Hot Wheels production: how the big ones become the small ones

Big cars, big effort, small cars, little effort? If you mean it. After all, it can’t be that difficult to turn a model car into a toy car. The car manufacturers can supply the digital data from their production cars, which the toy developers only have to scale down from 1:1 to 1:64.

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Recreate it all in plastic, brush it with a bit of paint, wrap it nicely, write the brand name on it and you’re ready to sell? Wrong thought, reality is much more complex. We took a closer look at Hot Wheels production at Mattel’s headquarters in El Segundo, California.

Hot Wheels

Unbelievable numbers: Since it was founded in 1968, Hot Wheels has produced an estimated six billion cars.

More than six billion cars since 1968

Toy manufacturer Mattel has been around since 1945 and originally produced wooden picture frames and doll furniture. Today, the company includes the brands Barbie, Scrabble, Fisher-Price, UNO, Matchbox – and since 1968 also Hot Wheels. According to internal estimates, more than six billion Hot Wheels cars have been produced to date – for comparison: in 2021, around 51 million “real” cars were produced worldwide. And: About 130 new Hot Wheels models are added every year.

Hot Wheels

Initially only plastic: Today, the first prototypes of a new model come out of the 3D printer – this saves time and money.

But how does a real car become a toy model? Digital drawings and reference photos are all that is needed. However, if you simply shrunk the original vehicle dimensions down to 1:64 scale, the model would lose its character and end up looking odd, as the proportions simply no longer fit properly.

For a car to function as a toy, Mattel designers usually have to make the wheels bigger, the roof a little flatter, and the vehicle itself a little wider. Only then does it resemble the large model in small format.

Clay models are created digitally at Hot Wheels

In the big automotive world, the digital drafts are usually followed by the so-called clay models, i.e. car replicas in original size made of clay, which the designers can scratch, scrape and model in detail. Sketches are also made of the reference car for Hot Wheels models at the start – until the proportions are right. In the final design process, the toy car is then modelled, in this case not from real clay – that would be too delicate in the 1:64 format – but using an exciting technology called Digital Clay.

Hot Wheels

Digital clay: The clay models are not modeled in the classic way, but shaped on the computer with a special pen.

The designer uses a pen that he can use to cut the model on the screen while spinning it around in the air. The stylus gives designers haptic feedback so it feels like they are working on real clay. If a final 3D model is then available, it can go into pre-series production, just like with the real car. The first prototypes are now coming out of the 3D printer at Hot Wheels.

No production without extensive test runs

As in the automotive industry, the fun actually begins with the toy manufacturers. While the first prototypes and prototypes are tested on the road, the Hot Wheels technicians are allowed to “play test”. Because: Of course a toy car has to look good, but in the end it has to function above all.

Hot Wheels

Test track: Before a new model goes on sale, it is thoroughly tested. Anything that doesn’t work here will be revised.

In order for a car to bear the Hot Wheels name, each prototype goes through a series of test tracks. With straights, loops and a wide range of starters. There are specially built drop towers with weights for the manual starters. In this way, the muscle strength in a wide range of age groups can be simulated. Play with cars and get paid for it – awesome! A dream job, not only for all children…

Packaging design arouses interest in purchase

If a toy car has problems on the test tracks because it falls off the track, gets stuck between the orange plastic barriers, or doesn’t roll far enough, the testers send the model back to the design team for further fine-tuning. Only when the new Hot Wheels model works perfectly on the test track can series production – then using the die-casting process and no longer from the 3D printer – begin.

Hot Wheels

Finally, there is the packaging: a lot of attention is paid to the details when designing the typical Hot Wheels blister pack.

Only one thing is missing: the box. Unlike the big cars, there is also custom-made packaging with individual print for each Hot Wheels model.

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