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Hot Wheels restoration, lessons learned

When I found an old childhood Matchbox car I saw it as a challenge. A restoration challenge, to see if could bring back this toy’s former glory. It was pretty well beat up as it was a much loved car back in the day, but it was not beyond repair. And honestly, it turned out prettybitchin’.

I knew when I started I couldn’t actually “restore” the 1975 Challenger in the technical sense. I didn’t have any of the same decals or wheels or anything. My goal was only to make it look new again, something I could put on the shelf and be proud of, not just because of the accomplishment but because the car holds so many fond memories.

Disassembling was pretty straight forward. I drilled out the rivets and it came apart without any complaints. A quick paint stripper bath and I had bare metal staring back at me. I did have to spend a little time with theDremel grinding down the beat up edges but I found that the body was not in as bad shape as it looked. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for the wheels.

The wheels were toast. They didn’t spin, they were barely round and the axles were bent. I knew I would have to replace the tires and that was something I hadn’t yet done with any previous builds. I had only repainted cars at this point, this time it required a little creative thinking. But before I attacked the wheels I got out of the way what I knew I could do – paint and detailing.

The previous two paint jobs I did were acrylics with a brush. I don’t have an air brush so just using standard equipment was the first thing that entered my mind. While the Ricky Bobby Chevelle car and B-Team van didn’t turn out bad at all, nothing beats a good spray job. However, I wasn’t about to drop $80+ on an air brush for my Hot Wheels, so I took the only other option: good old fashioned spray paint.

I went to Home Depot and found Rustoleum’s 2X Cover craft spray enamel and it worked great. Not only does it cover really well and shine, it comes in a great spread of colors and it’s cheap. A $3.50 can of paint will cover dozens of cars. I found a sun yellow color that closely matched the original yellow of the Challenger and gave it a coat or two after giving in a standard coat of primer. The wheel base itself I just kept primer grey as it matched the original grey color pretty closely. After the yellow dried I needed to add some red stripes to the hood so I masked it off with some tape and sprayed a light coat. I found the masking tape didn’t give quite the hard edge I wanted, but it was good enough.

The last challenge in painting was getting a fine black line I wanted to go along the red stripes. The lines were too thin to try masking so I looked to my fine point Sharpie marker for help. The Sharpie worked great but unfortunately the line ran a little bit after a clear coat was added. Next time I’m going to try some paint pens as I don’t think those will run when sprayed.

Once the base coats were dry it was time to try something else I had never done before, adding decals. Last time I was at the hobby store I found a sheet of wet slide decals that were sized to HO scale. They were made for model train cars, but HO is close enough to 1/64 that they would look great on a diecasts. It had been a long time since I had used wet slide decals and these were tough to work with only because of their size, otherwise they went on smoothly and, in my opinion, make the car what it is.

When the decals were in place and dry, I gave the entire car a good coat of clear gloss to protect the paint and the decals. Unfortunately a few chips showed up on the yellow coat before I clear coated it, so I had to patch those up. I was mad though and didn’t quite know why it was chipping. It wasn’t dropped or moved, it just started flaking off by itself. I did some tests later with other car bodies and I think the primer coat is causing the easy peeling. Not sure if it was just cheap primer or if should have added another color coat. Maybe next time I’ll forgo the primer and see what happens.

With the paint and detailing pretty much done, I was left with the task of replacing the wheels and axles. Finding wheels was a little tougher than I thought because the car itself is a Matchbox and my stash of cars is pretty much all Hot Wheels. This particular Matchbox also seems to have an extremely wide wheel base, much wider than other cars. Luckily I had some wheels that fit not only the body but also the attitude. I was fortunate enough to have some rear wheels that had “Goodyear” printed on them and it just takes the car up a notch, especially when combined with all the other decals. So Matchbox body with Hot Wheels tires, the best of both worlds.

But what makes a good axle replacement? When I was at Home Depot getting paint I wandered around looking for anything that was close to the thickness of an axle (about as thick as a paperclip) that wasn’t wire. Axles have to be stiff and not bendy. Home Depot had nothing but wire. I went next door the Michael’s and in their sewing section found some hat pins. They were perfect. It was a jumbo box of 1 1/2″ pins. All I needed to do was trim the ends, cut to the right length and I had instant axle. They actually worked far better than I expected. They don’t have the nice flat ends, but for a shelf car it worked great.

Last but not least I had a choice to make, to keep the original windows or replace them. The original windows were also pretty beat up, cracked with a few spots of random paint and slightly yellowed due to age. I had read that the blister pack plastic can make for a good window replacement, but as this car was wider than others and it didn’t work too well. Had the original window been any worse I would have considered replacing it, but for my first restore I didn’t want to push things too far and blow the whole thing. I opted to keep the original glass and it doesn’t look too shabby.

And that’s all there is to it! I put the car all back together, added a few bit of glue to the rivets and it’s golden. Just a little patience and some standard supplies and I got a brand new hot rod. Working on diecast cars is just like any “normal” model, just smaller and with less parts. The toy cars let me focus on what I like to do, play with paint, use some toxic chemicals, and grind metal with my Dremel. I’m not trying to make auction-ready cars, I just enjoy the process and the questing for car parts to make what could be the ultimate simple custom. And when you compare the up front cost of customizing toy cars with other model hobbies, it comes out pretty cheap. Sure, some of the paint and accessories can be expensive, but in most cases a single purchase (like the paint) will last a long time and be good for numerous cars.

I really enjoyed the act of restoring a car too rather than just repainting a stock model. There’s something wonderful about putting life back in to something that was loved so much, even if a little worse for wear. I’m now looking for more of my own beat up Hot Wheels and asking friends for theirs. It’s fun and that’s really all that matters.

I made a point to take lots of photos during the entire process, so please check out the photo set in Flickr for more shots of how the restoration was done.

Originally posted on May 17, 2009

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