Retour en enfance avec Larry Chen, et pour tous ceux qui ont eut des Howheels, la fabrication, une petite pause pour les grands enfants que nous sommes restés.
I’ve been playing with Hot Wheels diecasts all my life. Ever since I can remember, I raced them around till the paint was completely chipped off.
Now as a Speedhunter, my relationship with these little toy cars has changed quite a lot
My visit to Hot Wheels actually started a few years back when I featured a certain Datsun 260Z on Speedhunters that belonged to head Hot Wheels designer Jun Imai, AKA Kaido House.
Since then we have kept in touch; I often see Jun at car events and meets in Southern California, and of course we are both Z bros at heart. For a long time he suggested that I come visit the Mattel Hot Wheels Design Center, and recently I took him up on that offer.
Before you even step foot inside the former airplane hangar located just a few minutes from Los Angeles International Airport, it’s obvious that this place is special. There was a metal orange track setup right on the stairs with a bucket full of cars to play with; I knew it was going to be a good day.
Along with Hot Wheels, this Mattel Design Center also is home to Barbie and a few other iconic toy brands, hence the sign at the front desk.
It’s quickly evident that this place is unlike any other corporate office. In the lobby there were a few full-scale custom cars on display, some of which have been previously seen at the SEMA Show.
What really piqued my interest however, was a massive Hot Wheels track that goes through six loops.
If your diecast survives, there’s a chance it will make into a box at the end of the track and maybe even score a perfect 100-point run.
Here’s Jun showing me how to play with some of his amazing creations.
I quickly choose two cars out of the bin and made my way up the stairs to have some fun.
I am a sucker for orange cars, and I figured the wings on both of these would help keep them planted.
I was wrong; none of my cars made it, even with a hard push down the track. Trust me, it’s actually a lot harder than it looks.
But enough toying around, I wanted to see where the magic happens…
It was hard for me to stay focused as there were awesome things everywhere I looked, many of which I could not photograph. It’s such a simple concept, but all toys and media designed for kids are made by adults, or in Mattel’s case, big kids. It was incredible to see how passionate these people are about making a quality product.
Before I stepped into the actual Hot Wheels design studio there was a display showing the process from concept to finished diecast.
For each and every diecast the process takes about nine to 10 months; I was amazed to see how much work goes into making a toy car that costs less than a dollar.
Parked in the center of it all was a full-size version of the iconic 1/64 scale Hot Wheels Volkswagen Bus, Beach Bomb. This one has been modified into a gaming center.
On display nearby was a replica of the famed pink VW Beach Bomb diecast prototype from 1969, surfboards hanging out the back and all. It’s amazing to think that the real thing is worth as much as a house.
Alongside the 1:1 scale Bus was another track setup, but there is something special about this one.
It’s used for actual testing, specifically to see how far individual Hot Wheels diecasts will roll. This is a standardized rolling resistance setup that exists at Hot Wheels facilities all over the world.
Just for fun, one of the engineers developed a model with ball bearing wheels, weights and an aerodynamic shape to see how long it would roll back and forth more than a few times. Talk about dedication.
It’s interesting to think about, because up until this point I had no idea that rolling performance or Hot Wheels track performance was even a thing that needed to be measured. It’s pretty cool that it is, though.
While many kids can’t even wait to get to the checkout before tearing a Hot Wheels package open, being an adult and a car culture enthusiast, I never do – I always leave them in their packaging. I love everything about the product, and that includes the design and graphics on the card.
Ultimately, there is no greater value for money in the car culture world than one of these little diecast models. I can remember saving up my pennies to go to the Tokyo Auto Salon for the first time over 10 years ago, and there I bought a Nismo jacket for around $200. It was the most expensive article of clothing I owned at the time and I was even afraid to wear it.
The fact that you can own a scale model of Sung Kang’s FuguZfor much less than a price of a regular coffee at Starbucks blows my mind.
The car culture aspect does help in terms of Hot Wheels being the #1-selling toy in the world, but it’s only a small fraction of why it’s so popular. So much goes into every single diecast, and behind that is a very passionate team of designers.
Remember Jun’s Datsun 510 that I have yet to feature? Well, here’s the color swatch for his inspiration. The fact that they paint all of these diecasts just to see how they look under different lighting conditions and with different body styles shows how much detail they go into.
There is inspiration everywhere you look. Check out Mad Mike’s Mazda REPU (Rotary Pickup) and how about the awesome display for the design of the Volkswagen Kafer Racer.
They started with cutting up other bits and pieces and bolting it onto an existing VW Bug to see how it would look, just as a real custom car shop would do to a full-size vehicle.
3D printing has become a big part of the process for the Hot Wheels designers and they have machines running all day long making new parts and prototypes. Do you recognize the wheels on that Porsche?
Collaborating with guys like Magnus Walker, the Hot Wheels brand gets to make authentic pieces that speak to the Speedhunter in all of us.
Jun could not have put it in a better way, because how crazy is it that you can walk into your local Walmart or Target (for those of us in North America), and buy a very authentic bosozoku car and dekotora truck. Most people don’t even know what these are, and to the average kid they just look cool to play with, but true enthusiasts know how much went into planning these toys.
The spare parts and little bits and pieces lying around would give any real Hot Wheels fan a heart attack.
Unpainted and unmounted bodies were everywhere I looked.
The contents of this box would probably look like a bunch of junk to any normal person, but just check out how many 3D-printed and weird variations of cars are inside.
I asked if I could have some and Jun graciously gifted me this 3D-printed 993 (which later we picked out wheels for) and an unmounted 934. He also gave me a prototype, but I can’t show that one until next year.
Almost all the Hot Wheels designers went to Art Center College of Design for automotive design. While there are many cars in the Hot Wheels diecast line-up that are scale copies of real-world vehicles, the team design just as many original cars.
Pretty much every vehicle is created like it could actually exist in full-size form, which is why Jun has real car designers on his team.
It also explains why all of the designers are car fanatics themselves. Quite a few of the team’s personal cars have been modeled into Hot Wheels diecasts too.
The next area Jun took me to was where a lot of the magic happens. It’s also where things are 3D printed. While Hot Wheels diecasts used to be modeled with clay, the designers now use computers that mimic the original process.
One of the designers let me try out the program, and it was amazing. With the pen, you can physically feel the texture and the shape of the model; you can punch holes through the clay and shape it how you want just like you would in real life, but with none of the mess.
I stepped outside to check out a few more of their full-scale cars on site and came across two gull-wing machines from totally different eras.
Pagani had actually stopped by for a visit, and one of the Hot Wheels designers who owns the DeLorean figured it would make a great photo-op. There’s never a dull moment at the Hot Wheels Design Center.
Parked nearby was a selection of historic Hot Wheels full-scale projects.
By the end of my tour I was left amazed by just how much Mattel invests in making authentic cars that cater to us enthusiasts. While it would be so easy to just make shark and dinosaur cars or vehicles with cartoonish features to sell to kids, it’s the effort that they put into making cars that we actually want to go hunt for that makes a fan for life, like me.
1968 Porsche 912!
Starts at the first crank at all times.
5 speed manual transmission.
Great driver, shifts and brakes excellent.
Solid body with excellent panel and door gaps.
6804 is the paint code “Light Ivory” with its imperfections.
Original interior intact, and all electrical in proper working condition.
Blue/Yellow plates California car with a clean title.
An excellent daily driver.
This Porsche is at our warehouse in Schijndel (20 km. from Eindhoven), all importduties and VAT have been paid already. All dokuments for obtaining an EU registration are present.
John Benton has obviously been cut from a different cloth. In a community where many of the older shop owners hold on tight to the trade secrets they’ve learned over the years, John is an open book. Rather than hole up in a garage, jaded by decades in the automotive world, John is the first to share what he’s learned and openly reach out when he needs help. Armed with an open mind and positive outlook, he subscribes to the mentality of community rather than competition, giving credit where credit is due and maintaining a humble demeanor through it all. From the night we first met, John has been quick to emphatically wave and smile when our paths cross at car shows and he’s even quicker to offer support to those that he sees potential in. With such a friendly and sharing persona, it came as no surprise to find myself chatting with him long after our photoshoot was finished and the sun had set. We spent an hour gazing over his Porsche, ‘Mein12’, talking about everything from hidden culinary gems in downtown Los Angeles to the old days of racing on Mulholland. From there, we began to talk about the old air-cooled Porsche that sat before us.
The back story of John’s 1968 Porsche 912 dates back longer than the average story that comes across our desktops. Following a handful of hot-rodded Volkswagens, John Benton found himself habitually checking the ‘Recycler’ Consignment Ads on the rack at the liquor store in hopes of finding a deal before anyone else had a chance to jump on it. One day, in 1984, a Porsche 911 sat printed in a small ad, waiting for its next owner. Wanting to not waste a second more, John darted out of the liquor store, ad in hand, and began anxiously dialing away in the phone booth outside. Minutes later, with a meeting time set, he headed out to Northridge, ready to bring home his next project. Unfortunately the enthusiasm dwindled with the car in front of him. The car was mangled underneath and he had a gut sense that it wasn’t meant to be. In a dejected, empty-handed march away from the consignment lot, a white 912 caught his attention out of the corner of his eye as if by fate. In far better shape and with a lower price tag to boot, the 912 piqued his interests and it wasn’t long before the owner arrived to discuss the transaction.
With 16 years already under its belt, the 912 had been put to the test. Bought new in Amarillo, Texas a TV art director purchased it with his intentions set on commuting from Arizona to Los Angeles and back as he worked on the set of his latest project. After racking up miles of desert driving, the man handed the car off to his wife who daily drove the car until it found its way into John Benton’s possession. The car continued its commuter duties and in serving as the transportation on his lovely wedding day and escorting both children home from the hospital as his family grew, it quickly became apparent that this old car was now an integral part of his life.
A few years in, the car slowly evolved into a weekend race car as is so often the case with us enthusiasts. Hesitant to completely forego comfort and utility in his daily , John chose the modifications carefully. A cage offered safety while changes in the suspension truly shined as he darted around the cones at the local autocross. The radio remained intact, blasting ‘The Scorpions’ while he pushed the Porsche to its limits on track in the Porsche Owners Club’s A-Production race class for a few seasons. One can find themselves on a slippery slope as they give in to the joys found in racing, so inevitably, the car slowly let go of its daily duties and became a full fledge racer. It was the little 912 up against a field of 911s, but that didn’t stop John from having some fun with it.
In a world where bigger is better and a never ending quest for high horsepower endures, most of the world fights to get their hands on the latest and greatest items. It’s a wild rat race towards “more”, but there exists a niche of enthusiasts that celebrate the underdogs and in that corner stands John Benton, dedicated to the 4-cylinder 912s that is often overlooked in the shadow of the iconic, flat-six 911. In many ways, the 912 is a true evolution to its predecessor, the Porsche 356. With its skinny tires and 4-cylinder engine, it retained the same nimble driving characteristics that Porsche owners came to expect. However, for some, it may be hard to understand why anyone would opt for a car with less cylinders and less power, but for John, part of it lies in the challenge. With its 2-cylinder handicap, squeezing performance out of it can be more difficult, but the rewards at the end are that much sweeter when your underdog is hot on the tail of the faster 930 turbos in your run group.
With little demand for the smaller engine in the early years, John had to turn to the knowledge that he gathered while working on his Volkswagens and tuning race engines for his friends. A custom billet crankshaft and a set of rods were made to suit his needs and the modification list has grown ever since. As it sits today, the ’68 912 is powered by one of Benton Performance’s 1.7L twin-spark engines, outfitted with ported heads, an aggressive cam profile, forged pistons on custom rods, and a knife edged crank. To keep everything in order, an ECU mates with a crank-triggered ignition and fuel injection while a re-geared box transmits the power to match John Benton’s driving style. Adjustable spring plates and Konis ensure that the car maintains its composure in the corners while a strut bar and swaybars front and rear allow it to stay planted. Widened steelies often go unnoticed by the untrained eye but allow the wider rubber necessary to keep John on track while he’s giving it his all.
With so many decades behind it, John’s Porsche 912 has been through a lot. Following its first race career, the commuter-turned-racer was completely stripped down in the early 2000s for a thorough restoration that would address much of the wear that had accumulated over the years. With a newly painted, freshly rebuilt car on hand, John gave the Concours world a shot, but when it didn’t feel like the right fit, it wasn’t long before he was back out on the road, beating on his car. John and his 1968 Porsche have been together through a lot and as John grew, so did the car, each evolving along life’s path.
As it sat there in front of us, we discussed the latest iteration for the old air-cooled. This spring, John set out to pay homage to one of his favorite race cars, the 1968 LeMans contender driven by Claude Laurent and Jean-Claude Ogier, two privateers who set out against all odds. Despite lacking the factory backing that many of the big-name teams had, the duo drove the lowly little 911t to a second place finish in the GT class. The underdog resiliance and the simplicity of such a privateer entry tugged at a certain string in John’s heart, so he wanted to pay tribute to their efforts with a simple re-invention of his car, ‘Mein12’. A row of driving lights took their position on the longhood’s front end as a single leather strap limits the hood from popping up unexpectedly. Period correct decals grace each panel and the typography of the numbers play off the simplicity of the narrow racer. It’s a look that I love and it’s a fitting stage in Mein12’s history. We are certain that this car has a long, rich future ahead and we can’t wait to see where John takes it next.