Hangin’ With Elwood

Hangin’ With Elwood

Larry Wood opens up his shop to DCX

Hot Wheels collectors know and cherish the name “Larry Wood” for a lot of reasons. Whether it’s the 40 years he spent designing Hot Wheels cars, the real-life cars that he’s built and driven around the streets of Southern California, or just the way that he enjoys the company of his fans, he’s a dedicated car guy through and through.

He’s also truly generous with his time. While we were out in Long Beach, CA, for the RCX/DCX Collectors Expo this past April, we had the opportunity to visit with Larry at his shop—Elwood’s Garage. The “Elwood” handle sprang from the way Larry signs his drawings—“L Wood.” It’s a friendly nickname that Larry enjoys greatly.
Larry’s retired from his job as a Hot Wheels designer, and when we got to the supplied address and knocked at the door, we didn’t know what to expect. We were in for a treat. Suddenly, there was Elwood himself, smiling from ear to ear, and welcoming us inside. Retirement suits the man well; the legend appeared tanned, tall, relaxed, and smiling. Once inside the front office, we were blown away by cases of books, hundreds of models, the stacks of Hot Wheels and vintage “Kustom” car mags … and a full-on, blown Hemi engine on a stand. Larry saw the awestruck look on our faces. “What can I tell you?”, he said. He made small circles in the air with his fingertips. “This is just stuff— diecast stuff, Hot Wheels stuff, collector stuff.” He then turned to the Hemi with a big smile. “I’m going to put an electric motor in it with a margarita blender on the end, so it’ll spin, and make margaritas.”

Hot Wheels Heaven
While the images of a 1,200 horsepower cocktail mixer vectored across our collective minds (along with the urge to bow reverentially), Larry chuckled, showed us a few more rarities and photos from his years at Hot Wheels, then took us out of his office and into the main garage. We were now truly in Hot Wheels Heaven: Population, us.
The first things we saw would have been hard to miss: Larry’s ’38 COE Ford truck and his big-block Chevy-powered ’32 Nash—both in a shade of orange, and both of which became Hot Wheels cars. The Nash was sold as the “Classic Packard”; when we asked about the name change, Larry laughed. “What kid is going to buy a Nash?” Another car sat square in the workshop; an in-progress, fiberglass-bodied, rear-engined blown V6 project that’s equal parts VW buggy and ‘34 Ford. We all agreed that the wild ride—stinger exhaust and all—should be a Hot Wheels. And why not? Who better to bring a Hot Wheels car to life than the man who designed Hot Wheels for 40 years? “Car stuff has always been my love. [Working for Hot Wheels] paid me to be able to come here and do this, which is what I enjoy,” he said, nodding at the projects parked in the shop.
Forty years of design makes for an impressive amount of memories, and the video cameras rolled as Larry led us to the cases along the walls. Prototypes, bare castings, and never-released pre-production pieces were everywhere. Larry pointed out the rarer items—including original drawings of some classic Wood designs. “We’ve got drawers and drawers of this stuff,” Larry said, “and we could look through the files for the rest of our lives.” After seeing Wood’s original art for the “Zowees,” the “Old number 5,” and his color sheets for some of the projects he’d had a hand in, we were wishing we could.

A dream-like state
Then Larry brought us over to a special display, and showed us something that few get to see: original, hand-built Hot Wheels design models. These look to be made of plaster or clay, painted in colors we’d never seen; some were hand painted with “windows,” others were monochrome color tests, and more of the models were just plain castings. All of these were physical representations of what we’d seen in Larry’s drawings, and were built by Mattel’s shop after each sketch had been approved. Some of the models never saw production. Other proto design pieces—a wooden Pantograph buck for the “Twin Mill,” and a pair of first-shot “Classic Cords,” among others—are, frankly, priceless.
The memories of the models that those very pieces spawned had us in a dream-like state—but what we saw above our heads shook us back to the present. In addition to cars and motorcycles, Larry Wood collects Hot Wheels signage—and like every machine parked below it, the giant vintage “Mattel Hot Wheels” neons and antique sales and show banners adorning the shop’s walls and roof beams each have a story to tell— but we can’t tell those stories here. We promised.
Same deal on other mementos, like the Hot Wheels jackets and the Hot Wheels Soap Box Derby Car hanging from the rafters, or the side of Kyle Petty’s Hot Wheels Race car, hanging on the wall. It’s all fair and square, for sure, but the amount of Hot Wheels product and promotional paraphernalia Wood oversees is astonishing—not surprising, given the 40-year span that’s passed outside those walls as the memorabilia accumulated within.
Larry invited us to see the antique aluminum camping trailer that he’s been resurrecting over the past few years; it’s a cherry piece that’s as much an imposing streamlined sculpture as it is a comfy camper. Larry is polishing the aluminum to an as-new luster and updating the interior with fragrant wood and hand-fashioned chrome detailing, as well as modern electronics.
It’s as timeless as the man himself. Forty years of Hot Wheels history have soaked into the walls and floor of Elwood’s Garage; the small things often mean the most, and the large things, though impressive, tell the quiet history of this humble man who has brought millions of people joy. He’s thoughtful, creative, and caring. We stepped back into the Long Beach sun feeling that Larry Wood’s heart, like his shop, is an open door. Though the walls are finite, what lies within will expand, if only in our memories, for as long as kids— and the adults they become—treasure his work. Mr. Hot Wheels … thanks.

Updated: July 12, 2012 — 9:03 AM
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