How Hot Wheels Brings Its Car Designs To Life

Car Culture / Comments

We visited the Hot Wheels Design Center in California to look behind the curtain.

As the Hot Wheels Legends Tour arrived in Los Angeles, California, we slipped behind the scenes to meet the people and see how a Hot Wheels takes an idea and turns it into a 1:64 Hot Wheels die-cast car. For a bit of history, Hot Wheels was developed by the legendary designer and businessman Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel, along with his wife Ruth Handler - whose name has recently been back in popular culture thanks to the Barbie movie.

Elliot Handler came up with the idea for Hot Wheels in 1967 when he found his son playing with Matchbox cars and decided to come up with a competitor. Instead of building true-to-life models, though, Handler wanted Mattel's line to be more like cars modified as hot rods or even pure fantasy cars. He enlisted former aerospace engineer Jack Ryan and car designer Harry Bentley Bradley.

The name Hot Wheels comes from how easily they rolled on hard-plastic tires compared to Matchbox models. According to brand lore, "Wow, those are some hot wheels!" was Handler's exclamation when one first sped across a desk and flew off the edge.

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The Hot Wheels line debuted in 1968 and was an instant hit that disrupted the die-cast model industry long before "disrupter" became a business buzzword. What's so incredible, along with Barbie, is how Hot Wheels has endured.

Currently, it's estimated that 50 million Hot Wheels cars are sold every year. It's also interesting to note that Mattel now owns Matchbox by purchasing Tyco Toys in 1997. For the record, the first Hot Wheels car was the Custom Camaro, part of the Red Line range made up of 16 models.

The tour started at the giant test track just past the lobby with its vast loops we could step through. It's so big you have to go up to the second-floor staging area to launch the cars. Once we were physically dragged away from racing each other with various models, the tour started properly with the concept art and CAD (Computer Aided Design) area.

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The most fascinating aspect to us is how old-school the design process can be and how many of the people behind the cars, including the head of design, are car designers with a track record.

Sketching on paper is common to kick off a concept, and in the area is a single computer running a 3D sculpting program with a haptic feedback tool, which is fantastic to use. You can feel the indentations made in the virtual clay as you make them, and it's way more intuitive than it looks. However, it doesn't remove the old-school feel to the process - the software comes from the 1990s, and the hardware is called Geomagic Touch X. Geomagic Touch X was initially developed to train surgeons at medical schools.

Speaking to the head of design, he told us that car designers love working there because they don't get lost in big design teams and aren't constrained so much. They can express freely and see something they primarily designed make it to market. To that effect, the designers are free to use the tools they want and feel comfortable with, whether pen and paper, the latest software, or a mixture of both or anything in between.

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The 3D modeling leads to a digital solid model, which leads to a digital tooling model - meaning the model is broken up into the four parts needed to create the finished product - the chassis, body, and two wheel-bearing axles.

The digital models then go to the on-site 3D printing lab, which handles the modeling for all the departments in the Mattel complex. The equipment there starts getting more state of the art, but there's still a machine back there dating from the 1990s that's now, effectively, a consumer item but still in use.

The result is the first and, hopefully, only engineering prototype.

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After the engineering prototype has been perfected, a final engineering prototype is made and shipped off to go into production. It's sometimes plain sailing, but other times, the manufacturing departments need revisions for reasons including manufacturing efficiency or safety concerns. As you can imagine, safety for its customers is a crucial concern both ethically and legally.

While all this is happening, there's a department responsible for creating the packaging and artwork for each of the lines and individual cars. Here, we have a hot tip - if you pick up one of the Neon Speeders range, put it under a blacklight. Hot Wheels doesn't advertise it, but it glows up beautifully under UV.

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We weren't done there, though, as there's another component to Hot Wheels - the play sets.

This gets its own department, and you can tell they're having fun. Again, the initial design process can be as simple as modeling with cardboard or using the latest iteration of the greatest software. Here, though, it's about how the kids will engage with the Hot Wheels.

Therefore, it's staffed by some seriously well-educated and creative adults who can still look at the world through a child's eyes.

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Leaving the Mattel facility by way of a car park gearing up for the Hot Wheels Legends tour coming to town, we sat in a car for three hours, cursing LA traffic. But, we had just had a look at the better side of California. Hot Wheels was born in California when it had become the beating heart of American car culture.

Hot Wheels still carries that sensibility of American car culture but has exported it to the rest of the world and continues to do so. Car enthusiasts can get cynical and believe that car culture won't last, but the fact remains that Hot Wheels is one of the best-selling toys of all time, up there with Lego and Barbie, and one of the best-selling toys in 2022 - even up against the latest trends and when you throw the PlayStation 5 and Nintendo Switch in the mix.

Kids still love playing with cars, and so do adults. Some of us still collect Hot Wheels cars, which says everything needed about Hot Wheels' effect on the world.

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