How does a mass-produced die-cast toy car that originally sold for less than a dollar – and fits in a small child’s hand – become a valuable collectible for hundreds, if not millions? thousands of dollars?
It comes down to rarity.
That’s the case with the Hot Wheels cars, produced by toymaker Mattel from 1968 and designed in 1/64 scale of their street-worthy counterparts. In that first year, Mattel zoomed into the die-cast toy scene, releasing 16 colorful, rigged models inspired by custom-built rods and high-performance muscle cars – all in all a much flashier feel and more cooler than the models offered by British die-cast competitors Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky. Among the most recognizable features of early Hot Wheels are the sporty red thin stripe on their wheels (“redline” wheels are said to be a visual hallmark of the first 10 years of their production) and the shiny “Spectraflame” metallic paint finish, retired in 1972 .
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Of course, condition has a lot to do with the price of a vintage die-cast car. Serious Hot Wheels collectors seek toys in pristine condition with little to no signs of use, preferably in their original cardboard and plastic blister pack. It is unusual to find the so-called 1968 “sweet 16” in lightly used condition as the painted tires often wore quickly and the metal axles frequently warped from use. Even rarer: finding an original model in its blister.
When it comes to mass-produced toys, variations make all the difference. When something changes early in the production process, such as the name or a key aspect of the physical design, the least-produced variant immediately increases in value. Changes could affect wheels, interiors, windows, graphics, paint shades, etc. The less a variant is produced, in general, the higher its value. Perhaps most desirable: early prototypes of popular models that never saw production.
Here, five of the most valuable and sought after Hot Wheels castings, most of which are held in private collections and not available on the open market:
1970 Ed Shaver Custom AMX
The real AMX tram was a short-lived two-seater produced by AMC that, like most muscle cars, packed a powerful engine into a mid-size chassis. For the sporty 1969 Hot Wheels die-cast version, most (like the one above) trade for hundreds of dollars, with hard-to-find colors like salmon and antifreeze going to the higher end. But in terms of rarity, the most valuable by far is the slightly later blue “Ed Shaver” version. Shaver was a driver on the first Hot Wheels-sponsored drag racing team in the UK, and specially packaged Ed Shaver AMX cars (which included a sheet of decals matching those on his dragster) were given out at races. According to Hot Wheels collector, historian and appraiser Mike Zarnock, they were also available through a cereal mail-out and by sending proof-of-purchase points to the back of British Hot Wheels cars. With very few of these cars today, Zarnock values them at over $4,000, loose (not in the blister).
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1968 Volkswagen Custom without sunroof
Volkswagen Beetles have always been among the most popular and collected Hot Wheels cars. So what makes this release valuable? Variations in colors and features. Mattel manufactured the Custom Volkswagen, one of 16 first-year Hot Wheels, in the United States and Hong Kong. A very small handful of early Hong Kong-made versions were built without a sunroof. Of these, most are blue or aqua. Rarer colors include orange, green, copper, red and (seen here) enamel green. Sold mainly in the German and British markets, they are particularly difficult to find in the United States.
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1970 Base ‘Mad Maverick’ Mighty Maverick
For toymakers, a trademark dispute and name change can be a royal headache. For toy collectors, however, they’re a happy godsend. In the case of the Mighty Maverick, based on the popular Ford street model introduced in 1969, an early Hot Wheels version had the word “Mad” stamped into the base, until it was discovered that – oops! – Topper Toys made a Mad Maverick car in their Johnny Lightning series. Only a small handful of the Hot Wheels “Mad” version, with their menacing hood scoop and rear spoiler, are known to exist. Ratings were hard to find.
1968 Basic Python ‘Cheetah’ (Hong Kong)
The so-called “Cheetah” Base Python also earns its place in the pantheon of rare and high-value Hot Wheels due to a naming snafu. One of the first 16 Hot Wheels cars ever produced, it mimicked a custom “Dream Rod” designed and built in 1963 by Bill Cushenberry for Car Craft magazine that Frankenstein had creatively used parts from a 1960 Pontiac, a 1953 Studebaker, and a 1961 Corvair, among others.
A handful of early versions of the toy, mostly red, were produced with the Cheetah name stamped on the base – until it was discovered that General Motors design engineer Bill Thomas had claimed the name for his “Cobra Killer” racing car. The toy was therefore renamed Python. Hot Wheels manufactured Pythons in the United States and Hong Kong, while Cheetahs were produced only in Hong Kong. The Cheetah and Python examples made there have smaller front wheels, blue-tinted windows, and more detailing on the base and inside. A cheetah tagged on the base could be worth around $10,000, according to Zarnock.
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1969 Pink Volkswagen Beach Bomb Rear Loader
What makes this California classic Vee-Dub a banana on the value chart? Because it’s damn close to a one-off. This rear-loading version of the beloved surf-mobile was a pre-production prototype made in 1969, designed so that boards could be loaded through the rear window. Ultimately, Mattel dropped this design because it was too narrow to properly fit the Hot Wheels Super Charger, a popular accessory that propelled cars around a track.
The version that was produced had side pockets for boards and came with hippie flower-power decals in the blister. According to Zarnock, the current owner purchased this pink prototype for a whopping $72,000. The few other surviving prototypes were given to children of Mattel employees for “play testing,” Zarnock says, and many remained in those families’ collections.