Angus MacKenzieWordsMay 19, 2020
If you have subscribed to the MotorTrend App over the past few weeks, you may have seen our new original series, Hot Wheels Life Size, in which NASCAR and NHRA racer Nicole Lyons gets behind the wheel of—er—life-size versions of some of Hot Wheels’ wackiest toy cars, including Twin Mill, Boneshaker, and the Darth Vader car.
But back in the 1960s, when Mattel was creating the original Hot Wheels models, they did it the other way around with cars like the Custom Camaro based on actual vehicles. What makes the ‘Original 16’ lineup of Hot Wheels launched in 1968 both groundbreaking and fascinating, though, is that even the ones that look crazy enough to have sprung straight from the febrile imagination of a toy designer are based on an actual life-size car.
So here they are, the real-life crazy cars from the 1960s that inspired some of Hot Wheels’ iconic Original 16. If you want to see the videos of these cars some to life, subscribe to the MotorTrend App. Did we mention it’s only $1 a month to sign up?
The real-life Deora was built by Detroit customizers Mike and Larry Alexander and based on the homely Dodge A100 forward control pickup launched in 1964. The radical cab-forward design was the work of GM designer and custom car enthusiast Harry Bentley Bradley. There were no doors. Entry to the slammed cabin was via the front, the hinged windshield—from a 1960 Ford—and custom lower panel moving to provide access. The 225-cubic-inch slant-six engine was moved rearwards 15 inches, making it almost mid-engine, and the radiator and gas tank moved to the pickup bed and covered with a hard fixed tonneau. Although the Deora project was officially sponsored by Chrysler, which leased it to tour auto shows in 1967 and 1968, it featured a surprising number of Ford parts. The rear window was from a 1960 Ford sedan; the side exhaust vents were 1964-1/2 Mustang taillight bezels; and the ingenious taillights, hidden under a wood veneer panel across the rear and only visible when reflected in the angled chrome strip underneath, were sequential turn signal units from a Thunderbird. The Deora won nine trophies, including the coveted Ridler Award, at the 1967 Detroit Autorama, by which time designer Bradley had left GM to join (of all places)Mattel, where he designed the Hot Wheels Original 16.
The bubble-top Silhouette was perhaps the most futuristic looking of the Original 16 Hot Wheels lineup. But it was in fact based on a real-life custom hot rod of the same name built in Monterey, California, by Kansas-born customizer Bill Cushenberry in 1962. He created the edgy, minimalist, scratch-built bodywork—said to have been sketched by industrial designer and custom car creator Don Varner—from hand-hammered 20-gauge steel. Underneath, the Silhouette rolled on a shortened 1956 Buick chassis, and it was initially powered by a Buick nailhead V-8, swapped in 1966 for a 427 Ford. The front half of the two-part acrylic bubble top was hinged and could be raised via an electric motor for access to a sci-fi cabin with instruments mounted in a central pod structure and a steering control made from chrome-plated steel that looked like it should be guiding a space ship. Cushenberry entered the car in the 1963 Oakland Roadster Show, where it won the Tournament of Fame award. As outrageous as it looked, the Silhouette was a driver; check out this footage (0:47 to 2:20) from a 1966 film produced by MotorTrend founder Bob Petersen, with it being driven by TV star Lloyd Bridges, no less. Silhouette was reportedly stolen in 1983 and has not been seen since.
The automobile as art? Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s 1961 creation, the Beatnik Bandit, makes the case. One of the more eccentric members of the southern California automotive counterculture in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Roth was as much an artist and cartoonist as a car builder, known for his illustrations of slavering monsters driving customs and hot rods before turning his hand to car building. Like other Roth cars—Outlaw, Mysterion, Orbitron, Road Agent—there’s a cartoonish feel to the Beatnik Bandit, which appeared in 1961, and was said to have been inspired by a sketch that appeared in Rod & Custom magazine. The Beatnik Bandit was built on a shortened Oldsmobile chassis and powered by an Oldsmobile V-8 fitted with a GMC 4-71 supercharger. Like Silhouette, the Beatnik Bandit has an acrylic bubble top, a leitmotif of extreme 1960s show rods, though this one is one piece. Unlike Silhouette, however, the bodywork is all hand-crafted fiberglass. GM’s revolutionary Firebird III concept had pioneered the idea of joystick control in 1958, and Roth built his own version with something that looked like a chrome-plated shovel handle sprouting out of the transmission tunnel to control acceleration, braking and steering. Restored to original condition, the Beatnik Bandit is now owned by LA car dealer and Roth enthusiast Beau Boeckmann.
Its real name was the King T, and when completed in 1964, it was regarded as a landmark Model T-based hot rod. Owned by Don Tognotti, it was built by Don and Gene Winfield in Los Angeles, who fabricated a custom tubular steel frame to support a 1914 Model T Ford body originally purchased for $300. Conceived as a show car from the outset, King T was powered by a lightly modded 265-cube small-block from a 1955 Chevy, driving through an early GM Hydramatic transmission controlled using the vintage Model T spark advance and retard levers mounted on the steering column. What made King T stand out—apart from Gene Winfield’s eye-popping Lavender Pearl paintjob—was its chrome-plated independent rear suspension, complete with inboard mounted Airheart disc brakes. Designed and fabricated by California race car builder Walt Reiff, it used the center section of a 1955 Chevy back axle and driveshafts from a GMC truck—each shortened four feet. King T won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at the 1964 Oakland Roadster Show and was the subject of a popular 1/25th scale plastic model kit four years before becoming one of the Hot Wheels Original 16. Restored to its original 1964 specification—with Gene Winfield himself giving it a fresh Lavender Pearl paintjob—King T sold at auction in 2010 for almost $86,000.
We’ll forgive Mattel for slapping the humdrum Hot Heap moniker on the King T because with this car the name of the Hot Wheels version is a little snappier than that of the 1963 original, the Car Craft Dream Rod. The Dream Rod started as an editorial project by the staff of MotorTrend stablemate Car Craft to imagine their dream hot rod. Drawings of the car appeared in the October 1961 issue of the magazine, and in 1963, hot rod and custom car show promoter Bob Larivee commissioned Silhouette builder Bill Cushenberry to turn those drawings into a real car. And what a car with parts rummaged from all over the place. Cushenberry started with the tubular steel frame from a 1952 Jowett Jupiter, an obscure British sports car built from 1950 to 1954 and powered by a 1.5-liter flat four engine. The front fenders and doors came from a 1960 Pontiac, the upper rear quarter panels from a 1960 Corvair, the windshield and roof from a 1953 Studebaker, and the rear window from a 1957 Borgward Isabella, turned upside down. Inside was a 1958 Mercury dash, and the powerplant was a 289 Ford V-8. The Dream Rod was extensively remodeled in 1966 and renamed the Tiger Shark, but in 2008 was restored to its original specification.