In the world of Hot Wheels collecting, perfection tends to be the most sought-after trait when looking over the pegs. Correct wheels, well-fitting parts, perfect paint and graphics all attached to a mint card will ensure a new addition to most collections. There are many steps and a lot of hands-on work that have to go just right for one single car to make it into the shipping case defect-free. At an estimated 2-3 million cars produced each week, perfection can not always be maintained in a cost-effective matter. Despite being pulled from the lines if spotted, a few of these defective assemblies make their way to the store. When things go wrong and parts go missing is when the offbeat way to collect -- known as error hunting -- begins.
Each basic car generally contains five main parts consisting of a body, window piece, interior, base and axle sets. Occasionally, there may be an accessory piece such as a wing or surfboard. Every piece has numerous ways to fail in their own unique way, with even the packaging not immune from errors.
Starting at the beginning with the molding of the individual pieces will highlight common types of errors among all the parts. In short, the molding of parts consists of a die set which has a cavity of the part to be created. Then a molten material is injected inside. Errors created at this stage are excess pieces of material (“flashing” or “flash”) left on the part, deformities such as holes in the part, and unfinished parts. The most commonly found molding error is excess flashing that missed being removed. These extra pieces of material do cause trouble when it comes time for assembly due to parts fitting poorly or by jamming the wheels.
Rolling down the production line to the axle assemblies reveals where most of the errors can originate. Due to the sheer numbers produced, something as simple as a wire with two plastic wheels on it can create so many possibilities. Axles are normally attached to the base by little tabs that are molded into the base. The axle sits in the slot, and a machine presses the tabs down to lock it in place. If this step is missed, the wheels can come loose and become stuck elsewhere on the car. Mismatched wheels is a common occurrence, where either one of the wheels or the axle set does not match the others.
Next up are ASW (All Small Wheels) and ALW (All Large Wheels), which refers to a car with the same-sized wheels when it should not be so. Reversed wheels, as the name applies, means the larger set of wheels is stuffed on the front of the vehicle and the smaller ones are on the rear. An un-chromed wheel is one where a step is missed: the step where thin chrome-like foil is applied to the spoke design by the hot stamping process. Missing one wheel, one set of wheels, or all of the wheels gets more into harder-to-find types of wheel errors. This is just a small example of some of the more common wheel error occurrences that can be found. For such a simple part, there are over forty different documented error types involving the wheels alone!
Applying the base color onto the car is pretty straightforward. Attached to a fixture in groups, the cars go into the spray area. Error types for this step are under-spraying of the car (leaving bare ZAMAC showing) or over-spraying (leaving runs and blobs in the paint). Debris in the paint, such as hair, fuzz and the occasional piece of tape, has also been found.
Graphic art on the car, consisting of three to four colors that get applied using a pad-printing process, is called tampo. Pad printing involves the car body being set on a jig on the machine's carousel. Ink is scraped over a metal plate with one of the intended design's colors, then picked up by a rubber pad. The carousel rotates from one color pad station to the next, where the pad then transfers ink to the car, building up the design. If a car is not on the jig properly, the tampo will be applied too high or too low on the car -- sometimes referred to as a “slider”. Colors can also be misaligned with each other or have one color missing from the design. Cars that missed this step entirely are called "no tampo," while a "double tampo" car means it went around the machine twice. If someone asks to show off their “naked” Hot Wheels, it is okay -- it’s just another term for no-tampo cars.
Aside from the aforementioned molding problems, bases, interiors and window pieces share a few other error types. Each part has the potential to be put on a car in the wrong position, thus causing the final product to fit poorly together. A window piece stuck too far under a body of the car is a common misplaced part error. Being installed backwards, upside-down or just plain missing can happen to any one of these parts as well. If you find a car with the wheels reversed, give it another once-over to see if it is actually a backwards base error. A bonus missing parts error is when both the interior and window pieces are gone, leaving only a hollow car. Very rarely does a car come out with the wrong part from a whole different vehicle, but it happens. Some parts are just similar enough to semi-fit a different car.
After all the parts are finished, it is time for the final assembly. A Hot Wheels car is commonly held together by spinning over the rivet posts that are molded into the body of the car. A machine with spinning dies pushes down on the small part of the post protruding from the base. This creates a rivet head that sandwiches the parts together. Another way to hold a car together is with a combination of a rivet post and a latch. Latching is where a piece of the base sticks through the body of the car in a way it will not come apart. Due to the forces at work, errors occurring at this stage of the assembly process create some of the most interesting pieces. The most common of this type of error is “mis-riveting,” where the machine strikes the car in the wrong place. Being off a fraction of an inch causes cracked grilles and awkward stances. If it’s more than a fraction of an inch off, all sorts of carnage and mashed-together parts is created, since the machine always wins in this step. “Unspun” or “unriveted” describe a car that completely missed having the posts spun down. This rare error allows the car to fall apart in the package -- if it manages to get to that point. The granddaddy of rivet errors is when the riveting step is missed. The result is that only the body of the car ends up in the package, and somewhere on the factory floor is the rest of the car.
At last, a perfect Hot Wheels car made it through the gauntlet of assembly and is ready for packaging. However, one of the last hurdles to make it error-free is to end up in the correct package. A Maelstrom on a card labeled as the H2GO can cause a lot of confusion. Since the ’90s, the vast majority of Hot Wheels cars are packaged with the front end of the car pointing to the right. “Matchbox effect” is an error when the car is packaged facing to the left. Friction, not glue, is used to attach the clear bubble (or “blister”) holding the car to the card. A machine instantly vibrates the bubble onto the card, bonding them on a microscopic level. If the card is fed into the machine wrong, the bubble can end up stuck anywhere on it. “Hitchhikers” -- such as hair, tape and even extra parts of cars -- can also end up trapped in the bubble with the car. Beige material sometimes found inside a package is not part of a band-aid, but part of the manufacturing process.
Printing of the card itself creates a few errors that do not show up too often. One such error is when it is missing an ink color, and the other is when the different colors are not aligned with each other. The cards are printed in sheets, and those are then cut out like cookies. This is where a sheet can enter the cutter wrong, slicing off the name of the car or even be cut so that the design is upside-down. Because of the large volume printed, spelling errors are mass errors and rarely get corrected until the next run.
Even in error collecting, there is a hierarchy of labeling what the best types of errors are. Packaging errors tend to have a smaller following compared to an ASW or no-tampo car. Physical errors on the car itself are just more to look at for most. Also factoring into the mix is which casting the car is -- an ASW Bone Shaker will have a stronger following than an ASW Zombot.
There is some ongoing debate as to what makes an error versus what makes a variation. To put it simply, anything intentionally changed or modified during the production run -- most likely by Mattel's headquarters or by the plant -- is a variation. Anything that has been produced wrong on a car is an error, no matter how many have gotten out. The same error can happen multiple times during the run, or randomly throughout it. Sometimes a car with the same error can be found multiple times in the same case due to this fact. These widespread errors are sometimes referred to as “errorations.” Such errorations include the 2004 First Editions Rapid Transit with a reversed base. Errors can also be casting-specific, happening to the same car just about every time a new version is produced. Examples are the Rodger Dodger and the '67 Camaro, equally sharing a few reversed-base errors throughout their many incarnations.
With over 150 different ways a Hot Wheels error can be produced on any particular car, there are a lot of potential treasures to be found. Knowing the parts, and how they should and shouldn't go together, will give you a little extra to hunt for during slow stocking times.
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not of Mattel, Inc. Mattel, Inc. has not verified the facts stated herein and makes no representation as to their accuracy.