Mike Pigott looks at this range of Hot Wheels vehicles from 1991 that featured colour-changing and shape-changing bodies.
In 1988, Hot Wheels introduced a range of model cars with colour-changing paint, which turned a different shade when exposed to heat, returning to the original colour when cooled. These proved popular at the time, having been sold under various brand names including Color Racers, Automagic, Color FX, Colour Turbo and Color Shifters – these are still available today. Also produced in the 1980s was a range called Crack-Ups, which were cars with rotating panels that simulated collision damage. In 1991 Hot Wheels combined the novelty features of these two lines, and came up with the Convertables, which changed both shape and colour when exposed to heat and cold.
The earlier Automagic cars were based on existing Hot Wheels castings. The bodies were painted with the heat-sensitive paint, which also had tampo printing in two colours. For example, a white police car with red markings might change into a red fire chief car with white markings. Crack-Ups, on the other hand, were all-new castings that had spring-loaded rotating panels to simulated crash damage; when the appropriate part was hit with force, the panel would spin around to reveal its reverse face which had fake dents and scratches on it. It was a very clever ‘hand is faster than the eye’ type of trick that was quite convincing.
Convertables (that’s actually the correct spelling – check the packaging) were a development of the Crack-Ups and Automagic concepts. Given that both of the earlier series had been quite successful and remained in production for several years, surely Convertables, which contained elements of each, would also be a great hit, right? Wrong… they were a sales disaster. What’s more, it was impossible to obtain the whole set!
The reason for this is that some of the Convertables never made it into production. There were meant to be twelve items in the series (twelve were listed in the catalogues and pictured on the card backs) but only eight of them made it into the shops.
The planned range was broken into three subsets of four cars each. The ‘Hot Rods’ could change from normal-looking road cars into wild, colourful dragsters; the ‘Roadsters’ went from closed cars to open convertibles; and the ‘Wreckers’ turned from regular cars to battered wrecks. The Hot Rod and Wrecker sets were produced, but the Roadsters were never made.
The eight cars that were produced had, in addition to colour-changing paint, a large spiral spring (similar to a clock spring) visible through holes in the base. When the car was immersed in very hot water, the spring (which was presumably made of a heat-sensitive metal) would expand slightly, and pushed against a plastic lever inside the car, which in turn caused a part or parts of the car to move. This part could be an engine block popping up, a spoiler raising, and so on. The Convertables HAD to be fully immersed in hot water to make them work fully. If they were held in a hand long enough, the colour would shift, but this would not heat the spring enough for the physical change to happen. To change them back, they could either be placed in icy water or put in the freezer for a few minutes.
Most of the Convertables look fairly similar to existing models in the regular Hot Wheels line; they were copied from them but were not modified castings. All models had a ‘CONVERTABLES’ logo printed on them, either on the roof or the rear window.
The Hot Rods were standard cars that when heated changed into custom street rods with exposed engines, big spoilers and wild colour schemes.
This model looks very similar to ‘Blown Camaro’ from the regular series. Like all the Convertables, it has standard five-spoke ‘blackwall’ wheels, opaque windows and no interior. The picture on the back of the pack showed it painted a bright magenta colour, but in reality it was a muddy brown colour with yellow stripes along the bonnet and lower side panels.
Drop it into very hot (but not boiling) water, and …VOILA! The car is now yellow with brown diagonal stripes along the sides and bonnet, while the hood scoop has turned into an exposed engine and a rear spoiler has popped up.
The strangely-named Engine Air is based on the 1989 casting of the VW Beetle. Again intended to be magenta, it is actually in chocolate brown, with opaque grey windows and base, a chrome sunroof, plus yellow stripes and pink flames on the bonnet and sides.
Pop it in water and…ZAP! It turns all yellow, with a huge engine block rising out of the roof.
As the name indicates, this is based on the long-running ’57 Chevy model. It has a silver-grey base and bizarre pink windows. The body is dark purple, with a light blue stripe across the top, a chrome bonnet scoop and magenta styling strips along the sides.
After being stuck in hot water… POW! It turns all light blue, with extra purple squiggles along the sides and a chrome engine block protruding through the hood.
The last of the Hot Rods is based on the second type (1990) Thunderbird Stocker casting. Although shown on the packaging as painted light blue, it was actually finished in very dark brown with an orange stripe along the top, orange bonnet scoop and boot lid, black base and grey windows.
Heat it up and… WHAM! We get a two-tone car this time – yellow at the front shading to red at the rear. In addition, an orange engine popped up, while the boot lid became an aerofoil spoiler.
The moving parts of the Hot Rods worked well, but there seems to have been a problem with the colour-changing paint. The proposed bright colours did not seem to show as intended when cold, and instead were in dull, murky shades, possibly due to a miscalculation with the paint formula.
As the name implies, the wreckers were meant to look like cars before and after a smash. Two were racing stock cars, and the other pair were run-down bangers.
This model, which is based on the 1989 Chevy Stocker casting, recycled the name of an earlier range of motorized cars (the Shift Kickers from 1983). It is a fairly normal looking stock car, in a dark pink shade with black decals and racing number 27, plus black base and windows.
When this one goes into hot water…BLAM! It turns an off-white colour, while the plastic bonnet and boot lid stay pink and pop open. But the black tampo-printing also disappears under the hot water, leaving a different pattern under the stripes and numbers. It leaves brown and green patches, giving the impression of rust and moss.
Another racing car, this is also similar to an existing Hot Wheels casting; in this case the first type Thunderbird Stocker from 1984. At room temperature, it is painted royal purple with purple plastic bonnet and boot. The base is black plastic, the windows are silver-grey, and the grille and headlights are a separate chrome plastic component. There is a large number ‘4’ on the bonnet, two diagonal blue stripes along the sides, and a wavy pattern in mauve along the side panels.
When heated…CRUNCH! The bonnet and trunk lid fly open, and the car body turns a bright blue colour, making it look like an unloved old banger with mis-matched panels.
PICK UP TRICK
This is the only model not to be copied from an existing Hot Wheels casting. As the name indicates, it was a pick-up truck. It is painted a metallic salmon-pink colour, with a black check pattern on the bonnet and sides. The base and grille are black, while the cabin roof is black plastic with the silver windows mask-sprayed on.
Dunk it in water and… KABOOM! It turns very light pink, while the black checks disappear to reveal ‘mouldy’ green blotches. The cab roof lowers into the body, giving the appearance of a truck that has rolled over a few times.
Fab Cab differs from the other Wreckers, in that it comes pre-wrecked and putting it in hot water restores it. Based on the casting of Highway Patrol, it is painted bottle green with a black stripe along the top, a black base, and black plastic ‘sunken’ roof with silver-painted windows.
When placed in hot water…ZING! The body turns lime green with extra green stripes on the bonnet and boot, plus TAXI signs and checks on the doors. The roof is raised to its correct height, and it actually looks quite respectable.
Now we delve into the realms of the unknown. The four Roadsters were intended to be able to convert from closed sedans to open-toppers, and judging by the pictures on the back of the pack, it looks like the roofs were meant to rotate to reveal an open interior. This idea wasn’t new, as there were tinplate cars in the 1950s that could do this, and a similar gimmick was used by Hot Wheels a few years earlier, as some of the Crack-Ups range had rotating, changing tops on them.
BLACK BULLET – This would have been a black concept car type with a huge, exposed rear engine. When heated, black and yellow ‘tiger’ stripes would appear, and the closed canopy would rotate to become and open cockpit.
FORMULA FEVER – This should have been a powerful-looking racing car, in all black with a closed cockpit. It would have changed to white with various racing sponsor decals, and again the closed canopy would spin around to become an open one.
TURNIN’ T – Based on a Ford hot rod (although not a Model T) this was intended to change from a dark-coloured closed coupe to a yellow open roadster with red flame tampos. It looks like the roof would pop up like Fab Cab, rather than rotating.
LO-DOWN LIMO – Unlike the other Convertables, this appears to be based on a standard Hot Wheels casting, the Mercedes-Benz 540K. The colour would have changed from black with a tan roof to white with red and yellow flame decals and no roof. This appears to be a cheat model, as it looks like the roof would have to be removed manually, as opposed to a heat-activated change.
As to why the Roadsters were unproduced is uncertain. It may have something to do with the fact that it was not possible to get the heat-activated roof-flip function to work properly, and the sub-set had to be ditched at the last minute. Possibly Lo-Down Limo could have been released on its own, but it wasn’t. I wonder how many collectors have been trying to track down these items in vain for the past three decades?
THE CAR ON THE PACK
Convertables were all issued on a large blister pack, with all twelve proposed models shown in ‘before and after’ poses in colour on the back – how much confusion must this have caused? However, there is a 13th model shown on the front of the packaging, and this wasn’t produced either! It was a closed pink concept car that could transform into an open yellow roadster with white and red decals. This was not a new casting; it was from the old Crack-Ups line, where it was known as ‘Bang-Up Job’ or ‘Top Bopper’. It had a rotating, barrel-shaped central piece that spun around when hit, revealing a smashed top on the other side. The pack illustration shows it with a new interior moulding, having a driver figure in an open cockpit. It would have been ideal for the Convertables range, but wasn’t used. Possibly there were problems getting the top to rotate in hot water.
So why did the Convertables fail? Probably for a number of reasons. Perhaps the novelty of colour-changing cars had worn off (although Mattel would get a lot more mileage from these in later years). More likely, it was for two other reasons. The first is that Hot Wheels (and other manufacturers) had flooded the market with different gimmick ranges in the early 1990s, and there probably a lot better items on the racks to attract the attention of kids.
Secondly, and most importantly, is the cars looked really dull in their ‘before’ colours. In particular, the Hot Rods were in muddy brown shades that would have little appeal to kids used to bright, vivid colours. If they were sold in the ‘after’ colours, they may have sold better. And I wonder how many kids must have searched through the racks to find Fab Cab without a squashed roof! Things probably weren’t helped by the most interesting-looking models, the Roadsters, not being available.
It’s disappointing that the Convertables were a complete failure; they actually work well and are quite clever. They seem to retain their bright colours for some time after being heated.
This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Diecast Collector magazine.
Text and photos TM and (c) Mike Pigott 2021.