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How Mattel Shrinks Cars Into Hot Wheels (Crash Test Included)

There were no shrink rays involved in the making of the 2JetZ Hot Wheels toy. Which means something more miraculous: It is someone’s job—really, a few people’s jobs—to transform a custom, 1,650-pound, open-wheeled jet car into something that might fit in the palm of your kiddo’s hand.

The 2JetZ is the first winner of Hot Wheels’ Legends Tour. Last year, the tour made 15 stops around the country to check out 3,600 custom cars. The goal was to find one that might make a 1:64-scale die-cast toy that your neighborhood orange mini track enthusiast would love. And as soon as Hot Wheels’ designers saw hobbyist Luis Rodriguez’s creation, on the tour’s final leg in Las Vegas, they knew the hot rod would look great in miniature. “One of my designers was so excited about the 2JetZ that he started modeling it immediately, on the off chance it would be the winner,” says Ted Wu, Hot Wheels’ head of design. “And it was.”

Hot Wheels, which is owned by multinational toy company Mattel, can take a full-size vehicle and transform it into a teensy one on store shelves in 12 to 18 months. “We’ve got it down to a pretty regimented cycle schedule,” Wu says.

First step: design the cars. Matchbox, which is also owned by Mattel, makes 1:64-scale die-cast imitations of the cars you might see tooling around your neighborhood. Hot Wheels makes 1:64-scale die-cast imitations of the kind of cars you might see tooling around your neighborhood, if your neighbors are speed freaks, color fiends, and drivers with slight aggression issues.

So Hot Wheel designers live for the embellishments, and even though car companies sometimes just forward their design files for miniaturization, the designers always make some stylistic tweaks. Hot Wheels vehicles’ back wheels are usually bigger than their front. Designers add fender flares, spoilers, bonnets, and roof scoops. Anything that, as Wu says, “gives it a more aggressive stance and a meaner look—then it feels like a Hot Wheels car.”

Hot Wheels designers choose from a veritable rainbow of mini-car paint options.

Hot Wheels shows off the stages of its design process.

A Hot Wheels rendering of the 2JetZ toy.

3D-printed prototypes of the 2JetZ

Hot Wheels shows off 3D-printed prototypes of the 2JetZ, a custom car that the company is transforming into a toy.

The full-sized 2JetZ, which throws flame and can produce 600 hp. Don't worry, parents: The Hot Wheels toy does neither of these things.

Of course, designers have a few hard-and-fast requirements. The little cars are generally about 2 to 3 inches long. (How long are their wheelbases? “This is proprietary information,” Wu says.) The designers monitor the length of the vehicles’ front spoilers, because longer ones will wash out of a Hot Wheels track’s signature loop-the-loops. Like your favorite local highway, the company has clearance guidelines, so the cars can shoot through without hitting their foreheads. Their centers of gravity must be just so.

After the initial design process, Hot Wheels employees use special software to digitally “sculpt” their designs, using a stylus with haptic feedback that lets them specify exactly how they’d like the toy’s surfaces to respond to resistance. Then, they 3D-print initial prototypes from a combination of 35 resins.

Then, Hot Wheels tests. And tests some more. Wu says Hot Wheels designers have the classic orange mini tracks in their El Segundo, California, design studios, so they can ensure that their test vehicles are zooming just as any 6-year-old knows they should. Among nine unique trials the cars have to ace: a “launcher on speed 2” test, assessing the stability of the die-cast car in a low-powered Hot Wheels launcher; a “launcher on speed 4” test, which gauges the stability of the car in a high-powered launcher; a “slide slam launcher” test, which tests whether the car can maintain stability after being shot out of the more extreme Hot Wheels “slam launcher.” No tiny crash dummies are harmed in the testing of Hot Wheels products, Wu says.

Moving from prototype to final design can take a few days to a few weeks. Once the designers have nailed it down, they start chatting with their manufacturing partners in Asia, who actually make the toys. Then it’s up to Hot Wheels to get them on shelves. As for the 2JetZ—the very small fighter jet/auto combo should hit kids’ grubby, outstretched hands in November.

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