Inflation, the bane of our pockets and the Federal Reserve, has hit almost every commodity in the US, yet the price of a beloved toy has managed to hover around $1 for more than 50 years.
Hot Wheels is a retail oddity. They remain one of the nation’s most affordable toys at a time when inflation is draining savings accounts and adding to credit card debt for many Americans, experts like James Zahn told NPR.
Zahn has been editor-in-chief of The Toy Book, a trade publication covering the North American toy industry since 1984. Inflation and other supply chain factors have pushed up prices in several toy categories this year, especially action. figures, dolls and electronic toys, Zahn said.
On average, The Toy Book has recorded a 15% increase in the prices offered by many toy manufacturers this season; Many items that would have been $19.99 a year or two ago are coming in at $22.99 to $24.99, he added.
“It’s extremely rare to find a toy that holds its price for several years, let alone more than five decades,” Zahn said. “Hot Wheels is an anomaly because continued sales volume and a razor-sharp production pipeline manage to keep costs low enough to maintain that sweet $1 price point.”
A brief history of Hot Wheels
Hot Wheels was the brainchild of Mattel co-founder Eliot Handler, who wanted to create toy cars that reflected “radical versions modified by custom car shops, like the cars he often saw on California highways.” celebrated in the New York Museum. Play notes on its website.
The result was an initial run of 16 Hot Wheels, including Camaros, Corvettes and Firebirds, which was introduced at the 1968 New York Toy Fair, MotorTrend reported.
Kevin Feeley happens to own every one of these 16 cars (though not in every one of the dozens of colors released at the time).
Philly, from Firestone, Colo., has been collecting Hot Wheels for nearly 45 years. Included among the 37,000 vehicles are many coveted Redline models, which feature red bezels on their tire sidewalls.
“At first they had what was called Spectraflame paint, which was a kind of glitter paint. It was very shiny paint,” Feeley told NPR. “But the paint they use now [for most cars] It’s not Spectraflame paint, it’s not that expensive paint they use.”
These early models sold for 69 to 89 cents each (which is about $6 to $7.60 today, adjusted for inflation), says Bruce Pascal, an avid Hot Wheels collector and author. Hot Wheels prototypes which includes the narrative history of the toy.
Those prices, combined with promotions at gas stations, were crucial to Hot Wheels’ early success, Pascal says.
“In the 1970s, there were a lot of gas stations where if you put 8 gallons of gas in your car, you got either free Hot Wheels or 69 cents, but most of them gave it to you for free,” Pascal said. “They mainly wanted to enter Shell gas stations, but also private gas stations.
Turning a child’s toy into a serious business
It’s been nearly 55 years since Handler conceived the idea for Hot Wheels, and Ted Wu helps keep things pretty radical at the company.
Wu, Mattel’s vice president of design for Hot Wheels, spun a chair in his Los Angeles home office in November to show off the company’s collaboration on the Gucci collection.
“Someone stole my Gucci car, oh no,” Wu said with a laugh, unable to find the $120 car in his back rack. “We made the Cadillac Seville. This was a literal Cadillac that Gucci made back in 1972. So we made a cast version of it for Gucci’s 100th anniversary.”
Cadillac marked Hot Wheels’ first high-fashion collaboration, which reflects the toy brand’s evolution and is the reason many of its cars retain that $1 price tag.
Wu leads a design team of 60 people spread across the US and Asia who are responsible for each Hot Wheels model. He said the team includes former automotive designers who worked for Toyota and General Motors.
A look at Mattel’s Hot Wheels store reveals an array of collaborations (Nintendo, DC Universe), track accessories, and toys completely devoid of wheels. The brand has also expanded its reach into pop culture through categories such as gaming, apparel, movies and NFTs. Then there’s Mattel Creations, which features limited edition Hot Wheels like the RLC Exclusive Nissan Skyline GT-R, which retailed for $25 and included a full metal base and Spectraflame paint.
Every Hot Wheels produced today contains alloy or metal, but less than in 1968, Wu said. Parts of each car, produced in a limited number of colors, are also made of plastic; sometimes it can be the car body or chassis. These types of manufacturing changes have helped keep costs down, Wu added.
While Hot Wheels has fully embraced the nostalgic adult demographic, producing high-quality $1 cars remains at the core of the company’s mission, Wu said.
“We like to say that everyone’s first car is a Hot Wheels,” Wu said. “And when parents kind of get into it, they kind of rekindle something that they enjoy.”
Today, more than 16 Hot Wheels cars are sold worldwide every second, and more than 6 billion have been produced to date, the company said.
That so many of those billions were sold to parents looking for an affordable toy for their child says a lot about the brand, says collector Pascal.
“Would you rather buy a Hot Wheel at $1.29 today or the average number?” It’s pocket change,” Pascal said. “One of the reasons I think Mattel is so successful, you know, there’s 330 million Americans, probably every adult, every kid you know, has played with a Hot Wheel at one time or another because they’re so affordable. are “