“OH my goodness!” my friend Ikhwan shrieks as he points to a small toy car that Jun Imai, the car’s designer, is taking out of his bag. It’s cream in colour, measuring no longer than my forefinger and has a white rubber band around it to hold the parts in place.
Seeing my baffled look, Ikhwan explains that it’s the highly anticipated C130 Nissan Laurel, one of Hot Wheels’ latest prototypes and which was first revealed at the 2017 Tokyo Toy Show. “I know it’s only a prototype but it feels so God-like holding it!” he exclaims, eyes dancing.
Imai, the lead designer of the Hot Wheels auto and diecast design team, was in Kuala Lumpur recently for a special meet-and-greet session at the Art of Speed Exhibition held at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park in Serdang. This American-born Japanese probably has the most coveted job of any young boy — and big boys — alike. He sketches and builds 1:64 toy car models for Hot Wheels for a living.
Since joining the company in 2004, Imai has introduced and influenced the design of a whole new collection of classic Asian cars. His fascination for Japanese vintage and classic cars has made him a household name among car enthusiasts. His licensed designs have amassed a new generation of Hot Wheels fans, while his original creations are favoured by children around the world.
Hot Wheels, the toy car brand, is no stranger to many homes. It was introduced by Mattel, an American toy company, back in 1968. I clearly remember running the little wheels across my living room’s floor with my cousins. The colourful racers would be pitted against each other along our imagined tracks. We especially enjoyed rolling them down the back of an overturned chair, which was supposed to replicate a hill slope.
This timeless miniature classic will always remind us of our childhood. “Hot Wheels are meant to be played with!” says Imai, when I share with him my childhood recollection of playing with the cars.
“What?” exclaims Ikhwan in response to my confession. It seems that as far as he’s concerned, these cars should remain in the box, to be admired and treasured. To a bemused Imai, Ikhwan confides that he’d usually buy two of the same pieces, “…one for display, while the other would remain in the box,” he shares, chuckling.
“Personally, I like to have my cars out in the open so I’m able to touch and roll them across the table. I believe that’s the magic,” confides Imai, adding: “Sometimes when we design a car, we would think about how a child would envision Hot Wheels. And if you ask a child to draw a car, chances are there’ll be fire shooting out of it or it may have a dragon head or something. It may even have crazy stripes or graphics running across it. Don’t be surprised if it comes with 18 wheels too!”
“I’ve been drawing cars for as long as I can remember. I derive much joy and find escape in drawing,” shares Imai.
This humble 42-year-old lead designer credits his parents for encouraging him to pursue his love for art. “My parents are artistic by nature. They gave me a lot of freedom to find my own path and that’s what has brought me here today,” he says. Recalling his childhood, Imai says that he used to be fascinated with monster trucks. “I had a thing for big tyres,” he reveals, adding: “So, I was always drawing trucks with large tyres on them when I was a kid.”
It was his father whom he took after when it came to his infatuation for cars. He literally grew up in his father’s shadow. “Dad was a typical Japanese salaried man who delighted in cars. He was always tinkering with them and I’d always be there to help him. He loved muscle cars. So, when he first migrated to the United States, he bought himself one. It was a 1974 Dodge Challenger,” Imai reminisces.
His fondest memories with his father are the long drives he and his father used to go on in his Dodge Challenger.
Over the years, Imai painstakingly began restoring classic cars, such as his much-loved 510 wagon. This affable man admits that he has a soft spot for the green wagon. He has replicated many of his own cars into 1:64 Hot Wheels versions. However, none has been as meaningful and special as his 510 wagon.
“It’s special to me because my wife and I built it together, and the children love the car too. She was the one who picked the colour,” explains Imai. It’s not his everyday car although he confesses that he always has fun driving it with his family whenever he gets the chance. It’s also the vehicle that many of his fans associate him with.
“I’ve built several cars in the past, yet the wagon is still the most memorable. It opened a lot of opportunities for the brand in terms of product,” he says. It was the turning point for both Hot Wheels and Imai as the model attracted an entirely different group of collectors. Since then, Hot Wheels has released several other cars along the same “genre” which have also been well received.
A CHILD’S IDOL
Sheepishly, Imai confides that he never owned a single Hot Wheels miniature until he was in second grade. “I went to the store with my mum and I chose a bright orange car,” he reveals. It turned out to be a Dixie Challenger designed and built by Larry Wood.
Wood is Hot Wheels’ original designer who began his career with the brand back in 1969. Coincidentally, Imai had the good fortune to meet the man himself on his very first day at work.
He recalls meeting the veteran designer in his office where a sketch of the very same Dixie Challenger was hanging on the wall in all its orange glory. But what made this chance meeting most memorable was Wood’s arrogant assumption regarding his longevity with the company.
“He said to me: ‘Hey! Welcome to your first day. You’re going to be here for about a year or so, and then you’ll go to a car company. You’re not going to stay,’” recounts Imai.
Chuckling, he adds: “Wood still comes to the office once in a while to give us a hard time. And when he does, I’d proudly point out to him that I’m still here!”
Soon, it’s time for my friend and I to take our leave. Imai had one more thing to say before I switched off my recorder: “The team (at Hot Wheels) doesn’t just build toys. We create memories with each tiny wheel. Once the car is in the hand, it doesn’t take long for it to transport us back to our happy moments. And that’s something magical.”