Recollections / February 25, 2020
A couple of years ago I posted an image on Twitter of the Hot Wheels Service Center Sto & Go playset seen above and got to feeling unexpectedly emotional (and more than a bit political) about it. The toy evoked feelings of a lost world, a celebration of blue-collar work, of craftsmanship, of a 1970s era of big cars and grubby parking garages with lots of ramps. I admittedly get emotional pretty frequently about artifacts of the late ’70s/early ’80s “Hinge Years,” as I call them (just check my archive of articles here at We Are the Mutants if you don’t believe me), but something about the Hot Wheels Service Center really hit me hard and stuck with me.
Hot Wheels cars loom large in the memories of Generation Xers because they came of age right along with us. In the late ’60s, American toy maker Mattel saw the broad and long-lasting global success of Matchbox cars, a postwar British manufacturing success story that debuted in 1953 with a line of diecast metal 1:64 scale models of real-world cars. Hot Wheels sought to take the Matchbox car to a new level, giving American kids a taste of the then-contemporary custom car culture, developing all kinds of wild vehicles in the same scale as Matchbox. In 1968 Mattel released its “Sweet 16,” the first vehicles in the Hot Wheels line, and their massive initial success meant that dozens of new designs followed. Hot Wheels vehicles were spacey, wild evocations of a resolutely American automobile imagination. (Hot Wheels also had better quality spinning wheels that allowed them to be used for racing more reliably than Matchbox vehicles.) Matchbox changed up its own marketing and design to keep up with Hot Wheels, while, as the ’70s went on, Hot Wheels produced more and different kinds of real-world cars to balance out the hot rods and custom cars. Hot Wheels also produced plentiful accessories for the racers from the very outset of the line, including race tracks that featured pit stops, which undoubtedly influenced the eventual design of the Sto & Go Service Station.
I’m not sure if Matchbox and/or Hot Wheels cars were ever my favorite toys as a little kid, but they were always around, omnipresent and inevitably underfoot for any grown-ups in our living room. I probably had a dozen or more. I’m guessing they were popular because they were both cheap and readily available; I clearly remember them prominently on sale at places other than toy stores, such as grocery store and pharmacy gift aisles. They were economical, collectible toys that kept smaller kids occupied for hours on end. But there was something special and unique about the Sto & Go Service Station—I got it for Christmas in 1980 or ’81—that kept me playing with it for a good long while. Its portability (the two levels of the garage folded up to make a handy carrying case—the “Sto and Go”—for your Hot Wheels) made it my favorite toy for taking on the road to relatives’ houses. Play-wise, it’s a typical pre-G.I. Joe and Transformers early 1980s playset: it has multiple levels, lots of moving parts, plenty of opportunities for both kinesthetic and gravity-propelled play, a really well-designed toy for the 8-and-under crowd. I also think that, in some small way, the Sto & Go appealed to me because it was ultimately incredibly cozy. Here was a “neighborhood,” if you will, with everything that a driver might need for their car: transmissions, tires, a dynamometer test, gas, tires, and a wash and wax at the end of it all. Moreover, none of these service station pit stops are owned by a huge chain or corporation; they each proudly display the (yes, admittedly all male) names of their owner-operators: Ted, Larry, Mike, Al, George. It’s basically the happy main street of an admittedly car-crazy town, perhaps before the Jiffy Lube, the Pep Boys, and the Wal-mart Auto Care Center came to roost.
I remember loving books in my early childhood that extolled the benefits of living in a tidy neighborhood where everyone had a vital job or a role. Whether it was Richard Scarry’s classic Busytown books like What Do People Do All Day? (1968) or the British Mr. Men series from 1971 (here the characters’ roles in town are more psychological than labor-based, but my point stands) or all of Mister Rogers’ various Neighborhoods (from Fred Rogers’s “real” neighborhood with working-class visitors like “Speedy Delivery” Mr. McFeely, to the factory footage that Mr. Rogers would show on Picture Picture, even occasionally to labor relations in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe), one of the signal lessons of my childhood cultural education was that an ideal society hums along with the buzz of people doing meaningful, valuable labor. Pretty typical Cold War-era pro-labor messages, all told; I’m guessing a lot of kids born in the ’70s remember similar themes in their media. The Hot Wheels Service Station absolutely embodies that set of lessons; each of these garages has its own purpose, implying that they’re all able to both stay in business and offer specialist expertise that the others can’t. When I joked on Twitter about the playset offering a glimpse of a syndicalist future, I was recalling the rise of the Wobblies and other laborers’ reactions to the Second Industrial Revolution, a period of labor upheaval where industrial workers found their small-scale, specialized skills superseded by a wave of technology-driven standardization and automation. One thing that the last forty years of neoliberalism and its own technological revolutions have proven is that specialized skills and individual small-scale industriousness fall like dominoes before the consolidated power of international capital. In the Hot Wheels Service Station, an era of smaller, local, more interconnected, more personal, and more personable industry is frozen in amber.
And yes, those ramps are also evocative; not just because they were a hell of a lot of fun to play with (if you managed to get your car all the way down to the gas station without crashing, a bell would usually ring), but because they summoned up what cities looked like in the 1970s, at least to me in the back of our family station wagon: overpasses, bridges, highways, expressways plowing through the centers of cities, all sprouting enormous and steep on- and off-ramps. Every trip into Boston in the family car involved navigating at least a few of these. Mutants contributor Rob MacDougall dubbed it “ramppunk,” and that term is now indelibly tied together—for me—with the built landscape of a particular urban milieu of the period. The Hot Wheels Service Center is topographically and practically improbable in the real world, of course. Maybe it’s not spatially uncanny or impossibly Escherian, but a two-level garage filled with five mechanics’ businesses linked by a long S-shaped ramp like this doesn’t exist anywhere in the real world. (Equally unreal was 1980’s follow-up to the Service Center, an actual City scene with the same layout as the Service Center.) But that unreality doesn’t matter when I look at it as an object, probably because I associate that same mix of beiges, browns, and oranges on the Service Center decals with an era where it seemed every road ended in a ramp and every built environment was designed to accommodate cars, not people. The Hot Wheels Service Center does double nostalgic duty: it reminds me of the intersection between the imaginary worlds and the real world of my youth, and the intersection between the ideal worlds our toys once created and a harsher reality I wasn’t yet conscious of.
Meet you at that big window overlooking the car wash.