Our hobby has lost its pioneer: On Thursday, 21 July 2011, Elliot Handler died at his Los Angeles home from heart failure at age 95. My condolences go out to the Handler family. Hopefully, they know just how much Ruth and Elliot have affected kids/adults across the world in a positive way.
Mr. Handler and Harold Matson co-founded Mattel Creations in 1945, making wooden picture frames and dollhouse furniture with both wood scraps and plastic. Mattel's name recognition grew in the 1950s after the company put up $500,000 - nearly its entire net worth - to sponsor segments of the Walt Disney Co.'s "Mickey Mouse Club" for a season.
But, the true “first breakthrough” occurred in 1959, when, at the insistence of Ruth Elliot, the Barbie Doll was introduced. Reception for the doll was lukewarm at first, but we all know how the rest of the story worked out. Ruth had a winner, and her vision persevered.
In 1966, Mr. Handler decided to take on diecast giant Matchbox after seeing how there were no “exciting” diecast models, and that American cars really weren't being represented in the market. He tabbed Jack Ryan, who was the Head of Reasearch & Development to put together a team, and Ryan quickly hired automotive designer Harry Bradley, who designed 11 of the first 16 Hot Wheels. Ira Gilford, Howard Rees and finally, Larry Wood were the premier designers who followed in Bradley's footsteps. Wood would remain the primary designer for many years thereafter.
But, before Hot Wheels were released, Mattel's marketing's research department advised Handler the market would not be a large one for the new cars, and a low production limit was set. However, with the popping “Spectraflame” candy colors, unheard-of suspension, hood scoops and free-wheeling mag wheels with redline stripes showcasing the new cars, Hot Wheels took the diecast world by storm when they were released in late 1967-early 1968. Mattel quickly fell behind by more than a year in production, even with a new Hong Kong plant open. Mattel's marketing division had it all wrong, and Handler's vision and drive for pushing the Hot Wheels product proved to be an astounding success, even against all of the Marketing data. He pushed the envelope, went against typical thought and supposition, and took over the diecast world. That vision from 1966 continues on today, showing no signs of fading, and no apparent end in sight.
So, it's my sincerest thoughts and condolences that go out to the Handler family, since Elliot and Ruth have brought so much joy to kids the world over. My earliest years in the late 70's and early 80's were consumed with Hot Wheels and track sets, and I owe the many, many hours of enjoyment to the vision of Elliot Handler. And, as an adult collector today, that enjoyment continues on into the present, where I've shared my passion for Hot Wheels with my own kids. I know they'll become collectors themselves someday, when they hit adulthood.
Rest in peace, Ruth and Elliot. And from the bottom of my heart...thank you. Godspeed.
~Neal Giordano, Founder of NCHWA.com
The video below is a very nicely-done interview with Ruth and Elliot, and a rare glimpse into the founders of a toy giant. It does have a lot of Barbie influence in it, but the Hot Wheels references begin at about 3:00 into the video. It's still a fantastic look at Mattel's earliest days, and a fascinating interview with the Handlers. Give it a look; you won't be disappointed!