How A Home-Built Pontiac Trans Am Became A Legend, And A Hot Wheels
Photography by Alex Sobran
Before it can begin a thankless career of demolition derbies orchestrated by toddlers who care little for their participants’ paintwork, a dustless in-the-box existence in a hardcore collector’s long-since-repurposed sock drawer, or any life between those extremes, a Hot Wheels car must go through a complex creation process before it hangs on a peg to await its eventual purpose. It turns out that toys are a serious business if you want to create one worth a billion dollars.
Inspiration for the next Hot Wheels design can take the form of a Mattel designer wondering what a rat might look if it had a Funny Car’s drivetrain grafted into its guts, or it can be a more straightforward matter of picking which production cars will inspire kids (and purchases) in miniature form, but the example featured in this story was not intended to be a toy first and foremost. Its inclusion into the populous pantheon of Hot Wheels was the unintended but happily welcomed result of its creator’s decision to go for broke and build a car of a caliber that hardly ever transcends the what-if stages of daydreams and car nerd group texts.
The most recent winner of the Hot Wheels Legends Tour (wherein full-scale, one-off builds and designs compete to be immortalized in 1:64 scale), this 1970 Pontiac Trans Am is a testament to what a driven autodidact can accomplish with a small plot of side yard and a lot of willpower. More importantly, it demonstrates the rewards of not adulterating our dreams as we grow up.
The owner and creator of this 800-rwhp, tube-frame track car, Riley Stair, cut his circuit racing teeth on an oval area rug in his parents house where he’d wear out the knees of his pants hot-lapping his Hot Wheels. If you’re reading this, such a childhood is probably familiar.
Riley’s 1:64-scale collection of cars evolved into a handful of real ones as he grew up—“Some old BMWs,” he specifies, adding with some wistfulness, “ones that you used to be able to buy for like $2500.”—but after having his share of fun V8-swapping a few early 5-Series sedans, he decided to take on a far more involved project and build his interpretation of the ultimate Trans Am. Doing so required that Riley work full-time and put every paycheck into his Pontiac, sell every car and part he’d amassed up to that point, and move in with his parents in order to divert any would-be rent money into this gambit. Following the unimpeachable wisdom of Larry the Enticer, he just sent it.
A longtime fan of the second-generation GM F-body platform (shared between the Camaro and Firebird), Riley started the build in earnest by buying a rusty 1970 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am—“they were cheaper than Camaros”—which he quickly stripped down it to its base elements, teaching himself everything from bodywork and rust repair to the geometry of inboard suspension and scratch-built chassis design as he rebuilt it according to his vision.
Doing so was a nearly two-year ordeal that left Riley without much left over; case in point, after having sold his own tow setup to help finance the build, he had to rent a truck and trailer to haul the Pontiac to SEMA for its debut, recounting that “It was pretty much every dime I could save for two years, and all of the cars that I owned. For a while it left me penniless, but it was worth it, and I would never take it back. It taught me a lot, not just in building cars, but about diligence, determination, and sacrifice.”
Riley managed to see his idea through to the end—although he correctly points out that projects like this are never truly finished—and the effort undertaken illustrates why his story is an exceptional one. This is a no-expense spared build, but it is hardly the for-fun folly of someone with too much money and not enough talent. Augmented in every conceivable way, there is hardly anything original besides the shape of this Trans Am, which has been generously flared but otherwise undisturbed, and it doesn’t take much peeking under the skin to get the sense that no corners were cut. The relationship of function and form is one of the most common car discussions we can have, but rarely do we see such a prime example of this symbiosis in the metal. You so don’t need me to tell you how cool this thing is, just look at it. The next chapter in Riley’s Trans Am build took on a smaller scale, but only in the very literal sense. As I learned on a tour through the Mattel headquarters in El Segundo earlier this week, creating a new Hot Wheels is the product an intricate relationship between technology, art, and intangible experience—not unlike Riley’s experience with the Trans Am.
The process generally follows a path from sketches to computer renderings to prototyping and finally packaging and production, but there are feedback loops at every stage which makes the cycle more like a series of iterations than a one-size-fits-all chain of events. Ted Wu, Hot Wheels’ global head of design, outlined the interplay between the technology-driven aspects of creation with the more human elements—holding the thing in your hand versus rotating it around on a screen—before the tour brought us inside to see how it happens firsthand.
Gathered around a table strewn with sketches, CAD printouts, and a handful of prototypes of Riley’s Hot Wheels, Red Line Club designer Brendon Vetuskey and product design director Bryan Benedict shared their perspectives on the importance of designing a car using every tool available, from high-end software to good old eyeballs. Far from luddites, they embrace the accuracy and speed advantages of designing with the aid of computer programs, while reminding us that someone’s first interaction with a Hot Wheels generally consists of ripping the packaging away and holding it in our hand as soon as possible. It might seem obvious that the designers responsible for such a large part that experience would engage in it themselves to make sure it’s a good one, but it was surprising to hear just how much they emphasis they placed on being hands-on. It’s not as if anyone can come up with a good Hot Wheels design just by pushing a few toys across a desk and rotating them around in their hands, but it is true that leveraging hi-tech tools isn’t enough on its own either.
But of course, such things do help immensely when added to the larger process, as demonstrated by Hot Wheels’ 3D sculptor, Manson Cheung. Using a device that was originally designed to teach surgery without the need for actual cadavers to cut into, Cheung showed us the virtual side of the Hot Wheels design conception stage. The articulated arm of the Touch X Haptic Device leads to a pen shaped appendage that the user can manipulate to carve and sculpt the digital model as if it were a piece of clay in 3D space, with the technology’s impressive—and useful—party trick being its highly precise force feedback; drag the cursor over the car’s windshield and roof while applying a bit of downward pressure and the device will allow you to feel the ridge where the glass stops and the bodywork begins as if you were working with a scalpel and a physical model.
In order to bring the CAD data, digital models, and hand-drawn sketches together into the toy’s first tangible form, the design then heads to the 3D printing department, which is helmed by the fast-talking Mattel Master Modelmaker, Robert Coleman, Jr. His domain is the most industrial space of the different groups, full of humming machines and prototypes of Riley’s Trans Am, from hard plastic renditions to more more malleable composites across a range of scale and granularity of detail. Coleman speaks with the quick clip and mannerisms of someone who has given their spiel more than a few times in the past, but he hurries excitedly from machine to machine as he talks about their roles, giving demonstrations and passing around their outputs for us to hold with the zeal of someone who will never get bored of sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge with whoever’s curious.
Although many of these processes are happening concurrently and are intertwined with one another, our final stop on the tour was guided by Matthew Gabe, who leads the packaging design team, and talked about the thought processes behind illustrating the part of a Hot Wheels product that he jokingly refers to as the stuff that gets instantly ripped off and thrown in the trash. The phrase “packaging design” is almost innately boring, but for a Hot Wheels product it involves commissioning or creating original artwork that gets kids to tug on their parents’ sleeves and gives collectors another element of the hobby.
Having seen firsthand demonstrations of each step of the process, the day culminated with the reveal of the finished product next to its real life reference point, and Riley was presented with the very first production version of his car in Hot Wheels form in a touching example of a lifelong passion coming around full circle. Exceptional builds can collect trophies, Instagram fans, and respect from their creators’ peers, but what is a cooler form of recognition than having something you’ve built recreated in the form of the world’s best-selling toy? Riley’s work on this Trans Am has launched his career and given his business some well-earned attention, but it’s hard to imagine a greater sense of pride than knowing that the next generation of car enthusiasts will be pushing his around on carpet circuits the world over.