(T)COAL: From Tonka to Hot Wheels – The Golden Age of Toy Cars

Tonka Dozer and old steam shovel

Like most CC-ers, my car interest came early. This was perhaps something of a surprise to my parents, as they weren’t car nuts – Dad was a forester by training, and Mom was a teacher. They did drive comparatively odd cars – first a Volvo 544 and then a Saab 95 (2 stroke, 3 cylinder). But this was more in homage to Mom’s Swedish ancestors than because of any real mechanical interest.


Little hands need big toys, so my car love started with Tonkas: a bulldozer (as seen here in my back yard in 1966), dump truck, road grader, and Jeep, and later a car carrier with two 63 ‘Vettes, a dune buggy, and a Wagoneer with a snowmobile. At the time, Tonkas were made near Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota, and came in three sizes: Tonka, Maxi Tonka, and Mini Tonka. (Get it?). (Tiny Tonkas came out just a few years later.) Mine were mostly from the regular and Mini series, which weren’t all that mini, as the car carrier was over 27” long. Somehow these are among the few toy vehicles I no longer have (along with my pedal car, Eldon slot car set and one Kenner SST).

Matchbox Rolls Royce. The stuff flaking off the headlights is glow-in-the-dark paint.

The size (and probably the dirt) kept them in the garage during the winter. Smaller vehicles were necessary for those road trips around the coffee table. Matchbox cars were just the thing. This Rolls was my first one.

My father had given it to my mom before I was born, since he couldn’t afford to give her the real thing. Being from the very early 60s it has no interior, and the axles are crimped to keep the wheels on, rather than mushroomed over like newer ones. It is also a bit smaller than the classic 1/64 scale of most Matchboxes and Hot Wheels, maybe HO (1/87)?

It was soon joined by a few similarly-small scale Matchbox trucks lorrys to supply Coca Cola and milk to my growing village…

My Matchbox village

…and then by some Tootsietoy farm implements to feed the residents.

Tootsietoy tractor

Tootsietoy had been making toy cars in Chicago since about 1910; they still advertise themselves as America’s Oldest Toy Company. Most Tootsietoy cars of the sixties (I had a lot) were just shells with wheels: no windows, no interior, not even a floor pan. The tractor is unusual in that it has more detail, wheels with hubs, and even a riveted-in bottom.

The collection kept growing. About this time, (mid sixties) Matchboxes became much more detailed. Perhaps it was competition from Corgi (Hot Wheels were still a few years in the future), or maybe it was the growing affluence during the baby boom. But nearly every Matchbox had some special feature.

Matchbox family cars

The MG GT has a dog and a trailer hitch (often seen pulling a “caravan” – could a real one do that?); the Mercedes an opening door; the Rolls an opening trunk; and the Studebaker an actual sliding roof.


Similarly, the garbage truck tilts and dumps, and the cab on the dump truck tilts forward to access the engine. (A few years later, the Scenicruiser did not match the current Greyhound livery, leading to one of my many repaints.)

In 1968 all those features became obsolete overnight: Hot Wheels arrived! If you didn’t live through it as a kid, you have no idea what a big deal it was. Before Hot Wheels, toy cars were based more or less on actual vehicles, mostly ones you’d see around your town, and maybe a few race cars.  Hot Wheels took the basic Matchbox size but instead made California hot rods and custom cars with cool translucent metallic “spectra flame” colors. But the real innovation was that Hot Wheels were designed to roll fast, and had special track to run them on. It seems obvious now, but it was a revolution then. Hot Wheels became a cultural phenomenon–not every boy had collected Matchboxes, but every boy had Hot Wheels.

Redline Hot Wheels. Note the neighbor's son's GTO in the background

My first was the purple Custom Fleetside, a gift from my older cousin, followed soon by the blue Twin Mill and a green Silhouette bubble-topped custom. (I still have the Silhouette, but I didn’t photograph it as it was the recipient of one of my poorer repaints.)

And then there was Hot Wheels track. I was soon the proud owner of the Hot Wheels Road Trials Set.

Hot Wheels Road Trials Set

Picture courtesy hotwheelsracetracks.wordpress.com

It came with a Tune-up Tower parking garage, 12 feet of track, and a Rod Runner. The Tune-up Tower was a parking garage complete with an electric elevator and a Dyno-Meter on the top floor. The Dyno Meter was essentially a rolling treadmill that measured spinning wheel resistance and whether the car pulled left or right. It actually worked, and came with a small tool to bend the axles to straighten them–Hot Wheel axles were very thin then.

Hot Wheels Dyno-meter

Courtesy hotwheelsracetracks.wordpress.com


Unfortunately it was quite loud. I can recall getting angrily banished to my bedroom for tuning cars during the evening news.  The Rod Runner was a rubber-band powered device, shaped something like a console shifter, that fit over the track and automatically booted the cars along the track. It was enough to make the cars go around and around the oval. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TE83PlNa0f4

I soon got lots more track and another Rod Runner. My friends and I would have full on race days in my room, to see whose car would make it around the track longer. Of course, this really measured concentration not speed, as most cars would keep circling until you got distracted and forgot to re-set the Rod Runner after the car went through. Thirty laps wasn’t unusual.

I also joined the official Hot Wheels Club. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I waited by the mailbox each day until the box came.

Hot Wheels Club Kit

Courtesy redlinespoilers.com


The box contained a booklet, a patch, and decals (which immediately went on my bike and on my bedroom door next to the Odd Rods “Fords – Breakfast of Chevys” sticker).

Odd Rods Decal Ford Breakfast of Chevys

But the real prize was the special chrome Hot Wheels car. I was briefly disappointed when I opened it, as it was supposed to be a Mustang Boss Hoss, but instead I got a Heavy Chevy. Though I professed to be a Ford kid (the Odd Rods decal notwithstanding), I got over it quickly.

Hot Wheels Club Heavy Chevy

Another favorite Hot Wheels toy was the Hot Wheels factory, which let you injection mold your own plastic Hot Wheels cars.

Hot Wheels Factory

Courtesy eBay


It came with molds to make ten different models.  An expansion kit to make a pickup, camper, trailer and Indy car was also available. (Of course I had it.) The cars actually worked quite well on our tracks. Interestingly, in 2013 Mattel issued a very similar toy, though presumably you’re less likely to burn your fingers on this year’s version.

The Firecracker. Brown color is from recycling plastix of several colors

Matchbox of course had seen their market dry up. Who wanted a car that you couldn’t race? So in 1969, Matchbox came out with their Superfast line, to compete with Hot Wheels.

Matchbox Superfast carry case

I had a Miura like this one, which unfortunately I lost. I was quite upset at the time.


At first they just added faster rolling wheels to existing cars. This meant the wheels had to be narrow, like the old slow ones.

Matchbox Superfast. The first ones had narrow wheels.

The Lotus Europa was my favorite car for many years (thus another unfortunate repaint), and I’d still love to have a real one. Note the leftover trailer hitch. Somehow I doubt any full-sized Europa ever had one.

Europa Superfast

Soon Matchbox had custom hot rods and other fun vehicles with wider wheels. Most of them worked quite well with all my Hot Wheels track, though the Beach Buggy was too wide (it did do well racing down the corrugated fiberglass of a friend’s porch roof though).

Matchbox Beach Buggy

Note the V-12 and the hood decal on the Mod Rod. Were they trying to do a British / Jaguar take on a California custom? It went over my head at the time but I still liked it a lot.

Matchbox Mod Rod. Love the V12.

Even Tonka decided to get in on the fast hot-rod toy craze, with the Tonka Totes line. Totes were slightly larger than Hot Wheels . Totes had polycarbonate (Lexan) bodies on a stainless chassis. They lived up to Tonka’s reputation for toughness; I frequently played with these on a sand bar of the local creek, with no ill effects. The axles were thick and quite flexible, but somehow were made to roll very well.

Tonka Totes. Note the Matchbox Dodge Charger 3 concept for scale

The ‘Totes’ name was a nod to the fact that each car came with a clip that let you hang the car from your belt. A variety of launchers were available, like the one shown which shot the cars quite fast. Interestingly, the Tonka Bronc at left is sought after by enthusiasts of the real-life first generation Bronco.

Meanwhile, Mattel decided to try to repeat the success of Hot Wheels with airplanes. In 1970 they launched the Hot Birds series. They are a bit bigger, perhaps 4 ½ inches, but have the same Spectraflame paint job and custom styling.

Hot Birds Cloud Hopper

Instead of track, each plane came with a hook to slide it down a special line. (The hook mounted into the slot on the top of the fuselage.) The nylon line was textured, so it vibrated as the planes slid, making a sort of engine sound. Though I really liked mine, Hot Birds never caught on; they were only sold for one year.

Hot Birds Cloud Hopper

Sizzlers – essentially rechargeable electric Hot Wheels – were another story; they were wildly successful. When they first came out, they had cutting-edge battery technology developed especially for Mattel. They were some of, if note, first rechargeable toys. I only ever had one Sizzler, but a few years later I bought a set of Chopcycles  — custom trikes using the same drivetrain with larger wheels.

Sizzler, Chopcycles, and Juice Pump

Though they would run on the special Sizzlers “Fat Track”, I had more fun running them in my (obviously dry) bathtub. Interestingly, Mattel re-issued Sizzlers in about 2007, complete with the original artwork. Of course I had to buy it “for my son”. (Alas, he is now too old to justify this year’s new Hot Wheels Factory mentioned earlier.)

Sizzlers Fat Track reissue - bought it "for my son"

There was one other Sizzlers variant: The Hot Line train set. I had a friend with one that I lusted after, but Santa didn’t cooperate that year. Like Hot Birds, the Hot Line was short lived.

By 1974 I was 11, but my interest in Hot Wheels continued. Hot Wheels had long-since dropped the Spectraflame paint jobs, but that year they came out with the Flying Colors series with cool tampo graphics.

Hot Wheels Flying Colors

As you can tell by the worn paint, the Breakaway Bucket (Pontiac el Camino?) was one of my favorites, as it was very fast on our tracks. The tracks had gotten more elaborate as we combined sets: bigger ovals of course, with multiple Rod Runners and Super Chargers, but also longer, wilder tracks all around the house, down the stairs and airborne over the Snake River furniture.

As I got even older I thought about making my Hot Wheels tracks into a race track diorama (inspired by a friend’s dad’s half-basement train set). A race track needed emergency vehicles, which led me to buy some of my more unusual Matchboxes.

Matchbox Rolamatics

The Rolamatics series used a small pin on one wheel to drive a cog in the body and turn the gumball light on the Police Patrol Rover and the antenna on the Badger.

Rolamatics mechanism. Note the pin on the lower-left wheel.

Alas, the diorama never happened. But my Hot Wheels track was used one last memorable time, when all the boys in the neighborhood combined our sets for fifty yards or so down the street, to see how far a Hot Wheel propelled by an Estes rocket engine would go. (This was of course at the peak of Evel Knievel’s popularity.) The answer, if you’re interested, was about 20 feet along the track – and another 150 feet in the air in random directions. As the Mythbusters say, don’t try this at home kids.

After that, most of my cars were stored away, though I still got a new Matchbox or Hot Wheel in my stocking each Christmas until I left for California after college. I was lucky that my parents saved my cars. There are even more that I didn’t show, including a Corgi Mercury Cougar Sherriff’s car (?) with Whizzwheels, their attempt at matching Hot Wheels.  And they’re all still proudly displayed in my garage.