For many, it may have started with the Batmobile — specifically, the George Barris-designed car that was piloted by Adam West and Burt Ward in the 1966 Batman TV series: a love affair with vehicles not from the streets, but from the screen.
If it wasn’t from Gotham, there’s a good chance it was at least from the same decade, as the ‘60s served up an explosion of automotive creativity that was wowing audiences on TV and in theaters. The Munsters’ Koach and Drag-U-La; Black Beauty from The Green Hornet; the Monkees’ Monkeemobile; Herbie, the Volkswagen from The Love Bug; the ‘68 Ford Mustang GT from Bullitt; the ‘63 Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger; and the Minis from 1969’s The Italian Job all spawned from the same decade.
While some of the cars were created to serve a purpose within the fictional narrative, some were simply stock models with little to no enhancement. But their appeal grew, either from being pushed to the limit for the sake of entertainment or from the attachment to a charismatic driver, such as Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Burt Reynolds, David Hasselhoff, or the Duke Boys. Over the years, these “star cars” became big business, inspiring countless toys and collectibles, and business is booming like never before as collectors continue to assemble fleets of vehicles inspired by the obvious and the obscure.
For every technologically advanced Back to the Future Delorean Time Machine, there’s a rusted-out ‘52 Ford F-1 Sanford and Son Salvage pick-up truck. And while most collectors would love to have the red ‘58 Plymouth Fury featured as the title vehicle in John Carpenter’s 1983 adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine, some prefer the barely seen, blue ‘68 Dodge Charger from the film instead.
Indiana-based Greenlight Collectibles is one of a few companies that caters to many interests through its long-running Greenlight Hollywood range — an ever-changing assortment that runs the gamut from the “greatest hits,” such as The Blues Brothers’ Bluesmobile and the Smokey and the Bandit Pontiac Trans-Am, to the “deep cuts,” such as an ‘87 Jeep Wrangler from Patriot Games and the ‘73 Volkswagen Bus from Field of Dreams. The company just released details on its 26th wave, which will include Travis Bickle’s cab from Taxi Driver and the ‘82 GMC K-2500 pick-up from The Fall Guy.
Among the more recent deep cuts from Greenlight are a ‘55 Chevrolet Two-Ten Townsman wagon from Vanishing Point and a ‘72 Jeep C-5 from the sitcom Mork & Mindy. Filmmaker Brian Levant, who was a writer on Mork & Mindy, has an unusual favorite star car toy, and it’s one that not only comes from another series that he worked on, but also from the series on which Mork first appeared: Happy Days.
“The Happy Days Fonzie’s Jalopy is my favorite,” Levant says. “I have the Jalopy and the box, and I even have the Fonzie’s Garage play set! When I posted pictures of it on Instagram, that was one of the most-liked posts I’ve ever done. It was surprising,” he says. [Read more about Brian Levant here] While the Jalopy was produced by the Mego Corp. in scale with its 8-inch action figures, vehicles from Happy Days have been done as die-casts by Matchbox, Johnny Lightning, and Ertl.
Back to the Batmobile, the iconic nighttime ride of Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego has become a subcategory all its own, with toys from multiple licensees and appearances across several different Hot Wheels lines, which have also included other Bat-vehicles, such as the Batpod, Batwing, and Batboat, along with vintage, comic-inspired takes and modern interpretations, such as the Tumblr from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight film trilogy. Just as individual fans have a favorite Batman incarnation, many favor a specific version of the car, and perhaps no one knows that better than Michael Uslan, executive producer of every Batman-related film across live-action animation since 1989’s Tim Burton-directed Batman.
“My dear friend, Anton Furst, was responsible for the design of the Batmobile, and I can’t help it, but that’s still my favorite,” Uslan says, recalling the production of the ‘89 vehicle, while noting that he’s one of the few people who’s been able to ride in all of the live-action Batmobiles from the ‘66 version to the recent Justice League version.
“It was all about coming up with a war machine that would be taken seriously. The car had to fit into Tim [Burton]’s vision of Gotham City as brought to life by Anton and his group,” Uslan says, reflecting on the classic, almost elegant inspirations for the vehicle. The ‘89 car and the ‘66 version are regularly reissued with variations in paint color and deco for maximum collectibility.
At Jada Toys in California, designers have been coming up with new interpretations of vehicles from the Fast & Furious franchise for years, but recently they’ve spread their wings for a line that’s appropriately named Hollywood Rides.
“Hollywood Rides brings back the nostalgia of all the iconic Hollywood movie vehicles and characters we grew up loving and offers a way to bring together all the movie vehicles in a smaller scale,” says Darryl Li, Jada Toys’ director of marketing. “It gives collectors the opportunity to showcase their passion for the most iconic properties.”
The lineup from Jada includes die-cast, R/C, and even a collection of Nano Hollywood Rides that shrinks the vehicles to an even smaller-than-micro scale. The first wave of Nanos includes vehicles from the Fast & Furious and Transformers franchises, and Li says that the company plans to expand the Nano universe with other licenses, including Back to the Future and Harry Potter.
Rather than focusing solely on screen-accurate replicas, much of the Jada line is “inspired by” the source material and presents familiar things in new ways, such as non-transforming Transformers characters under license from Hasbro that allow for a really detailed presentation of what the Autobots’ and Decepticons’ vehicle modes can be. They’re also looking to DC Comics and Marvel in creating stylized, character-inspired vehicles, such as the Deadpool Taco Truck and yes, a ton of Batmobiles, including one from Batman: The Animated Series that became one of this year’s quickest sell-outs at Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC).
“Whether you’re a car enthusiast, pop-culture collector, or movie fanatic, there is something for every fandom,” Li says.
Two of the most popular offerings from Jada this fall are coming straight from Hawkins, Indiana: a pair of familiar rides from the Netflix original series Stranger Things. Hopper’s 1980 Chevrolet K5 Blazer comes with a replica police badge, and Billy’s ‘79 Chevy Camaro is packaged with a limited-edition coin.
For the holiday season, Jada is partnering with Walmart for a pallet promotion featuring new 1:12-scale Elite 4×4 R/C vehicles. The new collection reinvents the Transformers’ Bumblebee, the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1, and the Justice League Batmobile for off-road action with jacked-up suspension and rugged tires. Even Spider-Man is in on the fun with a Superbird-inspired ride.
In the UK, Corgi continues its legacy of creating die-cast vehicles based on classic properties and personalities, such as The Beatles, Harry Potter, Paddington, Captain Scarlet, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and even Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean.
On a global level, there is, perhaps, no other brand with the proliferation of Mattel’s Hot Wheels, and the depth of assortment from and inspired by entertainment properties continues to grow, with new offerings pulled from film, TV, animation, and gaming.
Vehicles once driven (or piloted) by Fred Flintstone, George Jetson, Homer Simpson, Gru, and Cruella de Vil are now part of a lineup that has featured multiple versions of the Back to the Future Delorean, along with Biff’s manure-covered Ford, and Marty McFly’s custom Toyota pick-up; K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider in regular and Super Pursuit Mode, along with his evil twin, K.A.R.R.; the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 and Ecto-1a, along with versions based on The Real Ghostbusters cartoon and the 2016 remake; Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine; The A-Team van, the Pizza Planet truck from Toy Story; Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari; the Starsky & Hutch Torino; The Muppets’ Electric Mayhem van; Snoopy and Woodstock on a hot rod doghouse; and vehicles inspired by Angry Birds, Halo, Minecraft, Forza Horizon 4, and Rocket League.
When it comes to cross-generational appeal, Jimmy Liu, Hot Wheels marketing manager at Mattel says, “It’s the authenticity and variety that Hot Wheels brings — to have a finely executed miniature replica of a vehicle that has captivated fans throughout the years — and it all fits in the palm of your hand!”
And that’s just scratching the surface, as sprawling line extensions branch out into the Character Cars line, along with limited-edition sets and assortments featuring artwork from pop culture for entirely original creations. The Premium Pop Culture line has featured Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Star Wars, The Beatles, Peanuts, and more.
“For replica vehicles, we strive to accurately reproduce what is seen on screen in 1:64 scale,” Liu says. “We stick to the reference material to ensure we are being as precise as possible. For graphical assortments, such as Pop Culture, there is a lot of creative work and brainstorming that goes into creating each theme. We think about current trends and how we can leverage the amazing artwork available for the license.”
One of the latest Premium Pop Culture assortments is a Star Wars collection that pairs artwork from Brian Miller of Oktopolis with collector-grade, die-cast vehicles. It’s creating “star cars” based on a galaxy far, far away.
Star Cars Go High-Tech
Perhaps the next evolution in collecting these entertainment rides will be allowing the toys to go back into entertainment, but in new ways. Hot Wheels id, which launched this summer at Apple Store and Amazon, features 1:64-scale cars that contain special technology that allows kids and collectors to merge physical play with the digital world for an experience that Mattel calls “mixed play.” This fall, entertainment rides enter the platform for the first time.
K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider and the Darth Vader Character Car — which actually exists as a real-life, driveable vehicle — will be introduced, presenting examples of vehicles both based on and inspired by entertainment, with “Screen Time” and “Sith Series” on their redline tires, respectively.
And yes, those Gotham cruisers are coming to Hot Wheels id as well. A full range of Batmobiles from Batman ‘89, The Dark Knight, Arkham Knight, and The Justice League are in the mix, each with special-edition color schemes and design flairs.
Appropriately, the George Barris-designed 1966 TV Batmobile is the perfect throwback to when it all began. It’s the first Hot Wheels id ride to be specifically labeled on its flip-top outer box as a “Limited Edition Collectible.”
If there was any doubt that we’ve reached a renaissance of sorts when it comes to the vehicular pop culture fandom, the appearance of a greatest-hits assortment of star cars in a recent Walmart grocery commercial should do the trick. You just can’t get more mainstream than that.
Bonus Feature: ‘Slicensing’ the Star Cars
In the realm of automotive collectibles — particularly die-cast — there’s an above-average amount of “slicensing” that goes on. That means that film studios and their agents will often share the same license with multiple parties, effectively “slicing” it up, resulting in similar products from different manufacturers that all offer something different when it comes to size, scale, or audience.
Right now, you can find versions of the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1 being produced for Mattel’s Hot Wheels, the Johnny Lighting Silver Screen Machines collection by Round2, and Jada Toys’ Hollywood Rides. Even Funko and Playmobil got in on the action with their own versions of the iconic 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance that was famously converted and decked-out for paranormal investigations and eliminations.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!