There is a reason Larry Wood is known in certain circles as Mr. Hot Wheels.
From 1969 to 2009, Wood served as the chief designer for the Mattel toy car brand, creating hundreds of fast and flashy vehicles for the company.
The gig never got old.
“I enjoyed going to work every day,” Wood said from his private garage in Long Beach, California. “Working for a toy company and drawing cars has got to be the world’s best job.”
Even in retirement, Wood still serves as a Hot Wheels consultant.
When they need input on a design, he is on it. He also regularly represents the toy brand at conventions and car shows.
This weekend, Wood has been tapped as grand marshal for the 40th annual Rodders Days Show, being held for the first time on the University of Arizona Mall.
Wood will sign autographs amid hundreds of classic cars from across the Southwest.
He started his career as a designer for Ford. The Connecticut native moved to Detroit to work for Ford in 1965 after graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. “Ford was the performance car at the time,” Wood said. “They would move you from studio to studio. The best studio was concepts, where you tried to come up with the next big design.” Wood had grown tired of the snow and the politics of the auto industry by 1967, and moved to California. He worked for a short time for Lockheed on the L-1011 TriStar airliner before venturing into toy cars.
He got his Hot Wheels job at a party. Wood’s good friend, Howard Rees, chief designer for Hot Wheels at the time, confided in Wood at a party that he no longer wanted to design toy cars. “He wanted to do space stuff,” Wood said. When Rees suggested Wood take his spot at Hot Wheels, Wood agreed to it. “I thought that I would design cars for a couple of years until I found a real job.”
Wood was the only designer at Hot Wheels for 15 years. Hot Wheels wasn’t as big a deal at the time. “Barbie was queen,” Wood said. As time passed, the fathers who played with Hot Wheels as kids started buying Hot Wheels for their kids. “It took 20 years after it all started to truly take off,” Wood said.
The process of creating cars changed dramatically during Wood’s tenure. “Everything is done on computers now,” Wood said. “You don’t have model shops doing models. You do it on a computer. You can make a Hot Wheels-sized car in four hours. It used to take weeks.” The change is part of why Wood decided to retire. “I am an old-school guy,” he said. “I love the feel of a pencil on a piece of paper. The guys today do a great job on computers, but for me, it isn’t the same.”
His favorite creation was the Purple Passion. The car was released in 1990 and was based on the 1949 Mercury. “This Mercury had the wheels pulled inside the body,” Wood said. “Most of the cars had wheels sticking outside the body, otherwise the car would rub along the sides of the track. We did it as an experiment.”
The Purple Passion went on to become a top seller for the company, Wood said.