Fun Stuff

Why I Left Hot Wheels for Strangers With Cool Cars

A week or so before Christmas, on a rare dry day on the west coast, I found myself driving around town on a slightly ludicrous mission, a box of toy cars at my side. The idea was this: any time I saw an interesting or unusual car parked somewhere, I would stop and place a Hot Wheels on its windshield, along with a handwritten note: “Cool car! Hope this Hot Wheels brightens your day. –Santa”

Now, obviously, there are far better things for a grownup to be doing with their time than driving around distributing tiny diecast cars. I had writing to catch up on, yard work to do, and a desk that looked as if it had been hit by an extremely localized tornado. This plan was very silly and I was, in effect, wasting my time.

However… it’d been a long, hard year for many of us. Especially so in these cold, damp, dark winter months, with a long path yet to walk. Isolated from family, friends, and denied the natural humanity of just being in a crowd, it’s hard to feel hopeful or happy about anything.

Having children, I’m luckier than most. For one thing, they keep you busy. For another, they’re the perfect excuse at the grocery store to buy the Hot Wheels I was going to buy anyway. I keep a huge drawer of machines in my desk, and periodically we’ll open it up, pick out one or two, and then go take them racing in the kitchen or on the long orange tracks I remember from my own childhood. Little rewards for no reason other than sharing in a brief delight.

Yet even surrounded by the wonderful chaos of raising young kids, mid-December found me fairly unhappy. I worried about my parents. I missed my friends, and drew scant comfort from screen-time substitutes. Add in the plain fact that so many others are actually suffering, with actual problems, and you can pile guilt onto a general feeling of glumness.

Here’s something I’ve tried to instill in my kids: don’t try to be happy, try to be useful. Be of service. Look for ways to help others. Self-care is one thing, but modern society does have a tendency to hold up a mirror to our worst narcissistic tendencies, so turn your focus elsewhere.

All of which sounds very lofty and noble, but look: we’re talking a box of Hot Wheels here. This is a bit dumb. I know that. But it's also weirdly satisfying.

The car I was using for my half-baked Kris Kringle routine was a Mazda MX-5, because of course it was. The name “Miata” is purportedly derived from an old High Germanic word meaning “reward,” but the reasoning gets better than that. In the U.S., Mazda decided to take the Miata’s name literally, and is giving away 50 100th Anniversary Edition MX-5s to people who have stood up for their communities in a difficult time: teachers, nurses, volunteers.

I came across my first car in the parking lot of a Canadian Tire: a Nissan 370Z. And not just any Z, but the hardcore Nismo variant, sitting on a set of fairly aggressive winter tires. I put a little 300ZX twin-turbo under the windshield wiper. A woman sitting in a Leaf saw what I was doing, and laughed. But in a cheerful way.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering, yes, I did go to the trouble of sanitizing each car, and wore a mask the entire time driving around. The precautions seemed a bit excessive, but if you’re going to be an idiot, I always say, at least be a responsible idiot.

Next up was a Pontiac GTO near a grocery store. I love these things: based on the now-defunct Holden Monaro, they were never a hot-seller, so you had to be a real car nut to want one. Rummaging through my box, the closest GM product I had was an Impala SS, so I left that.

A few got away. I saw at least one Corvette driving past, a pristine white Volvo wagon pulled out just as I pulled in (it would have been a perfect fit for a Hot Wheels 850R Estate in British Touring Car livery), and I also just missed a mid-2000s BMW 3 Series sedan on steel wheels with a manual transmission.

My criteria was fairly open. In wintertime, the garage queens run and hide, so any even slightly performance-oriented machine is possibly a daily driver. A daily-driven VW GTI? Cool enough for me. A base-model Mazda3 with a manual transmission? That’s cool. A V8-powered BMW wagon? Very cool.

And, being winter, I did have to employ a bit of strategy here. It wouldn’t do to simply leave a cardboard blister pack on any car I saw. Rain was in the forecast for the next day, so picking out cars in parking lots or time-limited spots ensured that the owner would come back before things got soggy.

Things were a bit thinner on the ground than I expected. At my usual weekday grocery store, I’ve previously seen everything from a 1960s Porsche 912 to a Lancia Flaminia. This time I had to satisfy myself with a BMW M2 and, nearby, a Porsche Cayman R.

For the BMW, I had to make do with leaving a McLaren F1, but for the Porsche, I had a matching white 917K. Later, I found a JDM Subaru WRX hatchback, and left a World Rally Blue 22B behind. Getting as close a match as possible became a bit of a game in itself.

I didn’t see anyone come out to find my tiny gifts. I can’t tell you if people appreciated the thought or were merely bemused. I kinda wonder if a few of them actually drove off before noticing there was a Hot Wheels under their wiper. I didn’t really even intend to write anything about the experience, which is why these photos are just quick shots from an iPhone.

But as the light faded, I was willing to call the little experiment a success. It had still been a very silly thing to do, but I felt strangely uplifted. If just one person got a smile or a chuckle out of this project, then that was probably worth it.

And I learned a few lessons along the way. I’ve just prepped a larger box, with cars bagged up to make them weatherproof. I’ll keep it in the car with me for random spottings, day-to-day. And I’m going to get the kids to help me with a new expedition, maybe this weekend.

The world is not an empty void, I will tell them. It is a lake, filled to the brim with humanity. When you drop a few pebbles of kindness into that lake, the ripples go out and away, but eventually they will bounce off some distant and unseen shore, and come back to you. You won’t know how or when, and it may only happen inside you. So make time to be silly, yet thoughtful. Doing so can be its own reward.