Editor’s note: Many of these pictures may seem familiar if you follow my @doomus_rlc Instagram account from my early days on there. Found the flash drive that contained the pictures and figured they were good enough for the article.
First I feel I should give a quick background of my collecting, to give some reference of my mindset. I am a child of the early 1990s, growing up playing with the Hot Wheels of the 1980s and early 1990s. BWs (“black walls” or “basic wheels”), HOs (“hot ones”) and UHs (“ultra hots”) were what I knew. The 5sp wheels we still see in the basic lines today weren’t a thing until 1995. Granted, 1980s Majorette and Matchbox ruled my toy box over HW, but Majorette faded as I hit 10-ish years old. Johnny Lightning was starting to become a big thing around 1996 with Muscle Cars USA, Dragsters USA and Wacky Racers. This was the time when I went from purely playing with the toy cars to being a “serious” collector.
As a precursor, Target and Hot Wheels had a deal and the store chain carried what was probably the first truly “retro” line of the brand in 2006 and into 2007 (besides the anniversary sets in 1993 and 1998). There were three segments: Flying Customs, Super Chromes and Lowriders. Flying Customs played off of the Flying Colors of the mid-late 1970s, using bright enamel colors. Super Chromes played off of the mainline segment of the same name from the late 1970s. Lowriders was a completely new and unique segment, taking advantage of the lowrider scene that was big for a while, the cars having the loud looks of the real deals. It was a mixed bag of metal/plastic and metal/metal releases. The Super Chromes even had 6 gold-chrome releases, I assume to pay homage to the Golden Machines 6 pack from around 1978/1979, and also included a 10 car tin set. Later in 2007 and 2008, a new series started called Since ’68, paying homage to the “Top 40” Hot Wheels castings (subjective, obviously) and having a few different 10 car segments. The cars were all metal/metal, and featured either 5sp wheels or a newly tooled BW-like wheel, and often had redlines on the wheels or white walls for classics. The series was huge in quantity. There was the Walmart exclusive 40 car set for the Top 40 cars, the single releases of the Top 40 castings, three 10-car segments for Muscle, Hot Rods and HW Originals, and four 4-car tin sets sold through HWC. There were a number of new castings introduced, and the A-OK, which infamously disappeared in the early 1980s because the tool broke, was brought back. The cars were sometimes detailed, including painted lights and grills on several releases. We also had the Classics line that ran from 2005 through 2009. Talk about a set that is one hell of a task to complete…
In spring 2011, Hot Wheels announced at the Nationals that they were coming up with a new series called Hot Ones, a line of cars that would be a throwback to the 1980s. The series would feature metal/metal cars and use retools of the BW and HO wheels, as well as the original off road wheel (CTs), giving the series a true 1980s feel. While it used many classic castings that were still in use, several newer castings got some love as well, like the 1971 Mustang Mach 1, Ferrari 288 GTO and Ferrari 308 GTS. There were also many retools of long-out-of-use castings, like the Lamborghini Countach, Porsche 917 (complete with the flip-back engine bonnet), VW Sunagon and Packin’ Pacer. The line continued with the “chase” concept of a number of retail premium lines, where one car per case would receive wheels that had either red or white lines and “HOT ONES” printed on them.
The first mix featured the 1940s Woodie (Ford), 3 Window ’34 (Ford), Fat Fendered ’40 (Ford), ’57 Chevy (the original Larry Wood design), Neet Streeter (a custom ’36 Ford), ’70s Van (a.k.a. Super Van), Combat Medic, and the ’32 Ford Delivery.
The subsequent four mixes for 2011 featured more than 8 cars each to reach the 50 car total for the series. Filling out the series, several retools were created. The Countach, Porsche, Sunagon and Pacer already mentioned, plus the Plymouth Arrow Funny and ’80s Pontiac Firebird, and updated tools for the Pontiac Fiero and Sol-Air CX4 (the latter not having a metal base in at least 15 years at this point). This isn’t to say the HW original castings that received use in the series weren’t warranted. The Spoiler Sport, Twin Mill and Second Wind were welcomed by many collectors. A few other recent retools in the mainline also received use in the series. The Jeep Scrambler, while slightly smaller than the original casting, was much more detailed and received the first metal base for the retool. The Sting Rod had also been brought back the year prior, receiving a police deco. A number of cars received decos that paid homage to the past as well. The Pontiac Fiero, Baja Breaker, ’32 Ford Delivery, ’71 Mustang, Combat Medic and Alive ’55 (’55 Nomad) all played the part, sporting designs similar to releases from 20-35 years earlier. Many cars received metal bases for the first time: ’86 Monte Carlo, ’84 Pontiac Grand Prix, Montezooma, Lotus Esprit V8, Ferrari 308 GTS and Buick Grand National.
With the good also came the bad. While many retools were accepted with opened arms, some were met with raised eyebrows. The Steam Roller, Speed Seeker (a.k.a. Mantis), El Rey Special and Bubble Gunner weren’t ones that collectors had necessarily been clamoring for, but were for some reason brought back. On top of that, two vehicles “violated” the metal/metal mantra, the Aeroflash and Zombot (two other questionable choices for the series in general). Even the licensed Pontiac Banshee was an odd choice for a return. Before many of these were released, there was an issue with the classic wheel tools. The XL size BWs, laege-wide BWs and both size CT wheels were not ready in time for mixes 2 and 3, and forced the use of plain old 5sp for the Baja Breaker, Custom ’77 Dodge Van and Jeep Scrambler.
To add to the cluster, Target had a deal for some special sets. They had two 6 packs, just like from the 1980s, and three “chase” 10-car sets. The 6 packs were a neat idea, except for one thing: 2 cars in each set were also available single carded. Each pack used castings from the normal 2011 HO lineup, but 2 each had completely different decos, 2 each had new colorways to their single card counterparts, and 2 (as mentioned) were exactly as they were carded. That killed the sale of these sets, which were priced at $15 each (if I recall correctly). The 10 car chase sets were $25 each, and were just all chase versions of the single card cars. The only one that was truly different was the ’77 Dodge van because it received the BWs for the set instead of the 5sp.
The Hot Ones series carried over in 2012, with another 50 cars planned for the series (emphasis on “planned”), now spread out over 10 mixes. The full lineup was officially announced sometime after the Nationals in the spring that year. More retools were going to be introduced as well as new metal bases, but this time the line also included several new castings. A total of 13 castings were brought back from the dead, and 8 new designs joined the fun.
This series lineup was superb. Collector favorites like the Baja Bug and Hot Bird (the latter being the opening hood tool from HWC/RLC). Retools such as the 442 Much (originally Flat Out 442), BMW M1 and Long Shot (originally Long Gone). New castings like the ’84 Hurst Olds, ’85 Honda CRX and ’76 Chevy Monza (IMSA racer). New favorites ’83 Silverado, ’29 Ford Pickup and ’56 Chevy. These ones flew off the shelf. Even a Drag Strip Demons casting of the Corvette Funny Car was used.
There was one problem, though. There were numerous stagnant cars still on the pegs from 2011 and some from the early 2012 mixes just didn’t move. El Rey Specials from both years were left unsold. The Meyers Manx couldn’t be given away. The red and yellow Dumpin’ A retool, while I personally loved it, stayed pegged for months. Even some cars from the early 2011 mixes never left Kmarts. The GT Racer never garnered much attention. The 2011 version of the Plymouth Arrow Funny car was popular, but not the case for 2012. The 2011 Bubble Gunner was 1 per case and red/white/blue, so those didn’t hang out long, but 2012 it was pink and 3 per case. They sat, and I know I bought a few just to snag the wheels, months after release. Roll Patrols weren’t too eye catching and just couldn’t leave stores.
By the time the 5th mix of 2012 hit the pegs (if I recall correctly, was by far the strongest mix to that point: Large and in Charger, Long Gone, ’83 Silverado, ’76 Chevy Monza and ’80s Corvette and a single ’56 Chevy carryover), general retail gave up on the line. Big box retail stopped ordering, leaving the final 25 cars in limbo. Unfortunately at the same time, it was realized that three vehicles of the final mixes were not going to be done: ’79 Ford F150 (planned for mix 8), Old Number 5.5 (planned for mix 7) and MC8 Bus (mix 10). The Ford and Old Number 5.5 were switched out for recolors of other 2012 HO releases, and the spot for the Bus was dropped completely. The final mixes were made, but quickly and short runs, shipped out in two batches. Mixes 6, 7 and 8 of 2012 were left as is with the substitutes; mixes 9 and 10 were combined into one 9-car mix due to the loss of the bus. The sad thing was these mixes contained what were sure to be true hits. New models ’87 Toyota truck, ’84 Ford Mustang SVO, ’86 Ford Thunderbird Pro Stock, Subaru BRAT and Yamaha VMAX. Retools of the Cadillac Seville, Hare Splitter (a rally/baja VW Rabbit, now with a metal opening hood), Blazer 4×4, ’73 Ford Torino (Torino Stocker), Porsche 930, ’82 Supra (which had more casting detail than the original), and Dodge Rampage. The raked look for the ’63 Corvette was used. The Sunagon and Spoiler Sport retools returned. Shelby Cobra, ’80 El Camino, ’71 Mustang, ’80s Firebird and Ferrari GTO (288) all made appearances. Even the recolor of the Dumpin’ A used to replace the Old Number 5.5 was done in more appropriate deco for the truck, and both Spoiler Sports looked killer. These were easily the strongest cars of the entire series and mass general retail missed out on these guaranteed sellers. The HW team in charge for years had been using the “start weak, finish strong” mentality when it came to picking cars for premium lines and it backfired big time with this series (Racing series in 2012 was another casualty but that is a story for another time). Collectors in the US had to figure secondary means of obtaining them. Most that hadn’t relied on online hobby dealers quickly found out how convenient they are (myself included). Some areas of the states were lucky with their Dollar Tree stores where these last few mixes showed up. I know here in the north east, we received mix 6 and the combined mix 9; south eastern states received mixes 7 and 8 (and it seemed all areas received remnants of the first 5 mixes too).
For 2013, Hot Wheels kept the $2.50 price point line going. They brought the Flying Customs name back and essentially continued the Hot Ones retro concept. The 5 car per mix deal was kept, but cut to 8 mixes for 40 planned cars (there’s that emphasized “planned” again). A preliminary list of the cars to be included was given to collectors around the time the first or second mix hit. The list got many collectors excited; I was bouncing off the walls in excitement. Unfortunately the series was doomed from the start. Online dealers received the first mix almost a month before retail put them out for sale. The castings to open the line did not help either. While the ’74 Chevy Vega pro stock was welcomed as it had been scarcely used and the ’69 COPO Corvette fit right in, the rest of the mix was not met with overall praise. Plymouth Arrow Funny Car for a third time, a yellow ’76 Chevy Monza, and a third Dumpin’ A. Many felt they were just rehashing these. The second mix featured the long awaited return of the Sheriff Patrol and a new metal bases for the Custom ’42 Jeep and Tyrell P34, the Amphicar and the ’73 Torino in a classic deco. Mix three was VW vs Ford: Baja Bug and Hare Splitter, ’57 T-Bird and ’86 Thunderbird Pro Stock. Unfortunately the 5th car for that mix, the ’63 Corvette, was pushed out to a later release because of a licensing agreement for another release of the casting. This mix showed up in droves at local Big Lots. The 4th mix featured a couple Porsches (914 and 935), a patriotic ’71 Mustang funny car, the ’78 Camaro Z28 and a brown El Rey Special. Just like the first mix, the subsequent three mixes showed up at hobby dealers before stores received them, and since the majority of the designs didn’t catch our attentions like Hot Ones, many became peg warmers. General retail lost interest again and did not order more. That put the final 4 mixes in limbo. On top of that, at this point RLC members were shown sneaks of many FEPs of cars for mixes 5, 6 and 7, and again many of these showed the “start weak finish strong” mentality was in full force. A few months went by and it was decided to truncate those last 4 mixes into an 8 car mix for the 5th and final mix, a “best of” if you will, and Steve Vandervate (HWC Van) had a big hand in choosing those final 8 cars. Texas Drive Em, ’69 Camaro, ’81 Corvette Funny Car (DSD casting), Jeep CJ7 (retool), ’81 Fairmont (Front Running Fairmont retool), ’70 Olds 442 4×4 (new model, sort of), ’76 Chevette (new model), and Nissan Skyline 2000GTR (new metal base). It was a fantastic last hurrah for the series, but it left many wanting more. Four of the cars sneaked were the Turbo Mustang (which was supposed to be the debut of the retool), ’82 Supra, ’70 Torino and ’65 Mustang Coupe never made full production, though FEPs and some carded samples were shown to dealers. That ’63 Corvette mentioned earlier was dropped (it had been moved to mix 6 I believe). Others from that preliminary list (Lincoln Futura, Custom VW Beetle, Datsun 510, ’69 Mustang Boss 302, Porsche 930, Porsche 917k, Thunderburner retool, even the Bone Shaker) were now dust in the wind. What could have been a phenomenal close to the series just left collectors with a sour taste in their mouth of yet another series cut short.
What might be the worst thing about all this? Many of the retools and some new designs for these lines may never see light again. Cadillac Seville, 442 Much, ’82 Supra, Sheriff Patrol; all currently in the one-and-done state. The Dumpin’ A was only used in these two lines, and a classic, Second Wind, was only brought back for the 2011 release. New metal bases for the ’84 Grand Prix, Custom ’42 Jeep, ’86 Monte Carlo, Lotus Esprit V8 and Montezooma have just seemingly vanished. The Dodge Rampage retool was used in Road Trippin’ in 2014 but nothing else after. It took 4 years for the Porsche 930 to see daylight again, 5 for the Fairmont, 6 for the Lamborghini Countach, and 7 for the ’70 Olds 442 4×4 to resurface. The classic Turbo Mustang retool stands at only the Cool Classics release actually hitting the masses after the FC one was dropped. The “Thunderburner” retool used for Retro Entertainment was supposed to be used for Flying Customs as well; it too has yet to resurface after it’s awesome Stroker Ace tribute. Here’s hoping these cars don’t get squandered and get their full use.
For us old school fans, Mattel and Target has done a little to fill the gap left after the short-lived Heritage series with their resurrection of the “Retro” line. They’ve been a nice add for us, however they pale in comparison with their “basic” construction of metal/plastic and many coming with 5sp wheels, but thankfully coming with BWs and HOs the last few years. Here’s hoping the line sticks and some of the underused castings can be resurrected,
And there you have it. The rise and fall of the retro line. Hopefully Mattel will see worth in bringing something similar back. I have my own ideas for a revival of the line, but that’s for another article.