When Mattel launched Hot Wheels in 1968, its biggest diecast-metal-car competitor was Matchbox, whose Models of Yesteryear line featured a 1911 Model T Ford and 1906 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. It was a bit quaint compared to the original 16 Hot Wheels cars, which focused on American muscle cars of the day (Camaros, Mustangs, T-Birds, etc.) as well as hot rods, the most famous of which was the Beatnik Bandit by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

In addition to being contemporary, Hot Wheels cars were also fast, thanks to their tiny torsion-bar suspensions and low-friction wheel bearings. Hot Wheels also had candy-colored Spectraflame paint jobs (colors ranged from Aqua to Purple to Hot Pink) and “redline” wheels, so named for the red stripe painted on the tires.

The first Hot Wheels car was a Chevy Camaro, which like the other 1968 Hot Wheels was manufactured in the United States. Other cars in the Sweet 16 included a Cougar, a VW Bug with an engine poking through the hood, and a surfboard-toting Dodge Deora concept pickup, which “Motor Trend” once described as “the world’s coolest skateboard.”

In 1969, Ira Gilford joined the Hot Wheels design team and designed two of the company's most famous original cars: the Twinmill, which featured an exposed engine behind each front wheel, and the Splittin’ Image, which resembled two single-passenger pods with an engine and exhaust pipes running between them.

Another collectible car from 1969 is the Beach Bomb, which was a VW Bus with exterior compartments on each side for carrying surfboards. Early prototypes of the beach bomb had surfboards loading in from the rear of the van—an example of this highly collectible vintage Hot Wheel, of which only 22 are known to exist, can be found in the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

The next two years saw almost 100 new cars released, including the Light My Firebird, whose name was a play on the popular Doors song from 1967. Mattel also added two important product lines, the Heavyweights and the Sizzlers. Heavyweights, as its name implied, featured cement mixers, fire trucks, and other large vehicles. The Sizzlers featured a custom-made General Electric Ni-Cad battery that could be charged in 90 seconds at a Juice Machine or Power Pit.

By 1972, all Hot Wheels vehicles were made in Hong Kong to keep prices low and meet the high demand. Snake and Mongoose rear-engine dragsters were issued in what was an otherwise...

The following year, production levels and model introductions were back up and Sizzlers tires were retooled as Fat Daddy racing slicks. Because new Sizzlers were not offered again until 1976, these Hot Wheels from 1973 are particularly collectible. Models and colors to look for include the green Fire Works and Hiway Hauler, as well as the yellow or red Ram Rocket.

One of the most sought-after vintage Hot Wheels spinoffs from 1973 was the Revvers line, which lasted for just one year. Designed for off-track use, the 10 Revvers models were powered by a rubber band. Among the most prized models and colors are the lemon yellow Burnin’ Box, any color of Jettin’ Vette (although dark blue is the Holy Grail), and the Revvers camper set, which included a station wagon and camper trailer.

The Flying Colors line dominated 1974 and 1975, and the Super Streets and Super Chromes were popular in 1975 and ’76. But Mattel dropped the trademark redline wheel from all Hot Wheels in 1977, bringing an end to the vintage era of this most popular of all toy cars.

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