The Godfather of Hot Wheels: Larry Wood

The Godfather of Hot Wheels: Larry Wood

Even though he was not the man to introduce Hot Wheels to the world, one man has had more impact on the toy line than any other: Larry Wood. This legend of the toy industry became the defining creative mind and designer of Mattel’s die-cast toys. Over his fifty-plus years with the company, he designed hundreds of Hot Wheels cars. Larry Wood undoubtedly earned the title that the toy collectors bestowed upon him: The Godfather of Hot Wheels.

Without Larry Wood, Hot Wheels may have never survived past its initial years. Pouring his dedication and love for cars, he kept the line alive with innovative ideas. He even helped introduce vehicles for adult collectors. So, we invite you to explore the rich history of the man who helped to define the Hot Wheels brand.

Larry Wood’s Early Years Before Mattel

Even though die-cast toy cars defined Larry Wood’s legacy, he did not own one as a child. While growing up in Haddam, CT, he reported playing with cowboys and Indian toys. However, his interest changed drastically in his adolescent years. In his teenage years, Larry Wood’s life changed after his father brought home a hot rod magazine, which ignited56 a roaring passion.

In addition to browsing the pages of magazines, Larry Wood spent hours at the nearby beach, watching the cars drive by. He also sketched the various vehicles, dreaming of new hot rod designs. His growing passion also led him to buy a fin Ford flathead and an engine block to practice putting together.

Expanding on his love for vehicles, Larry Wood’s first job out of high school was with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. While working on creating parts from sheet metal, he learned the importance of applied math. He also realized that he wanted to be more than a simple mechanic.

Learning the principles of automotive design

By the time it came for him to leave for college, he decided that he wanted to pursue his love for automotive design earnestly. Thus, his mother helped him assemble a portfolio of his various design sketches. Thanks to his budding talents, he enrolled in the Arts Center College, where he majored in automotive design. Despite the challenging requirements, he became one of the handful of students to graduate from the program in 1965.

After graduating, Larry Wood made his way to Detroit, where he spent time working on Ford’s cars. As he was new to the industry, he could only create segments, like the door handles. Instead, the head designers called the shot on the entire car’s design. Within two years in Detroit, he began to dream of heading to California, where many Hot Rod groups resided.

To move to California, Larry Wood took on a job with a small business that created aerospace parts. He successfully proved his merit within a month so that he could relocate with his wife and cars. However, he still had yet to find his dream job.

The fateful party that led to Hot Wheels

A while after Larry Wood settled into his new life in California, he received an invitation to a party. Unbeknownst to him, this party would be the turning point of his life. As he mingled, he met up with one of Mattel’s toy designers, Harold Rees. Even though Harold spoke of desiring to get out of the Hot Wheels brand, Larry Wood became increasingly intrigued by the concept. Thus, he asked Harold Rees to leave in a good word for him at Mattel.

This chance meeting brought Larry Wood to Mattel’s team. Not long after the party, he sat in front of Elliot Handler, the current CEO of Mattel, as he interviewed for a position. Soon after, he officially became part of the Hot Wheels design team. He officially joined the company in 1969 and saw his first design hit the market in 1970.

Larry Wood almost did not attend the meeting, so he felt grateful for the chance to meet with Harold Rees. Moreover, he continues to encourage others by encouraging them to attend parties and get-togethers. He often told others to always “keep your eyes and ears open.”

Working with Mattel on Hot Wheels Cars

Larry Wood started strong with Mattel as a Hot Wheels designer. One of the first cars he brought to the market was the Tri Baby, which came out in 1970. This car showed that he could envision sleek, futuristic cars. Other Red Line Hot Wheels cars from his first year were the Jack Rabbit Special, the Mongoose, and the Snake.

While Mattel was one of the most substantial toy companies around when he started, it soon hit hard times. The company’s stocks tanked after it was hit with a scandal, with its higher-ups charged with market manipulation. This led to most employees being laid off as well. Luckily, Larry Wood was one of the chosen few who retained their job during this tumultuous time.

As Mattel had few staff members after that, Larry Wood spent around two decades as the sole designer of the Hot Wheels toy line. As there were few others to work around, he filled the space with various cars and Hot Wheels tracks. He also allowed his imagination to flow through his designs. Thankfully, his car designs fascinated children, who later grew into adults.

The Creation of a Hot Wheels Toy from the Redlines era

Each Hot Wheels toy that Larry Wood worked on began with a spark of imagination. Whether it was based on a real car or some animal, he felt inspired to sketch up a new design on a B Sheet. As he fleshed out his concepts, he always had to remember that a Hot Wheels vehicle was created from three to four parts. So, he would have to balance details, fun, and simplicity. Still, these sketches would include details to help bring the envisioned toy to life, often closely resembling the final product.

When creating new Hot Wheels based on real cars, they would study them in the field. This research involved multiple pictures and close measurements. Thus, they were fully prepared to sketch engineering diagrams when they returned.

Even though he was the only designer for the brand for years, his designs still needed approval. So, once he had a satisfactory design, they would often require approval from the department heads. However, he also had the influence to push through designs that he felt passionately about.

Hot Wheels prototypes at 4-times-up scale

After a concept sketch was approved, the car would move into the prototype phase. The next step in the process was an engineering drawing detailing the vehicle’s dimensions. Then, they created a 4-times-up scale wood pattern, where they carved a wood block to the shape of the car’s chassis. While these hand-carved wood patterns were highly detailed, they usually lacked color.

The next step in the design process was another 4-times-up model called the shell. This time, they would mold out the vehicle’s various parts to see how they fit together. During this phase, they ensured that everything was at the correct relative thickness so that the scaled-down model would fit together correctly.

As they continued to design prototypes, they would create even more models that tested the color, with some closely resembling the final product.

As the years passed and the Hot Wheels staff expanded, Larry Wood witnessed considerable changes in the design process. Instead of his lone work, he witnessed walls filled with designs that would be browsed and approved. Moreover, computers became more present in the design process as technology improved. Still, Larry Wood’s skills made him a respected chief designer of the Hot Wheels brand.

Finding an audience with adult Hot Wheels collectors

As the years passed, the original Hot Wheels fans grew up. These grown-up fans of the Redline Hot Wheels toys still loved the toy line and sought to share it with their progeny. This opened a new market for the brand that Mattel originally never thought of.

Meanwhile, Larry Wood wished to prove he could design complex vehicles that would appeal to the older demographic. While Mattel had wanted to ensure that all of the Hot Wheels cars would zip through the plastic tracks, he believed that there were fans who would buy the car, nonetheless. So, he took a giant gamble as he designed the Purple Passion, whose dimensions led to the car rubbing against the line’s signature tracks. Despite this hindrance, his design became a huge success.

The Purple Passion’s success cemented the car as one of Larry Wood’s most beloved designs. As the name implied, it was a work of passion, and he was glad that the fan base openly received it. Moreover, the car proved that there was a willing audience for adult-centered collector cars.

Over the decades, Mattel dedicated portions of the Hot Wheels toy line to the collector’s market. For the most part, this split was 80-20. However, Larry Wood noted that there were years when the split was closer to 50-50. He particularly enjoyed this aspect as it allowed him to display his prowess as a designer.

Larry Wood’s most memorable Hot Wheels blunder

As Larry Wood churned out dozens of designs a year for the Hot Wheels toy line, he occasionally needed to remember the full scope of the target audience. No design proved this more than the infamous Ramblin’ Wrecker also known as the Larry’s Towing Tow Truck. This white truck appeared to be a typical Hot Wheels toy. However, it hid a secret that would haunt the prolific designer for years.

The original release of Larry’s Towing Hot Wheels truck featured a little secret behind its rear quarter panel. As a little easter egg, he believed it would be fun to embed his home phone number into the toy’s design. Unfortunately, this led to numerous unwanted phone calls and complaints to Mattel. Thus, the toy had to be quickly reworked to remove the phone number.

Some of the corrected cars only had a blue stamp covering the phone number. However, a second series of the corrected Larry’s Towing Hot Wheels vehicles had the phone number wholly removed. Still, lucky fans can find the original printing with his phone number printed on it.

One of Larry Wood’s most beloved Hot Wheels creations

Larry Wood created so many cars for the Hot Wheels toy line that he lost count. Still, there are a few vehicles that remain his most beloved. One that he often speaks about in interviews is the Bone Shaker. This original design tapped into his hot rod background, allowing him to indulge in his favorite type of vehicle.

The Bone Shaker featured a gigantic skull as the grill to a classic hot rod vehicle. Even though the vehicle debuted in 2006, the chassis resembled the classic designs of cars like the Model T. However, it had multiple hot rod flares that made it stand out. Running alongside the extended nose of the vehicle was a set of exhaust pipes. Moreover, the vehicle’s engine stuck out.

There were several other designs that Larry Wood would bring up as examples of his best and most beloved. For instance, he has spoken fondly of the Electronic Snake car, which featured light-up pipes, lowering lights, a lift-up body, sounds, and more. He also highlighted the Bubble Gunner as one of his most well-received designs. Another notable creation was his chance to work with George Barris on the 1960s Batmobile Hot Wheel toy. A steam-punk-styled truck also stood out as one of his final creations for the toy line. As he made many beloved designs, he often stated that “my next is my best.”

Over fifty years of passion for designing Hot Wheels vehicles

Over the years at Mattel, Larry Wood remained one of the most influential designers on the team. Despite rumors, he did not completely turn down the chance to receive a promotion. Instead, his department heads understood that designers like him were best at the drawing board without the pressure of management. Thus, they found various titles to give him as the chief designer for the toy line.

After around 40 years with the company, he decided it was time to retire. However, he only partially left the Hot Wheels toy line behind. Instead, he remained active with the company as a consultant for over ten years after his official retirement as a designer.

During his time with Mattel, Larry Wood grew to embrace the toy line. Not only did it allow him to fulfill his passion for designing cars, but it sparked a love for collecting. He made a point of amassing one of the largest Hot Wheels toy car collections. His collection included prototypes and props explicitly designed for presentations.

The Legacy of Larry Wood in the Hot Wheels fandom

As Larry Wood was attached to creating most Hot Wheels toy vehicles, he became a beloved part of the collectors’ community. This led to a newsletter honoring him with the title “Mr. Hot Wheels”, which fans have embraced. Otherwise, he is beloved as the Godfather of Hot Wheels, for his contributions defined the brand.

Larry Wood was also celebrated in a movie for Mattel’s drag race team. While he was only present by name in the 2013 Snake & Mongoose film, one of his drawings appeared in the movie. Otherwise, the designer’s work appeared in multiple magazines, especially for die-cast enthusiasts.

The industry also acknowledged Larry Wood’s hard work. He has been inducted into several halls of fame, like the Model Car Hall of Fame in 2014. Beyond the collector’s groups, he was also acknowledged by the automotive industry. In 2023, Larry Wood was awarded a place in the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Even though Larry Wood left Mattel and Hot Wheels in 2019, his contributions to the brand will never be forgotten. Moreover, he still holds a passion for the toy line. Even at over 80 years old, he still loves his Hot Wheels collection, from 1:1 replicas to die-cast vehicles.

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Made in Collaboration with

Chris Ingledue 


Bio: I am the founder and owner of Wheeljack’s Lab pop Culture and Toy Shop. My vision has always been to reunite customers with their favorite childhood toys and pop culture, triggering fond memories, and reigniting their imaginations. Every day, I work in the “lab” where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. I scour the internet, like when we had the Sears Catalog of yesteryear, for the next great treasure. Then, I await the arrival of the postman as if he were Santa Claus himself and helping collectors worldwide with their versions of Christmas. Every day as a vintage toy buyer is an absolute joy!

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