Still 1968

Each of the first sixteen Hot Wheels™ cars was initially made in Hong Kong and offered in 2 colors; later in 1968 a third color was added as the US factory began production.

Most of the research and development work in creating the Hot Wheels™ line focused on the performance aspect of the cars. Essentially the engineers and developers were determined to create the best rolling and fastest die-cast cars ever. They staged racing competitions amongst each other for speed and distance racing. Once the Mattel engineers and designers were satisfied with the way Hot Wheels™ performed on the Hot Wheels™ track, they began to design and select car castings. Since the Hot Wheels™ Engineers were working on a very tight budget and there was extreme resistance from the executive committee regarding this project (the Board of Directors at Mattel felt this Hot Wheels™ line would be a failure and decided to started cutting expenditures early on in 1967), the Engineers bought off-the-shelf plastic model kits, built them and customized them to create the 1968 Hot Wheels™ line. This is the reason most of the 1968 Hot Wheels™ cars have the common name "Custom" associated with them. It wasn't until 1969 that Hot Wheels™ designer Ira Gilford started to create new-concept castings for the Hot Wheels™ line.

The regular blister packaging featuring the Camaro car is officially known as the "Cheetah" blister card.

Other cars in the line that inaugural year were based on actual (classic), experimental and concept show cars. Two famous Hot Rod builders of the decade contributed some of their designs to the Hot Wheels™ line. They were Bill Cushenberry, who created the "Python" and "Silhouette", and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, who created the "Beatnik Bandit". These three cars are actual show cars that exist even today. The Silhouette was based on a real custom car designed and built by Bill Cushenberry in 1962. The candy apple red, all steel-bodied Sillouhette was hand formed and built by Bill Cushenberry starting with a modified '56 Buick frame. The car was completed by the summer of '62, and sported a fuel-injected Buick engine and wire wheels. These highlights were later replaced with a dual-quad 429 Ford and slotted mag wheels in 1963, when it was purchased by Ford to tour as a featured car of the Ford Custom Car Caravan. The complete half of the windshield in front of the integrated roll bar is hinged at the base and tilted forward. The steering column also raises upward to allow for easy access into the red and white leather interior, which features a "floating" instrument panel and bucket seats.

Bill Cushenberry also designed the Car Craft Dream Rod, more commonly known to us redliners as the Python. This car was commisioned by Promotions Inc. for the 1963-64 International Championship Auto Shows (ICAS) tour. The car is based on a drawing that appeared on the cover of Car Craft magazine in October 1961. It was built on a high performance sports car chassis which utilized a 289 Ford engine. The asymmetrical body was built using fiberglass and individual sheet metal panels from Pontiac and Studebaker. Note that Hot Wheels™ decided to omit the headlight pod protruding out of the front grille.

The Beatnik Bandit was designed by Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, and was the second of his creations to tour with the ICAS for the 1960-61 season (the Outlaw was his first). However, the Beatnik Bandit was the first car created by their Show Car Division specifically for the show circuit. It started out as a project car for Rod & Custom magazine and was built using a '55 Olds frame which was shortened 85 inches, then covered in plaster to create a mold for the all-fiberglass body. The twin-carbureted blown Oldsmobile mill sets ahead of a handmade plastic bubble top created with the help of a large pizza oven. The Beatnik Bandit had a one-arm steering stick mounted between the gold-trimmed white naugahyde seats. This stick also controlled the throttle and gearshifting of the car.

The car toured all over the country in the sixties and had been repainted green by 1970. It was sold to Harrah's in Reno who restored it back to its original condition, and can currently be seen at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

The Dodge Deora was designed by Harry Bradley and commissioned in 1964 to champion customizers Mike and Larry Alexander. It was unveiled in their home town during the Detroit Autorama in 1967, where it won the coveted Riddler Award. The Deora is based on a mid-engined Dodge D-100 which was chopped, sectioned and channeled to create the fully functional, futuristic pickup. Entrance into the candy gold-painted custom is achieved by lifting up the windshield and entering through the front. It is said this front hatch is actually a highly modified Ford station wagon tailgate, and the new 2000-issue Deora II design updates that theme by utilizing a modified tailgate from a Taurus wagon.

The original Deora continued to tour with the ICAS and racked up numerous awards along the way.

The most famous and popular car that first year was the Custom Camaro, which is thought to be the first Hot Wheels™ car off the production line. Hot Wheels™ became an instant success with the consumers and the collectors. The Hot Wheels™ popularity was due to the intricate reproduction of the cars featuring detailed engines, moveable parts, removable mag-style wheels with red-line tires, detailed chassis top and bottom, wheel axles, wheel suspension and the stunning Spectraflame® colors.

The first five years of Hot Wheels™ production saw incredible success. Part of the reason for that success was that the cars looked great, distinct from any other diecast cars on the market at the time. The Hot Wheels™ development team had come up with a "California" look which included brilliant candy-colored paint jobs with a metallic finish that Mattel called "Spectraflame®."

The process for achieving that great look was quite elaborate: the car bodies were polished, then lightly plated with a zinc coating for a bright shine. That was followed by transparent paint coats applied using a new Ransburg electrostatic painting system. (This process was duplicated in 1998 for the 30th Anniversary Twinmill, Deora, '32 Vicky, Nomad, Mutt Mobile and Side Kick, but was extremely fragile. A lot of those cars suffered from "flaking" even while in their packages, leading one collector to say he had "a naked Twinmill in a blister full of glitter.")

Many of the colors that Mattel started out with were readily available at local hobby shops in spray cans. Bob Rosas recalls: "We started out just painting them with spray cans over the zinc-plated bodies to get that "Christmas ornament" effect. The colors like antifreeze and pink were developed in our chemistry lab. As for ice blue, ice lavender and other such colors, I don't think they were intentional, just different shades that the plants came up with. There was a certain range of acceptability for a quality standard. The more important aspect of paints was making sure there were no heavy elements such as lead or arsenic. As standards established by the American Toy Manufacturers got more rigid, some borderline colors had to be reformulated or discontinued. Brown may have been one of them."

There were fourteen colors in the palette for Hot Wheels™; Mattel's names for them were Aqua, Blue, Blue Fog, Brown, Gold, Green, Lavender, Lime, Lime Gold, Magenta, Olive, Orange, Purple and Red. The original idea was that each model would be sold in two of the colors, and these were specified in the 1968 Hot Wheels catalog. The two-colors-per-model plan was discarded and eventually most of the early models showed up in nearly all of the colors, although the distribution of colors for any given model is far from even. The bill of materials for each toy listed all the components, including labels, if any. The paint is specified to be selected from "Master Color List Hot Wheels Cars." It was the manufacturing plant's responsibility to balance the output. They would run green one day and blue the next and so on. A balance of the cars to be packed out in the assortments would be painted that day for a particular color. The electrostatic painting system they used required a thorough cleaning to change colors.

Because of the process of polishing the bodies and using transparent paint, there is a great deal of variation in the Spectraflame cars. Differences in the color and shine of the metal, differences in the paint dye lots and differences in the thickness of the paint all contribute to subtle gradations of color. Another important factor is the factory process itself; paint lots were often combined somewhat, when a new color was added to the painting apparatus before the old color lot was completely gone. There are also pronounced differences between the color formulations used in the US versus those used in Hong Kong.

The colors were reformulated in 1970, substantially changing the appearance of some colors. In some ways, one might really say that some new colors were added and others altered; also some colors were used extensively in 1968-69 but seemingly much less in 1970-72.

The speed in which these cars performed was probably the most enticing selling feature of the Hot Wheels line (All that work the engineers and designers put into perfecting these cars really did pay off). The wheels rolled very smoothly and evenly and could be spun freely exceeding 10 seconds before spinning to a complete stop. This feature alone put the other die-cast manufacturers at a clear disadvantage.

Harry Bradley, Hot Wheels™' first designer, also contributed some of his own Hot Rod creations to the Hot Wheels™ line. The first car Harry designed in the Hot Wheels™ line was his own, the Custom Fleetside. One of Harry's bosses who had absolutely no scope or vision, was convinced the Hot Wheels™ line would fail so he decided to reassign him to the staple division. When Harry refused to be reassigned from the Hot Wheels™ division to designing staples for the Jack-In-The-Box line of toys for Mattel, he was fired. This firing was probably another cost-cutting measure. It is quite possible that Harry was let go by Mattel for the stunt that he pulled on the General Motors Styling Centre to acquire the plans for the Custom Corvette. Harry had previously worked at the GM Styling Centre, and with the help of his friends, essentially stole the design plans and the Custom Corvette Hot Wheels™ car was released by Mattel before GM had a chance to reveal the car themselves.

Upon meeting Harry at the Hot Wheels™ Convention in 2001, a columnist calling himself Al Segundo wrote: "I got to speak with Harry Bradley, who I found to be as charming and personable as he is obviously talented. When I asked him what his reaction was to people lining up to get his autograph, he said that it was a little surprising. He told me that in the beginning Hot Wheels™ were thought of as 'no big thing'. 'If you worked at Mattel, even designing Hot Wheels™, and you wanted to impress a friend', he told me, 'you'd give them a Barbie doll.' The man who started it all, the man who created the Deora and Custom Fleetside was giving Barbies to his friends. No offense to Barbie and her legion of followers, but I think getting a Deora from Harry Bradley would be like winning the lottery. It just doesn't get any better than that.

"It was only fifteen years ago, Bradley told me, that a man sent him a letter. The man had, as a child, been a focus tester for Mattel toys. He told Mr. Bradley that the Hot Wheels™ he got to play with as a kid comprised the major part of his childhood. He remembered every detail of every car he saw, and every experience he had in the testing process. That letter had a profound effect on Harry Bradley. It was the first time he was aware of the scope and impact of the cars he had created. One thing that has always intrigued him is that each car has its own lifetime from concept, to design, to manufacture and distribution. By the time the collector gets the car it has been through a host of venues and has been impacted by countless people. To Harry Bradley, it isn't about his amazing body of work; it is about the history, tradition, and social significance of Hot Wheels™. If you want to know what makes Hot Wheels the institution it has become, spend some time talking to men like Harry Bradley. They are the heart and soul of the Hot Wheels™ phenomenon. Their vision and talent set the bar at an incredibly high level. They set a standard that has been adhered to ever since."

Ira Gilford, another elite automotive designer from the General Motors Chevrolet division was hired to replace Harry and assume the roles and responsibilities associated with the Hot Wheels™ designer later in 1968. The Classic series of cars began in 1968 with one casting only. This was the spectacular Hot Heap casting, a modified Ford Model T car designed by Ira Gilford.

Ira Gilford truly established himself as one of the greatest Hot Wheels™ designers. He is responsible for the remaining five cars in the 1968 line, the entire 1969 line, most of the 1970 line and even some of the 1971 line. He created the Grand Prix series in 1969 and 1970, the Classic series in 1969, the Spoilers series in 1970, the Heavyweight series in 1970 and 1971... and also established the low-to-the-ground sleek look necessary to keep the Hot Wheels™ cars on the track and able to handle the 45- and 90-degree turns. He truly believed in the Hot Wheels™ line and forged ahead under great duress with revolutionary ideas and strategies that propelled the Hot Wheels™ line into being the great success that it was in the early years of 1968 - 1970. Besides these accomplishments not much else is known about this great Hot Wheels™ legend after he left Mattel for private consulting in 1970. He was replaced by Howard Rees who completed the remaining 1970 Hot Wheels™ line.

The Hot Wheels™ cars were produced in both the USA and Hong Kong with some minor variations in the cars. The US cars have smaller steering wheels, less detailed chassis, clear windows and circular holes on the bottom of the chassis. There was also a definitely marked variation on the wheel facings for both countries and a deep dish wheel was produced in Hong Kong only. Carter Pennington, an avid Hot Wheels™ and Johnny Lightning® collector, as well as the author of the Johnny Lightning Collector's Guide and a regular article writer for the Johnny Lightning Newsflash newsletter, has provided the following excerpt about the uncommon deep dish wheels and the variation of wheels from the US and Hong Kong:

"Mattel made deep dish wheels on certain '68 cars made in HK only. They were put on early production cars only and you will notice cars with matching color interiors have the deep dish wheels at least on the front.

I have seen the following HK cars with deep dish wheels front and back: Mustang (red and gold), Cougar (blue and orange), Deora (purple, gold, and antifreeze), T-Bird (aqua and gold), Silhouette (purple and antifreeze), and Camaro (antifreeze). I have seen the following with deep dish wheels on the front only: Firebird (red and blue), Camaro (blue), and Barracuda (purple).

I remember hearing from a reputable source that the reason they stopped making them was because after a few runs down a track, the red stripes would rub off. After the short run of deep dish wheels in '68, all HK cars had chrome-plated push-on wheels while wheels on cars made in the US were silver-painted. Once the two-piece wheels began to be used in '70, they were all chrome-plated."

Gold and Aqua are the two Hong Kong Custom T-bird "deep dish" colors. Originally, the Custom T-Bird was only produced in Gold and Aqua (US or HK). It wasn't until later on that all the cars were painted all the colors.

In short, early HK cars were deep dish and limited to early colors. US cars with deep-dish wheels were also limited to early colors, and have other tell-tale signs of early runs. For US Mustangs, it's the body color on the tail light panel. For early Cougars, it's the body color on the grill/nose. For J-Cars, it's the lack of stops on the hood hinge assembly. The list goes on and on, and in almost every case, the early US cars have distinct features and are mostly found with early colors.

The Hong Kong castings have larger steering wheels, more detailed chassis, tinted windows and four rectangular holes on the bottom of the chassis where the axles are showing and can be micro-adjusted. There were 16 cars released that year in as many as eight to fourteen different Spectraflame paint colors. The paint colors used from both countries are also quite different. The US colors were brighter and had a mirror finish while the Hong Kong paints were duller and had no mirror finish.

A man who was referred to as "Peter W" (in the interest of privacy) was recently interviewed by Dave Espino, who founded Redlines Online. From that site comes this story:

Mr. W is an affable British gentleman whose beginnings at Mattel were very interesting. He was recruited by Mattel during the Vietnam War era. Mattel was recruiting heavily in Europe at the time because of a serious "brain drain" that had hit the U.S. (The aerospace industry had taken most of the "tech employees" and Mattel was in need of Engineering talent.

At the time, Mattel was in full-swing production for Hot Wheels™ and Mr. W (along with most other Mattel employees in his department) was working 80-hour weeks. The work was constant and never-ending. He was lured to the U.S. with a starting salary of $180 per week. He and Mrs. W were ecstatic with this salary.

Soon after being hired, Mr. W received an unexpected surprise when he suddenly got a 60% pay raise! It turns out that one of the expatriated employees had researched Mattel's pay scale and filed a complaint under the "White Slavery Act" which basically prohibited a Company from recruiting employees overseas and paying them less than American employees. So, within a few weeks of their arrival, Mr. and Mrs. W were doing quite well!

Mr. W's experiences began in Production and he soon graduated to Manufacturing Engineering. His next promotion was as Liaison Engineer, where he took over the liaison responsibilities between Manufacturing and Research and Development. R & D's role at the time was to determine whether a design could be made or not. From there, the "First Shots" were sent to City Of Industry, California for Quality Control.

Mr. W recalled how the first car to actually roll down the production line was the Custom Camaro. At the time, the goal was to produce one million cars a week. A Company called HH Plastics was responsible for the production of the actual wheels. He recalls that the wheel molds had 32 "cavities" each. Production numbers on wheels was between 3 and 4 million wheels a week!

The windshields were typically molded in clear ABS or k-resin. Sometimes a batch of the material, usually in a pellet form, was not stable and in time it would turn yellowish. Like some people have described, there would be a bad batch. This is really typical with the acetate blisters on many cars.

At this point, Mr. W fast-forwarded to the 1974-'75 era when he recalled traveling to Hong Kong and seeing an "army of girls" cleaning, filing and scraping the car bodies to remove and clean the "flash" created by the die-casting process. The pay rate for those Hong Kong employees? Pennies.

Mr. W recalled the die-casting process at the time. One of the contractors for the die cast work was A & A Die Casting. There were several quality levels of Zinc Alloy being used at the time: Zamac 1, 3, 5, and 7. The number grades related to the amount of Copper in the Zinc Alloy mix. He recalls that the Zinc from Indonesia was not of very good quality (Indonesia-produced Zinc was probably the alloy used in the Hong Kong castings), while the Australian-produced Zamac 3 was of extremely high quality. (U.S. castings?)

It's not so simple, but die-casting is die-casting whether you are making a Hot Wheels™ or a metal housing for a decorative lamp base. The die-casting machines are sized according to the square inches of area needed for molding the product. In the case of Hot Wheels™, a 5"x5" mold insert is typical for two chassis side by side or one body with multiple slides to give detail such as door lines and window openings on the sides. Picture a big block of steel split it two, half of it makes the outside of the car body or cavity and the other side makes the inside or core of the body (hollows it out). The mold is closed by way of hydraulics. In the four corners of the block of steel are steel rods about 2" diameter that allow the mold to open and close by guiding the cavity and core to exactly the same position each time a part is molded. Molten metal is forced into the space between the core and cavity, which is the wall thickness of your car, through what is called a gate at a predetermined area to balance the flow of metal into the mold. At a couple of points on the opposite side are little tabs attached to the body where excess metal flows to assure a packed cavity. Ejector pins or sleeves are located on the core side to eject the solidified molded part from the mold. The metal part drops into a basket. It is then taken to a deburring machine to knock of the over flow tabs, metal gates and runners that are remelted to make more Hot Wheels™.

The die casting process was a 3 to 4 second process. First, the molds were sprayed with a release. Then the machines (molds) were heated. At this point, 80 pounds of liquid zamac alloy was poured into the machine. Small quantities of the liquid metal were injected into the hardened steel molds. Within seconds, the sides would come apart, the front and back would come out and the metal "trees" would be placed, hanging, on a conveyor. In four seconds, 4 car bodies were produced.

There would be 144 "Engineering Pilots" made for study, research and development, and there were 2500 "Production Pilots" made, which had to be perfect before production would commence. Mr. W had some interesting information about where a lot of these production pilots ended up. He revealed some of the "consumer market testing" that was being implemented by Mattel at the time. The Mattel employees' kids were categorized by age and sex. This would determine which toys they got to "test".

Typically, there were approximately 100 production samples of certain cars given away. They would always be in some sort of container, such as a sealed baggie, but never loose (for safety reasons). So these production samples were simply given away as test market toys!

Another category, the Mattel defects, were sold at the Mattel Toy Club at closeout prices. Even today, the Mattel Toy Club sells non-defective cars that failed to sell in the stores, often at closeout prices.

Taking a break from some of the technical details, Mr. W recounted some of the fun times at Mattel in the early days. It was common to see Elliott and Ruth Handler or Matt Madsen (the founders) in and around Mattel. He quipped about the origins of the Mattel name - the combination of Matt and Elliott made up the name: Mattel. Elliott Handler was a "hands-on" type. It was common for Mr. W to be working on a project and look up and realize that Mr. Handler was right there, working side-by side with him! Ruth Handler was more of a "whip-cracker". She would walk through and notice if production had slowed or if mistakes were being made and she would get things moving along again.

Although Mr. W's early days at Mattel were intensely busy, there were a lot of fun times, too. There were Saturday evening "Hot Wheels™ Wives" parties. Since the husbands were too busy working, the wives got together and created themed social events on Saturday nights.

As far as the husbands working... Hot Wheels™ races were held every week. Being in the engineering department, Mr. W had a few cars cast out of "Cerabend", a heavy alloy that was twice the weight of Zinc yet would actually melt in boiling water. Needless to say, his Hot Wheels™ racing team always won and the other competitors were left wondering how they did it!

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