Welcome to the NCHWA VW Bus Gallery/Price Guide! The goal here is to provide one of the more informative VW Drag Bus guides on the Internet for one of the most hyped castings in recent memory. It's been awhile since the Bus was first issued in 1996, but love it or hate it, it's still going strong with promotions and miscellaneous issues. This guide will provide pictures, Limited Editions run numbers, information about each bus, and a price guide. For the history of the Bus, just keep scrolling down for the story. If you want to go straight to the gallery, then click one of the buses to the left for the particular section you want to explore. Please note that the Code-3 and Customs sections are still under construction, and will be completed soon. Several are already uploaded, so take a look!
I often wonder if Phil Riehlman, the designer of the VW Bus casting, had any true idea of the waves that would be made in the Hot Wheels ocean when his creation was released! I can remember the day I was introduced to the VW Bus very clearly: Summertime, 1996. It was a Saturday. I was standing in front of the diecast aisle in Wal*Mart, when I noticed a very cool, blue Volkswagen Bus. As soon as I held it in my hand, I knew it was something special and more than just #6 of 12 in the 1996 First Editions Series. I noticed the weight; this model weighed 4 or 5 times more than regular Hot Wheels, it seemed. Cool blue paint. Vibrant red and yellow logo on the side. I was impressed. Irrelevant in the end; I needed it to add to my 1996 FE Series, so I threw it into the cart, and finished my shopping.
Fast forward, two weeks later. Word on the streets and at the diecast dealers is that the VW Bus is HOT! It immediately begins selling for $10.00 on the secondary markets, and becomes very difficult to find. It hits values anywhere from $25.00+ and peaks at around $100.00 before it becomes impossible to find. Everyone's looking for the Bus! Needless to say, I never saw another one on the pegs, or at retail for that matter.
Little did anyone know at that time that the VW Bus would become a major catalyst in re-igniting the Hot Wheels hobby. Yes, the 1995 New Model Series was a hit, and the "series concept" of numbering the cars and providing a ton of obvious variations certainly drew collectors back in. The new concept of the Treasure Hunt also added a nice twist. But, the hobby was still lacking a workhorse of sorts; something to really put Hot Wheels back onto the map. In comes the 1996 collecting year. Changes are in the wind. The New Model Series is changed to the First Editions Series, and we're introduced to the VW Bus. No one knew it was coming. As a matter of fact, the printing on the reverse of the cards stated that #6 in the 1996 FE Series was something called "Rocket Shot." The FE that never was.
Of course, the Bus wasn't issued in the same quantities as the regular First Editions. It's never been substantiated, but the general consensus is that a quantity of roughly 100,000 buses were issued into the line.
Rumors abound concerning the "real deal" with the Bus, as to why it was a short run. You'd hear that it was "too heavy, and it was a problem shipping," or "it was breaking out of the blister packs during shipping." Needless to say, these scenarios were NOT the case. The main reason for the short run was the cost; the Bus was, for obvious reasons, more expensive to produce than the other standard First Edition castings.
Origins: In an interview with Phil Riehlman, he stated that the casting was originally designed to be a "billboard" or "premium" vehicle to utilize when doing promotions for other companies, and it was simply introduced into the Mainline at a smaller run number than the other 11 cars. It was Mark Taylor, then the head of the Hot Wheels division, who first suggested the bus for the billboard project, lamenting that it was a shame the VW Bus was not more current. This only got Phil thinking about how to put a more "modern" twist on it, and the "drag bus-funny car style" theory was born. It was a far cry from his first sketch, which was shorter and tubbier. He began to draw several sketches to present to the senior managers at the next meeting.
The Bus was coming along on paper, but a lot of people felt the Bus wasn’t "Hot Wheels enough," and that something a little more hot-rod oriented was needed. So, Phil drew another option to meet those prerequisites, and came up with a ‘30s panel truck (now known to collectors as the equally-popular Blown Delivery!), which was met with complete approval . It looked like the Bus was going to be put on the back-burner.
However, Phil persisted. At the next meeting, he made a copy of his Bus sketch and placed it on a board for showing, quickly coloring in the lines.
He first showed the hot-rod option, then showed a three-quarter open view of the Bus. Once the bus sketch went up, everyone changed course and enthusiastically embraced it. The idea was at least going to leave the meeting room!
Phil would later say that, despite management approval, the Bus project still met heavy obstacles. He sent a drawing to Asia, where it was instantly deemed too expensive to produce, with the equivalent of enough material in one bus to make three Hot Wheels cars! Phil had originally planned the engine to be plastic and vacuum metalized. The vendor operations changed it to die-cast metal due to a perceived safety issue with with the exhaust pipes sticking out. There was concern that the pipes could be broken off, creating a hazard. When the first shots got back to Phil, the entire model was diecast. The finished casting was extremely heavy for a mainline car, weighing an estimated 114 grams, as opposed to other cars, which averaged 35 grams. Malaysia finally rejected the project, and it was moved to China. From that point, the Bus came to fruition, and was ready for issue.
Now, in order to convince management that it could be used for a 1996 First Editions release, marketing team member Jamie Wood suggested they could pack fewer in the cases. According to Phil, this was probably the saving grace for the Bus, advising that this was "pretty much the only way it made it through."
So, the Bus was released into the FE line, with the objective to relegate the casting to premium and promotional usage only after that run. This has mostly been the case, although the casting was supposed to make a brief return to the Mainline in the 2003 Preferred Series. After much ado, it was replaced by the 100% Microbus casting for retail purchase and the Bus was parlayed into a Toys 'R Us mail-in offer, with an orange and aqua variation. In 2010, the casting was modified as a T1 21 Window model with CoMolds and Real Riders, and made available in the "Phil's Garage" series. 4 color variations were issued. The T1 also made a 2013 appearance in the newly-released "Pop Culture" series, sporting a yellow and red body with "Flash Gordon" graphics. The standard Bus did make a brief return to retail in 2012 in the "Light Speeders" line, BUT...with a body made entirely of color-changing plastic. Not quite the same impact with Bus maniacs, but one most would add to their collection.
In closing, unbeknownst to anyone, the VW Bus ended up being a collector favorite, although there are many who feel it is overrated/overused. The popularity was likely directly attributed to the cool design, and the craziness that was inspired by the short run back in 1996. Many collectors will say that the VW Bus is what go them back into the Hot Wheels hobby. Phil says that even Larry Wood predicted its success by uttering the now-famous phrase "Collectors are gonna be talking about that one for years."
Good call, Larry! And kudos to Phil for providing the imagination and determination to make the Bus one of the most memorable castings in modern Hot Wheels history.