Partially hidden beneath a tarp lies a dark, menacing car. Sparks fly out of the dashboard area as a power sander rips metal into shape. The “helmet” is tipped back and the grille grimaces at me like the Dark Lord of the Sith himself. The Force is strong with this one – the 1:1 Darth Vader car.
I’ve been granted entry into the “top secret” Hot Wheels Test Facility and, despite all the Hot Wheels cars and bikes present, it’s the Darth Vader car that grabs my attention like a Sith stranglehold. John Williams’ Imperial March trails off in my head when the mastermind behind this project – Hot Wheels designer Bryan Benedict – strides into the warehouse like Darth Vader boarding a hapless Rebel ship.
The 1:64 Scale Piece
Being the guy with the character car (cars based on specific characters) vision, Bryan took the design lead on the Star Wars 1:64 vehicles. He designed several himself, including the Darth Vader car. He shows me the 1:64 prototype and a handful of drawings.
“A lot of thought went into the vehicle type and how it was executed,” he remembers. “There’s such a following around the world for this property that we really felt like we had to be on top of our game with this. I really wanted to do it right.”
With a team assigned to him for the project, Bryan says there were a lot of different opinions on where to go with it. “Some would have liked to see it more literal to Darth. I think that was definitely not the way to go.” He shows me several drawings that didn’t make the cut – some wild variations, all of them cool concepts in their own right.
One challenge was how to handle the helmet – we didn’t want it to become too prominent, or “bulby.” “So we squished that down to really make it look sinister and foreboding and ominous. I think it works ’cause it’s not just about the visual cues – it’s also about the personality.” Bryan’s philosophy is that a character car is just as much about the personality of that character and who they are and what they’re about and where they’re from as it is about the visual cues of that character. He points out that Darth Vader is scary, too. “A car like this that’s really sinister looking and slammed down to the ground is much more menacing and scary looking.”
Having eliminated a lot of what he didn’t want, Bryan focuses on what he did want. “I wanted to really play up on our heritage,” he notes. “In the way I’ve handled the proportions and the surface treatment, I’ve tried to echo some of our heritage from our very beginning – cars like the Twin Mill.”
The final look is both familiar and old school, while simultaneously being futuristic and fresh and modern. “Darth Vader himself almost has this presence that is both ancient and futuristic. The Star Wars property as a whole has that vibe. The very introduction of Star Wars – A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… We think of it as the future ’cause it’s in space, but it’s the past. So I wanted to embody that even in the design of the car.”
In the end, it had to appeal to adults but still be recognizable to kids. “Take the fact that it’s Darth Vader out of the equation, and it’s still a cool car. And that’s the objective. They have to be a Hot Wheels cool, authentic car – not just a regular cool, authentic car. But they also have to instantly read as the character. And I think we’ve been pretty successful in doing that.”
Bryan notes that the final design is almost identical to the initial sketch he did… in church! Divine inspiration? For a Darth Vader car?!?
As a fan of Star Wars since it came out in 1977, I just have to ask about the rest of the series for a minute. Like, please tell me there’s a Boba Fett car. “There is a Boba Fett car,” Bryan assures me, “and I’m pretty sure you’re gonna like it. Boba Fett is my personal favorite of all the cars I’ve done. We’re doing a lot of cars. There’s something like 24 or 26 different cars total. There will also be characters from the new movie coming out.” At the time he tells me this, characters from the new movies are not even public knowledge yet. (Keep a lookout at HWC for updates on the rest of the line. – Ed.)
The 1:1 Scale Piece
The choice to use Darth Vader as a 1:1 version of the Hot Wheels Star Wars cars was a logical one. An iconic character, with presence, who won’t take any bull from anyone. A maverick, in a more positive light – that says Hot Wheels. Plus, according to Bryan, “That particular car design lent itself to making a 1:1 version a reality.”
“So we decided that we would not only do a 1:64 scale version that we would sell at San Diego Comic-Con, but also create a full-size car based on that 1:64 piece.” Bryan gets an almost evil grin. “Not only that, but take it one step further. Not only is it a full-size build – it’s a running car. It will be an actual driving vehicle, not just a rolling prototype. But not only that, it’s gonna be a high-performance car. So it will actually be able to do drifting, do stunts, and do all kinds of really cool stuff. And it’ll be street legal as well.”
They’re going to turn this thing loose on the streets? May the Force be with us all.
Enter Billy Hammon and PCW Brands Inc., aka the Hot Wheels Test Facility. Billy, a stuntman and car builder, is responsible for the Hot Wheels 1:1 Bone Shaker and about a dozen others, like the Bad To The Blade used by Team Hot Wheels.
Speaking of Billy, as I stand gawking at the 1:1 build in progress, he walks up to Bryan and me with a small box. From the small box, he removes a steering wheel shaped about like Darth Vader’s personal TIE. fighter. Both Bryan and I nod in approval.
We watch as Billy and Bryan take the new steering wheel and attempt to position it in the car. They discuss possible modifications and an alternate steering wheel for drifting. Billy also shows Bryan how the exhaust pipes and fittings will work on the sides of the car with red lighting to look like lightsabers.
Billy tells me that, when building a car like this, he makes sure there are reasons for the details so they serve a purpose as well as looking cool. “But we don’t want to sacrifice the design,” Billy adds.
Between Billy and Bryan, they have come up with some amazing functionality. The mask tips and nose piece will be headlights. The iconic chest plate, positioned as sort of a shaker hood, will feature functional buttons that control sound effects, lighting, fog, and opening the roof. Bryan points out that the roof rises, tips back, and then the windshield tips forward – all meant to mimic the setup in The Empire Strikes Back where Darth’s mask is put on by automated function. “The interior is designed to reflect the inside of his helmet,” Bryan notes. “When he takes his helmet off, there’s all this stuff – the breathing apparatus, the wires, etc.”
The body of the car sits there suspended without wheels, looking as if it could hover away like a Landspeeder. The suspension is actually F1 A-Arm style, and it will ride on MHT/US Mag custom wheels with custom red line tires. There is a high performance LS3 engine with 526 horsepower to the rear wheels under the hood.
Billy and his team are known for being able to do fast builds. They built the Bone Shaker in 5-1/2 weeks. But with only two weeks left to have this car ready for San Diego, Billy can’t chat anymore – he has to get back to this build. At the moment, there is concern about whether or not Darth Vader can fit in the cockpit if the Dark Lord of the Sith should happen to drive it.
Bryan is happy with how his design is turning out at 1:1 scale. “When you translate to full scale, some things have to change,” he explains. “Some of the radiuses are a little too tight, or too loose and you need to tighten them up, etc. So we made a few adjustments.” Overall, he feels they have been able to stay true to the 1:64 piece.
“I want to make sure that when people see this real car sitting there they’re gonna be blown away,” he says. “And Hot Wheels fans and collectors are gonna be excited and feel that it’s Hot Wheels, and Star Wars fans are gonna see it and feel that it’s Star Wars, and even people who don’t know anything about Star Wars or Hot Wheels will think it’s an amazing car. That’s really the objective all along – appealing to all those crowds of people.”
I’ve seen plenty of slick, sinister cars, but this one has galactic appeal. This is the car you’re looking for.