Hot Wheels were a childhood obsession that has continued to be enjoyed by generations of children for many years. Then their mothers gave up on their collections, possibly including rare Hot Wheels. signed Hank Aaron rookie cardYou can get a lot of money for a house today, up to tens or thousands of dollars.

Childhood traumas aside, Mattel’s Hot Wheels — introduced in 1968 with the first “Custom Camaro” — are still going strong, including posting its first $1 billion in annual worldwide sales in 2021. And while a basic die-cast model still costs around $1, as they have from the beginning, Hot Wheels aren’t just for kids anymore. Mattel stages an annual Hot Wheels Legends Tour for grown-up fanatics, who compete to see full-size custom cars — with a commendable “built, not bought” judging ethos — immortalized as a Hot Wheels toy.

Lee Johnstone, a 71-year-old mechanic, hot rodder and former hairdresser’s apprentice from Bridgwater in the United Kingdom, came to the Classic Car Club of Manhattan for the unveiling of his 2021 Legends Tour winner, from under a tiny, tiny tarp: A 1:64 scale version of the remarkable 1962 Volvo P1800 Gasser that he raced to a 10.01-second, 135-mph quarter-mile at his local stripNorthhamptonshire. And it’s easy to see why Johnstone’s Volvo beat out thousands of competitors in 25 tour stops on five continents: True to Hot Wheels style, his home-built rod is outlandish yet within the realm of reason and feasibility. (Sorry, Junior, it won’t turn into a wisecracking space robot). Johnstone turned this elegant Swedish sportscar into an international icon, raising eyebrows both at home and overseas. American-style “gasser,” whose tall-stanced bodies and intimidating blowers struck fear into any street racer of the 1950s or ‘60s.

“It’s brilliant, and I’m blown away with the detailing of it,” said Johnstone of the green-painted toy that will now be packaged in plastic and stocked on toy shelves — or fine, via Amazon — around the world.

“We’re a bit overwhelmed, and we’re struggling to get our heads around it,” said Tori Johnstone, one of Lee’s three daughters, who all grew up around the drag strip and family shop.

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Lee outlined a few details: A big-block 454 Chevy with an overbore and approximately 650 horsepower, dual quads (a pair four-barrel carburetors), and an inimitable GMC 71-series supercharger, GM’s durable Turbo 400 three-speed automatic transmission, a 9-inch Ford rear axle and 28-inch Hoosier slicks at the rear. The toy’s doors are stamped with the cheeky name given by Lee: “Ain’t No Saint,” a reference to the Volvo P1800 driven by Roger Moore’s pre-007 Simon TemplarIn the television series “The Saint.”

The Johnstone’s project now joins a “Garage of Legends,” a permanent collection of the brand’s most famous and collected designs, in both 1:64 and life-size scale. The Tour’s first winner, 2JetZ was among the previous champions. The NASH (based on a ‘57 Nash Metropolitan) and a 1970 Pontiac Firebird.

Hot Wheels is now looking for anyone who has a passion for hot wheels, fifty-four year after the seminal Custom Camaro spun it’s tires. “garage spirit”You can compete in the Legends Tour, which accepts entries at www.HotWheels.com/Legends.

Luis Rodriguez, a New Jersey native and 2018 winner, was present with the 2JetZ. This is an imaginative mix of rivet-bodied Bonneville Salt Flats racerWWII fighter and (maybe?) a tube-framed Ariel Atom. It’s powered by a rear-mounted, turbocharged Toyota Supra 2JZ engine that cranks out about 600 horsepower. The coolest part? The coolest part? A metal vegetable steamer attached to the exhaust flaps opens to emit flames and increase the exhaust note. Rodriguez — a tech worker by day — designed and built 2JetZ from the ground-up, using such tools as a traditional English wheel, and a vintage lathe he found at a neighborhood yard sale.

“When I come home at night and get into the garage, I go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde,” Rodriguez says. “This is my passion.”This passion has seen Mattel sell 8 Billion Hot Wheels since the introduction of the “Original 16” Or “Sweet 16”cars, including the Beatnik Bandit, a surfboard-slung Deora and custom takes on a VW Beetle and Plymouth Barracuda as well as a Corvette, Corvette and Camaro.

Designers and executives of companies say that a passion for automobiles is a prerequisite to the job. Many employees’ resumes show previous stints at major automakers. Designers’ own projects have been scaled down into toy form, such as the big-block ‘55 Chevy Gasser that Staff Designer Brendon Vetuskey built in his driveway in California.

“We’re all hardcore car people,”Vetuskey said. “We know what makes a car authentic.”

The company used to create scale models out of wood in the early days before moving on to mass metal production. Computer-aided design has revolutionized the process of creating cars. They are still cast from ZAMAK, an alloy of zinc, aluminum, magnesium  and copper. Software and a hand controlled armature convert gestures into analogs. Designers show how original sketches and life-sized cars were digitized, 3D modeled, and printed samples before being manufactured in Malaysia or Thailand. Pre-production models are rigorously tested — on orange tracks, of course — to ensure they meet all performance specs; including compatibility with modern gizmos that I would have killed for in my own youth. For an impromptu race, we watch a spring-loaded turnstile shoot cars through 180-degree hairpins that would have sent vintage models airborne, possibly putting someone’s eye out.

The company is always on the cutting edge of car-culture trends. It has built everything from a 1991 BMW E30M3 to an 1972 Nissan Skyline H/T2000 GT-R. The cult-status GT-R — with a bent-wire hood opening function and separate engine-bay piece — is part of the “Red Line Club”RLC, a series of castings with more complex features and details. Naturally, the company is taking full advantage of adult nostalgia and a booming market for collectible toys; selling everything from NFT’s to the RLC that gives members inside access to limited-run models that cost roughly $25 to $35 a pop. The name refers to highly-sought-after. “Redline”The red-striped tires are what make these models easily recognisable, which were made between 1968 and 1977. Product drops of RLC’s can see perhaps 35,000 cars sell out in less than 15 minutes online, Vetuskey says.

From orange-hued jumps X Games loops Tanner Foust and Greg Tracy, to commemorate the 50th anniversary Hot Wheels stamps U.S. Postal Service (coincidentally, a recent birthday-gift sheet is in my desk), it’s clear that these simple-yet-evocative toys remain an integral part of car culture.

“And today, it’s not just Camaros and Mustangs, but cars from all global cultures,”Vetuskey said.

Hot Wheels have been abused by parents and children over the years and smashed by boys and girls who love action. This makes it difficult to find rare, mint-condition cars that you can actually drive. Bruce Pascal, a Washington, D.C., area man, is the one I meet. His mother gave him a long-lost cigar case containing cars. He was offered $200 by a friend.

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Today, Pascal is considered the world’s preeminent Hot Wheels collector. His collection of approximately 4,500 cars includes nine rare models. This includes what aficionados refer to as the Holy Grail: A prototype manufacturing of a 1969 VW Beach Bomb Rear-Loader Bus. It was hot pink and it killed its sales, but increased its future value. There were only 50 pink surfer buses made. Each had a pair of boards hanging from the back. Only two survive, the other is an early production model. Pascal appeared on Pawn StarsA toy expert inspects the model and confirms its authenticity. He then values it at approximately $100,000 Host Greg Harrison says, “This is supposedly the greatest, most expensive Hot Wheels ever,”Before he cracked up at the thought. Harrison keeps increasing his offer to $70,000. But Pascal is thinking it’s worth twice that, and turns Harrison down. Good thing, too: He’s now been offered as much as $200,000 for the roughly 3.2-inch long toy, and he’s still hanging onto it.

Pascal notes how Hot Wheels blew Matchbox — for years the dominant car toy — out of the water, through what Mattel’s then-president called “playability.”  Where Matchbox cars had crude steel axles and wobbly, easily breakable wheels, Hot Wheels had flexible wire axles — originally from guitar strings in prototype form — with inboard chassis mounts, Delrin bushings in plastic tires and cambered wheels; helping them roll straight (guided by track borders) at claimed scale speeds of over 300 mph.

“A Matchbox car couldn’t roll 10 feet, but a Hot Wheels could roll for 50,”Pascal said.

Pascal sums up the cars’ reach and appeal.

“Every car lover, from our parents to today’s generation, has played with a Hot Wheels, or owned one.

“It should really be in the Smithsonian, as far as I’m concerned.”

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