NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - At the big name auto manufacturers in the Motor City, a designer can spend years poring over the schematics of a grill, door handle or sunroof on a single car. Then there are designers like Larry Wood.
Each year, Wood designs eight to 10 cars from top to bottom. Of course, on most of those cars, it's only about an inch from the top to the bottom.
Wood and his colleagues at Mattel's Hot Wheels division in El Segundo, Calif. have managed to make a career out of one of the most enviable jobs around: brainstorming fantasy cars that you'd never see coming off the assembly lines at General Motors or Ford. Some have pointy teeth. Others have jet engines and wings.
Known among avid collectors as "Mr. Hot Wheels," Wood has been designing for Hot Wheels since 1969, just a year after the toy line was started by Mattel. Before that, after getting his degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he worked as a car designer for Ford.
Not all of the cars he designs are wild "fantasy cars," however. He's doing fewer of those since 1997 when he transferred over to the Hot Wheels collector group, where he designs fewer, larger, more detailed and expensive models for higher-end collectors who are looking for something that's more than just a "toy."
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Indeed, many of the projects designers work on at Hot Wheels are realistic renderings of actual automobiles. But the real fun kicks in when they let their imagination run wild. That's when they come up with cars like the Hyper Mite, which vaguely resembles an insect's head with a rear-mounted, "air-cooled" engine; or the Express Lane, a shopping cart with a seat and an outsized motor.
Almost anything goes
Senior designer Wood tells the story of idly sketching a design in his office one day. He had done the drawing for his own amusement, and he tacked it to a bulletin board in his office. A few days later, Wood says, his boss walked in and, seeing the drawing said, "You have to do that."
Detailed plans were drawn up and, in the next few months, Wood's jet-engined fantasy car, to be called "Wild Thing" will be on sale in your local store.
"No way that would happen in Detroit," he said.
Nearly all of the 35 full-time designers in the Hot Wheels design studio have worked at car companies designing real automobiles. Most have degrees in transportation design. And many admit to a preoccupation with dreaming up wild cars from early on.
When asked once what he liked most about math class in school, for example, Wood replied, "The paper didn't have lines on it, so it was easier to draw on."
Michael Kollins, now a manager in the Hot Wheels design studio, was also working at Ford when he interviewed for a job at Mattel. When offered a position, he says, "I didn't even ask how much it paid."
The fan base
In addition to a salary that Wood and his co-workers describe as "competitive" -- industrial designers in Los Angeles earn $40,000 to $80,000 a year depending on experience, according to Salary.com -- Hot Wheels designers also enjoy a certain level of celebrity among collectors. Many know the names and cars of individual designers.
"If we change the color of the plastic interior of one of these cars, these guys know about it," says Kollins.
|Happy Holidays Hot Wheels Speedster, designed by Wood
The Hot Wheels Collector Club Web site features discussions of variations in paint color and links to eBay auctions where classic 1/64 scale cars -- the little ones you can buy in Wal-Mart for 99 cents -- sell for hundreds of dollars.
Currently, a poster signed by 18 Hot Wheels designers, including Wood, is fetching bids of over $150. If you're interested, that auction closes June 10th.
If you're interested in a job as a Hot Wheels designer, that may be tougher to land. "No one ever quits," Kollins said.