How Hot Wheels Became the World’s Greatest Small Toy Car

The story of the world’s best-selling toy car, which inspired kids to do couch drag racing for five decades, began with an old-fashioned encounter.

It was in Denver in the early 1930s that Ruth Mosko, driving her brand new 1932 Ford down the street, saw a young man with “dark, curly locks.” [who] caught his eye on sight.

She saw the man, Elliot Handler, again at a charity dance shortly afterwards. “He looked at her as if it was her he had come to meet,” writes Kris Palmer in the new book “Hot Wheels: From 0 to 50 at 1:64 Scale” (Motorbooks), released this year to mark the 50th brand anniversary. birthday. “The dances were a penny each, and Elliot borrowed from friends to hog Ruth all night.”

Along with their romantic vibes, the two, both children of immigrants, were also a perfect match on a more practical level, with Mosko an aspiring businesswoman and Handler an artist looking to design practical products.

The couple married and moved to Los Angeles in 1958, and the following years found them roaming new businesses as Elliot made items like ashtrays and lamps that Ruth would sell.

“Mattel had missed his chance by almost a generation”

Renting a small shop, they teamed up with investor Zachary Zemby to form Elzac, named after Elliot and Zachary. A friend of Elliot’s named Harold “Matt” Matson also worked for them around this time.

By 1944, Elzac had 300 employees and $2 million in annual sales, but Zemby and Handler did not get along. So when Matson asked Handler if he could sell some of his designs, the pair and Matson left Elzac and formed Mattel—this time, for Matt and Elliot—with Matson.

The pairing with Matson was short-lived, but the name stuck. Over the next two decades, Elliot and Ruth grew Mattel into the world’s largest toy company, thanks in large part to their 1959 introduction of the Barbie doll, created by Ruth and named after the couple’s daughter, Barbara.

While the Handlers were innovators in creating the first doll inspired by a young woman instead of a baby, they were late to the oversaturated toy car market, which they did not consider until the mid-1980s. 1960.

Matchbox cars, made in 1/64 scale of the real cars, had been introduced in 1953 and were already an established hit with a large number of competitors. For people in Mattel’s marketing department, “Mattel had missed his chance by almost a generation”.

For Elliot, the desire not just to enter, but to dominate, the small car market had a personal component. While he and Ruth owned the most successful toy company in the world, their grandson’s favorite toy was a car made by another company.

Elliot and Ruth HandlerPA

Elliot paired toy designers with engineers who had worked for Chrysler, General Motors, and other automakers. Finding the competition dull and uninspired, they developed a series of cars that “were brightly colored and ‘high’, with wide tires and alloy wheels.”

Mattel also understood that kids wanted fast toy cars. Their competitors’ toys were not, as they used bulky steel rods as axles, resulting in “a rolling that resembled a shopping cart at best.”

Previously, Mattel tried to design a guitar that didn’t go out of tune. The project came to nothing due to cost, but the company had stocked up on expensive mandolin wire. A Mattel engineer realized that in 1/64 scale, mandolin wire was a quick substitute for a car axle.

With “a smaller running surface and reduced friction against the wheel”, the wire, combined with plastic bearings and conical wheels, made the new cars the toy equivalent of “The Fast and the Furious”, the company engineers claiming they could reach speeds of “200 mph.” The cars were colored with “gloss Spectraflame paint, which was applied to die-cast bodies without primer to allow the underlying zinc-plated metal to shine through”.


Mattel released the first 16 Hot Wheels models in 1968. Inspirations included the Camaro, Corvette, Firebird, and even the bright yellow 1964 Chevy El Camino owned by one of the designers on the project.

The company’s marketing department predicted sales of 5 million cars in the first year.

But after comparing a Matchbox car to a Hot Wheels car for a Kmart buyer, and seeing the Matchbox tumble off a track while the Hot Wheels car practically flew, they were stunned when Kmart placed an order for 50 million cars.

Hot Wheels is now the best-selling toy in the world, having sold its 4 billionth car this year. The company has created specialty versions inspired by everything from Spider-Man to Darth Vader to the Batmobile, to which Mattel owns the rights, and the company estimates that “10 Hot Wheels cars are bought every second.”

But if there’s any sign of Hot Wheels’ special place in our culture, it’s thanks to an unlikely source, billionaire Elon Musk, who fired a Hot Wheels car into space.

“In February 2018,” writes Palmer, “[Musk’s company] SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket topped with a cherry red Tesla Roadster, with a 1/64 scale Hot Wheels version of the roadster on its dashboard.