Last Updated on December 7, 2020 by Dave Farquhar
It’s fun to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars. I tend to buy representations of pre-1950 cars and un-hotrod them so they’ll look like they belong on my O27 (1:64-ish) train layout; others buy them, paint them differently and put different wheels on them to make something different from what Mattel sells.
It’s a job you can do with simple tools and materials, at least at first. But like many things, you can keep it as simple or get as advanced as you like. And while you won’t do your first car in 15 minutes, it’s easy to divide a car project into 15-minute-per-day steps, especially if you work on two or three of them at once, and at the end of a week you’ll have a few nice cars to show for your time and effort.
Opening the car
The first order of business is to open the car up. Sometimes you can open them without a drill. If not. flip the car over and drill into the center of the rivet using a 7/64 drill bit. Drill about a quarter-inch in. Then switch to a 3/16 bit and drill out the head of the rivet. Take care not to drill into the base.
This job is easier with a drill press–it takes less than two minutes–but you can do it with a hand drill if you don’t have a drill press. Wear work gloves and safety glasses while doing this, and double-check to make sure the drill bit is tight, secure and straight–trust me. I’ve been to the emergency room and don’t want you to have to do the same. You may want to pick up a used drill press from an estate sale, pawn shop, or Craigslist if you do a lot of these. I bought mine for $40.
Removing the paint
Once the car pops open, strip the paint off the body using paint remover. You can get a quart of brush-on, or an aerosol can. It works in five minutes. Take the car outdoors to protect your lungs, spray or brush the remover onto the car, and let it sit. After it’s finished, pick up the car (wear rubber gloves to protect your hands) and rinse the body with water and let it dry. Sometimes you get lucky and find a car painted a suitable color; it just has wild graphics on it. In that case, you can usually remove the graphics with nail polish remover and a cotton swab and skip stripping the paint.
The wheels usually pop out of the base fairly easily, but sometimes minor trimming with a hobby knife is necessary. I swap in same-sized wheels on the front and back and try to make the wheels tamer than what comes from the factory. Matchbox wheels tend to be more tame than Hot Wheels; off-brand cars are also a good source of tame wheels. Really cheap cars from party stores, sold as party favors, can also yield tame wheels at a low price. If you can’t find tame enough wheels, try using a paper punch to punch round circles out of a piece of aluminum tape. Then cover the wild hubcaps with those. Simple round hubcaps were common on non-luxury cars even into the early 1980s.
If the axles on your replacement wheelsets are too long or short, you can adjust the length. Cut the axles, then get a thin piece of brass or plastic tubing with an opening as close to the diameter of the axle as you can. Experiment on the base to find a position where the tube won’t interfere with the axle fitting. Trim the axle pieces further if necessary, then slide the axle pieces into the tube to the length you need. Once it all fits on the base, disassemble it to the point where you can glue the assembly together. Cheap super glue is fine for this job.
If the car has a blown engine that you want to return to stock, let it dry, cover the opening from the inside with a piece of the aluminum tape, then fill the opening with some Bondo or JB-Kwik. Let it cure, then sand it flush with the body.
Once the car body is dry and you’re done modifying it, prime it with any inexpensive hardware-store primer. The house brand is fine. Always paint outdoors to protect your lungs and nervous system. (A hobby’s job is to reduce stress and lengthen your life, not shorten it.) Let it dry according to the instructions on the can, then paint them with the color you want. In my case, I tend toward black, white, tan, or dark shades of blue, green, or red, since those were common car colors prior to 1950.
To speed up drying, you can put an old-fashioned light bulb in a wooden box and put the car in it for a few minutes to dry, or use an old toaster oven (not the one you use in your kitchen to make toast) set to its lowest heat setting. Get an old one from a thrift store. This is especially helpful when painting during the winter or at night. On a warm, sunny day, you can just leave the item out in the afternoon sun to dry. Such baked finishes tend to be more durable.
Closing it back up
After the paint dries, tap the hole in the underside for a 6-32 machine screw. I use a cheap thread-cutting screw for this. You can get them online, but I just buy a few at the nearest hardware store. I screw the thread-cutting screw in, then back it out and replace it with a 3/8-inch-long Phillips-head 6-32 machine screw.
And that’s pretty much all there is to it. You can get fancy with decals if you want. Since I’m after ordinary looking passenger cars, I tend to do a lot of repaints and wheel swaps and leave it at that.
In extreme cases, you can saw cars down the middle and combine fronts of some cars with backs of others. This lets you turn a Ford delivery van into a Chevy or Dodge. To do that, you saw the cars in the appropriate place with the help of a miter box and a hacksaw, dry fit the pieces together, tape the inside of the joint with aluminum tape, glue it with JB-Kwik, then file and fill in the gaps. It’s definitely best to get some practice doing simple modifications first.
Finding the cars is a job unto itself. Examine the current year’s Matchbox and Hot Wheels lineups for suitable vehicles (I linked the 2013 lineups). Seek them out at discount stores, toy stores, and drug stores. Lesser-known brands like Maisto are more hit-and-miss, but I always look at the store brand cars too. Inventory dwindles right after holidays like Christmas, Easter, and even Valentine’s Day, but then again, the week or two after that ensures a fresh batch. Since I limit myself to pre-1950 cars, if there are four models I can use in a given year it’s a heavy year for me. It doesn’t seem to matter much though. I always have cars on my workbench that I haven’t modified yet anyway.
It’s fun to customize Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars, whatever your motivation may be. I hope this guide helps you get started.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.