On a grand scale
Hot Wheels collectors go to great lengths for their cars
By Jim Mueller
Special to the Tribune
Published December 26, 2004
Larry Wood took a break from his drawing board.
He's the chief designer at Hot Wheels, having joined Mattel in 1969, one year after Elliott Handler, an executive at the toy company, invented the 1:64th diecast scale, plastic-track racers.
"What better job is there?" Wood said, adding that he worked alone for the first 15 of his 35 years at Mattel. Now there are 35 Hot Wheels designers, "and . . . we all love cars. On weekends I build hot rods. I drove my 1934 Ford to work today."
Hot Wheels produces 3 million cars every week in Asian plants.
The most popular models, according to Wood, depend on who's doing the buying.
"Children like the crazy designs," he said. "Lots of chrome and big engines and swoopy lines. They're buying our originals. Cars that are not in production anywhere. LeMelt and Slikt Back and Low Flow. These are the Hot Wheels that get taken home and played with. Kids set up their Hot Wheels tracks and have fun."
Adult collectors prefer models of production cars, Wood said. Muscle cars of the 1960s are always in demand-Camaros, GTOs, 442s and Mustangs. The VW Bug is also a favorite.
But not every production car is considered by Hot Wheels.
"Has to be sporty," said Wood. "The car must have attitude. Needs to be cool to start with. The car has to make you sit up and say, 'Now-that's a Hot Wheel!' "
In other words, it has to have hot wheels.
Mike Strauss publishes the Hot Wheels Newsletter, which boasts about 3,000 subscribers. His collection is near 30,000 cars, though he's not certain of the exact number.
He agreed with Wood on collector preferences. "Most collectors don't like the kids' cars. I'd say the top five popular Hot Wheels among collectors are the VW bus (1969 version), 1967 Camaro, Purple Passion 1950 Mercury, 1957 Chevy and VW Bug. They always want VWs. I personally would love to see an Edsel or a classic Cord again, but I don't think that'll happen. There isn't the demand."
And demand is what it's all about at Hot Wheels. Mattel pays attention to what collectors want. Wood and his colleagues attend two national conventions each year.
"You should see my Hot Wheels motor home," said Wood of the 40-foot motor home emblazoned with the Hot Wheels logo and artwork and loaded with Hot Wheels giveaways. "That's how I travel. I go to the nationals and other events. Dallas and Detroit most recently. That's 3,000 to 4,000 collectors right there. In Indianapolis I handed out 7,000 Hot Wheels cars. You have to get out and listen to collectors and learn what cars they're looking for.
"Last year we re-issued our Hot 100 [Beatnik Bandit, Red Baron, Kin 'Kuda and other popular collectibles]. They were 100 more cars than what we usually produce. We went back to the tool bank. We have tooling for thousands of cars stored. Any Hot Wheels car ever produced we can reissue if the demand is there."
There are no known collectors with a copy of every Hot Wheels car made. Complete collections are known to exist only at Mattel. And many are indeed quite rare.
For example, only 16 copies of the Deora custom truck are known to exist.
"What you find are collectors who focus on a specific car or a specific period," said Paul D'Angi, founder of the Windy City Hot Wheels Club. "One guy will collect only cars with blackwall or red-line tires. Someone else concentrates on cars of the 1980s. Another collector goes for the mistakes.
"There are Hot Wheels cars called `flip-flops' or `alternates,'" he said. "In these cases, there was a mistake in production, usually with the paint. Colors were flip-flopped. The trim color is accidentally used as the main color, and the main color is used as the trim color. Several hundred or several thousand flip-flops might slip out. The 1934 Ford that's lime green with purple fenders is a tough one to find because so few were made. That's a $100 Hot Wheels car if you can find it somewhere."
The Windy City Hot Wheels Club has about 100 members who meet once a month to swap cars and talk Hot Wheels. D'Angi said the club has become more of social gathering in recent years.
One of the advantages of belonging to the club is buying 10 or so Hot Wheels packages of five cars and then meeting up to sort through the 1,500 cars and see who needs what to fill out their collections.
"It's the way to go," said D'Angi.
"Hook up with five or six friends and hit 30 stores apiece, and each of you buys five or six gift packs (containers of five cars that cost $4.49 each)."
D'Angi added there's only one real drawback to trying to become a Hot Wheels completist in any large segment.
"Space," he said. "You'll run out of space to store and display all your Hot Wheels cars before find every car you need."
Kev’s take: As many of you know I tend to be a minor toy geek, mostly sports McFarlane’s and the such so I’m just point that out at the beginning here. Have you ever seen the guys, most likely at Wal-Mart that are collectors of Hot Wheels? This is the most unnerving group of guys that I have ever seen. Sure I should not cast any stones because I will go to some lengths for a decent or rare McFarlane, but these Hot Wheels guys are an odd lot. Going through these giant vats of Hot Wheels looking to complete their collections. It is also very surprising that when I see these Hot Wheels dudes most of them don’t have any kids. I mean honestly Hot Wheels guys you have to reach and age where you realize that Hot Wheels are kids toys. As for my McFarlane’s they are “adult collectibles”, check the package out.