Jun Imai has one of the best car-guy jobs in the world. As Design Manager for Mattel’s Hot Wheels toy-car brand, Jun gets to make automotive daydreams into reality every day. As always, the current Hot Wheels lineup includes plenty of outlandish, pure-fantasy cars—vehicles designed to stoke the imaginations of children and engineered to zing down orange tracks and off ramps. But over the past few years, Jun and the rest of the Hot Wheels design team have also made the Hot Wheels brand a lot more relevant to full-size car culture.
The American Hot Wheels lineup now covers an international spectrum of automotive enthusiasm. In addition to the expected Corvettes, muscle cars, and traditional hot rods, you’ll find inspired choices such as a BMW 2002, an Australian ’73 Ford Falcon XB, a Brazilian ’74 Chevrolet Opala SS, and both “Hakosuka” and “Kenmeri” versions of Nissan’s iconic Japanese-market Skyline among recent Hot Wheels castings.
The Hot Wheels team also partners up frequently with full-size automotive personalities and aftermarket companies. One case in point is Hot Wheels’ recently announced collaboration with popular “outlaw” Porsche customizer Magnus Walker. Walker is a Los Angeles-based clothing designer/manufacturer who turned his hobby of collecting, customizing, and aggressively driving vintage Porsches into a brand of its own named Urban Outlaw. After the stunningly photographed “Urban Outlaw” documentary on his life and cars was released in 2012, Magnus became a full-fledged celebrity in the car-guy world…and he’s certainly at least partly responsible for the recent spike in vintage Porsche prices on the collector market.
On the occasion of the unveiling of the new Magnus Walker line of Hot Wheels cars, we had the chance to ask Jun Imai a few questions about his work and inspirations.
Consumer Guide: Did you grow up with Hot Wheels? If so, what were a few of your favorite Hot Wheels cars as a child, and why?
Jun Imai: Yes, I did grow up with Hot Wheels. My first Hot Wheels ever was the Dixie Challenger, which my mother bought for me when I was in the 1nd grade, living in Texas.
CG: What is an average day in the office like for you, if there is such a thing? Start with a cup of coffee, go through your email, and/or…?
Imai: For sure, coffee is my fuel. The first thing I do is check my calendar as my day is usually full of meetings with my team of six designers. After that, it’s running around for the rest of the day. Most of my sketching is done while attending meetings. I’m also quite involved in our automotive partnerships and licenses so I spend a fair amount of time meeting with them either here or offsite.
CG: Living in Southern California, there is obviously no shortage of automotive inspiration. Are there areas outside the traditional automotive world that you draw inspiration from?
Imai: Experiences are the backbone to creating great product, so I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from going out on spirited drives in one of my project cars. Industrial and product design are huge inspirations, as well as modern architecture…typical designer interests. I also enjoy action sports, travel and nature, as well as the thrill of the drive.
CG: What is the approval process for getting a new Hot Wheels design into production? Is there a group vote as to what new castings get made?
Imai: The designers typically propose new vehicles, in addition to getting requests from our marketing and licensing teams. At the end, we can’t do them all in a single year, so we strive for balance that includes a nice mix of old and new with global appeal.
CG: What full-size car-customizing trends are catching your attention these days?
Imai: I personally like to see mash-ups of different styles come together. Non-track cars being built for track. Also, I love seeing what kids are doing with their cars, on little or no budget. This is true design and creativity. Homemade always wins!
CG: How collaborative is the design process at Hot Wheels? Most Hot Wheels castings are credited to individual designers, but do you get together to hash out ideas as a group?
Imai: The beauty of being a designer at Hot Wheels is the designer has complete control of the design, from beginning to end. Typically, I like to let the designer exercise their full creativity- it keeps the process fun and more rewarding.
CG: You’ve brought a lot of JDM [Japanese Domestic Market] hipness to the Hot Wheels line with your designs… do you see more “cross-pollination” of Japanese and American styles happening with full-size modified cars?
Imai: Styles are definitely crossing over. With 3D and rapid prototyping becoming more accessible to everyone, we’re seeing even more of it, done with incredible precision.
CG: Your personal “fun car” fleet includes a Porsche 911, a Datsun 240Z, and a Datsun 510 wagon. What other cars would you like to add to your collection someday?
Imai: A ’65-66 Mustang fastback, Ferrari Dino GT4, and a KGC10 Nissan Skyline. I’m also a huge fan of Audi; I absolutely love the first-gen TT coupe, it’s a timeless modern design.
CG: How did the Hot Wheels/Magnus Walker partnership come about?
Imai: We’re big Porsche fans, and after seeing Magnus and his cars on the Urban Outlaw documentary, we thought it would be awesome to do a Hot Wheels collaboration. He had the passion, persona and the cars to match, and has a true appreciation for the craft.
CG: Hot Wheel collectors are sometimes a fanatical lot. What is the most unusual interaction or memory you’ve had with a Hot Wheel collector or collectors?
Imai: This is a story I tell often: it is one where I was recognized in the store whilst buying laundry detergent. A collector was going through the Hot Wheels selection and recognized me from our events.