My 13-year-old son hated trudging through flea markets and antique malls. Unfortunately for him, his mother and I enjoy going to places like that. A couple years back, someone gave the kid a Custom Barracuda Hot Wheels car at a garage sale. The Barracuda was one of the original 16 redline castings introduced in 1968. He did a little research, and found out how collectible a Hot Wheels redline can be. Now, our junking excursions are a little more tolerable for him. If we run across an interesting car that doesn’t cost a fortune (usually 12-bucks or less), we’ll grab it for him. You can be sure that he pays a lot more attention to what he’s looking at. The residual effect is that he’s amassed a nice little collection of Hot Wheels redline beaters. Last weekend, he helped me stage some photos of the cars in his collection so I could put a story together. These things are always more fun with an assistant.
I never had many redlines when I was a kid because they were starting to phase into the blackwall era by then. So before my son became interested, they were one of the few scale vehicle collectables that I had practically no experience with. I’m definitely starting to appreciate them, though. The first casting was the Custom Camaro like the one in the picture. Think about that for a second. There was a moment in time, before all the thousands of different Hot Wheels cars that are out there now, that this was the only one. This one has a bit of a camber problem with the rear wheels, but they actually make a little tool with which you can fix that.
Also from Hot Wheels’ freshman year came the Custom Corvette. This one was designed, cast, and brought to market before the actual ’68 Corvette hit the road. I imagine it was pretty exciting for a kid to snag this toy before their dad could drive one. A similar thing happened in 1983 when Chevrolet delayed the introduction of the Corvette for a year as Hot Wheels already had their diecast in the stores. There were two Hot Wheels Corvettes produced during the redline era. In addition to the original, a new version came out in 1977, just as redlines were about to be phased out completely.
One redline that I did have when I was a kid was the Custom Nomad. It came out in 1969, which is four years before I was born, so I suspect that I traded for it somewhere along the way. The color on this is called “Anti-Freeze” for obvious reasons. This iridescent paint process was called “Spectraflame”, which was a key feature of Hot Wheels cars for the first five years. In 1973, they switched to solid enamel paint, which was cheaper, but less dazzling. In ’74, Hot Wheels added tampo-printed graphics to the enamel paint, and branded these cars “Flying Colors”. Personally, I always hated those graphics on my cars as a kid because they didn’t look realistic. They usually got rubbed off with turpentine.
Most of the early Hot Wheels castings were of customized versions of production cars. Occasionally, they would be of an existing radical custom, like Ed Roth’s Beatnik Bandit or the Bill Cushenberry Dream Car (known as the Python in Hot Wheels form). The Red Baron, which originally hit store shelves in 1970, was such a car. Monogram actually made a model kit of this in 1968, then Chuck Miller made a real version of the car in 1969. The one in the picture is an enamel painted version from the second iteration. Find a Spectraflame Red Baron with white seats and you’ll be sitting on some big bucks. We actually saw the 1:1-scale version of the Red Baron at Bill Smith’s Speedway Motors Museum in Lincoln, Nebr., a few years ago. It’s an odd car, but a real piece of hot rodding history.
Most people think that the origin of the name “Hot Wheels” was indirectly related to the Spectraflame Orange “Custom Fleetside” in this picture. If you think this looks more like an El Camino than a Fleetside, you’d be right. Harry Bradley was one of the early Hot Wheels designers, and this car was patterned after his own, life-sized, customized ’64 El Camino. Before working for Mattel, Bradley had been a designer with General Motors, so he knew what he was doing. The story goes that someone saw his El Camino in the parking lot one day and said something like, “those are some hot wheels.” And just like that, one of the most popular toys in history was born.
Customized cars are cool, but if you’re going to be serious about playing with these things, you also need some customized trucks. In 1970, Hot Wheels came out with their Heavyweights line, which featured tow trucks, dump trucks, moving vans, and more. The one in the picture is obviously a cement mixer. Ira Gilford designed these and many other popular castings for Mattel. They look a lot like the turbine-powered big rigs that General Motors was experimenting with in the 1960s. They couldn’t have just made them look like normal old trucks—what fun would that be?
The Hot Wheels redline era lasted from 1968-1977. By then, real cars didn’t have redline tires anymore, so kids didn’t want them on their toys either. Today, they have become one of the most widely-collected toys ever produced. And why wouldn’t they? The completely capture the look and feel of what was considered “cool” in their day. They bring back memories for the people that played with them. You can get them cheap if you want to build a starter collection like my son’s. Or, if you decide to become a serious collector, you can easily blow through your inheritance and have the best of everything. However you want to look at it, Hot Wheels redlines are here to stay. And if you want to look at some redlines, check out the slideshow that my son helped me put together by clicking this link.