Article initially published by Randy Leffingwell in Mar. 2004.
While book reviews are not the usual fare for my editorial comment, let's make an exception. I recently bought and read Randy Leffingwell's new book on the history of Hot Wheels, Hot Wheels - 35 Years of Speed, Power, Performance and Attitude, 2003 Motorbooks International, $19.95. Leffingwell has written a variety of books on collector cars and has worked for the LA Times as a staff photographer. While I have several good reference books on Hot Wheels, this one offered much more history and the promise of a more balanced review of Hot Wheels and their role in the story of toy cars.
The book is designed to be primarily a coffee-table piece with excellent art and easy reading chapters. The story of the early years at Mattel, leading to the decision to create Hot Wheels are the best and most detailed. The 1970's and 1980's rush by and the book concludes with current trends, a pictorial of the HW design center and a subjective list of the top 100 models of the past 35 years. To be fair, any list would be subjective and this add-on provides an opportunity to show more toy car pictures.
The best part of Leffingwell's efforts are the personal stories from current and former HW insiders. Everyone from long-time designer Larry Wood to Elliot Handler, co-founder of Mattel, made substantial contributions. I learned that Sir Rodney Roadster was intended to be a custom Lotus Super Seven, a fact that had not come my way before. I always thought it had more MG flavor. I enjoyed the comments of Harry Bentley Bradley who designed the first year models. The book does not do justice to the review of the toy car scene before Hot Wheels. Photos of 1:43 scale Dinky models are used to illustrate pre-Hot Wheel choices when Matchbox, Husky, Impy or Siku models would be better. The impact of Hot Wheels on the toy car market over the past 35 years is also lightly treated with few references to the competition. One is left with the impression that Hot Wheels are only 3-inch toy car that deserve any recognition.
The title mentions 'attitude' and that door can swing both ways. Hot Wheels models have always had attitude and that has been a large part of their success. Mattel and Hot Wheels have also been guilty of the attitude that without their products, the toy car industry and collector market would be a shadow of what they are today or long dead. I don't accept this and the wide variety of toy cars collected today are proof that other companies deserve more credit. At times, Mattel's attitude in pricing and marketing are also less than admirable. Still, Hot Wheels deserve credit for the current boom in toy car collecting with the proverbial rising tide carrying all ships. The book is also a decent value at $19.95 and should prove a valuable reference tool in future.
In the final analysis, Mattel and Hot Wheels seem to embody the current American attitude in international relations. They have the power in the international toy car marketplace and are prepared to use it to preserve their place. While unlike nation-states, no business has an ethical obligation to be a good neighbor, the strength of the overall community is important to the success of the individual companies. In the long term, even superpowers need the respect of their peers to survive and prosper.