Hot Wheels Behind the Scenes: How one man's hot rod became a Legend

·8-min read



For generations of kids, a lifelong love affair with cars began by playing with Hot Wheels. And then their mothers tossed their collections at the curb, possibly including rare Hot Wheels that, like a signed Hank Aaron rookie card, can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars today.

Childhood traumas aside, Mattel’s Hot Wheels — introduced in 1968 with the first “Custom Camaro” — are still going strong, including posting its first $1 billion in annual worldwide sales in 2021. And while a basic die-cast model still costs around $1, as they have from the beginning, Hot Wheels aren’t just for kids anymore. Mattel stages an annual Hot Wheels Legends Tour for grown-up fanatics, who compete to see full-size custom cars — with a commendable “built, not bought” judging ethos — immortalized as a Hot Wheels toy.

Lee Johnstone, a 71-year-old mechanic, hot rodder and former hairdresser’s apprentice from Bridgwater in the United Kingdom, came to the Classic Car Club of Manhattan for the unveiling of his 2021 Legends Tour winner, from under a tiny, tiny tarp: A 1:64 scale version of the remarkable 1962 Volvo P1800 Gasser that he raced to a 10.01-second, 135-mph quarter-mile at his local strip in Northhamptonshire. And it’s easy to see why Johnstone’s Volvo beat out thousands of competitors in 25 tour stops on five continents: True to Hot Wheels style, his home-built rod is outlandish yet within the realm of reason and feasibility. (Sorry, Junior, it won’t turn into a wisecracking space robot). Raising eyebrows at home and abroad, Johnstone transformed this elegant Swedish sports car into an American-style “gasser,” whose tall-stanced bodies and intimidating blowers struck fear into any street racer of the 1950s or ‘60s.

“It’s brilliant, and I’m blown away with the detailing of it,” said Johnstone of the green-painted toy that will now be packaged in plastic and stocked on toy shelves — or fine, via Amazon — around the world.

“We’re a bit overwhelmed, and we’re struggling to get our heads around it,” said Tori Johnstone, one of Lee’s three daughters, who all grew up around the drag strip and family shop.

Lee ticked off a few specs: A big-block 454 Chevy with a slight overbore and roughly 650 horsepower, dual quads (a pair of four-barrel carburetors), an inimitable GMC 71-series supercharger, GM’s durable Turbo 400 three-speed automatic transmission, a 9-inch Ford rear axle and 28-inch Hoosier slicks at the rear. The toy’s doors are stamped with the cheeky name given by Lee: “Ain’t No Saint,” a reference to the Volvo P1800 driven by Roger Moore’s pre-007 Simon Templar in the television series “The Saint.”

The Johnstone’s project now joins a “Garage of Legends,” a permanent collection of the brand’s most famous and collected designs, in both 1:64 and life-size scale. Previous Tour champions including the inaugural Tour-winning 2JetZ, The NASH (based on a ‘57 Nash Metropolitan) and a 1970 Pontiac Firebird.

Fifty-four years after that seminal Custom Camaro spun its tires, Hot Wheels is seeking anyone with “garage spirit” to compete in their Legends Tour, with entries at www.HotWheels.com/Legends.

2018 winner and New Jersey native Luis Rodriguez was on hand with that 2JetZ, an imaginative blend of rivet-bodied Bonneville Salt Flats racer, WWII fighter and (maybe) a tube-framed Ariel Atom. It’s powered by a rear-mounted, turbocharged Toyota Supra 2JZ engine that cranks out about 600 horsepower. The coolest bit? A metal vegetable steamer on the exhaust flaps open to spit flames and amp up the exhaust note. Rodriguez — a tech worker by day — designed and built 2JetZ from the ground-up, using such tools as a traditional English wheel, and a vintage lathe he found at a neighborhood yard sale.

“When I come home at night and get into the garage, I go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde,” Rodriguez says. “This is my passion.” That passion has helped Mattel sell 8 billion Hot Wheels since the debut of the “Original 16” or “Sweet 16” cars; including such recognizable toys as the Beatnik Bandit, a surfboard-slung Deora, and custom takes on a VW Beetle, Plymouth Barracuda, Corvette, Camaro, T-Bird and Mustang.

Company executives and designers say a love for automobiles is a virtual prerequisite of the job. Many employees’ resumes show previous stints at major automakers. Designers’ own projects have been scaled down into toy form, such as the big-block ‘55 Chevy Gasser that Staff Designer Brendon Vetuskey built in his driveway in California.

“We’re all hardcore car people,” Vetuskey says. “We know what makes a car authentic.”

In earlier times, the company created scale models from wood before tooling up for mass metal production. Computer-aided design has transformed the process of creating cars, which are still cast from ZAMAK, an alloy of zinc, aluminum, magnesium and copper. Using software and a hand-controlled armature that converts gestures into onscreen analogs, designers demonstrate how both original sketches and life-sized cars are digitized, 3D modeled and then sample printed before being manufactured in Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. Pre-production models are rigorously tested — on orange tracks, of course — to ensure they meet all performance specs; including compatibility with modern gizmos that I would have killed for in my own youth. For an impromptu race, we watch a spring-loaded turnstile shoot cars through 180-degree hairpins that would have sent vintage models airborne, possibly putting someone’s eye out.

Keeping an eye on car-culture trends, the company has built everything from a 1991 BMW E30 M3 to a 1972 Nissan Skyline H/T 2000 GT-R. The cult-status GT-R — with a bent-wire hood opening function and separate engine-bay piece — is part of the “Red Line Club” (or RLC), a series of higher-end castings with more-complex features and details. Naturally, the company is taking full advantage of adult nostalgia and a booming market for collectible toys; selling everything from NFT’s to the RLC that gives members inside access to limited-run models that cost roughly $25 to $35 a pop. The name nods to much-sought after “Redline” models, built from 1968 to 1977, recognizable in part for their red-striped tires. Product drops of RLC’s can see perhaps 35,000 cars sell out in less than 15 minutes online, Vetuskey says.

From orange-hued jumps and X Games loops from the likes of Tanner Foust and Greg Tracy; to commemorative, 50th Anniversary Hot Wheels stamps from the U.S. Postal Service (coincidentally, a recent birthday-gift sheet is in my desk), it’s clear that these simple-yet-evocative toys remain an integral part of car culture.

“And today, it’s not just Camaros and Mustangs, but cars from all global cultures,” Vetuskey says.

With so many Hot Wheels trashed by moms and dads over the years, or smashed by action-loving boys and girls, the rarest, mint-condition specimens are fetching sums associated with cars you can actually drive. I meet Bruce Pascal, a Washington, D.C.-area man whose love of the cars was rekindled when his mother returned a seemingly long-lost cigar box full of cars. A friend immediately offered him $200 for the set.

Today, Pascal is considered the world’s preeminent Hot Wheels collector. His collection of about 4,500 cars includes nine of the 10 rarest models in history; including what aficionados call the Holy Grail: A manufacturing prototype of a 1969 VW Beach Bomb Rear-Loader Bus, painted hot pink, which killed its sales to young lads, but sent its future value off-the-charts. Only about 50 pink surfer buses were made, each with a pair of boards hanging out the back. Only two are known to survive, the other an early production model. Pascal appeared on Pawn Stars, where a toy expert gives the model a white-glove inspection, affirms its authenticity, and pegs its value at around $100,000. Host Greg Harrison says, “This is supposedly the greatest, most expensive Hot Wheels ever,” before cracking himself up at the thought. Yet Harrison steadily boosts his offer to $70,000. But Pascal is thinking it’s worth twice that, and turns Harrison down. Good thing, too: He’s now been offered as much as $200,000 for the roughly 3.2-inch long toy, and he’s still hanging onto it.

Pascal notes how Hot Wheels blew Matchbox — for years the dominant car toy — out of the water, through what Mattel’s then-president called “playability.” Where Matchbox cars had crude steel axles and wobbly, easily breakable wheels, Hot Wheels had flexible wire axles — originally from guitar strings in prototype form — with inboard chassis mounts, Delrin bushings in plastic tires and cambered wheels; helping them roll straight (guided by track borders) at claimed scale speeds of over 300 mph.

“A Matchbox car couldn’t roll 10 feet, but a Hot Wheels could roll for 50,” Pascal said.

Pascal sums up the cars’ reach and appeal.

“Every car lover, from our parents to today’s generation, has played with a Hot Wheels, or owned one.

“It should really be in the Smithsonian, as far as I’m concerned.”

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