Museum of History: Hot Wheels exhibition brings back memories of a hot war with a neighbourhood rival

Hot Wheels cars were a fixture for a generation of kids. Photo: © The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Mattel. All Rights Reserved.

The late 1960s were perilous days. It was the height of the Cold War, as the Soviet Union and the United States fought for nuclear supremacy, and as, on a quiet street in Prince Edward Island, another arms race was fought for supremacy in, umm, Hot Wheels.

They were new toys and they were (pun unavoidable) hot. I had to have them. All my friends had to have them, including Billy Foster, who lived a few doors down. Those distant, halcyon days are a bit murky now, but I was the first kid among us to own a Hot Wheels car, and that gave me serious street cred.

Then Billy got a Hot Wheels track on which he could actually race his cars around, and the geopolitical balance on our block tilted to his favour. If I wanted to race my Hot Wheels on a track, I had to go to his house, a tacit nod to his dominance. Oh, the humiliation.

Eventually I got my own track, but nobody remembers who came second. Then, the next Christmas, I got Sizzlers, the new, rechargeable electric Hot Wheels. I got several Sizzlers, and the battery-operated charger that was shaped like a real gas pump. I even got a branded briefcase to carry my sizzling fleet around — oh, how glorious was my return to toy dominance! Eat it, Billy boy.

I don’t recall where the arms race went from there  — surely Billy struck back with super-deluxe Sizzlers, or something — but the memories filled me with unexpected anticipation about seeing the new show at the Canadian Museum of History, Hot Wheels: Race to Win. Yes, yes, I know it’s a cliche to say the exhibition brought out the kid in me, but, there it is. I was giddy. I even put on a Hot Wheels pit crew jersey and posed with a giant, fake trophy, and it felt like that day when the Stanley Cup was in the newsroom.

The exhibition, put together by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Mattel, the Hot Wheels manufacturer, opens Saturday, and it’s certain to have the same I’m-a-kid-again effect on a lot of dads who pretend to be there for their own kids. “I’ll take my son and be more excited than the six year old, lol,” wrote one friend to me this week.

There’s no singular explanation for why Hot Wheels were such a hit when they were introduced in 1968. There were plenty of seemingly similar “dinky toys” (the brand name we used generically for any tiny toy car or truck). But Hot Wheels were fancier, souped up with cool parts, and they looked faster, more dangerous. Who wants a Matchbox truck when you can have a custom Camaro?

The exhibition is not just about the toys, and most of the exhibits — which are so many that the show is in the main museum space, too big for the toy box that is the children’s museum — are about real cars. Real, hot wheels. There is much about Indy cars, stock cars, Formula One cars, all explained as the super fast consequence of physics and aerodynamics, the marriage that turns a Matchbox runabout into a mean Mattel machine.

It all is, as the exhibition notes say, “a fun way for families to get up to speed on the science of cars (and) look behind the scenes at the racing world.”

Visitors can read about how engines work, and watch the pistons pump on a real V-8. There are racks of racing tires, and they get bigger as the the power of the vehicle that rolls on them climbs. “Top Fuel Dragster — over 8,000 HP!!” says one panel, in surely the Museum of History’s first use, outside the actual children’s galleries, of double exclamation marks. Such is the power of Hot Wheels.

There’s a case about steering systems, and an arcade-like video that shows what it’s like to steer an Indy car or NASCAR around a track at full throttle. There’s also a pitstop, where visitors can try their skills at changing the tire on a stock car. (There’s a video on Youtube of a Daytona 500 crew changing a tire in 5.46 seconds, so, kids, focus.)

There are plenty of actual Hot Wheels, of course, and even those are offered as play with a side of eduction. “Physics fact,” says one sign over two identical ramps, built of that familiar orange track. “When a car rolls downhill, it’s being pulled by the force of gravity.”

Such facts are learned as visitors roll the tiny bits of history down precipitous hills, around steep turns, over sweet jumps.

There’s even a bank of tracks set up as timed, downhill straightaways. I picked out two Hot Wheels and put them side by side on tracks. “This one is yours, Billy Foster, and this one is mine,” I said, with a quiet, diabolical laugh.

Billy’s car won.

This isn’t over, old friend.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.