How does a mass-produced die-cast toy car that originally sold for less than a dollar—and fits in a small child’s hand—become a valued collectible trading for hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars?

It comes down to rarity.

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Such is the case with Hot Wheels cars, produced by toymaker Mattel starting in 1968 and designed at 1/64 scale of their street-worthy counterparts. In that first year, Mattel zoomed onto the die-cast toy scene, releasing 16 colorful, tricked-out models inspired by custom-built rods and high-performance muscle cars—on the whole, much flashier and fresher feeling than models put out by Brit-based die-cast competitors Matchbox, Corgi and Dinky. Among the early Hot Wheels’ most recognizable features: the sporty red pinstripe on their wheels (“redline” wheels would be a visual hallmark of the first 10 years of their production) and the shiny, metallic “Spectraflame” paint finish, retired in 1972.

Of course, the condition has a lot to do with how much any vintage die-cast car will fetch. Serious Hot Wheels collectors seek mint-condition toys, with little to no sign of use, preferably in their original paperboard-and-plastic blister pack. It’s unusual to find the so-called “sweet 16” of 1968 in lightly-used condition since the painted tires often wore quickly and the wire axles frequently buckled from use. Even rarer: finding an original model in its blister pack. 

When it comes to mass-produced toys, variations make all the difference. When something changes early on in the production process—such as the name or a key aspect of the physical design—the less-produced variant immediately takes on value. Changes could affect wheels, interiors, windows, graphics, paint shades, you name it. The fewer of a variant that are produced, generally speaking, the higher their value. Perhaps most desirable: early prototypes of popular models that were never produced.

Here, five of the most valuable and desirable Hot Wheels castings, most of which are squirreled away in private collections and not available on the open market:

Mattel Inc.

1970 Ed Shaver Custom AMX

The real AMX street car was a short-lived two-seater produced by AMC that, like most muscle cars, stuffed a high-powered engine into a midsize frame. For the sporty 1969 die-cast Hot Wheels version, most (like the one above) trade for hundreds of dollars, with hard-to-find colors like salmon and antifreeze fetching on the higher end. But in terms of rarity, the most valuable by far is the slightly later blue “Ed Shaver” version. Shaver was a driver on the first Hot Wheels-sponsored drag-racing team in the U.K., and the specialty-packaged Ed Shaver AMX cars (which included a sheet of decals matching those on his dragster) were distributed at race events. According to Hot Wheels collector, historian and appraiser Mike Zarnock, they were also available through a cereal mail-in and by sending in Proof-of-Purchase points from the backs of U.K. Hot Wheels cars. With very few of these cars around today, Zarnock values them at upward of $4,000, loose (not in the blister pack).

Most Collectible Hot Wheels
Mattel Inc.

1968 Custom Volkswagen without Sunroof

Volkswagen Beetles have always been among the most popular and highly collected Hot Wheels cars. So what makes this version valuable? Color and feature variations. Mattel manufactured the Custom Volkswagen, one of the 16 first-year Hot Wheels, in both the U.S. and Hong Kong. A very small handful of the earliest versions made in Hong Kong were built without sunroofs. Of those, most are blue or aqua. Rarer colors include orange, green, copper, red and (seen here) enamel green. Sold primarily to the German and U.K. markets, they’re especially hard to find in the U.S. Zarnock estimates a mint-condition enamel green version to be valued in the vicinity of $1,500.

Most Collectible Hot Wheels
Mattel Inc.

1970 ‘Mad Maverick’ Base Mighty Maverick

For toy companies, a trademark dispute and name change can be a royal headache. For toy collectors, though, they are a happy boon. In the case of the Mighty Maverick, based on the popular Ford street model introduced in 1969, an early Hot Wheels version had the word “Mad” stamped on the base, until it was discovered that—oops!—Topper Toys made a Mad Maverick car in its Johnny Lightning series. Only a small handful of the Hot Wheels “Mad” version, with their menacing hood scoop and tail wing, are known to exist. Valuations have been hard to find.

Most Collectible Hot Wheels
Mattel Inc.

1968 ‘Cheetah’ Base Python (Hong Kong)

The so-called “Cheetah” Base Python also earns its place in the pantheon of rare, high-value Hot Wheels because of a naming snafu. One of the first 16 Hot Wheels cars ever produced, it mimicked a custom “Dream Rod” designed and built in 1963 by Bill Cushenberry for Car Craft magazine that creatively Frankenstein’d used parts from a ’60 Pontiac, ’53 Studebaker and a ’61 Corvair, among others. 

A handful of early versions of the toy, mostly red, were produced with the Cheetah name stamped on the base—until it was discovered that General Motors engineer-designer Bill Thomas had claimed that name for his “Cobra Killer” race car. So the toy was renamed Python. Hot Wheels manufactured Pythons in both the U.S. and Hong Kong, while the Cheetahs were produced just in Hong Kong. Cheetah and Python examples made there have smaller front wheels, blue-tinted windows and greater detail on the base and in the interior. One labeled Cheetah on the base could be worth in the neighborhood of $10,000, according to Zarnock.

Most Collectible Hot Wheels
Mattel Inc.

1969 Pink Rear-Loading Volkswagen Beach Bomb

What makes this California classic Vee-Dub bus top banana on the value charts? Because it’s darn near close to a one-off. This rear-loading version of the beloved surf mobile was a preproduction prototype made in 1969, designed so the boards could be loaded in through the back window. Ultimately Mattel ditched this design since it was too narrow to fit properly in the Hot Wheels Super Charger, a popular accessory that powered the cars around a racetrack. 

The version that did get produced had side pockets for the boards and came with hippie flower-power decals in the blister pack. According to Zarnock, the current owner bought this pink prototype for a whopping $72,000. The few other prototypes that survived were given to Mattel employee’s children for “playtesting,” Zarnock says, and many remained in those families’ collections.