We’re excited to share our last segment of the Bob Rosas and Larry Wood Fireside Chat! This interview is packed with more fun tips about Hot Wheels History, 1:1 Cars, and more. If this is your first time checking out this Fireside Chat series, a little background. At the beginning of October, the hobbyDB team flew to Los Angeles, California to attend the annual Hot Wheels Collectors Convention. While at the convention, we got the privilege to interview two of Hot Wheels’ greatest designers, Larry Wood and Bob Rosas. Throughout the past few weeks, we’ve been sharing parts of the live video interview as well as a blog post that includes the transcript. The videos are separated into three different segments:
We hope you enjoy this last segment of the Bob and Larry Fireside Chat.
Christian: This is a question from Steve and I’m not sure where Steve is from, “In the early years of Hot Wheels, what competitors did you monitor the closest? What were your thoughts of the Matchbox, Husky, and Topper brands? Any other off brands from that era you respected?”
Bob: All of the above, I used to go out and buy a lots of cars and tear them apart and see what they were doing. I wasn’t impressed.
Larry: We did that. My story with that one is that the first year Hot Wheels came out, Matchbox of course ruled the world. And, when Hot Wheels came out, the European toy market gave them the award for the best toy of the year and Elliot Handler had to fly to England to get the award. So that was really something at the time. My goal (every year, you had to write down your goals), my #1 goal was to beat Matchbox, that was my job: make sure we beat Matchbox every year. In fact, I was in Hong Kong one time and there was this huge boat in the harbor, a private yacht, and the name on the back was Matchbox, so I asked somebody what’s up with that? ‘Oh, that’s the owner of Matchbox.’ I went and put my business card on the back.
Bob: There was espionage going on at that time. Also, I know one of the directors who gave me samples of Matchbox said there was a black market and he said take me back there and look at them, take your cameras. They’d be doing some spying.
Larry: There was one time I was really worried when Johnny Lightning sponsored Al Unser at Indy and he won. And, I thought it’s all over you know, I mean people are just going to go out and buy Johnny Lightning. Why would they want Hot Wheels? We didn’t even race indy. I thought that would have been the big change. They won two years.
Christian: There’s actually a question from Mac Ragan who’s the Johnny Lightning designer. He wanted to know from both of you, “What is the essence of a Hot Wheels car? What makes a Hot Wheels car a Hot Wheels car? What qualities must it possess?”
Larry: My version is a Hot Wheels car, a car that came from Detroit, but a guy touched it. He may have only put 5 spoke wheels on it, but in most cases, he put a wing or a wild tampo or something. That was my version of what a Hot Wheels was. Because I was the kind of guy who would go wrench all day on a car and every time I’d see a car I’d say, “that’s a great car, but it needs to be lowered a little bit or it needs a 5 spoke wheel, or something like that.” So my version of a Hot Wheels was always a car that a guy touched and of course in Harry Bradley’s case, they called and said they want California Customs. You know, that’s what started it, and that’s what it was. It was a car that Harry Bradley started and customized himself. And, that started the whole thing.
Bob: The colors of the cars influenced the car, low, fast look
Christian: Our next question is a technical one comes from Kirk Smith. He’s from Arizona, “Who thought of adding a ‘Collector Number’ to the Hot Wheels in 1989?”
Bob: We did that for a while, before ‘89 but they just couldn’t get a sequence going. There was a cost issue: how are we going to have different pictures on each card collector number? It was just too difficult and it would cost too much money.
Larry: It wasn’t until volume got going, you know in most cases you take a card and you put any car, you don’t have to worry about it then they fight over it. Found out there were actually guys that were buying this stuff, not kids. It really hit.
Christian: Enrique Claure would like to know, “Why do you think some Hot Wheels models have extraordinary detail and dedication while others are quite inaccurate.“
Larry: As a designer, all I can say is it’s a designer’s job to be as accurate you as you could. That’s one thing I like about being a car nut. I really enjoyed taking a Hot Wheels and if you turn it over you could tell if it was front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. I would always put the exhaust on there and did everything as accurately as I could. And I think that’s one thing that the Matchbox cars you just turn them over and they just had holes to hold the axle was stuff like that and so I pride myself on trying to get the car as accurate, now everybody is a car nut. They all know what goes on. So different designers do different ways.
Christian: The next question comes from Tom1 from Munich and he wanted to know, ”I would love to know who they hang out with as there was so much action in California at that time. Which racing drivers or designers from the big car brands did they work with? Did they race? What cars were they driving? Must have been a great time!“
Larry: Well, I was lucky because I got to do — so I hang around every time they showed up I was there and I got to show and when they were building the cars I was down there taking pictures with them all the time and of course you would meet the guys that build the engines. I would get to meet all those, and being a car nut I’d run into them anyways, always doing car stuff. So Ted and Bernie, we’d do his car and jeez I can’t remember all of them. Bob had to go out and meet these guys too, we had to photograph the cars, Asian cars, try to get them accurate.
Christian: Eric Myers is asking, “Larry always drove amazing cars, some of which made it into my collection (just a lot smaller!) and I think Rob has an interest in Early 60s Muscle Cars. Can you get the guys talk about their full-size cars a bit?”
Larry: Oh go ahead you know more about these cars than I do.
Bob: We have a ‘56 Ford Fairlane, and it’s red and white. We have a ‘70 vw beetle, it’s red also. And we have a ‘57 Chevy truck it’s red.
Larry: It’s got a motor, nitrus, it’s hers by the way not his.
Bob : ‘65 Mustang which is based on my autograph sheet and I call it junkyard girl and license plate is JY
Christian: Mine is red too.
Bob: Yes it’s red. And I have a ‘62 Thunderbird Roadster which we bought from the original owner, it’s a documented roadster so it’s the real thing not the after market.
Christian: So if you had been there in 1968 first so the rainbow would have been one color
Bob: Many shades of red.
Larry: No it has to be orange.
Christian: Let’s talk about orange cars.
Larry: I’ve got… everybody knows most of my cars because I did them for Hot Wheels but I’m building a ‘57 Ford 2 door wagon as a Crown Vic Woody and I’m building a ‘51 Ford Woody, LS motor, it’s a nice car, it’s going to be a real gorgeous car and both of those are red.
Bob: It’s rubbing off.
Larry: It’s not pure red it’s candy pearl trick
Christian: Excellent. Last question I got is from Jim Garbaczewski, who runs the Hot Wheels Newsletter, “What do they think of the hobby today?”
Bob: Unbelievable. It’s just we started, we’d get phone calls from collectors, somehow they’d get through.
Christian: Well it’s numbers on the cars.
Bob: Collectors like my truck, you know and used they’d call and say if they could talk to me or something.
Larry: He’d show up and he’d have this idea about collectors, and marketing of course didn’t think there was such a thing as collectors and one of my favorite stories is I did the Purple Passion with the wheels and the skirts over the wheels which technically you can’t do because it goes through the curves and rubs on the diecast instead of the wheels. So I kind of did it in spite of itself and it sold, all of a sudden marketing said you know what people are buying cars that don’t have to go on a track so that was kinda the beginning of the collector thing. And again (Mike) Strauss showed up we introduced them to the right people and you know started rolling so that was the very beginning and it’s hard to believe it ever got to this.
Bob: Yes the first, going to conventions, where like at a pizza parlor, you know the beginning and I think we did one in Long Beach California at Holiday Inn, up by Long Beach airport, and uh we get up there and answer questions to not even this many people.
Larry: Well again you got to understand there was two of us sitting in the corner and nobody cared and we were doing our own thing. And we never thought anything would become of it.
Christian: Now you have a fake fire.
Larry: Can I ask a question?
Larry: Bob, everybody asks me and you know the answer better than I do. What is a brass car and why did we do it?
Bob: Well brass is similar in weight to zamac which is zinc, aluminum, magnesium, and other alloys, that’s where the name comes from. So we decided we got to test these cars and see how they run on these tracks way before production and a little epoxy model wasn’t going to do it. We tried putting weights on the bottom and stuff so we actually hand-made these brass models and it just took thousands of hours to take to the model shop, plastic parts, and carve this thing out of brass, machine it out of brass. They did this probably for about 6 or 7 years. It was very important that these cars rolled a certain distance and that they impacted into a block of wood. If they worked on the wheels, that they performed and we had a department that tested them.
Larry: Do you suppose they ever built a brass rear load Beach Bomb because they changed it because it wouldn’t go through the wheel. I wonder how fast they could react because if they had a production piece, I don’t think they would have been able to react fast enough to build the wide one. So they might have built the brass one but they were already building the regular one.
Bob: Yes I agree I think they did.
Larry: Ok who’s got the brass, the guy that owns the hotel probably. So the brass cars are very cool they’re neat looking. If you turn them upside down you can see how the guy did the grinding inside to make them the right width and weight.
Christian: What happened with these objects in the past when they were done, were they archived?
Larry: Oh they were thrown away I don’t know who could have gotten them.
Bob: I hated throwing those away. Something we worked on you know.
Larry: After all that work you know.
Christian: They didn’t make brass bent Barbies did they?
Larry: They made clear Barbies, member those? Same with dolls, any dolls that moved, they’d make clear ones and you can see all the gears inside working because that’s how they could tell if they worked or not. And a friend of mine collected those. He had a great collection of walking dolls or whatever they did at the time. They were all clear
Christian: So when you were in your corner was there a lot of drama on the other side?
Larry: The girls had their drama but they were making money. They could do what they want. It was an adventure, let’s put it that way. It was quite an adventure at the time. And again nobody cared that we were even there. It’s hard to believe that I think Hot Wheels is doing better than Barbie now. Again He-Man, and the other things that came in were fun to work on too because I did the Wheel Warriors, all the crazy cars that were supposedly smart they would fight each other so that was something different.
Bob: You know in fact at the time boys toys included things like Big Jim and Wheel Warriors, Major Matt Mason so we got involved in some of that stuff too you know.
Larry: There were things happening all over, it was a toy company you know it was just fantastic.
Bob: It was like a reunion.
Larry: It was a small family too it was kind of neat because some of us was dirt riding, motorcycle riding and like a whole group would go out and bring steaks and camp out all night, not everyone rode motorcycles but it was like a family thing the whole group would come out have dinner at night sit around the bbq throw marshmallows at each other. It was like a small family we all knew each other real well. It was hard to believe it ended up as this huge company.
Christian: I’ve got no more questions so another 5 minutes, we’d like to open up to more questions.
Audience: I’ve got a question that’s been bothering me and a lot of people for a long time. It’s in regard to the Custom Corvette. I know that the first Corvette was released in September 67’ the 1:1 rolled off the floor to a customer, 3 weeks prior to the unveiling you released the Custom Corvette. People say it was in ‘68. Was it in the spring?
Larry: I’ll tell you the story. Harry Bradley was a car designer in Detroit they hired him to come to California he was designing for the first time and didn’t know what was going to happen. Finally, they got a theme going and he realized the Corvette would be a perfect fit but nobody would talk to him so supposedly he flew back to Michigan somehow got into the back door of General Motors, got a blueprint, he had crutches and put them in his crutches and came out to California, pulled it out and he had all the lines right. We beat the real car out.
Audience: By 3 weeks
Larry: Yeah, exactly.
Audience: When was that, Do you remember…
Larry: Harry would be the only one to know that. You stop to think about it, it takes x amount to build a diecast so it was the year before.
Audience: Everyone always argues about that it was ‘68 but it was in early ‘67
Larry: It had been worked on at our place before the Corvette was anywhere near introduced. I heard that actually happened to the Viper, Viper came out before the real car and they weren’t too happy but now there’s a legal fight over that. So I wonder if we’re working on the rear engine Corvette.
Rob: I’ve done some research on the ‘67 / ‘68 people say, ‘I know I’ve bought them in 67.’ From my research has Mattel always started their product year in October time frame and that’s why the ‘67s are coming up as when they have the car?
Bob: It’s an all-year project I mean they’ll start a car a year later.
Rob: When would it have shown up on the stores for sale?
Bob: Well it started in ‘67 so sequential so not all at the same time so maybe the first year we did we had to start with ‘67 or something like that.
Rob: I believe people had them in ‘67 even though they considered ‘68 model release year. Everybody calls them ‘68 but even now the new year stuff always comes out right at the end of September early October even now is that why they remember seeing them in ‘67?
Larry: Again and there were rumors when Hot Wheels first hit of course they were unbelievable success and there were rumors of trailer trucks being hijacked and going right to swap meets so people actually got them before we released them and our guards would go to swap meets and walk around try to find people trying to sell Hot Wheels because they weren’t out yet.
Christian: I have time for one more question, looking around here, yes…
Audience: Is Otto Kuhni still with us? I haven’t heard nothing about him in years.
Larry: Good question, I haven’t heard that he isn’t around. I don’t think he travels much anymore.
Audience: I got to meet him a few years ago at a convention and I happened to have his skyshow set in my hand, in the elevator by myself with him and he autographed it for me.
Larry: Nice, Yeah, quality guy. It’s hard to believe all those years we found him later, Amy (Boylan) went and said “if we are going to do vintage stuff, we should have the vintage artist”, so we went out and found him. It’s hard to believe.
Audience: That stuff just stands out to me, that artwork.
Larry: That’s his style. The other piece of art I liked was done by Dave Deal, remember he did a series of cars, with cars up in the air with wheels all bent and everything, the track bent and everything, I loved his technique, I hired him to do that, he did very few, just a couple of those, ahh, I just loved his work, it was good to see his artwork. Something different.
Bob: His son called me up a few months ago, didn’t say he was gone or dead or anything, he wanted to know if a certain car was real or not, that Otto had designed.
Larry: That bothers me. Every once in awhile I’ll find a car, ahh man I did such a great job… ahhh that wasn’t mine [laughter]
Christian: Thank you very much.
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