In 1953, the English chaps of Lesney Products came up with a toy vehicle that would match inside a matchbox. Offered that this was postwar Britain, their Matchbox vehicles reflected the stodgy reality of motoring in Blighty. They had been also a smash hit. America didn’t really hop on the tiny-toy-car bandwagon for 15 years, but when it did, the result seared itself into the consciousness of generations of vehicle-nut children.
Southern California toy manufacturer Mattel brought in former General Motors designer Harry Bentley Bradley, who had most notably moonlighted on the Alexander Brothers’ Dodge Deora show auto, and turned him loose. The resulting line of Hot Wheels toy cars burst with American optimism and Detroit-plus-SoCal hot-rod verve. The collection of 16 toys—of which Bradley was accountable for 11—featured a scaled-down Deora, Ed Roth’s famed Beatnik Bandit, the Hot Heap (primarily based on Sacramento speed merchant Don Tognotti’s Grand National Roadster Show–winning 1913 Model T), an assortment of mildly customized existing-production autos, and Ford’s J-vehicle, the prototype sports racer that killed Ken Miles and ultimately evolved into the Le Mans–winning GT40 Mark IV.
Created alongside the automobiles was the famed orange track, which any kid of the late 1960s and early 1970s will recall as exceedingly hard to connect—unless the bottom rails sheared off, at which point duct tape became your speedway’s new ideal buddy. Later playsets rectified the concern, but for some of us, there’s practically nothing like the original orange stuff.
With the holidays upon us, as we scurry hither and thither in search of the hottest toys for the young ones in our lives, let us take you back to the finish of the Johnson administration, when surf guitar, some plastic track, and a couple of sparkly toy cars have been all a kid needed for an afternoon’s worth of indoor amusement. Effectively, that and a few firecrackers to blow up the automobiles.