Original article Petrolicious Productions 2017
Photography by Coby McLaughlin, Lynn Moore, and Marc Levitz // Historical images courtesy of Larry Wood and Mattel
Story by Marc Levitz
If you’re a Hot Wheels collector, Larry Wood needs no introduction. And if the name isn’t familiar, there’s really no way to summarize his extraordinary life that does it justice. He’s been working as a Hot Wheels designer for the last 48 years, graduated from Art Center, built many a full-scale hot rod, designed at Ford, drove a machine gun-equipped Jeep during the Detroit riots, was arrested for warning motorists about an unfair speed trap, drove a Corvette across the country on racing slicks, and so much more. Let’s get right into it, shall we? There’s plenty to talk about.
Marc Levitz: Outside of “Mr. Hot Wheels,” did you have any other nicknames growing up?
Larry Wood: One of my nicknames is “Weege” and my real name is Larry Wood. I grew up in Haddam, CT. A small town. Such a small town in fact that it still doesn’t have a stop sign or a stop light. Out in the middle of nowhere. Great little town. My parents would throw you out of the house at eight in the morning and you didn’t have to come back until the cow bell rang and that happened at five o’clock at night.
ML: Some people get bored in a small town—I read somewhere that when you were five years old, you painted the inside of your house with butter?
LW: Yeah, supposedly it was back in the old days when you got your butter and had a color with it and you massaged it to get the color through all of the butter. Well, somehow my mom left me with it and I started to paint a few rooms. That got us kicked out of the house but it worked out because Dad went and bought another house out in the woods, so I lived out in the woods all my life.
ML: As you grew up in Haddam, what was your view on the eduction you were receiving?
LW: Well, school never made much sense to me. And you know, high school’s especially a bad time. It’s the age where you don’t know what you’re gonna do, and there’re girls and everything else. So, it’s a terrible time! Plus, the classes—who cared about the Russians in 1605? What the heck is this all about? But you gotta just get through it. You gotta get out of high school. That’s all there is to it. In fact, the only time school finally made sense is when I got out of high school and I got a job at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft.
ML: What do you mean, “made sense”?
LW: Number one, you had to use math, and I kinda like math. You had to use a slide ruler and all this stuff. Besides that, the job at P&W out of high school was the first time anybody ever judged me on what I could do with my hands. That made sense, working with my hands.
ML: What exactly were you doing at Pratt & Whitney?
LW: Experimental sheet metal. I went to through a school program and there were 20 or 30 of us in the class and I was the only one who graduated. And from there you got to go to Pratt & Whitney and start building things. And because the sheet metal was in aircraft engines, it had to be exact. When you bent something, the metal either shrunk or it stretched, so you had to figure all this out, and thats when things were starting to make sense to me. So I did that for a few years, and like I said, it was the first time anybody ever said to me, “You’re doing a good job with your hands.”
ML: That sounds rewarding. How did that make you feel?
LW: That’s what got me going. Also, I was living in Hartford, away from home, working the night shift, getting paid and building hot rods in my free time. I’d get off work, sleep ’til two in the afternoon and then spend the rest of the day building cars. I loved the night shift. It was great. I joined a club called the CARBS at that time too. Connecticut Auto Restorers or something or other. We rented a big building and each guy had a spot for his car. The club had welders and all this equipment, so you would pay the rent and use the equipment—you could build a car no problem. I taught myself how to weld, how to build a dash, fenders, firewall, grill, all the parts. It was a fun time being 18 or 19 years-old. An interesting time for me.
ML: Interesting how?
LW: Well, I was starting to mess with cars. I had no money in high school of course, but when I got out of high school and worked at P&W I could afford to start building real cars and go to the drags and run ‘em on the street. But the story got really interesting when I was at work one day and I turned around and looked at the guy next to me. He was old (to me), something like 30, and I said to myself, “I don’t want to do this job for the next 10 years. There’s gotta be a better way to do it.”
ML: What’d you do from that point?
LW: My mom was an art teacher, and I’d read about Art Center in car magazines because I’d been drawing cars and I wanted to be a car designer, so I kinda went home with my tail between my legs and talked with my mom about going to college. And my mom understood the art end of it and everything, so I made a portfolio; never thought I’d get accepted to this huge college, you know? I did little drawings of hot rods and stuff and I guess when they look at your artwork they don’t look at the artwork because that’s what they’re gonna teach you. They look to see if you have creativity. And I did these wild cars, not drawing everyday cars or copying anything. I was doing my own thing. So I guess that’s what they were looking for, because they said, “We’ll teach this guy how to design cars. It’s not a problem.” So I got accepted.
ML: This was in the early ’60s when, without a college degree, someone with your skills could make a decent living with their hands?
LW: Yeah, like I said, I was working at P&W almost straight out of high school. The work was pretty specialized and they wanted someone who could build something and build it right. These parts were going in airplanes and the job I did was “experimental.” So they’d be designing some new hose and the bracket I’d built would hold the hose in a certain place. They’d engineer it out and I had to build it out of weird material or whatever they spec’d and when it was done, it had to match the blueprint. First time anyone asked me if I could build something, I was like, “Hell yeah!”
ML: Backing up a bit, I’m guessing before P&W you’d already had gasoline in your veins and a little grease on your hands?
LW: Yeah, when I was 15 or 16 I started building a a Flathead engine out in the shed behind my house. Dirt floor, winter gloves, Hot Rod magazine opened up. “Oh, you do this?”
So, you know, flip the motor, pull the crank out, order some Flathead parts, finned heads, whatever. So I built that in the garage. You learn. You make a couple of mistakes. I got an old frame from one of the neighbors back when cars were a dollar apiece, and I dropped that motor in and drove around the neighborhood with a string for a gas pedal. Bolted it up to a transmission, radiator. That’s all it was. Just a motor in a frame with a couple of bucket seats that weren’t even bolted down; we fell out of the car a couple of times.
ML: What about brakes?
LW: I guess it must have had brakes too, but I never worried about brakes much. I was more of a “go” guy. Drove it up and down the hills and all around the neighborhood, nobody cared, and that thing was hot! You could burn the tires right off it. We’d find a hill and just burn rubber all the way up the hill. But again, we’re talking about Haddam, CT. I don’t think the police even knew we were there, you know? My buddies were into it too. We all had ’49 Fords and ’50s Mercs and stuff like that. Fun times. Mine started out as a Flathead and later on, out of high school, we dropped in a Hemi with six carburetors and drag raced and drove it on the street every day. It was an everyday car. And when it rained the carbs would fill up with water and you had to wait awhile for it to burn off.
I hung onto that motor and ended up putting it in a ’36 Ford later on, channeled the body, no fenders. Like I said, Hot Rod magazine said to do it this way, so I did. I got the parts locally too. Funny thing was, where I lived in Haddam, CT, there was no gas station. So I had to drive 10 miles to town to get gas to do something. And then when I was done, I had to go back to that gas station to fill up to drive home. If it was too late and night and that gas station wasn’t open, I wouldn’t make it home. So I always had to hit that gas station before they closed at night. That thing used so much gas!
ML: And this is the same time when the satin jackets came into play?
LW: Wow, I don’t know where you dig this stuff up but oh yeah, the first satin jacket was when I was with the local club, The Prowlers. There were about five of us, and I did the plaque for us back in 1960. We all had our cars and had our plaques on a chain hanging off the rear bumper. Black satin jackets with the collars turned up. It was a great time. The girls would be wearing their Poodle dresses, we’d be listening to Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis.
In high school we had this place where we used to hang out we called The Pit. All the bad guys would hang out there and we got into a bit of trouble every now and then. In fact, I had a ’47 Plymouth four-door—Dad bought it, so I was driving it. And one day I read about George Barris building grills out of doorknobs. I thought that was kinda cool, and one day in homeroom I looked down and there’s this cool knob attached to the desk. So I’d sit at a different desk every day and steal the knob off it and I remember the teacher kept all of the students after class from another class because she thought they were the bad guys for stealing all the knobs and meanwhile, my ’47 Plymouth was out in the parking lot with all of the knobs in the grill! It was lookin’ good. No one ever thought they’d end up in a car grill, you know? Good ol’ George Barris almost got me in trouble.
ML: So that was the only trouble you’d gotten into? That’s hard to believe.
LW: Well, there was another time back when I lived on Route 9 in Connecticut and that was the main road to the beach. We’d sit out there and watch all these beautiful ’50’s cars go by and this is what got me excited about being a car designer. Pretty cool cars. A lot of chrome, a lot of colors. These rich people would cruise by in their Lincolns and their Cadillacs with big fins and everything. It was pretty cool.
But up at the top of the hill—I don’t know why they did it at the top of the hill ‘cause you’d think they’d do it at the bottom—they had a radar trap at the top of the hill and the road was fairly straight and went into this little town with no stop signs. It was a perfect speed trap. I thought it wasn’t fair that these people were going to the beach just cruising along, having a good time, and getting tickets, so I made a sign that read, “WARNING! RADAR! FUZZ AHEAD!”
I nailed that to a sign and then I went and watched the cars go by and slow down. Well, the cops at the top of the hill weren’t getting any tickets and they couldn’t figure out why, and the story I heard is that one of their buddies was coming up the road and saw the sign. I guess they stopped one of my buddies at some point after that and asked him about the sign. They heard it was some tall, skinny guy with glasses named “Wood” and they’d seen me down there, so they came down and got me.
ML: What happened?
LW: So I’m sitting in this room in another town in their Police HQ and I was in there for about an hour and I had nothing to do, so I changed all the labels on all of the file cabinets. A to B turned to Z to 3, that kinda thing, and finally they came in there and told me they were gonna give me a ticket for an illegal sign. I had to go to court, I pled guilty. What else was I gonna say?
I figured I’d pay the fine and be on my way, but the judge says I have to write an essay on why radar is good. It was the worst thing they could have done! It was terrible. I hated English. I couldn’t spell. It was terrible! So, I had to write an essay on why it was a good thing, that it ended World War II, slowed people down, made the world safe, that sort of thing. It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten into trouble, though. Little town. Doesn’t take much to get in trouble. Dad had to pick me up at the station a couple of times and he was not too happy about it.
ML: So getting back to Art Center where you matriculated after working at Pratt & Whitney, let’s talk about your early days there.
LW: Well, as a parent you want the best for your kid. And here I am coming back saying I want to go to college and up to that point, why would I want to go to college? There was nothing in college I wanted, you know? But my hands have gotten me where I am today and Art Center back in the day was very, very tough. We started with about 50 students and only six of us graduated. And the funny thing was that for the first year, you didn’t draw a car. They were teaching you perspective, teaching you color, how to draw in general. We had to go and draw buildings, and I’m dying! I’m trying to draw a damn car, you know?
But colors never bothered me. I’m pretty good with those, but you had to make swatches with colors and match the colors exactly with gouache paint. Like a thicker water color. It was just maddening. That’s what we used back then and the other thing we used mostly was chalk. And I’m a slob, so working with chalk was…in fact, one day my teacher said, “Wood, you don’t have to sign your artwork. You’ve got your fingerprints all over it.” That was a tough class.
ML: So how was it finally being around other students who had the same ideas about cars and design as you did?
LW: I still remember one of the guys in the boarding house who went through Art Center with all “A”’s. His name was Tom Semple. Before he even got to Art Center he was fantastic. So I’d be sitting there all night drawing until two or three in the morning, just about done with my drawing, and I’d look over and there’s Tom with his work and I’d be like, “Oh God, I’ve got a long way to go!” He was just unbelievable. A really talented guy. He was the guy that pushed you. He always pushed you to the next level, so I’d have to spend a couple more hours on a drawing after seeing one of his.
ML: That must’ve been humbling. But it’s always great to be pushed by someone you admire.What other lessons did you take away from your time at Art Center?
LW: I remember one thing. It was a chalk drawing that I was really proud of. It was black and white and we could do anything we wanted, so finally I got to draw a car part. I drew a Buick wire wheel. Spokes going in and out, reflections on the walls. It was piece of art! It was gorgeous. A little messy because of my messiness but oh, it was my pride and joy.
But, if you go to Art Center and you didn’t get to class on time, they wouldn’t look at your artwork. And I fell asleep. We all did. We all fell asleep and missed our alarms. And we got up in the morning and we jumped and ran in the car and we got there about 10 minutes late and the teacher wouldn’t look at our artwork. Oh, it killed us! So we all, weren’t making that mistake again and I gotta tell ya, from then on, I’m never late. I’m never late. If you want me somewhere at five after 10, that’s when I’m there. That’s one thing I learned through Art Center. If you commit, you’re gonna be there. It was a good lesson. I didn’t think so at the time, of course. It was a hell of a lot of work to go down the drain. But you know, you go on to the next one.
ML: How long was the program at Art Center?
LW: It was four years but I actually went straight through, so I did it in three. I took a couple of breaks but didn’t take summers off. Plus, I’d always wanted to go to California anyway, so it was a good excuse. Yeah, at that time the school was on Third Street in Los Angeles, just a house. Art Center was just a house. It used to be a girl’s boarding school back in the war or something like that. Then it became an art school. But it was very, very home-like. It was perfect for me coming from Connecticut because it wasn’t like it was now, you know, in a big building, like a monolith. It’s a beautiful place now, but before it was like everybody knew everybody, you were always out on the patio with everyone during the day. The seniors were there and they were famous people in the art world and stuff and you’d follow them all the way along and see what they were doing. So, it was a great place. Expensive though.
ML: I’ll bet.
LW: My parents didn’t have a hell of a lot of money and Art Center was costing a hell of a lot of money, plus art supplies, plus boarding. Art supplies were not cheap. Every brush was five dollars, and back then that was a lot of money. And I didn’t have a car, but I had to get around. You know, I was independent, I didn’t want to be stuck all day long. I’d get rides with my buddies back and forth usually, but one day one of the seniors had graduated and he’d posted a sign for a Honda 90 for sale, a little Honda motorcycle. I thought that’d get me around for what I wanted to do. I was living only three miles down the street, I could just putt back and forth, so I bought this little 90cc and built a rack on the back and it’d hold my drawing board and art supplies. Of course, once you get going a bit further, you’re up in the hills and that’s where I learned all about Hollywood Blvd. You know, cruising around Hollywood Blvd on my little 90! But traffic wasn’t very fast back then, and I never went on the freeway with the Honda.
ML: Yeah, I can’t imagine riding a little 90cc bike on the 101.
LW: Exactly. So one day I thought I oughta see what I can do for some more power, so I went down to the local motorcycle dealer. He had a Royal, well, it was called an Indian, but it was actually a Royal Enfield with the Indian name on it. I didn’t know that at the time, didn’t care either; it was 500cc twin, cool bike.
So I bought it for a couple hundred bucks or something. A funny story about that bike. I get on for the first time, and of course being a stupid kid, I fired it up and gave it lots of gas right away, went screaming down the street and at the first intersection I come to, I hit the brakes. Well, English bikes have the brakes on the wrong side, so I’d actually put it in second gear, shot right across the parking lot, through an intersection. Right through it. Luckily didn’t hit anything. That was one of the few times—not the first though—that I came pretty damn close to being killed.
ML: So that was your main transportation all throughout your time at Art Center?
LW: Just a year or so, because one day I was riding on Wilshire and I see this red hot rod sitting in the corner of some garage I happened to notice. So I swung around and started talking with the guy who owned it, told him I’d trade him my bike for that old hot rod he had. It was a Flathead-powered coupe. No fenders, you know, just a piece of crap sitting in the corner. The guy said, “Sure.” I asked him if it ran and he said it did, so I fired it up and got it going and I had myself some wheels, right? I just drove it for years as an everyday car.
ML: Sounds like a fair trade.
LW: Yeah, I traded a bit. Actually, I’d gotten a small job working for Dean Jeffries, the famous customizer. I did some drawings for him. I didn’t really charge him, but one day I said, “You know what? This is California and I need a roadster.”So I went and found a Model A roadster body for $25, had it delivered to Dean Jeffries. He stripped it and painted it, same color. So I took this roadster body, took the coupe body off the frame of my car, probably threw it away, put the roadster body on in its place, and I found a Chevy V8 with an automatic and I threw that in.
This was all done on a two-week vacation at Art Center. So I swapped engines, transmissions, rear-ends and body and had it painted in two weeks. No big deal. I had a roadster and an umbrella. That was the top! It was great. Cruising the beach, girls wanted to ride with you. I’d be sitting there at Art Center getting kinda bored and look around, “Hey, anyone wanna go to the beach?” That didn’t help my grades at all, but it was California and we had a good time. Luckily, I made it out of Art Center and interviewed with the Big Three and ended up at Ford ‘cause they were into high performance and I was a Ford guy, so it worked out just right.
ML: That must’ve been a great time. Working with Ford in what, around 1965?
LW: Yup. 1965. And of course I get into Detroit to start work during the world’s biggest snow storm. I mean literally, we landed during the one of the biggest snow storms in the world. Late February. I should’ve known better, being from Connecticut.
ML: What was the situation like otherwise?
LW: A buddy of mine was already there, so I roomed with him for a year. And of course, I needed a car, so what did I buy first? I guess I bought my Corvette first. CoFoMoCo. Corvette Owners of Ford Motor Car Company. We had about six Corvettes in the back lot. They wouldn’t let us park close to the front! Mine was a ’63 split-window Corvette. I crashed it so many times!I’d cut the wheel wells, put big slick tires on it, so in the snow or rain it was out of control. I spun that thing and crashed into so many cars. I got to the point where I could just take the front end off, unplug a couple of things, put it in the trunk and drive home, glue it back on and drive it. I also ended up driving that thing across the country with racing tires on it. Dumbest thing I ever did. But I never hit any rain that trip! We also had an XKE and a couple of other cars among us, but one of my buddies had just bought a Mustang GT350. And he would beat us all. Ha ha! That was an impressive car. Especially in corners, and he was a good driver, too. It was a real race car. We had a good time.
ML: Sounds perfect for Detroit winters.
LW: Well, we had winter cars, too, we just didn’t always drive them. I bought a front-wheel drive Mini Minor as well. I bought it in Chicago and the engine was out of it. So, I had to fly to Chicago, assemble the engine, put it in the car and drive it home. No problem. Metric tools. That was my winter car. And when the snow got too deep—the floor boards were rusted out—so the floor was like a scoop! The rubber mats would start coming up and pretty soon you’d be stuck in the car with the snow underneath your legs in this Mini. It’d never stop ‘cause they were front-wheel drive and it would just go through the snow like there was nothing to it. It was a lot of fun. That car’s where I met my wife, Shirley.
ML: What’s the story there?
LW: Well, she worked in Personnel, so she knew all about me because everyone in Personnel knows about everybody, kinda their job right? She was a secretary, and I’d gone to a Christmas party and we struck up a conversation there and we ended up eating all the ice cream at this party too. Also, she was right down the hall from where I worked, so we started dating and going out and the funny thing was when I’d get into work in the morning I’d come in and take a penny and roll it down the hallway—it was a huge, long hallway—and her office was at the very end. So, she’d be working away and this penny would come rolling in and she’d know I was there. The only trouble is every once in a while her boss was sitting there while she was taking dictation and this penny would roll into the office while she was working. But it was fun! I was a trainee/designer at Ford in Detroit, you know? I worked in different studios for about three months, getting good pay for a single guy, and so it actually worked out pretty good for her, so she can’t complain. Ha ha. But we clicked, you know?
ML: So ultimately, how long did you stay at Ford and what, specifically, did you do there?
LW: I stayed there for about two years. I’d been getting a little tired of the weather, to start with. But while I was there I worked on Mustangs, Big Cars, Interiors and then Advanced, which was where the fun stuff was. I actually liked Interiors because they wouldn’t narrow you down to doing just door handles. In Interiors, we got to do whole seats, the dash, everything. Whereas, if you were working on a regular car, you’re a trainee, so they’d have you do just a grill or something. You know, you’re doing 14 different grills and you gotta hang ‘em on the wall by three o’clock. We’d take a piece of blackboard and take tape and paint the tape silver and you’d put the tape on the grill to get the right texture because they already knew where the parking lights were, where the openings were. We’d just come up with the texture. But if you found something you really liked, you’d hide it.
ML: What do you mean, “hide it”?
LW: Well, because you’re doing these grills for like three or four weeks and the bosses, they don’t want to go home. You know, they’re not happy at home and they’re getting paid overtime staying around at Ford instead, so you’d work overtime at night with them. And we’d go out, have dinner, have a few beers before we came back to work, so it was always a pretty relaxed thing after six o’clock. The paychecks were just laying on my desk either way, so we’d hide our best designs for the right time. See, you’d go through and do ten or so as a group one day, and they’d get narrowed down to two or three or four, and at the last minute, you’d pull the good one out and stick it on the wall and hope everybody realized that was the good one!
ML: Sounds like everyone milked the clock for those overtime hours. Outside of working in different studios at Ford, what was the atmosphere like at that time, in America?
LW: Oh, you know, you had to play the game. Ford was a big company, so you had to play some politics at work, and you know, I’m a young kid, partying, having a good time, so my name wasn’t exactly at the top for people to think of me being an executive at that time, that’s for sure!
And at Ford, you had to dress up all the time. But I used to make my own ties—paisley ties ‘cause I couldn’t find any—just to have you know, the “cool” look. It was hippy time and there were about six of us that were kinda hell raisers, the Corvette group, for example. And the parties we’d have? I mean, these were parties! We’d go to all the girls’ colleges and hand out flyers for parties at so-and-so’s house. And ours was a rental in a nice little neighborhood and by ten at night the street would be filled with cars during the summer. People out in the street, music on every floor. I’d go around and change every light bulb to a red one and I’d put a flasher in the socket, so every room was flashing red lights all night long. Balloons from floor to ceiling, rock-n-roll playing all day and night. Fridges all over the place. We had some pretty good parties. They got a little out of control sometimes and the neighbors would tell us not to have people park their cars on their lawn and of course, we tried to make sure that didn’t happen. But it did anyway, as these things go.
So a couple of buddies of mine moved into this area where everything was basically a mansion. Not the nicest neighborhood, but the houses were huge. Theirs had a bowling alley on the top floor, a six-car garage out back for servant’s quarters. It was huge! And it was dirt cheap because nobody wanted to live in downtown Detroit, you know? So, you talk about parties? This place was unbelievable. A band on every floor, something happening every single night it seemed. During the workweek. Luckily we didn’t work on Saturdays and Sundays. In the mornings there’d be bodies all over the place, people just crashed on the couches or whatever. Front yard. It was just party time. It was harmless. Nobody ever got in any major trouble though. The cops would come and try to quiet it down but in that neighborhood they really didn’t care too much because we weren’t killing anybody. But then the Detroit riots hit.
ML: And you were right in the middle of it. So this would be 1967?
LW: Yeah, and I was actually in the National Guard at the time, so I got called up and had to go to the riots. I drove a jeep with a .30 caliber machine gun on it though the streets of Detroit. It was scary. There was shooting going on and everything else but basically we were there just to show force. The whole Army showed up. And this is during the Vietnam War time and you didn’t want to go there, so you enlisted in the National Guard instead. And I was one day away from being called to go to Vietnam and then I got the notice that I was accepted into the National Guard.
We’d go to upper Michigan for three weeks for practice and I was in artillery, so I’d get out there with my goggles and find a ’57 Chevy out in the field and we’d shoot a Howitzer at it and blow it up. But then they called us in and we had to drive back into Detroit for the riots. We guarded liquor stores at night, things like that. It was really bad for a bit and we were right in the thick of it. Shooting all around us. Then I got a call that they were going to my house because there was somebody in there shooting at the National Guard. Well, they showed up and tore that house apart. The place where so many of those parties were. Where all my buddies lived. There were .50 caliber holes everywhere and there was an old Packard out in the front that the owner had just left sitting out there and that thing was just riddled, the house was just riddled. My Model A was in the garage in pieces because I was working on it, but it never got touched, luckily. My buddy showed me a cigarette lighter with a .50 cal halfway through it though! Bullet went through the wall, through the dresser, through his clothes and into his cigarette lighter. Luckily they weren’t in the house. It was a mess. That was the end of the parties, and I figured it was time to leave Detroit too.
ML: So that was it for you at Ford?
LW: Well, I left there with one sort of claim to fame. I was always drawing hot rods with big scoops on the hoods and remember, it’s performance car time, Mustangs and whatnot, and I was always drawing cars with big engines and headers and everything on them. And for the scoops, they said, “You can’t do that.”And I’d say, “Oh yes, you can. You just gotta drain the water over here and you hook it up to the engine and then do this…”
Now, I left before it got accepted and changed into the real scoop on real cars, but I’m gonna take credit for the idea of the Shaker Hood. Somebody had to take it from there and develop it after I was gone. Then they ended up on everything. I got out at just the right time though. They were starting to put big bumpers on the fronts of cars and sidelights and crash stuff and everything. You could see the writing on the wall that this wasn’t gonna be fun from now on.
ML: What came next?
LW: Through a couple of friends, I’d heard about a job out in California, freelance work. The actual studio was about five miles away from Ford in Michigan. It was a place called Sundberg-Ferar, and all they did was design. They did the BART transit in San Francisco; they did a lot of big projects like that and had been hired by Lockheed to do the interior for the L-1011 commercial plane as consultants. So, I heard about this job and went to Sundberg-Ferar and told them I’d take the job only if they’d send me to California. So, I ended up working with them for two years and did everything from Sears tractors to jukeboxes, to new interiors for airlines, graphics on the walls, that sort of thing. In fact, on every L-1011 there’s a logo on the jet engines, and I did that. It was a fun job because you know, I’d been doing enough door handles and little things like that at Ford, and all of a sudden my first job was actually a tractor for Sears.
And at Ford, you typically quit at 5 o’clock and went home, but guess what? That tractor was due in a couple of days, and so you didn’t go home. You worked all night. That wasn’t so fun, but I ended up doing the first tractors with headlights. I did parts for Sears refrigerators. I did a Rock-Ola jukebox, the graphics, the buttons. Lots of colors and stuff. But in the meantime, I’m building cars of course. I had a ’55 Ford T-Bird for an everyday car. Three speed. I’d also built a Model A truck for my hotrod, Corvette rear end in it, living in Tujunga. Lots of fun.
ML: So from the Big Three to Sears tractors and commercial jet interiors, how’d you end up becoming “Mr. Hot Wheels”?
LW: Well, the jobs were winding down, and I had to seriously consider what it was that I was gonna do and I ended up going to a party in Torrance, which was a long way away from where I lived. I almost didn’t go. And I didn’t know it at the time but my buddy worked for Mattel and his kids were outside by the pool playing with this orange track with a loop and everything in it and these neat little cars. At that time, my own kid was just about a one-year old, so I don’t know anything about these toys yet. So I ask Howard—that was my buddy—I asked him, “What is this?”
He says, “That’s what I do. I design Hot Wheels.”
And I said, “Oh, these are cool!”
He says, “But I don’t like it. I’m not a car guy.” He says he wants to work on toy lines like Major Matt Mason and other outer space things, all that. I asked him to try to get me in. I’d do that for a job until I can find a real job I though. I ended up going in to interview, and it went smoothly. I spoke with Elliot Handler, who, I didn’t know at the time, was the “big boss,” you know? And the one thing I remember about that interview is almost all interviewers ask you certain things, blah, blah, blah, but Mattel would do things like show us pieces of forms and at the end there’d be one all folded up. And so you had to say this form would fold into that form because they wanted to know if visually, you could figure out. And from my sheet metal work, that’s what I did for a living at one point, so I could look at a pattern and just figure it out. But the questions were like that, rather than, “Who was the King of Spain in 1645?” So, it was a perfect interview for me and they all knew I was a car nut already. I think I drove my Model A that day. And like I said, Howard was ready to move on so it worked out perfectly.
ML: So what was the first car you worked on for Hot Wheels?
LW: The first couple of cars I worked on were actually his designs, Howard’s. I just finished ‘em. The first one was called Noodle Head and I remember it because it had all these pipes on the top and Howard hadn’t developed those yet, and being a car guy, I always liked the pipes on the GT40, the spaghetti pipes, so I did all these spaghetti pipes on the back of the car, coming out the back.
ML: This was during the “dream car” days, right?
LW: Yeah, and we were doing them in clay back then! We had a clay modeler and he would model the car. Elliot Handler, the boss, would come and sit next to me once in a while because he liked car design. He was obviously invested in Hot Wheels. He’d come over and we’d put sketches on the wall, maybe a front end off of this and a backend off of that, and kind of put those together. And we were doing quite a few of those “dream cars” at the time.
ML: As I understand it, Elliot Handler’s wife, Ruth, wasn’t all that excited about Hot Wheels at the beginning.
LW: Well you know, the original designer, Harry Bradley, it came to the point where they weren’t gonna make any more Hot Wheel cars, so he didn’t have a job. I don’t know if he quit on his own or Mattel let him go or something but then when they went to the toy fair and all of a sudden, everybody wanted ‘em!
So they had to hire somebody else and that’s when they hired Ira Gilford because they all of a sudden needed more cars. Harry was only there for the first cars and Ira only stayed for a little while too. Then, like I said, it was Howard Reese, who was the guy that got me in. And then when I got in I was only gonna stay for a little while as well, so you know, it was just one of those things that just kept going.
ML: And Hot Wheels was just getting off the ground around then?
LW: At that time, Hot Wheels had been out for a year. I started there in September of ’69. The first year’s cars were out on the shelves, the second year had been developed, so I basically came in for the third year releases. But when Harry first started, they had all the Matchbox cars, all the competitors out there and they were trying to figure out what they didn’t do. And that’s where the “California Custom” idea came from. Bright colors, redline wheels, five spokes, big engines, you know?
So, from that point on, we were doing basically hot rods when nobody else was. That’s what got Hot Wheels going. If we’d have tried to do another Matchbox car, or just a regular car with wheels on it, even it if rolled well—who cared? But when they came out with Spectraflame paint? Wow! Some of those colors were just fantastic. And the orange track came with it, so it just took off from there.
ML: Just how important was that orange track?
LW: Well, I wasn’t there at the beginning of it when that was decided, but the story I heard is they would push the Hot Wheels across the table and they would go off the table edges instead going all the way across the table. Elliot really wanted to see them go, so somebody came up with—and it probably wasn’t a piece of orange track at first, it was probably metal—a walled track so the cars went straight. That took off, so as far as the basics go, they were already there when I started.
ML: Talk to me about the first full car you designed for Hot Wheels then.
LW: My first car was the Tri-Baby. I’d worked at Ford and I never got to design a real car. Now I was hearing, “You’re gonna do a car, so what are you gonna do? You’re gonna do a sports car, right?”
So that was kinda where the Tri-Baby came from. It’s got three turbines in the back. And being in the aircraft industry for a time, I did quite a few cars with turbines, jet engines. All the jet cars I ever did came from those days, like the Jet Threat car, for example. And again, Hot Wheels was a small department. Barbie ruled everything then. We didn’t even pay her taxes! We were just the small, little Hot Wheels over in the corner and if it wasn’t for Elliot, I probably wouldn’t have even been there. We made something like 12 cars a year. Not a big deal. At that time, I did all the graphics on all the cars, did tracks, some of the sets, some of the graphics on the packaging, basically did everything.
ML: Sounds like you had your hands pretty full in those days.
LW: When I first started, they hired a couple of guys, Paul Tam and Bob Lovejoy, who designed the Whip Creamer and the Rocket-Bye-Baby, respectively. Just three of us. And Hot Wheels kinda got smaller because most toys don’t last more than a year or two, anything longer than that is pretty unusual. Tooling is made for three, maybe four years and then that’s it. That’s the hard part about working for a toy company—the turnover of ideas is so high. I mean, they have different SKU’s every year of all new toys. I mean, Barbie alone, like I said. At one time I was bragging about my Hot Wheels and one of the girls I knew working on Barbiewas asking me how much Hot Wheels had made for Mattel so far. I told her how much. She told me that Barbie’s horse made more than the entire Hot Wheels line combined! So, after a couple of years Hot Wheels got small enough where those guys we’d hired were let go and I was the only designer, for 15 years. We had one engineer, Bob Rosas.
ML: Outside of designing Hot Wheels, what other responsibilities did you have?
LW: Well, I’m drawing hot rods all day long and I got to do the research right? See cars and take pictures and meet people. I got to meet cool people all the time. I got to work with those guys like Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen. The marketing guys at Mattel put that whole thing together.
And Mattel was so loose back then. Compared to Ford. At Ford, we had to wear a tie, a three piece outfit all the time, had to dress up. And you come to Mattel, you know, it’s still the ’60s, the girls were looking good in their mini-skirts and the guys would just wear everyday clothes. It was a casual day every day.
ML: No casual Friday?
LW: Oh no. No difference! But it was very family-oriented. In fact, if someone wanted to go on a picnic they would talk to the people in their department and the whole department would end up going on a picnic that weekend. We all used to go the desert, motorcycle racing and we’d bring 30 people. Families, kids and motorcycles, everything. Just as a group. We knew everybody and their families. Everybody knew where everyone lived. It was just a big family. It was just fantastic.
ML: Ultimately, how long did you work for Mattel?
LW: Well, I’m on my 48th year. Still going. And if you think about it, it was a perfect match. They wanted a guy that knew cars, and it wasn’t Matchbox. It wasn’t regular cars. They always wanted Hot Wheels to be different, so all our cars were always featured a little bit or a lot of customizing, a little bit of realistic and a little bit of fantasy mixed together. So, every time they wanted me to do a car, it was exactly what I’m thinking anyway. It wasn’t all Lamborghinis the first year, which was something that Matchbox would do, you know? Or rescue vehicles or something. We did stuff like that too, but really it was hot rods.
ML: I remember having a few rescue vehicles in my collection, actually.
LW: Yeah, we did tow trucks, fire rescue vehicles, that sort of thing. Only because kids wanted to push ‘em around.
ML: Speaking of those types of cars, how much of a relationship was there between those and the television show, “Emergency”?
LW: Well, there was a relationship, but they didn’t know it! I mean, any TV show will help sell cars, so you kinda take a little bit of that and put it in a Hot Wheels car. Dukes of Hazard? I did a car like the General Lee. It wasn’t the exact Dukes of Hazard car, but it was an orange Charger with a flag on the roof!
ML: I had that car! And the tow truck and funny cars and a bunch of other ones in the cases. Actually, I kept my cars in great shape but one day my collection ended up with my little brother, and let’s just say he like to play crash-up, so most of mine aren’t in the greatest shape anymore. Now, when I go on Ebay, some of those cars are pretty expensive. Some are in the hundreds of dollars range now!
LW: Well, that’s the fun part. You know, going back and trying to find them. And it’s worth it. Have you ever been to a Hot Wheels convention? Oh, do yourself a favor, you should go. Every room is filled with thousands of cars. Some of these collectors, they don’t even sleep on their beds; they sleep on the floor with their cars on the beds! And all night long they trade back and forth and there’s some real money there, too.
ML: If you didn’t end up designing Hot Wheels for so long, what else do you think you’d be up to?
LW: I always say if I wasn’t drawing Hot Wheels, I’d be stealing hub caps! I really don’t know what else I’d have done. I might’ve started a hot rod shop. There were days at Mattel when I thought I might want to do something else. There were a couple of times when I went out and looked for another job, but never really seriously. But in 48 years, you’re bound to come across a couple of days where you just feel this isn’t right, right?
And back then, Ed Roth and all those guys were getting started. I could’ve done T-shirts, artwork. There were always opportunities. But nothing was ever gonna match like Hot Wheels, which is funny because growing up I never played with toy cars. But again, I’m a designer and a car guy and a hot rodder. And those three elements come together in a Hot Wheel. Every car we do has a personal touch of somebody on it and they’re not just production cars. I mean, sure, we did and do make production cars, but they usually have our wheels on them or something that else that says it’s a Hot Wheel, not just a car. Other companies can do those reproductions. I enjoyed just about every day I was working on Hot Wheels.
ML: There was some major competition in the toy car market. Hot Wheels took on Matchbox and Corgi, for example. How did you think about them?
LW: Actually, the biggest competition we had was Johnny Lightning. Remember Johnny Lightning? They basically copied our style. Wheels, tracks, everything. And they also went to Indianapolis in 1970 and 1971 and sponsored a car and won. Al Unser’s car. The Johnny Lightning Special. That was the worst day of my life when Johnny Lightning went to Indy and won the race! I thought that should have been Hot Wheels.
ML: Speaking of differences, besides the customization, what was it about Hot Wheels cars that separated them from the other competitors?
LW: One of the things I always like to do with Hot Wheels was to make sure the cars were accurate. You flip it over, it had the right engine, it had the right rear-end, gas tank, full lines. I loved to do that kind of stuff. That was kinda my thing and I think it helped Hot Wheels, because a kid could turn it over and say, “Whoa! You know, it’s a still a car underneath.” Other toy manufacturers would just do flat bottoms typically.
ML: And how did the Hot Wheels cars get some of their names? Those always struck me as unique to the brand.
LW: Naming was a funny thing in the very beginning. We had a guy that came up with the names and he was kind of a funny guy. That was his job. Sid, I think was his name. And again, you work on the whole car and then when you get done, they name it this stupid name, so later on we got a little pushy or he quit or something happened and we started naming the cars ourselves. We figured we were doing everything else so we should do the names, too. Of course, there wasn’t a lot of legal back then, so you could do almost anything, any car, anytime, any name. Now, you gotta submit the name, the car, etc. It’s a big deal. There’s a whole department now that does that.
ML: Out of all of the cars you designed, what were some of the least fun ones to do?
LW: Ah, you’re coming to one of my pet peeves! What happened was that the gas crisis hit, so marketing comes to me and tells me we have to do “gas crisis” cars. And I said, “C’mon, these are Hot Wheels. We can’t do ‘gas crisis’ cars.”
But that was the law, and they told us what cars we had to do, so I did those. However, remember the Poison Pinto with the big motor sticking out?
ML: I loved that car! I had a green one.
LW: Or the Vega Bomb? I would put a spin on ‘em and tell them I’d do a Pinto and I’ll do a Gremlin, no problem. Well, I’d go to my desk and you know, hop it up and make a Hot Wheel out of it. But occasionally there were a couple of cars we had to do for “reasons,” and we did ‘em. Ugh. It was stupid. But you can’t win ‘em all, right?
ML: Actually, I really dug the Greased Gremlin, to be honest.
LW: Well, I’m an AMC guy too, and I did the Greased Gremlin. I used to drive an AMC Hornet Sportabout. It was a station wagon. Neat looking car. Somebody oughta build one now ‘cause the wheel wells were pretty scooped out, and if they had big wheels in there it’d really look good. But I needed an everyday station wagon, so I bought a Sportabout, put some mag wheels on it. No big deal. My kids hated it. Little six-cylinder. In fact, I heard later from my son that he hated it so much that he blew the transmission up so that he wouldn’t have to drive it! He didn’t want that car obviously… I sold it to a neighbor for $100 and it only had a reverse gear. So I drove it backwards down the street to his place.
ML: From looking around your garage, it looks like you’re a man of many projects. From building your own road-going cars to small tinkering, how do you stay organized?
LW: Well, I’m up early and get rolling. I don’t wanna let the day go by without doing something. I have dozens of lists. Oh, I’m a list maker. I’m going up north in a couple of weeks and I’ve got a list of all the things I have to have ready to send out so that when I leave for two weeks, I come back and they’re all done. That way, I don’t feel like it’s my fault if they’re not being done, right?
ML: And if something doesn’t get done the way you want?
LW: Eh, what are you gonna do? I just had an exhaust system done on my Triumph Bonneville and it just bubbled the first time I fired the bike up. And I spent good money to have ‘em chromed. So, what are you gonna do? Just take it back to the guy and he’s redoing it for me. No big deal.
ML: Getting back to Hot Wheels, you’ve obviously created some of the most iconic and unique designs, one of which, in my opinion, was the Science Friction car. How’d that come to life?
LW: Well, I don’t remember exactly, but it had the radar dome on it and guns on the front. Again, you’d come up with ideas and for that one, there must have been some TV stuff happening at that time.
ML: That car was a ’78 car, I believe, so Star Wars and Battle Star Galactica would have been everywhere.
LW: Yeah, something in that era got me going on that. I did the Space Cop graphics and all that on the sides. That was a weird little car. The engine was hanging out the back. That was one of those “dream cars” where you sketch it and just see how it goes and take it from there. And then, you know, one guy likes it and another guy will think that’s one of the worst cars ever!
ML: Speaking of futuristic concepts, how did you feel about the transition to digital drawing and designing? And what are some of the key differences between the design processes now and the processes when you were running things at Hot Wheels?
LW: I just like the feel of a pencil or pen on paper. Markings and everything else and I was brought up that way, so going to digital? I tried it. I took classes and I did a few things but it just always came back to actual drawing, and I was getting ready to retire anyway, so I wasn’t gonna go that direction, digital. I wish I had but I wasn’t gonna go do any digital stuff. Even now, I do two cars a year, and they’re still drawings. You know, send it in, give it to them. The guys there now are magic. They’ll take a drawing and just convert it into 3D and look at it and it comes out in the SLA or Stereolithography and they can make it smaller or bigger. In fact, we’re working on one right now where we’re adding extra parts to it. It’s where they take it and a laser goes into a vat of plastic and where the laser touches, it hardens and so it does a layer at a time. And if you look at these things you can kind of see the little lines of the thousands and thousands of layers and they can make these things in you know, about eight hours. In the old days it was months.
ML: And back in the day when you were running the program, how do those days compare to what you just described in today’s design process?
LW: Well, in those days they were similar. In the beginning we’d come up with ideas with Marketing and they’d collaborate with us and tell us we’d need three vintage cars, seven production cars, we need two race cars, that sort of thing. And it would vary. But basically we’d fill the wall with ideas, and there were times when Marketing would say just “Do anything you want,” and other times they’d be more specific, like the gas crisis cars. So, different personalities would do it different ways.
After deciding that stuff, you’d do a drawing, a perspective drawing on paper, and if it was accepted, you had to get it down to a size. If it was a real car, a production car, you’d go out and measure it. If it wasn’t a real car, you’d draw a side view, a top view, a front view, and a rear view. That way, you’d get a feel for the car. And they had to fit in the package too, which was always the same size, so you’d have to make big a VW Beetle and a small Bus, for example, so you worked around those constraints.
ML: What happened after you got the proportions and packaging dimensions squared away?
LW: There were a couple of steps. Sometimes they would make a model by hand, usually out of plastic, but hand-carved. Very talented people made those. Then, after you got the “OK,” after they saw the model and liked it—and sometimes the model was made into what we called “epoxies”—they would take a mold and let you make as many as you want. You could paint them different colors, work on schemes, etc.; they didn’t have windows, they didn’t have chrome, blah, blah, blah, and that’s what you would use for toy shows back then.
When they went to New York to show the next years’ Hot Wheels, you weren’t far enough along to have the real things yet, so you’d have these handmade epoxy models. Very hard to find, very rare pieces these days. But after that, sooner or later you’d get a model shop guy who’d be assigned to you to build the car that you were designing. They had a whole shop for that. And that’s what the final car would look like, but in wood. The approved design would have to go to Legal to get approved usually, or other times it would be fine already name-wise, so it’d go into production.
ML: So, once it was approved and you had the wood model, what were the next steps?
LW: After the wood, you’d have what was called a “shell,” and the shell was every part of the car, made in the right thickness but done three or four times up in scale. You always had a body, a chassis, interior and windows. So every part was there and it’s made three or four times up and this, for example, would have all the parts you’d need to make this Ferrari in the right scale. In this car, the Ferrari, I snuck in tail lights, which were red, so I also got a two-tone interior: red tail lights and a red seat. This wasn’t done very often but occasionally we’d get something like this in, so it was kinda neat.
And this is what you sent to the producers in the Orient to have them make the tools, including any detail we were gonna put on there, A-arms, that sort of thing. For the tooling, they’d have a big, huge hunk of steel and they’d carve a negative into the steel and then they’d do the positive and there’d be a space between them and you’d inject plastic or the metal in between the two and when they opened up, you’d have a car. You get what’s called a “first shot” which is what’s still stuck on the sprue, and if you had windows and other details, the tool would have to come from the sides, too, so it’d get all four sides to get the windows for instance. And after that, they break these off the tooling, throw them in a bin with each other, and they’d bang into each other, smooth off all the corners and everything, and then it’d be sent to paint.
ML: What kind of paint was used?
LW: They’d use electric static paint. The pieces go on a rack—hundreds of cars—and they go into a paint booth where they’re given a negative charge. Then the paint comes out of the spray gun charged positive, so the paint wraps around the whole car and that’s how they get the paint inside and all that. Real cars are painted that way, too. It’s exactly like powder coating. But it was lacquer. Charging them with electricity would suck the paint and get it into all the corners and everything. And then when you got it painted, you have your interior and other parts and they all come in a tray to the assembly line and they start assembling the car. When I started doing Hot Wheels, all that took place at Mattel instead of in Malaysia. I’d go down and watch the cars being assembled.
I didn’t realize how cool that was at the time but now it’s like, wow! The pink bus for example was made there and I didn’t know it. They did five million cars a week. All of the cars, every model. Do you know how fast you’d need to be to do that? There’d be rows of people, parts coming down constantly. Hand assembled, because every one is different. We tried a couple of times to put the wheels in the same spot or the spin posts in the same spot but it just doesn’t work. Each car is a little different. They make so many that if they drop a part, they don’t even bend over to pick it up. Like I Love Lucy and the candy machine. They’re just coming down, you know? In the beginning they were in Hawthorne, CA, then it went to Hong Kong and then I think it went to Malaysia. You just gotta go where you can afford it. Still trying to make a one-dollar car.
ML: Electric static paint, wood, shells, first shots. Where and when did brass models come into the process?
LW: Glad you asked. The brass cars were done for testing because they weigh the same as a real car. We’d pantograph these, which was a machine that copies, in this case, four times down; we’d make the brasses and put on the correct wheels and have the chassis and it’d all weigh the same. It would answer the questions of actual usage. Would it go through the tracks, would it do the loops? So they were made for testing and they only did one per car and we only did it for a couple of years at that. There might be maybe a dozen around now. They were part of the legacy of building Hot Wheel cars. Technically, they were handmade because a guy had to sit there all day long copying this car on the pantograph. It would cut and you’d have to go real slow. Those machines could also make toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, anything.
ML: What about the graphics? How did those come about for Hot Wheels?
LW: The graphics on the cars are called “tampo.” That was used on pencils, pens, anything with a shape to print on. And somebody at Mattel saw it one day and thought maybe we could print on cars, too. And that made a big difference. I suggested years ago that we should use 3D printers but it’s not as easy as just that. I mean, you print paper with color on it, so why not use that to print on cars?
ML: Right. So the graphics wouldn’t scratch off because they’d be embedded into the design of the car?
LW: Exactly. They’re still working on that. It’s one of those things that some day it might work. But the tampos is an art that you do flat, a machine comes along and picks it up and puts it on the car. And you have to do that three times. Different colors. You can’t do one. You have to do three different pads because the pad is contaminated with the other colors. So you have three pads, squirt, squirt, squirt and later on, when we had more money, we could do all sorts of colors and sometimes we actually did NASCAR cars, we had to do a decal because there were so many colors.
If you stop and think about doing five million units a week and every one of them has to have three prints on it? There’re buildings full of these little machines putting these colors on! Somebody puts the car in and it comes out the other side printed, but it has to flipped over to do the other side, then the top. It costs money. So when you’re cost-estimating a car to build, you have to take all that into consideration. Is the car molded in a color? If it’s plastic you get free color. If it’s a diecast you have to strip it down, you have to get it ready and then paint it, so it costs a lot more, for example.
ML: What happened to all of the earlier car-making when Hot Wheels had opening hoods and doors and other moving parts?
LW: It was just a cost thing. It’s always a cost thing. You gotta make a car for a kid for a dollar, yeah? Inflation is real. That’s why you see a lot more plastic now. But for the Collector Series, we had opening doors, hoods, a perfect engine and interiors, the wheels were accurate. That was the most fun of all.
ML: On that topic, let’s talk a bit about Delrin bearings and the early days when kids could change the wheels on a Hot Wheels car.
LW: Yeah, you could pull the wheels off. The very first couple of years, they’d assembled them that way, you know because back then, it was a different time. Now, you’d have a swallowing problem but you know, back then, you swallow it and it’s gonna come out sooner or later! Don’t worry about that. You’d get your wheel back but you might have to do a little digging! But for the cars with the Delrin bearings, they had a plastic chassis and the frame for the axles and all that gave the cars a form of suspension. Remember the old cars?
ML: I read they used piano wire for the axles.
LW: Yeah and all of that had to go because of costs too. Hot Wheels still does it pretty well. We engineer the wheels and we engineer the axles and everything to still be really fast but back then, you tested everything. We had cars daily going down a track, checking what kinds of materials we used, how thin the axles were, where do you touch the wheel on the pavement, you know? Little things like that until you got the fastest wheel. We did a series of cars called “The Hot Ones” with the gold wheels. Those were re-engineered to come up with a Hot Wheel we could afford and make a better Hot Wheel than there was at the time.
ML: The redline wheels, of course, are legendary. What do you remember most about them and how did they eventually get phased out?
LW: I remember being in meetings where they were phasing them out. Remember, most toys are only gonna last for a few years. So, we’re into Hot Wheels for a few years and sales are starting to come down, Barbie’s doing great, of course, as always, and there were meetings, quite often, about dropping Hot Wheels. They just weren’t making it like they did the first year. The first year they were made, everything was sold. And you know, the ’72/‘73 cars were very minimal in terms of tampos and they used enamel. Very rare and very expensive now. Hard to come by. And there weren’t many made, either. So, it was a matter of getting the costs down. And if you stop and think about it, every Hot Wheel wheel had to stop at a machine to print that red line on it. It costs a fraction of a penny, but with a multiple of five million each week, how much is that? Besides the money, stop and think about the time. But again, with some of the cars now, we’re starting to get back to putting lettering and red lines on them, but those are more collector cars than for kids.
ML: So not only were the redlines being phased out, but the entire line of Hot Wheels toys almost went extinct. How did they bounce back to where they are now?
LW: Yup. There were times when we thought it was the end of Hot Wheels. But luckily somebody would decide to give it another year. You know, it was close. Three votes instead of four. Like everything else, it was only gonna last a little while in all probability. Never thought those cars would be worth anything. Pink Buses were on my desk. I didn’t care. Who cared?
You know, Hot Wheels was basically almost done and I was in the corner over there by myself. In ’72, I think it was, I did like six cars that year. It was basically done. But then what happened is that the parents that played with Hot Wheels, when they started having kids, they would go to the store and remember Hot Wheels and get one, and a lot of times get one for themselves too. In the early-to-mid ’80s, all of a sudden, sales started to go up and they had to hire more guys to help me. We had to have more engineers too. Everything exploded very fast. It was unbelievable. Now it’s grandpas buying Hot Wheels for their grandkids. It spans three generations. And again, if you’re in the toy business? Three years is basically what you shoot for.
ML: With respect to the collectors, there’s a also a movement of people out there customizing their Hot Wheels with paint jobs and body modifications. One guy who I found online who goes by HolzMöbel Fathur, who does some really intricate work with acrylic color and Sharpies and he never opens up the cars’ rivets to do it. How do feel about that movement and people personalizing their Hot Wheels?
LW: Whoah! Look at those details. Holy…he uses Sharpies? I like working with Sharpies and I’ve done a lot of stuff but I’ve never done that kind of artwork even though I do all my drawing in Sharpies. That is cool. I can’t even think of anything that small. Wow, look at that. Jeesh! Some of the stuff these guys do. That’s cool. Let’s send him a picture. Let him know Larry approved it! Like everything else, it takes a lot of time and energy. I love these guys. They do some great stuff.
ML: Speaking of the cars you dig and have worked on and collected, I highly doubt it’s one of your favorites, but the Stutz Blackhawk is one that I still have. I know It’s a bit of a pimp car but I’ve had this one since 1980. In your estimation, which specific car or cars really stand out as a favorite and make Hot Wheels collecting what it is today?
LW: Ugh. You have no taste! But somebody actually built that car, the Stutz. But a few years into working at Mattel, one of the engineers at work thought that someday they might be worth something, so I started to try to find ones that were cool. I’ve got enough of them here for a collection. It’s just neat having the ones you worked on all these years ago. I tried to keep one of everything; I don’t have everything, obviously, but close.
One of my favorites is the ’49 Mercury. I always consider that one as the car that let us, no told us, that there were collectors out there. Because up to that point, we always had to have the wheel wells open and the wheels sticking out. But this is the first car that we built for collectors. The wheels were tucked inside, which means it didn’t roll very well but it looked good. We all knew what a Merc was—it was all designed strictly for collectors. Didn’t know if we were gonna sell ‘em or not. But this thing sold like crazy. The first Purple Passion Merc was in 1990, and it was basically a test to see if they would sell and of course, it went from there and it got bigger and bigger. Toward the end of my career, I got into the collector market and that was two years of the best, best job ever. Just doing the collector cars. They had the right rims, the rubber tires, had a full interior, you could put on surf boards, the hood opened, it had all the right parts.
ML: And that’s when collectors, a new market, began to come out of the woodwork?
LW: I don’t know if you ever heard the name, but Mike Strauss, he started the collector end of it. He came into Mattel one day and we sat down and talked and he said there were collectors out there. At first, we didn’t know but he started to do a little newspaper through Mattel, very small, called The Hot Wheels Newsletter, and everything went on from that point. He started all of the conventions, everything. All from that one point. Then he started doing the collector books which has the value of every car we’ve ever made. Tomart’s Price Guides was written by him. If you want to spend thousands of dollars or a dollar, it’s got every car known to man. What every color’s worth, that sort of thing, you know?
ML: There are so many cars in that publication and a lot of your own ideas for car design have been pretty over-the-top. How do you harness that creativity?
LW: For me, it’s natural. I can get up in the morning and not think about cars, but by the time I’m at work, I’m ready to get to work. But magazines, TV shows, and car shows help a lot. I go to two car shows a week probably. And of course, my own stuff here. Cars are easy. The problem is that Hot Wheels has done almost every car known to man, right? A perfect example would be this Ford truck. I made it into a four-wheel drive, jacked it up way in the air, put a couple of motorcycles in the back. So you can take a regular vehicle and make it into a Hot Wheels-looking car like this. You know, back when I was a kid, everybody wanted a hot rod but now the kids want Star Wars cars, so it’s different. But again, as far as I was concerned, it was a perfect job for me and a perfect fit for Mattel.
ML: It does sound like you had the perfect job and you’ve left quite a legacy. How did you manage to keep things fresh for yourself after more than 40 years?
ML: Well, I was made a manager a couple of times and I thought that the first thing I should do as a manager was to fire myself because I’m a terrible manager. So, luckily, I went back to the board and they kept telling me I should work my way up. And I told them that wasn’t what I wanted. I just wanted to be left there. What were they gonna do? Hire someone else to do my job? Wasn’t I doing a good job? So, it actually worked out all the way around. I stayed on the drawing board and they treated me right. Everybody else went up and out. You just didn’t stay at a company; you just kept going up and up and up until you found another job and you went from there. But I got to draw cars and that’s what I wanted to do. I’d be a lousy manager but as far as drawing cars, I was good at that.
ML: One car that you’re known for is the Bone Shaker, but before it came to life you crunched up the original drawing and tossed it, is that right?
LW: Right. I didn’t think it was what I was looking for at the time. I balled it up and threw the originals out. Now they’re hanging on the wall though. But at the end of that day, I thought, “You know what? Maybe there’s something there.” And I took it out of the trash, re-did it as far as the point of how it might be produced, because it was kind of a fun project. The design is one thing but trying to make it is another thing, that’s a fun part too.
When you pull parts out of a mold, they have to be molded a certain way and to get a car to have the right shape, sometimes it doesn’t work. A perfect example is a Model T. It’s narrower at the bottom than it is at the top and how was I gonna get that? Because if you come with a tool from underneath and you put a roof on it, the car’s gonna be wider at the bottom because you gotta have X number of degrees. So what I did was left the roof open and I came in from the top and it let me get the Model T shape, which also opened up the interior, which gave me a chance to put a cool interior in, so it actually worked. And that’s when I started thinking that the Bone Shaker could maybe work.
ML: How’d that car’s iconic skull grill come into existence?
LW: The skull is just kind of a last-minute thing. Instead of a Model T-looking grill, I thought we should try something a little different, and it’s unbelievable how something, just an idea like that, took off.
ML: So it’s true that there’s no such thing as a stupid idea?
LW: Exactly. Like I always say, I can go back through my life and about half of my big decisions were made at a party, or were made because I turned around and saw an old guy next to me and I told myself I didn’t want to do this anymore. You make one decision—and I tell this to kids when I give talks—you gotta keep your ears open. You gotta meet people, you gotta keep your ears open. If you go to a party, you know, have a good time at the party, but if Bob over there is successful in his business, go over and say hello. You know, who knows? You might get that one break. Because if I hadn’t gone to that one party and saw Howard and the Hot Wheels, I wouldn’t be here. So little things like that make a big difference in your life. It’s unbelievable how little things change your life and time just goes so fast. After a while, it’s over.
ML: You’ve been inducted into the Diecast Hall of Fame. How much longer can you see yourself making Hot Wheels?
LW: I have a car in the system right now—it’s for the Red Line Club, lots of parts—but my contract is good for another year, through the 50th Anniversary of Hot Wheels, and then we’ll talk again about this. Then we gotta start talking about my 50th Hot Wheels anniversary. Gonna have some fun on that one!