Originally co-founded by Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler, Mattel entered the toy business in 1947, but Matson left shortly thereafter. Handler and his wife Ruth continued to steer Mattel (it was Ruth’s belief in a franchise introduced by the company in 1959 – the Barbie® doll – that is credited with securing the girls’ market). Mattel’s mainstay with boys was toy guns (made popular thanks to television westerns).
Some time in 1966, Handler found one of his grandchildren playing with die-cast cars made by another toy company, and it occurred to him that Mattel didn’t have a product to compete with that. He assigned Jack Ryan, head of Research and Development, the task of guiding a team of about 80 designers, engineers and artists to create the new line. The company looked to the source of real cars -- Detroit -- to find an auto designer for their toy cars, and Harry Bentley Bradley became the first designer of the line.
Handler wasn’t satisfied with Bradley’s first ideas, then he took a good look at Bradley’s own customized El Camino in the parking lot, it represented the current popular car culture with modifications such as fuel injector stacks protruding from the hood and red striped tires on mag wheels. This became the design inspiration, and the Custom Fleetside was born. (All of the first 16 cars were designed by Harry Bentley Bradley, with the exception of the Custom Volkswagen which was designed by Ira Gilford.)
Research had revealed that kids who played with cars liked to race them, but that the cars already on the market at the time didn’t roll very well. Speed became a primary requirement of the new line. Mattel’s engineers worked out the bent-axle torsion-bar suspension system. This gave the cars a little bit of bounce, like real cars, and they would even spring up when you pushed them down. They also made use of inner wheel bearings -- made of a plastic called Delrin -- that would allow each of the wheels to roll independently on the axle. Note, their are no doors on this first line... not even markings. That would come later.
The most notable development was the outer wheel, made from nylon and formed in a slightly conical shape with a thin ridge on the larger, inner edge of the wheel, this would reduce surface contact to one point, and therefore minimize friction. Using a tampo process, red stripes were stamped onto the wheels to reflect a custom car trend of the time. Eventually referred to affectionately as Red Line® wheels, they would come to identify an era.
Based on Bradley’s account of how candy colors were applied to real cars by using transparent colors over silver primer, it was decided that the tiny cars would receive a light zinc-plating to achieve a similar effect. Using an electrostatic paint system, color-tinted toner was applied directly onto the zinc-plated cars, but it was a custom blend of paints that would achieve the transparency needed to produce the candy-colored appearance. This would come to be known as a Spectraflame® finish.
Graphic artist Rick Irons was in the process of developing packaging for the cars, when he got word that the name would be “Hot Wheels”, he applied it to the famous iconic flame logo. The year; 1968.