SENECA FALLS, NY — For Geneva resident Richard McKee, Hot Wheels miniature cars aren’t just toys; they are collectibles. Semi-retired from the real car automotive industry – he worked as a mechanic, tow truck driver and now seasonally as a detailer – McKee pursues his automotive passion through models. He owns 500 Hot Wheels collectible cars and stocks newer cars that he sells. As part of New York’s recent Empire Farm Days, McKee brought Hot Wheels history to the event’s Grange tent on August 7.
Elliot Handler, a Mattel executive, watched his child enjoy playing with a Matchbox brand car. The wheels didn’t even turn, but playing with the toy gave her child great pleasure. Handler realized that a model car that actually ran could sell well for Mattel. He also wanted to give boys a toy that was as popular as Mattel’s Barbie doll was for girls. (Handler’s wife, Ruth, helped develop Barbie.)
So, the company Mattel ordered a prototype toy car. When he saw it rolling, he exclaimed, “Those are hot wheels!”
Mattel released what is now known as the “Sweet 16” in 1968. All 16 cars were modeled after muscle cars, down to the finest detail for buyers to scrutinize.
Hot Wheels cars are twice the price of Matchbox; however, it quickly became clear that for many children the price was well worth it. Mattel also sold sets of tracks – 16,000, in fact, in the first year.
“Most of the cars were muscle cars with exhausts,” McKee said. “They were going so fast they would do 300 miles an hour if they were normal size. When children buy them, it opens their imagination.
Mattel’s Hot Wheels became so popular that Mattel eventually purchased Matchbox. Mattel has sold 40 billion Hot Wheels model cars worldwide. The company has 40,000 different die castings.
“Vintage ones are hard to find,” McKee said.
Although McKee started playing with Hot Wheels when he was 10 years old, he didn’t start collecting them until about five years ago. At first, he bought old cars of different quality levels because he didn’t know better. Then he started researching the characteristics of quality cars, such as undamaged packaging. He said the cars out of the wraps that are more valuable have shiny paintwork with no telltale nicks from the game.
He also learned that Hot Wheels made in the first 10 years of the line had red lines on the wheels. Among collectors, these are known as “Red Lines”. Newer cars have black wheels, also called “black walls”.
“(A lot of) the muscle cars of the 50s and 60s had red lines on the tires,” McKee said. “The manufacturer of Hot Wheels wanted the cars to look authentic.”
In addition to researching eBay, McKee visited the North Carolina Hot Wheels Association (http://www.nchwa.com) to learn more about the value of small cars. Since then, he has accumulated hundreds of cars, tracks and car crates.
In total, McKee invested around $20,000 in vintage Hot Wheels and accessories. His most expensive car was $400. Compared to buyers who bid $3,000 or more for a vintage Hot Wheels car, McKee is quite conservative, he said.
He also buys newer but out-of-stock Hot Wheels in bulk, made in the 2000s and later, which he resells for $2 apiece at conferences such as Empire Farm Days.
Its first set of cars turns 50 this year. He plans to keep them for a while as he expects their value to increase.
He advises those interested in collecting Hot Wheels to research sites such as the North Carolina Hot Wheels Association, and also read collectible books and magazines to find out what has value.
For example, in some designs, odd colors like pink or brown may be more valuable. The manufacturer made a few in pink in an effort to entice more girls to play with Hot Wheels; however, in some designs, pink is more common.
Prototype cars that never made it to mass production also fetch good prices, such as a pink VW bus prototype that sold for $150,000 – the most expensive Hot Wheels toy to date.
Looking on eBay, McKee said buyers should “read the fine print about shipping and handling. Zoom in on the photos to see the small flaws – and, occasionally, the restored car.
“Most of the time the seller won’t return it and show the chassis, so you can see it’s been tampered with,” McKee said.
He thinks it pays to delay bidding until there are seconds left in an auction.
“It started as a hobby and it turned into an obsession or maybe call it a disease,” he said. “I’m in no danger of losing the house, but any extra money goes into the cars.”
He helps fund his hobby with the sale of newly manufactured Hot Wheels. During the three-day Empire Farm Days, McKee sold 600.
As for vintage cars, preserving their value depends on protecting their condition.
“Don’t take them out of the packaging if you want to get them back,” he said. “Store them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.
“Get a few that are loose at a yard sale and let the kids play with them.”
After all, vintage Hot Wheels are collectibles, not just toys.
Deborah Jeanne Sergeant is a freelance writer from central New York.