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Toy Story: Hot Wheels Design Centre

9th Mar 2019 7:00 am

Ask those who collect them and they’ll say they’re more than toys. One such lucky fan, Sergius Barretto, gets a tour of the Hot Wheels design centre in California.

‘What separates the men from the boys is the size of their toys.’ You must have heard this adage no doubt, but here’s a toy that proves it all wrong. Hot Wheels, the little cars introduced by toy maker Mattel back in 1968 are more than just toys; they’re bought, played with, and collected by young and old alike. There are collector clubs, speciality retail stores, heck, there are even restoration services. And why not, as with all things collectable, some of these cars are very valuable.

Reportedly, the highest amount paid for one – a pink VW bus – stands at over Rs 50 lakh! Sure, it’s for that particular model of which only one exists, but even so-called realistic values sail well past Rs 20,000. And here’s a fun fact: Hot Wheels is technically the world’s largest automobile company; every year over 200 of their models make it to production and 16.5 cars are sold every second.
I’ve had these cars as a child and currently have an entirely new collection. So a trip to the firm’s design studio in Los Angeles, California, is a pilgrimage of sorts – a chance to meet the men who dream up these creations, who craft desirable replicas, and who silently siphon off my money, sigh.

 

Rs 50 lakh: Yes, that’s what one collector paid for this VW bus called the Beach Bomb.

Play Pen

The design studio is a warehouse-like building located just across the towers housing Mattel’s global headquarters. Apart from the massive, steel Hot Wheels flame logo on the lawn outside, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the warehouse. Walk in though and it’s like the toy store equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are toys everywhere – cars, tracksets, dolls, board games, and even full-size mock-ups, and, of course, more cars and tracksets. It’s like stepping into your childhood fantasy, or, for me, a present-day one too. Work desks are also like individual showcases, with cars, sketches and posters adorning the area and you can see a great sense of passion. And then there are the displays – Hot Wheels does build larger scales but it’s really the 1:64 scale that gets the most attention and there are numerous display cases filled with these little cars; it’s where my knees go weak and feet turn to lead.

This super-long track set is used to check a car’s roll, but, of course, the staff gets to have fun with it too.

Moving on, along one wall is a super-long trackset built to test a car’s roll. Of course, that doesn’t mean the employees can’t have some fun here; there’s a running championship amongst them to see whose design is the fastest. And close to the entrance, standing at least 15ft in the air is a giant, signature-orange, double-lane trackset. One massive loop followed by a series of smaller ones; it’s even got a motorised accelerator to speed up the cars. Do I give it a go? Of course, I grab a couple of cars from the pile in the box below and climb the stairs, and motors whirring I release a Lamborghini Urus and a sportscar (in my excitement, I’ve forgotten which one). The SUV doesn’t make the loop, and needs a firmer push to eventually do so; what do you know, there’s a real-life similarity in dynamics too.

For most enthusiasts, these little supercar replicas is where the love starts.

Don’t let all this playfulness fool you though. The facility has workstations, conference rooms, and pin boards too, where serious business takes place, and a lot of areas I’m not even allowed to shoot, thanks to the upcoming new models and also due to Mattel’s systems and processes that they’d like to keep secret. My hosts today are Natalie from PR and Brendon Vetuskey, lead designer for Hot Wheels Cars /Red Line Club die-cast and Monster Trucks die-cast vehicles. So how does a Hot Wheels car come together? Brendon gives me the low down.

Art Attack

You could divide the cars into two broad types – licensed replicas and the company’s own creations. The replicas stay quite true to the real thing but are altered to look good at a small scale. For example, some lines might be toned down, exaggerated or perhaps even done away with altogether. Also while the scale is 1:64, some are made larger or smaller; packaging and even aesthetic requirements have to be kept in mind. To begin with, sketches are made and sent to the respective manufacturers for feedback and approval, and this is something that happens all through the process. Character cars (like a superhero car) also go through this process, but there is a lot of brainstorming at the beginning to figure out what shape, style, colour and even finish would best bring out the character’s traits.

The cars may be small but designing them is a detailed process.

Quite a few of the staff here worked as designers at auto companies previously, and so, when it comes to the originals, you have traditional cars but there are cars where the designs go completely wild as well. They’ve done cars that resemble animals, sharks, appliances. There’s even one that looks like a western commode, porta-potty anyone? Many of these will also get some kind of mechanism – like the potty’s seat flips up and down as it rolls, and there’s another car that can blow soap bubbles while it moves.

Next up is the 3D model. Mattel has on-site 3D printing that allows designers a chance to quickly see their sketch in the flesh and make any alterations as required. Once approved, the design travels across the world to sites in Asia where it is further refined for production. After that, there are a couple of pilot production phases, and among other checks, there is the rolling performance tests – remember the giant track?

Drop-in assembly means quicker and cheaper manufacturing.

An interesting aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is that all cars need to be made up of five basic components – the body, windows, interiors, axle and wheels, and the chassis or base. And, of course, nearly all are designed for what Mattel calls a ‘drop-in assembly’, allowing the factory worker to simply drop each section into the other for a quick build.

There’s a garage with real cars painted to replicate Hot Wheels’ designs and working full-size cars of their own designs too.

And that is how you make a little car; I say little because Hot Wheels does have some life-size cars too! After the design facility tour, Brendon shows me the garage. There are a couple of real Chevy Camaros painted in the style of the Hot Wheels replicas and, amazingly, they’ve also built a few 1:1 models of their originals – some are drivable too! So while toys imitate real life at Hot Wheels, real life imitates toys too.

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