1982 MB-7 Matchbox® IMSA Mazda RX-7, casting MI-116, and
1985 MB-12 Matchbox® Superfast™ series Pontiac Firebird Racer, casting MI-155B

Cars I Wasn't Collecting

These Matchbox® cars were given to me on my birthday in 1987, while I was desk-clerking at a quiet little dive outside of town. I was already a die-hard NASCAR fan, and had complained to my wife about former driver/ESPN commentator Buddy Baker's grammatically incorrect statement, "I seen some fluids leaking out of that car", so much so, that it had become a running joke. She and a couple of my friends delivered these cars jammed into the frosting of a cake which read, "I seen some icing leakin offa that cake!"

The Lesney company, which owned Matchbox® Miniatures in England, went bankrupt in 1982. Universal Toys created a new division called "Matchbox® International, LTD.", bought out the Lesney company and continued producing cars. Both of these cars have "Matchbox® Int'l" cast into the base, and were made in Macau, a Portuguese territory on the southern coast of China. These are two former Lesney castings that were modified into racer-style vehicles in order to breathe some new life into the product line. The Pontiac was based on Lesney's 1982 Pontiac Firebird SE, one of the very last castings to be made in England before the company buyout.

Lesney made two versions of the original Mazda RX-7, and one of them featured opening doors. When the new Matchbox® Toys took over the company, the molds were re-shaped to represent the Mazda race cars that were successful in the IMSA racing series. My car, in the photo above, is officially named "IMSA Mazda RX-7", but the base still reads simply "Mazda RX-7", with the patent number 983558 cast into it. This number refers to Lesney's opening-door mechanism that was actually patented by Solido, and this number was cast into the bases of all Matchbox® Miniatures that had opening doors from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s. Even though the IMSA Mazda RX-7 didn't have the feature, this particular example is an early crossover variation.

I, of course, didn't know any of this, I just kept the cars for their sentimental value.

So far, I haven't been able to find much information regarding this set of Kellogg's promotional vehicles. They were issued through a Kellogg's® mail-in offer in 1989. The MB-44 1921 Model T Ford (foreground) was a brand new model created that year. The MB-38 Model A Ford Van was first released in 1982, and became the most popular Matchbox® promotional model ever, with more than seven hundred variants.

For a lot of general information regarding the history of Matchbox®, try the Wikipedia entry.

1990 Hardee's Days of Thunder promo cars manufactured by Applause, Inc.

The Wallace Berrie Company was founded in 1966 as a manufacturer of drugstore novelty items. In 1979, the company obtained the rights to a little-known property called The Smurfs. The Smurfs were marketed, merchandised, and became huge, selling more than a billion dollars in merchandise worldwide by 1982.

That was a watershed year for merchandising, as suddenly everybody tried to license everything, and the Berrie company bought the rights to more than a hundred other properties. Berrie acquired the Applause division from Knickerbocker Toys, a stuffed toy maker, and with it came the rights to Disney, Sesame Street, and Raggedy Ann & Andy. In 1986, the company changed its name to Applause, Inc., and released The California Raisins items.

In 1990, while Applause, Inc. was still a giant, big enough to be a competitor to Hasbro and Mattel, it obtained a license for Days of Thunder, and manufactured the little die-cast promotional cars available as a premium from Hardee's restaurants. Eventually, the company would be involved with other programs for Taco Bell, KFC, Kellogg's, General Mills, and Kid's Cuisine (a division of ConAgra).

The Days of Thunder story line was somewhat melodramatic, but the film had flashy racing footage and the exposure for NASCAR was significant. NASCAR put a lot of effort into making the movie a success, even adding cars to the rear of the 1990 Daytona 500 field to film race footage. Rick Hendrick invested a lot of money in the project and was one of the film's executive producers. After all, the main character was loosely based on his former driver Tim Richmond.

Days of Thunder helped commercialize NASCAR, and the result was a lot of souvenir merchandise. The Hardee's promo cars shown are slightly smaller than most other diecast cars, including the Racing Champions™ versions. I believe I was able to buy all four at one time, during a meal with my mom at a local Hardee's.

These are cheaply made, but they're kind of cute. So why doesn't Applause still make little cars like these?

Well, by 1995, Applause, Inc. was focused primarily on it's stuffed plush toys, and merged with Dakin, Inc. With that merger came the licenses for Snoopy, The Pink Panther, The Animaniacs, Looney Tunes Lovables, Barney the dinosaur, The Flintstones, Betty Boop, and the Coca-Cola polar bears, to name a few. The company already had a few deals for characters from Disney movies, and would get more.

However, by 2001, Applause was on the brink of bankrupcy. It stuggled along, basically on the will of CEO Bob Solomon, while its workforce dropped from over 600 employees down to just 25. During the summer of 2004, it lost its Disney and Nickelodeon licenses, and faced eviction from its headquarters. Solomon committed suicide, and the company filed for Chapter 11.

That intriguing story can be found in the CNN/Money Magazine article Anatomy of a Meltdown.

More detailed background of the golden age of Applause, Inc., can be found in this company history.

1991 Hot Wheels™ "Billionth Corvettes"

Only 22 years after their introduction, the one billionth Hot Wheels™ vehicle was produced by Mattel in 1990. To commemorate this achievement, 4 different gold chrome-plated Corvettes were available with special trophy-style display stands. A friend of mine found these at a retailer in 1991, marked down for clearance. He thought they looked like some little cars I might be interested in, and bought a set for me and one for himself. (Twenty years later, their monetary value remains almost unchanged.)

The 9246 Custom Corvette was new for that year, and wore a new style of wheels called Ultra Hots™. The model was discontinued as part of the Final Run series in 1999.

The 9252 Corvette Stingray debuted in 1976 as one of the last models to have open-hole redline wheels. Those gave way to the BW wheels (Black Wall, or Basic Wheel) that were still being used on the Billionth Edition over a decade later. The casting disappears from time to time as the molds wear out and are replaced (sometimes with minor modifications), but in 2016 (at 40 years old!) the car was still being released in the retail line as a "Mild to Wild" series model.

The 9254 Split Window '63 first appeared in 1980, also with the BW style wheels. It was used frequently over the next 25 years, and was renamed 1963 Corvette for inclusion in the 2005 Classics™ line. The design was still popular enough to win a hotwheelscollectors.com Red Line Club "sELECTIONs" poll in 2004, and be produced "to order" as the '63 Vette exclusively for online members. (Mine is numbered 9372 of 10,500.)

The 9250 '80's Corvette is a 1982 design, shod with its original version GdHO (Gold "Hot Ones") wheels. It also appears in the Hot Wheels™ mainline every couple of years.

The Billionth Editions bring up a subject of debate. If the actual production figures of Hot Wheels™ are indeed known, Mattel keeps them a carefully guarded secret. A recent discussion on the hotwheelscollectors.com Red Line Club Forums provides some data:

The 1989 Hot Wheels Collector's Book by Mattel reads on page 5, "Production rates peaked during 1968 at 1,000,000 cars a week!" Randy Leffingwell's book Hot Wheels: 35 Years of Speed, Power Performance and Attitude reports that the initial order for K-Mart stores alone, was a staggering 50 million cars. Yet, while the United States Patent & Trademark Office lists the Trademark "Hot Wheels" as first used in commerce on July 20, 1967, it would be more than two years before a plaque was made to commemorate the 25 millionth car on August 26, 1969.

The 1982 Hot Wheels Collector's Book by Mattel, on page 2, says that 350 million were produced by that time. That averages out to less than half a million per week for the first 14 years.

But in the mid-1980s, Mattel upgraded its Hong Kong plant, as well as adding factories in Malaysia, France, Italy, and India. In 1985, three years after Mattel's book says they'd made 350 million, an extremely limited edition Highway Hauler casting was made for Mattel employees, to commemorate the 700 millionth Hot Wheels™ car. Production from 1982 to 1985 averages out at nearly two and a quarter million per week! Mattel would have to back down production to one million a week in the last half of the decade, or the Billionth Editions would have been made before 1990.

But sales picked up again in the 1990s. In a press release dated June 10, 2002, Mattel stated, "The #1-selling toy industry-wide for three years running (according to NPDs TRSTS data), more than two billion Hot Wheels cars have been produced since 1968." Three and a half years later, on September 29, 2005, Mattel's press release read, "Since being introduced in 1968, more than three billion Hot Wheels® cars have been produced."

And in 2008, Mattel unveiled a one-of-a-kind car, the most expensive in Hot Wheels™ history, to commemorate the production of the four-billionth Hot Wheels™ vehicle. Business certainly seems to be booming. Probably because I started collecting them.

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