In 1953, the English chaps of Lesney Products came up with a toy car that would fit inside a matchbox. Given that this was postwar Britain, their Matchbox cars reflected the stodgy reality of motoring in Blighty. They were also a smash hit. America didn’t truly hop on the small-toy-car bandwagon for 15 years, but when it did, the result seared itself into the consciousness of generations of car-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 car, 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 responsible for 11—featured a scaled-down Deora, Ed Roth’s famed Beatnik Bandit, the Hot Heap (based on Sacramento speed merchant Don Tognotti’s Grand National Roadster Show–winning 1913 Model T), an assortment of mildly customized current-production vehicles, and Ford’s J-car, the prototype sports racer that killed Ken Miles and ultimately evolved into the Le Mans–winning GT40 Mark IV.
Developed alongside the cars was the famed orange track, which any child 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 best friend. Later playsets rectified the issue, but for some of us, there’s 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 end of the Johnson administration, when surf guitar, some plastic track, and a few sparkly toy cars were all a kid needed for an afternoon’s worth of indoor amusement. Well, that and a few firecrackers to blow up the cars.