If you are an avid Hot Wheels collector, step back for a minute.
Look at the state of Hot Wheels collecting. We are in the midst of a JDM tidal wave. Two years ago, most collectors didn't know what JDM meant (and they still don't, but we are as guilty as any for erroneously using the term for any Japanese car - kind of like "Kleenex" for tissue, but that is an article for another time), and most likely weren't even familiar with the term at all.
But JDM is EVERYWHERE in our hobby. New Japanese car models are a constant now. Every year, one iconic vintage Japanese car after another hits the pegs, and promptly gets scooped up. For those that have been collecting for awhile, did you ever envision a day when collectors would bypass a Camaro SS on the pegs to get to a Corolla? Or that the most expensive RLC model on the secondary market is a Datsun? And that the most buzzed-about new models in 2015 are not a Charger or Mustang, but instead two 1990's-era Japanese cars, an Acura and a Nissan? There is no way you would have. It seems to have come out of left field.
And it kind of did. We are dedicating today's post entirely to the most unlikely model to ever become a Hot Wheels icon. Think '67 Camaro. Think VW Drag Bus. Now think of a 1970's grocery-getter with no power that your grandma drove. It doesn't seem to fit, but there is no doubt that the '71 Datsun Bluebird 510 Wagon is a Hot Wheels icon, and it essentially ushered in an entire scene.
This Hot Wheels JDM craze owes a lot to the Datsun Wagon, and one model in particular, the 2013 Boulevard issue in mint green.
The story of how this came to be is as interesting as any in our hobby, a perfect storm of circumstances that turned the Wagon into such a highly sought-after model. It is a story I have told to a few people, and they have all told me to tell it here. So that is what I am doing.
And yes, claiming that one model created a scene sounds like a bit of a stretch, but it played an integral role, and that is what I will document. Of course there are a lot of other major factors. The JDM scene has been growing rapidly all over the world, and here in the US especially. Serious car collectors have all of a sudden noticed classic Japanese cars, and young car enthusiasts will always relate to the cars they grew up with, and Japanese cars are a huge part of that now.
And of course the emergence of JDM at Hot Wheels doesn't happen without designers who are passionate about j-tin. Jun Imai has taken the place of retired Larry Wood as Hot Wheels' superstar designer. Releases of his Japanese models are events, and he was in the game early, having designed the AE86 in 2006 and Datsun 510 Sedan in 2009. He was then behind the two classic Skylines in 2011, and of course designed the 510 Wagon after his own car in 2013. (We hear rumors of another Imai-1:1-inspired coming down the pipe as well.) And there are quite a few other Japanese car lovers in the Design Center, most notably Osaka native Ryu Asada, who cut his teeth at Matchbox before designing HW collector faves like the Honda S2000, Civic EF, and the just-released Acura NSX.
Even with all that, and those are obviously the two most important factors, JDM isn't at the fever pitch it is with collectors without what happened with the Wagon. Let's set the scene:
Before 2011, JDM didn't have much of a presence at Hot Wheels. There had been some Japanese releases in the years leading up, like the R32 Skyline, 240Z, and Nissan Silvia, and of course Jun was doing his thing with the AE86 and 510 Sedan, but for the most part those models were known more for being pegwarmers than anything else. I remember telling a collector friend back in 2009 that the 510 was really the only model I wanted to collect, and he laughed, telling me I would have no problem collecting it, as they were hanging everywhere.
The 1:1 JDM scene continued to grow, documented as always by publications like Japanese Nostalgic Car, and Jun kept rolling out his creations. 2011 saw two major additions, the Hakosuka and Kenmeri Skylines. Again, I remember a subgroup of collectors going nuts, while others were hitting Wikipedia to find out what Skylines were. In places like Southern California, the Skylines were gobbled up, but elsewhere they hung and hung. I was able to find them easily in stores around here until as recently as 2013.
But because the Skylines were purely Japanese, and there was no US reference like the 510 and 240Z, collectors were now being introduced to a new car scene.
It was also at about this time that Hot Wheels had released its new premium series, Boulevard. A follow-up to the HW Garage series, the goal was to release a variety of licensed and unlicensed models in realistic and familiar liveries and decos. But as the line was released throughout 2012, it became clear that it was too big, had too many unlicensed models, and had no real focus. Models started piling up on the pegs.
It seems that in 2013, however, that Hot Wheels figured it out. The plan was to release far fewer models, in more spread-out batches, and to focus on realism and more interesting cars. There were all kinds of cool models slated to be a part, including an amazing array of new tools, from the 510 Wagon to a Renault to a Jeep Wagoneer, Drag Astro Van, and Porsche 993. Collectors started licking their chops.
Mattel released the first batch of 2013 Boulevard to hobby dealers in the first week of January 2013. A Fiero, the new Renault, the Hakosuka Skyline, and the '71 Datsun Wagon. Among the JDM set there was a lot of excitement about Jun's wagon, which he previewed at JCCS a few months before. I was very excited about it as well, and was thrilled to showcase it along with the Skyline after receiving my order from Wheel Collectors.
It was clear that the Datsun Wagon got the attention of collectors. To the JDM set, it's coolness was never in doubt, but it was an intriguing release to many others. And that is probably where it would have stood, had things played out like they normally do.
Typically, hobby dealers would get their orders, and 2-3 weeks afterwards the models would hit big box stores. People interested in the Datsun would have picked up one or two, and appreciation for Jun's masterpiece would have definitely increased. There is no doubt it would have been a popular model.
But that is not how it happened. We figured it would hit stores in late January, but it never did. Two months passed. Three months. Finally, in April, a small handful of collectors reported finding the batch at Walmart. A few others found them at Toys R Us. I was able to find one at a Walmart, and I didn't see it anywhere else.
Only a small number of Walmarts and TRU's got the batch, and it became apparent why. 2012 Boulevards were STILL hanging, and it was clear that the big stores weren't interested in adding more. And what a shame too, because Mattel had finally figured out the line, and there was no doubt those models would have sold well.
So after that small appearance in April, Boulevard vanished again. Hobby dealers continued to get new batches, but they were not showing up anywhere else. Spring came and went. So did summer. Still no sign of 2013 Boulevard Batch A.
What should have been a 2-3 week gap between a hobby and big box release had now stretched to 9 months. Collectors began to wonder if they would ever see these models. And as the Datsun became more and more elusive, desire among collectors to have one started to grow. In January 2013 through April you could have bought one for $3-$5 on eBay, but afterwards prices started to increase. As summer rolled around and the Datsun was still nowhere to be found, that price crept up into the teens and then the twenties. The cool car now had that elusive aura, and collectors started salivating.
Fast forward to September 2013. I was on a business trip in St George, Utah, about 90 minutes north of Las Vegas, and would be leaving for the Japanese Classic Car Show in LA the next day. While texting a friend about meeting at the show, he passed along some interesting news. I actually found the texts, and I will let them tell the rest of the story:
Darned if it wasn't the elusive Wagon. It snuck up on us! There is one TJ Maxx in St George, and as you can tell by the time that elapsed between texts, I essentially dropped what I was doing and headed over. I was glad I did:
The next day I was off to SoCal for JCCS, and you had better believe I hit every TJ Maxx I passed. It was a true treasure hunt. They were strewn about everywhere in some stores. Hanging on some pegs, thrown on other shelves, even some that dropped off one shelf and fell into open playsets. Ultimately I did pretty well:
When I got back I reported the news here on Lamley, and the hunt was on. The Wagon was finally available. Only it kind of wasn't. Only west-coast TJ Maxx stores got the Datsun batch, while Midwest and Eastern stores got a different batch. This only added to the elusive reputation of the Datsun. Once again, it bobbed its head above water for a second, only to vanish again.
It would pop up quickly again here and there. Collectors reported finding the 510 Wagon at random places, including at some Shopko stores, but the model was anything but widely available:
Even with these little bubble ups, the Wagon never got a full mainstream release. And when a model becomes elusive, everyone wants it. And a full year after its initial release, as it became clear that the Boulevard Wagon would never be easy to find, it had achieved that highly-desired status. Prices were high, and they have never really gone down since.
Moving into 2014, the Datsun grocery-getter was on everyone's want list. And what did Hot Wheels do? They made the next release the final Super Treasure Hunt of 2014, and a beautiful TH at that. Fighting fire with fire. Any chance that things would settle with the Wagon were quickly killed off.
And all this while the JDM scene explodes, and collectors are running back to snag the models they ignored only a couple of years before. All of a sudden, the pegwarming 510 Sedan was fetching crazy money on eBay, and the Skylines weren't far behind. It is fun to tell certain stories to collectors now, like how the Vintage Racing BRE 510, which fetches $150 now, actually warmed the pegs for a long time. I knew of five (5!) that hung in a nearby Kmart for over a year. Or that the RLC BRE 510, which is approaching $200 on eBay, took several hours to sell out, instead of the two minutes it would take today.
There is no doubt JDM would be huge among the Hot Wheels set today no matter what. It is too big of a scene now, and the designers at Mattel would have made sure of it. But I am not sure that the frenzy would be what it is today without the Wagon and its disappearing act throughout 2013. If it was released in stores, and was readily available, do we still see the same intensity in trying to acquire one? Without all that hype and attention the first two versions of the Wagon got, does Mattel notice as much? Do we get the green light on so many other JDM models? Does the Nissan 180SX create the buzz it has created before even being released? Do we see the Wagon become the first JDM Hot Wheels Convention exclusive? Would Jun's Wagon be sitting in the Design Center right now among the Twin Mills, Deoreas, and other Hot Wheels icons?
Maybe not. If hype were a college class, the circumstances surrounding Jun's 510 could occupy a chapter in the textbook. You need a great product, but you also need some circumstances outside of your control. That is what happened here, and that is how a mint green, small 70's wagon that my mom's friend Joanne drove became a Hot Wheels legend.