Hot Wheels Behind The Scenes: How One Man’s Hot Rod Became A Legend

For generations of children, a love affair with cars began while playing with Hot Wheels. And then their mothers threw their collections to the curb, including perhaps rare Hot Wheels that, like a signed Hank Aaron rookie card, can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars today.

Childhood trauma aside, Mattel’s Hot Wheels – introduced in 1968 with the first “Custom Camaro” – are still going strong, including posting its first billion dollars in annual global sales in 2021. A basic die-cast model still costs around $1, as they have since the beginning, Hot Wheels isn’t just for kids anymore. Mattel hosts an annual Hot Wheels Legends Tour for adult fanatics, who compete to see full-size custom cars – with a laudable “built, not bought” judging philosophy – immortalized as a Hot Wheels toy.

Lee Johnstone, a 71-year-old mechanic, hot rodder and former barber apprentice from Bridgwater in the UK, came to the Classic Car Club in Manhattan for the unveiling of his 2021 Legends Tour winner, under a tiny tarp: A version with the 1:64 scale of the remarkable 1962 Volvo P1800 Gasser which he ran to a quarter mile of 10.01 seconds and 135 mph on his local strip in Northhamptonshire. And it’s easy to see why Johnstone’s Volvo has beaten thousands of competitors in 25 stages on five continents: True to Hot Wheels style, its handcrafted cane is extravagant but within the realm of sanity and practicality. (Sorry, Junior, he won’t transform into a wisecracking space robot). Raising eyebrows at home and abroad, Johnstone has transformed this sleek Swedish sports car into an American-style gasser, whose slender bodies and intimidating fans have scared the crap out of any street racer for years. 1950 or 1960.

“It’s awesome, and I’m blown away by the details,” Johnstone said of the green-painted toy, which will now be wrapped in plastic and stored on toy shelves – or, alternatively, via Amazon – around the world. .

“We’re a little overwhelmed and struggling to figure it out,” said Tori Johnstone, one of Lee’s three daughters, who all grew up around the drag strip and the family store.

Lee ticked off a few specs: a big-block 454 Chevy with a slight overbore and around 650 horsepower, two quads (a pair of four-barrel carburetors), an unmistakable GMC 71-series supercharger, the durable Turbo 400 three-speed automatic from GM transmission, a 9-inch Ford rear axle and 28-inch Hoosier slicks in 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 TV series “The Saint.”

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

Fifty-four years after this seminal custom Camaro spun its tires, Hot Wheels is looking for anyone with a “garage spirit” to take part in its Legends Tour, with entries at

2018 winner and New Jersey native Luis Rodriguez was on hand with this 2JetZ, an imaginative mix of riveted-body Bonneville Salt Flats racer, WWII fighter and (maybe) an Ariel Atom tubular frame. It is powered by a rear-mounted turbocharged Toyota Supra 2JZ engine that develops around 600 horsepower. The coolest ? A metal vegetable steamer on the exhaust flaps opens to spit flames and amplify the exhaust note. Rodriguez – a technician by day – designed and built 2JetZ from the ground up, using tools such as a traditional English wheel and a vintage lathe he found at a neighborhood yard sale.

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

Company executives and designers say love for automobiles is a virtual prerequisite for work. The resumes of many employees show previous stints with major automakers. The designers’ own projects have been reduced to toy form, like the big-block ’55 Chevy Gasser that designer Brendon Vetuskey built in his driveway in California.

“We are all car enthusiasts,” says Vetuskey. “We know what makes a car authentic.”

In the past, the company created scale models in wood before equipping itself for the mass production of metals. 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 manually operated armature that converts gestures to on-screen analogs, designers show how original sketches and life-size cars are scanned, 3D modeled, and then printed as a sample 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 specifications; including compatibility with modern gadgets that I would have killed for in my own youth. For an impromptu race, we watch a spring-loaded turnstile pull cars through 180-degree hairpins that would have sent vintage models flying through the air, possibly putting someone in the eye.

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

Orange-hued jumps and X Games loops from Tanner Foust and Greg Tracy; to the US Postal Service’s 50th Anniversary Hot Wheels commemorative stamps (coincidentally, a recent anniversary gift sheet is in my office), it’s clear that these simple yet evocative toys are still an integral part of automotive culture.

“And today it’s not just Camaros and Mustangs, but cars from every culture in the world,” says Vetuskey.

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

Today, Pascal is considered the greatest Hot Wheels collector in the world. His collection of around 4,500 cars includes nine of the 10 rarest models in history; including what aficionados call the holy grail: a hot-pink painted 1969 VW Beach Bomb rear-loading bus manufacturing prototype that killed its sales to young boys but sent its future value off the charts. charts. Only about 50 pink surfer buses were made, each with a pair of boards hanging from the back. Only two are known to survive, the other being an early production model. Pascal appeared on Star pawns, where a toy expert inspects the model with white gloves, affirms its authenticity and pegs its value at around $100,000. Host Greg Harrison said, “It’s supposed to be the biggest, most expensive Hot Wheels ever,” before cracking the idea. Still, Harrison is steadily increasing his offer to $70,000. But Pascal thinks it’s worth double and Harrison refuses. Good thing, too: He’s now been offered up to $200,000 for the roughly 3.2-inch-long toy, and he’s still clinging to it.

Pascal notes how Hot Wheels blew Matchbox – for years the dominant toy car – out of the water, thanks to what the then Mattel president called “playability.” Where Matchbox cars had raw steel axles and wobbly, easily broken wheels, Hot Wheels had flexible metal axles – originally guitar strings in prototype form – with inner frame supports, bushings Delrin in plastic tires and cambered wheels; helping them drive straight (guided by track curbs) at claimed scale speeds of over 300 mph.

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

Pascal sums up the range and appeal of the cars.

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

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