At a crowded toy convention last month, Bruce Pascal delicately pulled a small plastic cylinder from his pocket. He popped the cap and out slid a 3-inch-long bundle swathed in bubble wrap.
"I'm asking $35,000," he said, unwrapping his treasure: a die-cast, deep-purple model of a Volkswagen bus, made in 1969 by Mattel Inc.'s Hot Wheels unit.
Pascal, a commercial real estate agent in Washington, D.C., didn't make this sale at the 17th annual Hot Wheels Collectors Convention in Irvine, Calif. But he has bought and sold several other Hot Wheels toys for five-figure prices in recent years. He paid what's considered a record for a Hot Wheels item: nearly $70,000 for a one-of-a-kind, hot-pink prototype of a VW bus model, called the Beach Bomb.
It's now on display at the Hot Wheels exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
After 35 years and 3 billion toy-car sales, Hot Wheels is in a world of its own. There are about a dozen competitors — Italy's Bburago and domestic brands such as Ertl, American Muscle and Maisto. But these toy firms focus on larger-scale, more accurate reproductions than Hot Wheels' basic line of cartoonish models.
Although sales have fallen and flattened out in the past two years, in part because of a weak economy, no one comes close to Hot Wheels' estimated $275 million in annual sales, second only to Barbie in Mattel's lineup. And none has the hard-core following of adults, probably 25,000 strong, that collects old models and keeps driving prices higher on eBay and at such upscale auction houses as Sotheby's.
Real Corvette unclaimed
British dealer Charles Kitson sells a software program to track 24,500 Hot Wheels products, including 1/64-scale car models, racetrack sets, lunchboxes, children's shoes, posters, coloring books and other paraphernalia.
Collectors prize older Hot Wheels in pristine condition and often keep them in their original packaging, unopened. That's probably why one Hot Wheels buyer missed the chance to turn a 99-cent Corvette model into the $35,000 real thing. In 1993, Hot Wheels celebrated the production of its 1 billionth car with a promotional campaign that included a special edition, gold-colored Corvette model. One toy came with a coupon that could be redeemed for a real 'Vette.
But the winning Corvette coupon was never claimed — and the giveaway expired.
"We assume that one of our collectors purchased the product but didn't open the package, to keep the packaging in mint condition," Mattel spokeswoman Alisa Feinstein said. "More than likely, the collector still has it and never realized it was the winner."
'Gets in your blood'
There are occasional tales of marriages destroyed by manic Hot Wheels collectors, with their compulsion to overspend on the tiny metal cars.
Ross "Buzz" Anderson, 52, said it was the spending and the household disruption caused by his need to display his treasures that cost him his marriage. The Solvang, Calif., resident, a freelance legal writer, said that when his wife filed for divorce in 1987 she cited his hobby as a reason.
"She told me she was sick and tired of me wasting money on 'those [expletive] little cars that are taking up all the room in the spare bedroom,' " Anderson said.
He had about 1,500 Hot Wheels items back then. His collection of about 12,000 vintage toys today includes about 8,000 Hot Wheels pieces, Anderson said. "It just gets in your blood."
A few years after the divorce, Anderson's ex-wife accompanied him and their son to a Hot Wheels convention, where he sold two of the cars from the collection she had disliked so much.
"She quieted down," Anderson recalled, "when I got $5,000 for the pair. She was with me years earlier when I paid about 50 cents each for them."
Many enthusiasts say their collections are driven by a simple impulse.
"It's a chance to own all the cars we could never afford as kids," said David Lopez, a Hot Wheels collector in San Jose.
Lopez, 52, said his collection — 3,000 pieces and counting — was fueled by a desire to have the childhood he missed while growing up in a migrant farm worker family.
A California look
Mattel detoured into toy cars in 1968, when cap gun sales faltered and it was stuck with excess production capacity.
Company co-founder Elliot Handler wanted a toy for boys to complement the Barbie line for girls. He knew that an English firm, Matchbox — now owned by Mattel — was successful selling realistic metal toy replicas of milk trucks, wagons and mass-production cars.
Inspired by the customized vehicles he spotted in Mattel's El Segundo parking lot, Handler told his designers to create a new car toy with a California look.
Ever since, Hot Wheels signature cars and trucks have had exaggerated proportions: big engines, fancy bright paint, chrome trim, slick oversized wheels, hood scoops, flame decals, low front ends and other customized hot-rod features.
Handler came up with the name Hot Wheels because the big wheels and axles made of slender piano wire helped the cars roll faster than competitors' models.
Much of the credit for Hot Wheels' longevity goes to Larry Wood, 61, a lifelong car nut and the toy firm's chief designer for 34 years.
Wood grew up in the '50s, when Detroit aped the fashion industry by dramatically changing the styling of its cars every year. After graduating from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, Wood was hired by Ford Motor Co. as a car designer in Michigan.
"I got tired of doing hundreds of grilles and tail lights," he said.
He also missed the warm weather in California and returned for a design job at Lockheed Corp., now Lockheed-Martin Corp., based in Bethesda. In 1969 at a backyard barbecue, he watched in amazement as young children played with a set of tiny new model cars that raced around an orange plastic track. The toys were supplied by a designer from Mattel's fledgling car studio.
The next week, the designer moved over to work on Mattel's space action figures, and Wood was hired to replace him.
"Now I was doing whole cars, and doing them every day," Wood said.
From one designer to 30
For most of the 1970s and well into the '80s, Wood was the only Hot Wheels designer -- and he crafted every car, truck and motorcycle. He now watches over 30 designers and model makers who work a block from Mattel's headquarters in El Segundo in a studio that resembles a 1950s gas station.
Machined stainless-steel walls gleam under overhead lights, and the designers surround their desks with stacks of clay and wooden models, prototypes and finished versions of their favorite toys.
Hot Wheels' mainstay 1/64-scale models still sell for 99 cents, though larger and more detailed cars sell new for $30 or more.
On weekends, Wood satisfies his need to work on full-size vehicles by tinkering at his hot rod and restoration shop in Long Beach. His favorite car is a 1932 Nash he juiced up with a 454-horsepower Corvette engine, air-conditioning, cruise control and a hot-rod paint job. Wood is a fan of "hot" colors — the reds, oranges and yellows that trickle into many Hot Wheels designs.
The current Hot Wheels crop includes both the new (a competition-orange Hummer, a 50th-anniversary 2003 Corvette and Porsche 917 race car) and the classic (a 1965 Shelby Mustang muscle car and a souped-up 1948 Ford "Woody" station wagon with flame decals and a black, red, yellow and white paint job).
Typically, the Hot Wheels lineup is a blend of new designs and updated reissues of older models. But traditional American muscle cars — Ford Mustangs, Chevrolet Camaros, Pontiac GTOs and Dodge Chargers — are the most consistent sellers. And the Custom Corvette, first issued in 1968, is by far the biggest seller of all.
The 'biggest wheels'
At 35, Hot Wheels is as old as many designers who work in real car studios in California, Detroit, Europe and Japan. Many designers grew up playing with and admiring the Hot Wheels lines.
"I had a huge collection when I was a kid, and they sparked my interest in cars and design," said Volvo designer Blair Taylor.
Taylor works at Volvo's North American design center in Camarillo and teaches auto design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He still appreciates Hot Wheels because of their exaggerated sense of proportion.
"The cars are wide and long and sleek and have these oversize wheels, and that spoke to me," he said. "Now, as a designer, I'm always trying to push the proportions — to get the biggest wheels."
Taylor uses his collection of more than 450 die-cast cars, including 250 Hot Wheels models, "as a sort of three-dimensional visual library."
A Hot Wheels toy can accelerate from an idea to something on a store shelf in a few months. If the car is a detailed replica of a race car, then licensing agreements have to be struck for each of the car's sponsorship decals.
"Some of those cars have 30 or 40 sponsors on them," Wood said.
Technology has simplified toy design. Wood and his staff once hand-drew everything, then took measurements from the drawings. Now many designs are done on computers with a stylus and a digitizing pad. Designs then are fed by computer to a model-making machine to create an oversize car model. The models are used to build production molds, with hollow cooling tunnels and bridges to allow the molten metal to flow from one section to the next.
Even a basic 99-cent Hot Wheels model requires several molds: one for the chassis, one for the interior and one for the exterior. Some larger, 1/18-scale models have 200 pieces, each requiring a mold of its own. Hot Wheels are sprayed with a primer, then with a final coat of enamel, which could be the automaker's factory-correct color or a sparkling metallic hue. Then the pieces are snapped together at four factories in Asia.
Eventually, the toys reach stores and sell at a rate of about 100 million a year. Many of them then migrate to swap meets and other collector events.
Like many other collectors, Hot Wheels aficionados prize oddities. From 1968 until 1977, Hot Wheels models came with a thin red stripe around the tire sidewalls. The red added about a penny to the cost of each car, and Mattel quit making the tires during one of its periodic financial downturns. Now the "red line" is a classic, with prices ranging from $125 to $250.
Hobby now a business
At the Irvine convention last October, nearly 3,000 people paid the $60 registration fee for the four-day homage to all things Hot Wheels, organizer Mike Strauss said. The action spilled over all 14 floors and almost all 536 rooms of the Hyatt Regency hotel. Rooms were stuffed with Hot Wheels cars and related products as enthusiasts — mostly men over 30 — wandered about, buying and selling and talking Hot Wheels.
Strauss' own collection of 30,000 Hot Wheels — valued at $1 million — is believed to be the world's biggest. He keeps some of the cars at his house. He also has rented a storage room filled with Hot Wheels and has lent about 1,000 pieces to the exhibition at the Petersen museum.
Strauss has turned his hobby into a lucrative business. He organizes Hot Wheels conventions, publishes a collector newsletter and is a distributor of Hot Wheels products to small retailers.
The major automakers also have seen the value of Hot Wheels: They like seeing their designs immortalized in toy form and have discovered that having a detailed die-cast model in stores at the same time a new car hits the market can help pump up sales. In recent years, automakers have started providing Mattel with their highly secret designs.
Sneak peek for designers
Mattel and other car model makers gain access to automakers' design vaults after paying a licensing fee to take an early look at, say, the next Ford Mustang or the new Chrysler PT Cruiser. Mattel also has an exclusive deal with Ferrari. In 1999, the Italian builder of exotic cars made Hot Wheels the sole manufacturer of die-cast metal replicas of its Ferrari and Maserati vehicles.
So on the same day last year that the $651,000 Enzo Ferrari was introduced at the Paris Auto Show, a 1/18-scale Hot Wheels model, in flaming Ferrari red and carrying a $25 price tag, hit toy stores. Similar deals for exclusive Hot Wheels toys have been struck with General Motors Corp., Porsche and BMW.
And although auto magazines pay small fortunes to freelance "spy" photographers for pictures of what may or may not be the long-awaited 2005 redesign of the Chevrolet Corvette, Hot Wheels designers long have known exactly what it looks like.
"I've got all the plans in my computer," Wood said.
The new 'Vette goes on sale at dealerships in the spring. But the '05 Hot Wheels Corvette model was out this month.