How a Hot Car Becomes a Hot Wheels Car
The only noise in the room is a faint hum from the launcher at the base of the ramp.
Bryan Benedict lines up the Pontiac Firebird, and he pulls forward, through a loop and more. It’s just a blur of green and the whistling of the tires against the track. The crowd applauds. It’s a small crowd, but it’s okay. We encourage a small car. Benedict is the Design Director of Hot wheels and Matchbox die-cast at Mattel, and it had just demonstrated a very important test in the life of any new Hot Wheel car: can it come full circle?
“I didn’t think it would, it’s so low,” said Riley Stair. “The real car won’t even clear most of the aisles. Maybe I should take a closer look at what they did on the model.” Stair, 29, also designs cars, but his machines are full size and the loops they are designed for are of the road circuit type. Stair was visiting the Mattel Design Center to witness the unveiling of his most famous build to date—a widebody tubular chassis, burning alcohol, 1970 Firebird, recreated at 1:64 scale.
The Hot Wheels Legends Tour started in 2018. It’s a building competition where professional and amateur makers around the world pitch their rides in the hopes of shrinking them and sending them down tables to the delight of small children (and not a small number of adults). Stair is the third winner since the start of the competition and the first to have the added challenge of virtually winning the judges, since the 2020 tour was made on video. (Our compatriots from Road and track took part in 2020 and again this year).
Seeing Stair’s car in person was a treat made even sweeter by the promise to end the day with a peek at his Hot Wheels version, something even Stair had yet to see. Our tour started outside the Design Center, where the Firebird parked in front of a backdrop replica of a Hot Wheels backing card. The Pontiac wasn’t the only slippery ride in the parking lot – it wasn’t even the only smooth Pontiac – but no one could look away. Wide and low, he sat on the sidewalk with predatory intent. If you wanted to get a lower ride height you had to dig a hole. The Firebird is most impressive with the hood. In fact, Hot Wheels global design manager Ted Wu pointed out that it was the view from the engine bay, with his lesson in the geometry of crisscrossing triangles and tangled curves that first made the car stand out in the judgement. “It was a friend’s suggestion,” Stair said. “I didn’t mean to take the hood off.”
“You owe that friend a steak dinner,” someone shouted from behind the back. And it’s true that while the Firebird still has an intimidating presence when fully dressed, you can’t really understand the extent of Stair’s modification until the hood comes off. Then you can see that what looked like a modified muscle car is actually a fully custom racing machine – with a second generation F body thin skin.
The Dart LSx 400 ci engine is set back so far into the firewall that the exhaust juts out and wraps around the front, making it easy to admire the custom tubular chassis and decidedly pushrod suspension. not original. The interior is nothing but business: a wrap-around racing seat, a satin-finish metal shifter for the four-speed G-Force, and lightweight honeycomb panels.
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There is no exact pattern Stair followed in building the Firebird. It’s not on big 18-inch wheels like a Pro-Touring restomod, but rather 16 by 12 Panasports wrapped in slick Hoosier tires in two-tone gold and chrome. It is not based on any vintage racing series. It features late ’70s road racing elements, Japanese hot rod styling elements, and a vicious methanol-burning V8 that wouldn’t be out of place in a dragster car. Stair said the construction came about while he worked there for almost two years under a canopy in his parents’ backyard.
“At first I thought it was just a little wider, just a little nicer to look at,” he said. “I love racing cars from the 70s. I wasn’t there then, but I was always drawn to the looks. I wanted this car to look like the 70s, but with a style. and newer engineering. ”
These days he owns a shop and works on client builds, but says he ends up every night with some sort of tweaking on the Firebird.
While it took Stair 18 months to build the ‘Bird – and it’s still making changes – the Hot Wheels team had half that time to create the scaled-down version. They also had a much larger team to do the job. There are over 2,500 people working around the world in Mattel’s small car toy empire, but it all starts in the design department of El Segundo, California. To get there, we walked through the lobby of the Mattel Design Headquarters. Forget about plastic surgery and antioxidant meal planning, if you want to feel younger, visit Mattel. It’s like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory without a German child drowning in the candy river. There are small cars everywhere, and big ones too. An orange Hot Wheels track plunges down from the stairs to the second floor. Every wall has miniature cars on display, every desk and cubicle has something parked next to the keyboard. As we walked past the Legends Wall, designer Brendon Vetuskey pointed to an empty locker. “This is where your car will go,” he told Stair, who looked surprised then looked out the window, imagining his Pontiac behind her.
Vetuskey led us to a table with sketches and renderings showing different versions of Stair’s car with notes on colors and details, possible mold-making issues, and suggestions of areas that could be highlighted for better precision. At the top of the pages were a few 3D printed prototypes as well as the green test car that we would later send through the loop. Stair picked them up and rolled them slowly over his hand, marveling at the little header pipes and the detailed reconstruction of the engine bay. “They even had the ducts in the window,” he said in surprise.
From design, we followed sculptor Manson Cheung to the 3D modeling lab, where we saw how he was able to take a CAD model of an original Firebird and turn it into a stair car using a virtual modeling program that replaces the ancient clay and wood methods. “It used to take two to three weeks to make a wooden dollar,” Cheung said. “Riley’s car took me about 60 hours in total, and if we need changes, they’re a lot easier to do.” The program they use was originally designed to train medical students. It uses a wireless “scalpel” that gives physical feedback to the aspiring artist or doctor. Cheung gave us each a round to punch holes in the virtual clay before sending us to the model store to see how the prototypes are printed.
Mattel has been using 3D printing since the late 1980s, said master model maker Bobby Coleman. The new machines are much faster and easier to program, while still being able to print in multiple materials on the same part. He handed in a wheel and tire sample, where the tire “rubber” was spongy and the center wheel was solid. “It’s a room,” he said. Models play an important role in a Hot Wheels design. Details that look correct in renderings, and even in the virtual model, may not appear in the final production. Better to find this out in a cheap resin than after a series of thousands of products. Sample making also enables important track testing. It might sound like fun, but Hot Wheels takes performance seriously and its test track is leveled, measured and identical to the test tracks at its factories around the world. (I’m pushing to add a loop test to Car and driver ”s 10Best tests. We’ll see how that goes at our next meeting.)
Our last stop before seeing the finished model was in the packaging department. There, designer Matt Gabe talked about picking the right image to make every Hot Wheels stand out in a sea of toy store competition. In 2009, Hot Wheels made the decision to have each packaging image match the car inside the plastic. With 50 new models and 400 designs each year, that means more work for Gabe and his team, but he believes the added appeal is worth the cost and time, even if it isn’t always appreciated by younger customers. . “I do laugh sometimes, though, when I think about how much time we spend thinking about the package, then it’s immediately ripped and thrown away.” If you’re the ‘keep it in its original packaging’ type, you are doing Gabe and his team a great deal of pleasure.
Finally, we have arrived at the moment everyone has been waiting for: the unveiling of the production version. We all went back outside where a tiny velor towel covered a tiny Pontiac. Wu looked at Stair, who looked nervous. He removed the cloth and Stair leaned forward, delighted. He looked again at the full-size car and then at the model before picking it up and admiring it in the palm of his hand.
“I’m driving this thing on the right track,” he said, gesturing to the big car behind him. “It’s only a matter of time before something happens. Track cars are perishable items. If I run over them, it’s so great to know that they will live under pressure. can’t wait to see the kids play with it. “
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