It was at a friend’s birthday party around 1969 where someone had bought the birthday boy a Hot Wheels Drag Race Action set. In the long, cool-looking box there were two Hot Wheels cars, 30 feet of bright orange track, a starting gate, and a finish line gate complete with checkered flag that would fall to one side indicating which car crossed the line first. It was freaking awesome! It was the most incredible thing this 8-year-old kid had ever seen—a true game changer. Now, I had some toy cars at the time, but they were nothing like this new breed of candy-painted metal cars that I had just witnessed rip down that smooth, pliable track. The toy dragstrip was attached to the back of a wooden chair by way of a plastic vice-like contraption and it swooped down to the floor similar to that of a giant slide at a county fair (sans gunny sack). For the next five or six years, Hot Wheels made top billing on my Christmas and birthday lists.
Today, those cars are worth a grip of cash if they are in good condition. Unfortunately, as my brother and I got bored with the straight-line activities, smash-up derby became a little more exciting. From there, we took it upon ourselves to “customize” our Hot Wheels with some Testors model car paint we had laying around. We figured it would be cool to apply some “stylish” graphics to add a little of our own “personality” to the cars. We thought we made them look cool back then, but unfortunately our “artwork” greatly reduced their value today. But we weren’t thinking about the resale value of a Hot Wheels car in those days—no one did, really, but for some reason, I treated my Hot Wheels with a little more respect than I did my Match Box cars. While a lot of my toy cars took some off-road excursions in the backyard, the Hot Wheels were dedicated as in-house track cars only. Even then, I knew dirty, chipped-up tires would make the car slower, and I wasn’t about to give my competitors any advantage when it came to a drag race.
Yep, those little die-cast cars made a huge impression on me throughout my childhood. They were the conduit to a lifelong fascination for anything that looked cool and went fast—the main reason my friends and I did whatever we could to make anything we had perform better. Whether it was BMX racing or skateboarding down hills, we were always looking for ways to gain a performance edge. If it meant using graphite in our skateboard wheels or drowning our bike chains and wheel bearings in 3-IN-ONE oil, we did it. I can’t say for sure if it worked or not, but in our minds it did.
At one point I fit my Schwinn Sting-Ray with a smaller front wheel in order to get an aerodynamic advantage over anyone who wanted to race me down Lincoln Ave. That idea probably didn’t work, but it did give my bike a little rake and made it look faster. Who knows, it may have even scared off potential competitors—advantage, me.
Fast-forward to my high school years and my interest in muscle cars had only increased. The school parking lot was peppered with quite a bit of Detroit muscle from the late ’60s and early ’70s; only problem was that none were mine. The bulk of my wallet had yet to catch up with the size of my passion. Therefore, a 1976 Ford Pinto Runabout would be my only mode of transportation during that period. I actually paid a guy at the local muffler shop to heat the springs to lower the car in front. It looked cooler but it didn’t do much for the stock four-banger under the hood. Embarrassing, to say the least. It wouldn’t be until a few years after high school before I got my first real ride: a 1967 Camaro. It wasn’t super fast, but it was that car which further fueled my addiction to muscle cars.
Although that ’67 Camaro is long gone, it was a 69-cent toy car that started me down the road to performance. Fortunately, I still have quite a few of those Hot Wheels, and some are actually in pretty good condition. And that 1976 Ford Pinto—in decent shape—is worth more today than when it was brand new. I didn’t see that one coming.
It’s my guess that there are quite a few of you hot rodders with a similar tale. Let’s hear what got you into muscle cars. Email your story to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.