In 1995, Sheri Abbey was at a swap meet in California when something small caught her eye: a classic model Radio Flyer wagon Hot Wheels car, with a spoiler, rear-mounted engine and butterfly style steering wheel.
Abbey had always appreciated machines. She grew up in Michigan, where she lived in a household of car enthusiasts. Her dad owned a body shop and would occasionally race. Together, Abbey and her father built hot rods, American muscle cars with large engines modified for speed.
It made sense her love of big cars might translate to an affinity for small ones. But when Abbey picked up the toy, she couldn’t have known where it would take her.
“I didn’t realize how collectible they were,” Abbey says. Soon, she was sharing the hobby with her son, who was three at the time. “We would go to car shows and because of Hot Wheels, he would know the names of all the cars.”
A lifetime of collecting had begun.
Mattel released the first Hot Wheels toy line in 1968 with 16 cars, which included custom versions of the Camaro, Barracuda, Mustang, Thunderbird and Beetle. They have become known in Hot Wheels lore as the Sweet 16.
Hot Wheels quickly became a force in the toy market. They sold for a dollar, making them a perfectly affordable toy for parents whenever they went to grocery stores with their kids.
Hot Wheels have evolved in the decades since. The mainline cars — the dollar cars you might find at your local Wal-Mart — still exist, but now premium-series cars, with more complex designs and better materials, are sold at a markup. Mattel also makes Treasure Hunt cars, which are special edition versions of the mainline cars.
Hot Wheels is no longer marketed strictly for children. The fact people who grew up with Hot Wheels, like Abbey, still love them so many years later isn’t an accident. Mattel has consciously made Hot Wheels more appealing to adults.
Amy Boylan started in the software division for Mattel in the late-1990s. While she was with the company, Boylan noticed there were thousands of Hot Wheels collectors around the world, and built an official site and forum to bring enthusiasts together. The Hot Wheels Red Line Club was established. For an annual membership fee, collectors had access to purchase higher-end cars.
“We ended up having 5,000 members in the first six months,” Boylan says. “I realized right away how big it was and how rabid our collectors were. Collectors always collected, but we brought order to it. We built a community of almost 100,000 people worldwide.”
In 1999, family members in Montana tipped Abbey off to a friend who was selling his Hot Wheels collection, which totaled more than 7,000 cars, including some from the original 1968 release. When she acquired them, she started selling the cars as a side hustle.
Eventually, her childhood enthusiasm for taking apart real cars bled into her hobby. Abbey got into customization.
“You could make them into anything you can imagine,” Abbey says. “That’s when your artistry just takes over.”
Abbey took Hot Wheels cars that retailed for a dollar, stripped them and put them back together with new parts. They sold for $30 apiece.
Her customized cars caught the attention of the Hot Wheels community. In 2004, Mattel flew Abbey to Japan for a customization event.
“I’m a country girl,” Abbey says. “So going to Tokyo was crazy. Everything was overwhelming. It was a wonderful experience.”
Abbey spent six months working on various Hot Wheels customs. One of the most memorable cars was a McDonald’s Studebaker that Abbey turned into a Dragster.
“I had the details right down to how I wired the sparkplugs,” Abbey says. “I put in the gas tanks. You could see all the details. I roughed up all the tires so it looked like it had been doing burnouts.”
In 2009, Abbey was inducted into the Diecast Hall of Fame as a customizer. Now 58, Abbey has gone back to work as a machinist. The money is good enough to help pay for her two kids to go to college, but working seven days a week means Abbey has had to leave behind her Hot Wheels hobby for the last five years.
Now, Abbey airbrushes and customizes life-size cars.
“I’d rather paint bigger things,” Abbey says. “The small cars were getting tedious, and I’m getting a little arthritis in my hands.”
Abbey’s Hot Wheels origin story is just one of many. That’s the beautiful thing about collecting: You make your own rules. How you enter the hobby — whether it is because of your love of cars, or because they were a huge part of your childhood — is very much unique to you.
Some collectors, like Marcia Walker, take up the hobby from their significant others. Walker lives in Wisconsin, and first learned about Hot Wheels when she met her now-husband 23 years ago.
“He was collecting them,” Walker says. “And I was like, ‘Um, these are toys. What’s the big deal?’” She was soon swept up in the Hot Wheels world. Walker attended local collectors’ shows with her husband and helped him track down hard-to-find cars. She fell in love with the experience, and eventually Hot Wheels became a family bonding activity with her two sons, who are now 18 and 21.
“We took them to all these Hot Wheels events,” Walker says. “They were able to see things in the world other than the four corners of our house.”
Walker estimates her family has thousands of Hot Wheels cars in their collection.
“To be honest I would be afraid to find out,” Walker says. “There’s cases under the stairs, there’s cases in the closet, there’s boxes here, there’s boxes there. I don’t think there’s a room in the house that doesn’t have Hot Wheels in it.”
Some collectors are simply gonzo. James Savel, 60, joined the Red Line Club in 2003. Today, his basement is filled with Hot Wheels cars from the original collection, and every decade thereafter. The oval-shaped Sizzler racetrack he used to race his Hot Wheels as a kid still sits in a storage room in his basement.
“Periodically I’ll come downstairs and just look at the cars,” he says.
Savel’s son Mark, 34, finally got into Hot Wheels last year, to the delight of his father. When Savel had his will written up recently, he divided his most valued items between his son and daughter. “My sister gets his record collection,” Mark says. “I get the Hot Wheels.”
Savel jokes that when he passes away, Mark, a real estate agent with a keen understanding of return on investment, will probably sell his dad’s entire collection the next day. “He’s probably right,” Mark says, laughing.
Mark is getting married later this year, and because of the expenses involved for the family, Savel vowed to stop spending so much money on Hot Wheels. “And then I get a call from him,” Mark says. “He tells me he bought the Hot Wheels Tesla Racer.”
The car is remote controlled and costs $400.
“Shipping is free though,” Savel says.
Many collectors are sentimentalists, chasing what they once yearned for as kids. Jason Marshall, a 45-year-old graphic designer, has also watched his Hot Wheels collection grow in the past five years. In 2015, he was walking past an aisle of Hot Wheels at a store when he noticed a new Lamborghini that was just released.
Marshall remembers watching Transformers in the 80s and the first time he saw different models of Lamborghinis — the Sideswipe, Sunstreaker and Countach — transform.
“They were full of opulence,” Marshall says. “It was the style. The way the doors just went straight up. It was unlike anything that has come before or since.”
In the past half-decade, Marshall has devoted himself to collecting every single Lamborghini that Hot Wheels has produced. He’s about 15 cars away, but two will be particularly hard to track down.
The first is a plated 18-karat gold car, one of only 1,000 produced in the 1990s. It is a mail-in car, meaning you could only receive it if you mailed in specific receipts, making it a much rarer than the cars that usually sit on grocery shelves. This particular Hot Wheel currently carries a price tag of around $300 on the resale market.
The second is a 25th anniversary edition Lamborghini produced in 2000 for Mattel’s birthday. It was given to employees with a “happy birthday” message on the hood. Marshall says he’s never seen one in person, and only knows it from a picture online.
So, why not buy an actual Lamborghini in real life?
“Who’s got a few hundred thousand dollars for a car that you probably have to pay triple that over its lifetime for maintenance?” Marshall says. “And that’s not even considering insurance.”
The commonality among all of the collectors, no matter how they found themselves immersed in Hot Wheels, is the joy that it brings them.
Jeremy Iglesias, 18, lives in Atlanta and is studying automotive technology at Chattahoochee Technical College. In his five years of collecting, Iglesias has amassed more than 1,500 cars in his Hot Wheels collection.
“There isn’t a right way to be a Hot Wheels collector,” Iglesias says. “Cars usually get sentimental value either by being present with me for an event, going with me for a trip, gift from a person, or something from my childhood.”
There is one wrong way to be a Hot Wheels collector. Like other items that appreciate in value over time, Hot Wheels are popular among resellers.
Adam Janusick, in his mid-20s, lives in central Illinois and has been collecting since 2011. He says the most challenging thing about the hobby these days is dealing with scalpers — those Hot Wheels buyers who are only in it for a profit.
“These guys will watch the stores like vultures,” Janusick says. “Hot Wheels comes in boxes of 72. The moment those boxes come off the truck, they will be there, ripping them apart, taking any car worth of any value, buying them, bringing them back home, and instantly putting them on eBay for a markup.”
Recently, Janusick has developed a strategy for tracking down Treasure Hunts. The key is to ignore big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Target and browse local grocery stores, where scalpers are less likely to look.
He was digging one day in Hy-Vee, a local grocery chain, and noticed something suspicious about a BMV C4 Hot Wheels. The paint was a little darker, more sparkly than the mainline car. The wheels were shiny and actual rubber.
“I audibly shouted, ‘no way,’” Janusick says, his voice rising as though he was back in the aisle discovering the car for the very first time.
Instead of growing out of Hot Wheels, many collectors grew into them as they got older. The hobby isn’t just a nostalgic trip; it’s about taking their childhood dreams seriously.
Abbey is a perfect example. Though she has reached the end of her road as a Hot Wheels collector, she still keeps that part of her life close. She has plans to move to a smaller place, where she wants to shrink her collection and set up displays for her customized Hot Wheels and awards.
“As a kid, you dream of the unattainable thing,” Marshall says. “As an adult, when you make money, you can afford a few things that you couldn’t before.”
By embracing what some might consider a childish hobby, Hot Wheels collectors show dreams can be valid from any age. Growing up simply means realizing that truth.