DIE-CAST CARS Hot Wheels: Just toys?

Hot Wheels don't have faces.
Other attributes, yes. Fat tires. Great paint. Totally boss fake engines. Enough cool stuff to make the tiny die-cast cars, which turn 35 this year, the most popular toy on the planet, at least if you measure popularity by units sold.
Still, no face. And that's a problem if you want to figure out how, or if, Hot Wheels have changed the world. Barbie has a face, among other things. And Barbie has a lot of people thinking lots about her. Poets write poems about Barbie. Painters paint her. At least one professor teaches college courses about the ripple effect Barbie has made in American culture. And she (the professor, not Barbie) has tenure.
GI Joe (has a face) also has egghead followers. Monopoly (no face on the board, but it does have "The Monopoly Rich Guy" icon, which does, in fact, have a face), ditto. Pokemon (weird faces) has some following. The list trickles off quickly from there, but you get the idea.
The faceless Hot Wheels, meanwhile, live a mostly unexamined life. No literary homage. No professor-led discussion groups about Hot Wheels culture. No sociological deconstruction of how Hot Wheels lust has turbocharged American consuming.
Hot Wheels expert
For Hot Wheels wisdom, one must turn to guys like David Reed, a welder in Anaheim, Calif.
Fortunately, Reed is practically Buddha when it comes to Hot Wheels.
"I can remember, as a kid, we'd put a Hot Wheel in a vice," says, Reed, 41, who today collects Hot Wheels for his toddler son, Matt. "Then we'd crank down until it sort of exploded. That was really, really cool.
"And I wish that I had one of those cars now because they're worth a lot of money.
"But, dude, that's all Hot Wheels mean," Reed adds, turning serious for a moment: "They're toys. That's it."
And yet, somehow, incomplete.
How innocent?
If Hot Wheels are so innocent, so simple, how come the Federal Communications Commission once saw danger in a cartoon about Hot Wheels? The FCC urged Hot Wheels' creator, Mattel, to pull the 1969 cartoon, saying it was nothing more than a long commercial.
If Hot Wheels are only toys, how come something generically referred to as "Hot Wheels Movie" is in development in Hollywood?
And Hot Wheels, if they're just toys, surely wouldn't have a place in the Petersen Automotive Museum, which sees its mission as a chronicler of auto culture. Next month, the Los Angeles museum will open a permanent exhibit of full-size concept cars designed to look like Hot Wheels, reversing the order that usually has Hot Wheels designed after full-sized autos.
If Hot Wheels are just idle playthings, how come Hot Wheels are among the most collected items on the planet, with a national collector convention held annually in Irvine, Calif., drawing 2,000 or more allegedly full-grown men and women who spend a huge chunk of their lives on Hot Wheels?
In that same vein, would Bruce Pascal, an apparently successful commercial real estate agent in Washington, D.C., pay something close to $70,000 for a bright pink Hot Wheels version of a Volkswagen bus if it was just a toy?
"Yeah, it's just a toy. I know," Pascal says giddily. "I'm the crazy guy."
Created for collecting
The cars were built to be collected. Little boys who got into Hot Wheels in the late 1960s could buy carrying cases. It wasn't a first. Boys had collected other things before Hot Wheels. But Hot Wheels may have been different.
"[Hot Wheels] sort of taught boys to differentiate, to pay attention to detail," says Gary Cross, who teaches cultural history at Penn State University.
Boys still collect Hot Wheels. So do grown-ups. There are about 15,000 adult Hot Wheels collectors. And by some estimates, 40 percent of the Hot Wheels sold today are bought by grown-ups adding to their collections.
Most of those collectors are guys like Reed, who swaps Hot Wheels via eBay or through collector shows held monthly at hotels and bars in Southern California.
A few are like Pascal, who describes the desire to collect things in the way a genetics expert might discuss a segment of the human genome.
Pascal owns the Hot Wheels long-playing album. It's a real record, on wax, cut by an anonymous group of musicians to be the soundtrack for the defunct Hot Wheels cartoon. ("The record isn't very good," Pascal admits.) He owns miles of Hot Wheels track, which was, and is, orange. Little boys of a certain age alternately use it for Hot Wheels racing or sword fighting. That's been the same for 35 years. He's got the Speed-O-Meter, a toy that kids used to measure the speed of their Hot Wheels when they came zipping out of a Hot Wheels SuperCharger, another product in his collection.
The heart of Pascal's collection speaks to a broader Hot Wheels culture, something that might be bigger than toys. Or not.
Costly and rare
Pascal says he's spent about $200,000 on Hot Wheels in the past few years. In return, he's received only 750 vehicles, a number most Hot Wheels collectors would consider small potatoes.
But Pascal's collection is the rarest of the rare, the prototype vehicles that mass-market-minded Mattel never put into full production (such as the Rolls Royce once aimed at the United Kingdom), or the mistakes (like his bright pink VW bus that turned out to be too thin to run through a Hot Wheels SuperCharger) that were quickly fixed or discontinued.
The collection is rare enough that it's evolved into something bigger than cars.
In the past five years, Pascal has made contact with about 350 former Mattel employees, most of whom, he says, live in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
One of the former employees Pascal has befriended is Elliot Handler, 86, the retired co-founder of Mattel and the man credited with the idea for Hot Wheels.
Handler, according to Pascal, is somewhat puzzled by the notion that grown people collect and trade Hot Wheels. When Pascal brought Handler to a Hot Wheels convention in Irvine, Calif., a few years ago, Handler reportedly said, "This is crazy; these are just toys."
If Hot Wheels have made any cultural impact beyond bringing smiles to kids' (usually, but not always, boys') faces, it's been in one area: Car design.
The kids who wanted cool-looking Hot Wheels have demanded something similar when they've grown up to buy their own cars.
"It's definitely changed what car-makers put into production," says Dick Messer, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum.
"And if you look at where car design is, Southern California -- which is really the base for Hot Wheels -- is now one of the places where everybody has a car studio. It's part of the culture in that sense."
Penn State historian Cross, who wrote "Kid Stuff: Toys and The Changing World of American Childhood," says Hot Wheels have some historical import as well. He describes Hot Wheels as a "bridge toy," the toy that links mechanical playthings that were popular in the mid-20th century with the modern video/digital world of toys that today serve as hyper-speed entertainment.
"Hot Wheels were toy cars," Cross says, "and there had always been toy cars or trains around for little boys. That wasn't new."
"But the cars that Hot Wheels were supposed to be, the muscle cars of the late '60s, were toys in themselves, really. And that was new."
"Little boys got their Hot Wheel muscle cars," he says, "and the idea sort of stuck with them. When they were older they could have cars and lives that were all about themselves."
So Hot Wheels turned little boys into me-first types? They had a broad social effect?
"Nah," Cross says. "They were just toys."