Last Thursday, Elliot Handler died in his home of heart failure at the age of 95. You may not recognize the name, but there’s a good chance, if you were a child in the late sixties or any time after, that he played a part in your current car obsession. Elliot Handler founded Mattel, and came up with our beloved Hot Wheels.
After a commercial failure involving tiny pianos for doll houses, Elliot started Mattel with his wife Ruth and Harold “Matt” Matson in 1945. “Mattel” is short for “Matt and Elliot,” and is today emblazoned on a red buzz saw logo recognizable by millions of kids worldwide. Ruth developed the idea for Barbie dolls in 1959, naming them after their young daughter. Sales skyrocketed, and Mattel was cemented to the map.
Thankfully, Elliot wanted to develop a product line that would be just as popular for boys, and Hot Wheels was born in 1967. Though his associates first criticized him for such a bold move against British-owned Matchbox, who dominated the toy car market at the time, Handler had a plan. He developed a new system of synthetic wheels and axles, making Hot Wheels faster on their tiny race tracks than their Matchbox competitors.
For their first production year, 1968, Hot Wheels introduced a 1:64 scale lineup no boy of any age could resist. There were replicas of actual production models, all of them already iconic American muscle cars, such as the Plymouth Barracuda and the Mercury Cougar; as well as totally custom machines like the Deora, a unique surf truck to make Brian Wilson drool, and the Python, based on a popular custom hot rod. There was even the Ford J-Car, a race car that would become the legendary GT40 the following year.
Hot Wheels has continued this model- production cars, wacky custom machines, and manufacturer concepts- for over 40 years.
Like everything he made, Handler built the Hot Wheels brand with extreme care. He brought in professional car designer Harry Bradley for several of the 1968 cars. In fact, the Deora was based on Bradley’s own full-size creation. The following year, Harris hired GM designer Larry Wood, who stayed with Hot Wheels for decades. Even today, Hot Wheels cars are known for their quality, including superb, metallic “Spectraflame” paint, quick-spinning wheels, and working suspension systems.
Handler knew that as cool as the cars looked, to really impress the competitive American boy they would need to be fast on the plastic, gravity-powered tracks. That’s why he added a layer of a material called Delrin between the axle and wheel, effectively creating a bearing. As a result, Hot Wheels could travel 200 scale mph. What boy wouldn’t want a collection of Spectraflame muscle cars faster than most actual racers?
Today Hot Wheels is as successful as ever, having produced over 10,000 different models. They even sponsor a team of four spectacle-prone performance drivers, including Tanner Foust, who recently completed the world’s longest jump in a four-wheeled vehicle, gunning a Baja truck down a giant orange Hot Wheels track and ramp to travel 332 feet through the air.
Many of us gearheads can partially attribute our love of cars to our childhood Hot Wheels cars. I had many, though perhaps most memorable was a Hot Wheels-liveried NASCAR Camaro. I’ll never forget that stunning paint job, the comfortable weight of the sturdy metal, or how fast it could rocket down an orange strip.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Handler.
What was your favorite Hot Wheels car?
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.