
By 1991 Hot Wheels had sold its one billionth car, cementing itself as the market leader for toy cars. Its closest competitor, Matchbox, wouldn’t be a rival for long as Mattel purchased Tyco Toys in 1997, which owned the competing toy brand. Since the late 1990s, Matchbox and Hot Wheels have ruled the toy car industry as a joint force, with Matchbox garnering more success in Europe and Asia while Hot Wheels dominates the North American market. Today, Hot Wheels has sold over six billion cars in total and currently produces over 500 million cars yearly.
From Full Size To 1:64 Scale
Not all Hot Wheels cars are made equal. While current passenger cars inspire many of the brand’s creations, its in-house designers produce dozens of original ideas each year. Additionally, there are different quality cars built at various price points. For example, a “standard” Hot Wheels car may start at $0.99, but it is an entry point with the most cost-effective materials. For $25, Hot Wheels has a Collectors series, which features higher-quality cars with upgrades such as higher-quality paint, unique packaging, and rubber tires.
If the new design is based on an existing car, the process begins with an extensive photoshoot. The goal is to capture as many details as possible about the actual vehicle so the designer can retain them for the digital sketch. From there, the designers will create a drawing, which will go through multiple tweaks and alterations to morph into a proper Hot Wheels car. This includes changing critical structural components such as windows, wheel arches, doors, and the roof. The designers on our tour mentioned this was essential to make the car look good on a 1:64 scale. If the toy retained the car’s original proportion, it would look quite distorted.
Once the designers complete the sketch, it proceeds onto the digital sculpting stage. Here, a modeler will use a pen tool that relies on force feedback motors, allowing its user to “sculpt” the car in thin air and have it register on the computer software. This way, a modeler can feel the lines of the design and get force feedback when two components don’t work. At this point, the top portion of the toy is virtually attached to its base plate, which houses its wheels and mounting points.
A key challenge is retaining as much engine bay detail as possible while allowing enough room for the toy to remain structurally sound. The modeler we spoke to mentioned this is key as young children will often chew on the toy cars, so the team has to guarantee it won’t come apart and potentially cause a choking hazard.
Once the sculpture meets all the required tolerances and receives official approval, it moves onto the prototyping phase. Because the digital sculpture is a 3D CAD file, it can go straight into a 3D printer. With multiple printing machines on site, the team prints it in various sizes to ensure that the 1:64 scale model retains all of the details of the digital sculptures. This is also the first time the design team will see the toy’s proportions in physical form.
After the lead designer confirms that the car’s proportions are correct, the team will produce the first metal casting. However, instead of going straight to packaging, it moves onto the track testing phase.
A vital component of the Hot Wheels brand is its track sets. Comprised of orange road pieces arranged in various layouts, the team now ensures that the new prototype works on various track sets. This means launching the car on different track products to ensure it completes loops and engages appropriately with the multiple superchargers and launching station designs. In this phase, the team takes notes of the car’s front and rear overhangs. If these are out of proportion, the toy may get stuck while attempting to perform a loop or fly off the track.
Slender designs may have trouble working with the launching stations and superchargers, as in the case of the latter, its rubber spinning wheels will have a tougher time grabbing onto and accelerating the car. This is where the team will make final adjustments to the design and ensure that the new design is compatible with all previous track designs. Since children in the U.S. that have a Hot Wheels car on average end up having over 50, compatibility is a significant component of the production process.
The team also tests for strength and durability in the track testing portion of the production process. They measure how long the toy takes to break and come apart by exposing it to varying degrees of force. It needs to be reinforced to retain the brand’s set quality standard if it does not meet the criteria. This is a significant safety issue when dealing with children, so the team takes this portion of the process very seriously.
Once a design clears all quality control areas and tracks testing, it goes onto mass production. But, before it hits the shelves of major retailers, it has one last vital stop.
Given the level of attention to detail implemented up to this stage, it would be nice to believe that the product itself will stand out on a store shelf. However, the reality is that the packaging is what will likely catch a kid’s eye first and potentially lead to a sale. During our tour, we visited the packaging department and spoke with one of the graphic designers in charge of creating these appealing labels.
The brand’s logo is the constant, unchangeable element in all Hot Wheels packaging. However, the background can change depending on a specific vehicle series or limited-edition run of toys. Since Hot Wheels often collaborates with other brands such as Nintendo and Disney, this flexibility is essential.
Selling Hot Wheels across the globe requires different styles of packaging. This poses a challenge as other regions need varying safety labels on the back of the packaging. As these vary in size, for example, the box for a toy car sold in Asia looks nothing like one we’d see in North America. As a result, the packaging’s design not only needs to be visually appealing, but it also has to be adaptable to multiple regions.
Once this stage receives full approval, the toy is ready to hit the stores. If this process sounds long, complicated, and meticulous, figure that Hot Wheels introduces at least 130 new designs per year.
If you’ve ever wanted Hot Wheels to put your car into production as a toy, there’s a chance it may happen. The brand launched its Legends Tour to do just that. It travels across the globe, allowing owners to submit their rides for a panel of judges to evaluate. If it wins, the brand will photograph, model, and produce a limited run of the vehicle.
The winning vehicle for the 2022 tour is a 1969 Buick Riviera built by a Los Angeles, CA couple. By working nights and weekends, the pair could not only complete their custom Riviera with a new interior, hydraulics, and a revamped engine but win the tour. Now the detailed process begins, and its toy counterpart will come to life in around a year.
What’s Next For Hot Wheels?
While these toy cars remain the world’s best-selling toy, and the brand continues to see record profits yearly, it’s looking to expand. As a yearly subscription is required to purchase, almost all buyers are adults. As a significant portion of its fanbase continues to age, Hot Wheels will aim to provide more products to cater to that market. The aforementioned Collectors series is a clear example of that. This new line allows the brand to produce a premium product for a market always hungry for something better.
As an avid Hot Wheels fan since the 1990s, it was an eye-opening experience to see just how far the brand goes to ensure quality and durability. As we walk through our local Walmart or Target, it’s easy to take these $0.99 toys for granted. But next time you see one, know that hundreds of people are working round the clock behind the scenes to ensure that even the cheapest toy car is a solid product. The product of that hard work is a toy that is not only fun to play with but simultaneously fosters imagination and sparks that initial interest in all things with four wheels.