I can still remember the day I got the bug (and no, I’m not referring to any specific Volkswagen product). I was in a store a few years ago, and I passed an end cap filled with Hot Wheels® cars.
I hadn’t really looked at them in several years, but they caught my eye. I had, of course, loved these little cars as a kid, but now I looked at them with nostalgia. I wanted to get one that represented what I thought most of as Hot Wheels® cars -- something that looked almost real, but cooler. Or at least something you didn’t see on the street too often, if at all. I pulled out a blue Pontiac Banshee and bought it. And that was how my adult collection got started. (I would later find to my delight that I actually still had a few leftover from my childhood --including a bunch of RRRumblers -- stashed safely away.)
Everyone’s story is different, but some are a lot like mine. There are collectors who started buying Hot Wheels® cars when they debuted back in 1968 and have never stopped. There are collectors who weren’t even born in 1968. There are collectors who bought their first car yesterday. And there are collectors who don’t even know they’re collectors yet. Some collectors are young, some are old. Some are doctors, some are mechanics. Some are men, some are women. And some of them even live in wild, untamed lands… such as Canada or Australia (shout-out to the international crew).
If you love Hot Wheels® cars -- and really, who doesn’t? -- then all you have to do is start buying them to be a collector. It’s that simple. You don’t have to have a certain amount, a certain car or series, or a certain value. Every collector will tell you one thing: collect what you like. “Collect ’em all!” is a great rallying cry, but it’s probably not realistic, and even making the attempt can probably drive you crazy.
If you’re going to be a “wheel-head,” there are some general, basic things you ought to know. You don’t have to know this stuff, but you might find it helpful or, hopefully, interesting.
Age, Condition and Value
With any collectible item, there are some basic truths. The older it is, the rarer it probably is. The rarer it is, the more value it probably has (so long as there’s a demand for it). And finally, the better condition the item is in, the more valuable it is.
Most people have heard of one of the “holy grails” of Hot Wheels® collecting -- a pink Volkswagen Beach Bomb from 1969. Your “holy grail” may be something entirely different, but the basics above will still probably hold true. It will likely be harder to find, and you’ll pay more for it. (My personal “holy grail” would be a mint condition Chopcycles Ghost Rider from 1973. In my life, I have only ever seen one of these with my own two eyes. And it was selling for well over $1,000. Ah, someday…)
What is mint condition? If the item is in the same condition as it was when it was brand-new -- or close to it -- then it is considered mint or near-mint condition. With Hot Wheels© cars, this means there is no fade in the paint color, no chips or scratches in the finish, all the wheels are there and are not bent, no cracks in the windshields. The best way to be sure of mint condition is to acquire an item in a never-been-opened package -- but that will cost extra, because -- like the product -- the package itself will add value if it is in good condition.
Condition ranges all the way from mint to what we collectors like to call “beaters.” A “beater” is an old beat-up car, lots of scratches, faded finish, missing wheels, etc. Some collectors like to get these and use them for customization (which we’ll discuss later), refurbish them, or cannibalize them -- meaning to use the parts that are still good with other parts that are still good and create a good whole.
A quick note of warning: As with anything, you have to beware of unscrupulous dealers who proffer “authentic” Redline® era Hot Wheels® products at maximum value -- but which are not as authentic as they appear. Sometimes, missing parts are reproduced and attached, finishes are re-done, etc. There is nothing wrong with this practice if you want a product that looks like the original without paying a premium price. But it is recommended that you familiarize yourself with the signs of non-authentic tampering so that you don’t get fooled, or accidentally fool someone else, into paying significantly more than a piece is worth.
If you’re interested in the value of your collection, the best thing to do is pick up a good book; there are many out there. The Tomart’s Guide To Hot Wheels 6th Edition Vols. 1 & 2 is a great resource, and very complete. The Ultimate Redline Guide 1968 - 1977 and The Ultimate Redline Guide Companion 1968 - 1977 are also very good for learning about Hot Wheels® products specifically from those years. I use both of these constantly as reference, but you can find other books that may work better for you. Also, there are a few magazines out there which you may find helpful, such as Toy Cars & Models.
Where To Get ’Em
Fortunately for us, you can’t walk into many retail outlets in the U.S. without finding Hot Wheels® products on display. But the brand is a global phenomenon, and you’ll have a hard time finding children (or probably adults) anywhere that don’t know what a Hot Wheels® car is. The current year’s Hot Wheels® offerings are readily available anywhere… or are they?
Depending on what you’re looking for, you may have a hard time finding certain cars or series. Some vehicles and/or series are only offered at specific retailers. Some are initially available only in some countries. And some are just plain hard to find, due to high collector demand and, possibly, lower production numbers. If another collector beat you to “the pegs,” then you may have a hard time finding that elusive piece that just came out. And if you’re looking for Treasure Hunt cars? You can almost forget it, retail-wise (but keep a sharp eye out when you’re hunting, because they are out there…).
If you’re looking for Hot Wheels® product that you can’t easily find at your local retailer, you have a few options. First of all, in the modern age of the internet, it has become fairly easy to find things online that you might previously have searched years for. You’ve no doubt heard of eBay, and eBay is loaded with Hot Wheels® products of all kinds from all eras. There are a few other auction sites online as well. But if you’re into seeing the product in person before buying it, there are such places to find harder-to-get Hot Wheels® pieces as toy shows, swap meets, and conventions. For upcoming events that may be listed, you can check our Calendar of Events here at HWC™, as well as the Events Forum and the Regional Clubs Forum here on our Message Boards.
Speaking of clubs, if you get deep into this, you may want to seek out a local club and jump in. It is often good to be able to socialize with like-minded individuals -- plus there is an opportunity there to get help from others when you are searching for hard-to-find pieces. And a lot of the clubs also often contribute to charities, so it may even be for a good cause. We have a Club Locator here on HWC™ to help you out.
What To Get
As I’ve already noted, you should get what you like -- no more, no less. But that is a question all unto itself. You can’t know what you like until you know what there is.
There are several ways to familiarize yourself with all the Hot Wheels® product out there. As mentioned before, you can pick up a publication of some sort and take a look. You can also search the internet -- there are several websites (such as HotWheelsCollectors.com) which feature lists and pictures of Hot Wheels® cars which have been released over the years. You can take a look at our massive Casting Database for an example, or check out the
Hot Wheels® Collectors Guide at the South Texas Die-cast Collectors website. Auction sites will offer you many choices as well. Most of our products are discussed in the Hot Wheels® Products Forums on our Message Board. Perhaps the best way is still the old-fashioned way -- get out there and take a look at what’s available. Big retail chains, small hobby shops, shows… It’s all out there, waiting for you to discover.
When it comes to Hot Wheels® cars, there are many series to choose from. The “mainline” series is the assortment of basic cars offered for about $1.00, full of new editions each year from all-new castings to releases of existing favorites with new deco. There are usually several themed segments within the mainline series, each consisting of a few cars. You can find the mainline cars almost anywhere.
Moving up from the mainline, there are several specialized lines created with particular collector interests in mind. These can change from year to year. Popular series --either from the past or currently -- include (but are by no means limited to) Hot Wheels® Classics, 100% Hot Wheels®, Holiday Rods™, Larry’s Garage™ and Dragstrip Demons™. These series feature varying levels of higher detail and special features and, naturally, will be priced higher than the $1.00 mainline cars. And don’t overlook the spectacular online offers right here at HWC™ (see the HWC™ Museum)! Again, you’ll want to decide what best suits your tastes and budget, and collect accordingly. The thing to know is that there are also a lot of Hot Wheels® cars and series that don’t come on the blue blister pack card, and that are not almost anywhere.
Some people like to specialize. They only collect certain series, or certain castings, or certain colors… One of the more popular things to specialize in is variations and/or errors. A variation occurs when a given edition of a Hot Wheels® casting changes during production… Perhaps the tampo color changes, or the wheels change, or the color of the car changes. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as the wheel being used ran out while the car was still being produced, so the factory grabbed the next available wheel and continued the run. Errors, on the other hand, are things that are clearly a mistake. This can include missing tampo, etc. Errors, unlike variations, are not a large production run and can be as limited as a single case -- therefore, they are more rare and harder to find. One thing to remember with errors and variations is to be careful not to be fooled by fakes. I’ve seen some pretty convincing “variations” -- in their original packaging! -- that were manufactured by skilled customizers. This is fine if you just mean to display it, but it runs more to fraud when you represent it as an authentic factory piece, and ask a collector to pay more for it.
Finally, there are some pretty special occasional releases known as promotions/premiums. These are created when a company or establishment approaches Mattel and asks us to make a run of cars with their company logo, or a specific function logo, on the car to promote their business or event. Sometimes, they are actually given away with a purchase of something else, or just for free. Examples of promotional Hot Wheels® editions include the Shell Oil cars available with the purchase of a tank of gas back in the early 1970s (the promotions that started it all), Major League Baseball teams giveaways, General Mills cereal mail-ins, or the convention cars created for the Hot Wheels® Collectors Convention and Nationals. Also, there are frequently promotional cars which you can mail away for. Promotional cars are more limited production runs, but usually available to the public via some means. Sometimes they are created to give out to a specific group of people, rather than the public at large. These include the employee cars we’ve made for Mattel employees, for the Ford Motor Company employees, Toy Fair cars, etc. With lower production numbers and the difficulty of acquisition, it’s no wonder they sometimes become some of the most valuable and collectible Hot Wheels® pieces you can search for.
Storage and Display
You’ve decided what you like, you’ve begun to accumulate them… but there’s a problem. Where are you going to put all of them? What are you going to do with them? For many collectors, this becomes the most challenging aspect of the hobby. It can be its own enjoyable aspect of the hobby, its own expense… even the source of marriage problems.
If you’re going to have heaps of these cool little cars -- whether you keep your cars on the card or set them free -- you’ll probably want to show off your pride and joy by having at least some of them on display. Some collectors are handy with carpentry and build their own display cabinets/shelves/rooms. A lot of guys fill up boxes and poke them into every nook and cranny of the garage. Displays are one thing, and there are some fine acrylic cabinets available at hobby shops and online that are made perfectly for die-cast. You can hang them on the wall, or set them on a surface. But chances are, you’re still going to need a place to keep all the cars you’re not displaying. For this, Hot Wheels® licensees make a variety of carrying cases, usually for 48 cars, and have been doing so for many years. Other manufacturers make carrying cases of varying sizes and colors as well. For larger storage jobs, if you want to avoid cardboard, I have found that
HotCases.com makes a great plastic box with optional foam inserts for loose cars, to suit the needs of collectors. And best of all, they’re stackable. You can look around, especially online, and find what works for you... and for your significant other.
Just like with real, life-sized cars, sometimes you look at a model and just feel like imprinting it with your own personalization. Altering toy cars is an activity we call customizing, and it runs beyond the hobby of collecting to a hobby all its own. It’s become such a phenomenon that most shows now hold customizing contests. Some customizers within the hobby hold a certain level of celebrity, such as a Chip Foose or George Barris. And some of the products are mind-blowing, amazing and -- of course -- can be purchased for a price.
Customizing a Hot Wheels® car can be as simple as dyeing or painting it another color, swapping out a set of wheels for another, or slapping on a decal… or it can be as complex as actually cutting and welding the body of the car. If you get into this, it can be a lot of fun -- but it can be a lot of work, too. Not everyone has the patience, skill and drive to become one of the best at it. But, again, you don’t have to be the best -- you just have to enjoy yourself. You can find out more by checking out the tips and talk in our Customs Forum on our Message Board. I highly recommend getting out to a show and looking over the customized vehicles on display. There’s nothing else quite like it.
You can get as involved in the hobby of collecting as you want. Pick up a car here and there, and take ’em home. Or join a club, start a club, customize… It’s all up to you. Collecting is a very personal hobby, and subject to a wide range of individual tastes and preferences.
One thing for sure is that there is no shortage of activity in this hobby. I looked up “collect” in the dictionary and found a couple of definitions. One is “to gather together, as a hobby” and another is “to accumulate, as dust.” In the end, it’s up to you to ensure that this is a hobby for you, and not just collecting dust. Get out there and collect… and share your love for these little cars!
-- HWC Gary