The only noise in the room is a slight whirring of the launcher at the base of the ramp.
Bryan Benedict lines up the Pontiac Firebird, and it pulls forward, through a loop and more. It’s just a blurry green and the hiss of the tires against the track. The crowd applauds. It’s a small crowd, but that’s okay. We encourage a small car. Benedict is the Design Director of Hot Wheels and Diecast Matchbox at Mattel, and he had just demonstrated a very important test in the life of any new Hot Wheel car: can it erase the loop?
“I didn’t think it would be, it’s so low,” Riley Stair said. “The real car won’t even clear most driveways. Maybe I should take a closer look at what they did on the model.” Stair, 29, also designs cars, but his machines are full-size and the loops they are designed to take are of the road course variety. Stair was visiting Mattel’s Design Center to see the unveiling of his most famous build to date – a 1970 widebody, booze, tube firebird recreated in 1:64 scale.
The Hot Wheels Legends Tour began in 2018. It’s a building competition where professional and amateur builders from around the world submit their rides in hopes of shrinking them and sending them hurtling down the tables for the most great delight of small children (and not a small number of adults). Stair is the third winner since the contest began and the first to take on the added challenge of winning over the judges virtually, as the 2020 tour was conducted via video. (Our compatriots from Road and Track participated in 2020 and again this year).
Seeing Stair’s car in person was a treat made even sweeter by the promise of ending the day with a look at his Hot Wheels version – something even Stair had yet to see. Our tour began outside the Design Center, where the Firebird parked in front of a backdrop replica of a Hot Wheels backing board. The Pontiac wasn’t the only smooth car in the parking lot—it wasn’t even the only smooth Pontiac—but no one could look away. Wide and low, he sat down on the sidewalk with predatory intent. If you wanted to get a lower ride height, you’d have to dig a hole. The Firebird is most impressive with the hood. In fact, Ted Wu, Hot Wheels’ global head of design, pointed out that it was the view of the engine bay, with its geometry lesson of intersecting triangles and tangled curves, that first made the car stand out in the jugement. “It was a friend’s suggestion,” Stair said. “I had no intention of removing the hood.”
“You owe this friend a steak,” someone in the back yelled. And it’s true that while the Firebird still has an intimidating presence when fully clad, you can’t quite fathom the extent of Stair’s modification until the hood comes off. Then you can see that what looked like a modified muscle car is actually a fully customized racing machine, with thin second-generation F-body skin.
The 400ci Dart LSx engine sits so far back in the firewall that the exhaust juts out and wraps around the front, making it easy to admire the custom tube chassis and rod suspension. decidedly unstored thrust. The interior is nothing but business: a wrap-around racing seat, satin metal gear lever for the four-speed G-Force and lightweight dimpled panels.
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There is no exact trend that Stair followed in building the Firebird. It’s not on big 18-inch wheels like a Pro-Touring restomod, instead sitting on 16-by-12 Panasports wrapped in two-tone gold and chrome Hoosier slick tires. It is not based on any vintage racing series. It’s got elements of late-’70s road racing, styling cues from Japanese hot-rodding, and a vicious, methanol-burning V-8 that wouldn’t be out of place in a drag car. Stair said the build came together as he worked on it for nearly two years under a canopy in his parents’ backyard.
“At first I was thinking just a little bit wider, just a little bit nicer to look at,” he said. “I love race cars from the 70s. I wasn’t there then, but I was always drawn to the look. I wanted this car to look like the 70s, but with a style and newer engineering.”
These days he owns a shop and works on client builds, but he says he ends up every night with some sort of tuning on the Firebird.
While it took Stair 18 months to build the ‘Bird – and he’s still making changes – the Hot Wheels team had half that time to create the scaled-down version. They also had a much larger team to do the job. More than 2,500 people work in Mattel’s toy car toy empire worldwide, but it all starts in the design department in El Segundo, California. To get there, we walked through the lobby of Mattel’s design HQ. Forget plastic surgery and antioxidant meal planning, if you want to feel younger, visit Mattel. It’s like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory without any German children drowning in the candy river. There are small cars everywhere, and big ones too. An orange Hot Wheels track dips down from the second floor staircase. Every wall has model cars on display, every desk and cubicle has something parked next to the keyboard. As we passed the Legends wall, designer Brendon Vetuskey pointed to an empty locker. “That’s where your car will go,” he told Stair, who looked surprised, then looked out the window, imagining his Pontiac behind it.
Vetuskey led us to a board with sketches and renders showing different versions of Stair’s car with notes on colors and details, any mold making issues and suggestions for areas that could be put in place. evidence for better accuracy. At the top of the pages were a few 3D printed prototypes along with the green test car that we would later send into the loop. Stair picked them up and rolled them slowly over his hand, marveling at the small header pipes and the detailed recreation of the engine compartment. “They even put the vents in the window,” he said in surprise.
From design, we followed sculptor Manson Cheung to the 3D modeling lab, where we saw how he was able to take a CAD model of an original Firebird and turn it into a stair car at home. using a virtual modeling program that replaces the old clay and wood methods. “Before, it took two to three weeks to make an antler deer,” Cheung said. “Riley’s car took me about 60 hours in total, and if we need any changes they are much easier to make.” The program they use was originally designed to train medical students. It uses a wireless “scalpel” that gives physical feedback to the budding artist or doctor. Cheung gave us turns to drill holes in the virtual clay before sending us to the model store to see how the prototypes are printed.
Mattel has been using 3D printing since the late 1980s, master pattern maker Bobby Coleman said. The new machines are much faster and easier to program, while being able to print in multiple materials on the same part. He handed out a wheel and tire sample, where the “rubber” of the tire was spongy and the center wheel was solid. “It’s a coin,” he said. Models play an important role in a Hot Wheels design. Details that appear correct in renders, and even in the virtual model, may not appear in the final production. Better to discover this in cheap resin than after a series of thousands of production. Sample making also allows for important trail testing. It might sound like fun, but Hot Wheels takes performance seriously, and its test track is leveled, measured, and identical to test tracks at its factories around the world. (I push to add loop test to Car and drivers 10Best tests. We’ll see how it goes at our next meeting.)
Our last stop before seeing the finished model was in the packaging department. There, designer Matt Gabe talked about choosing the right image to make each Hot Wheels stand out in a sea of toy store competition. Back in 2009, Hot Wheels made the decision to have every wrap image match the car inside the plastic. With 50 new models and 400 designs every year, that means more work for Gabe and his team, but he feels the added appeal is worth the cost and time, even if it’s not always appreciated by younger customers. . “I do laugh sometimes, though, when I think of the time we spend thinking about the package and then it’s immediately torn up and thrown away.” If you’re the “keep in original packaging” type, you make Gabe and his team very happy.
Finally, we have arrived at the moment everyone has been waiting for: the unveiling of the production version. We all went back outside where a tiny velor towel was covering a tiny Pontiac. Wu looked at Stair, who looked nervous. He removed the cloth and Stair leaned forward in delight. He looked at the full-size car, then the model before picking it up and admiring it in the palm of his hand.
“I drive this thing on the track,” he said, pointing to the big car behind him. “It’s only a matter of time before something happens. Track cars are perishables. If I crash them, it’s so great to know they’ll live on like a die-cast. I can’t wait to see the kids play with it.”
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