The Hess Toy Truck, A Collectible Phenomenon That Began at $1.39
If you were a kid on the East Coast in the 1960s and there was a Christmas tree in your house, you might remember seeing a Hess Toy Truck under it. And if instead of playing with the truck to its destruction you displayed it on a shelf for 50 years and kept the box in pristine condition, too, you could be sitting on a collectible worth about $2,300 – 1,600 times the original price of $1.39.
A handful of the Hess Toy Trucks issued in the past half century are worth considerably more than that to collectors – if in mint condition in the original box and with all the inserts that came with it. Many other models fetch hundreds of dollars, and finding one is just an Internet search away.
You’re likely to stumble upon Ray Patterson’s website, RaysHessToyTrucks.com, which also provides considerable background on the toys of all years, including little-known special editions. Patterson, who once owned a 1970 Chevelle SS 454 and some 1970s Firebirds, totally gets the importance of how condition, nuance and detail can affect collectability. He’s been buying, trading and selling the Hess Toy Trucks for the past 25 years, having turned his hobby into a full-time job.
“If you’re looking for the rare Hess Toy Trucks, I’m your guy,” said Patterson. “We get hundreds of emails every month from people offering to sell us their collections. They’re often from a father or grandfather who passed away. So our stock supply is nearly endless.”
A Thanksgiving Tradition
The Hess Toy Truck debuted on Thanksgiving Day 1964, four years after the East Coast-based oil refiner and marketer opened its first gas stations. Until they were offered via the Internet in 2012, Hess Toy Trucks were mainly an East Coast phenomenon, sold only from Hess stations.
At company founder Leon Hess’s direction, Hess issued the first Toy Truck as a combination promotional item and customer appreciation gesture. The first was a tanker trailer pulled by a Mack B series tractor and manufactured for Hess by Marx. Even with exclusive availability from Hess stations, the production run of 150,000 sold out quickly. Hess repeated the same truck for 1965, though there were color scheme variations in both years, Patterson says. The 1966 toy was an ocean-going Hess tanker ship.
The toys issued every year since have ranged from reproductions of Hess corporate vehicles to whimsical machines bridging land, water, air and even outer space. Driving to a Hess station before the toys sold out would remain a Thanksgiving Day tradition until 1995. That year, the company moved the on-sale date up two weeks to prevent the local traffic jams the holiday introductions had been causing. Online sales started in 2012, and the on-sale date moved to Nov. 1.
In 2014, Hess sold its gas stations to Marathon Oil, which rebranded them as Speedway. Hess is continuing its holiday tradition, however. In addition to the online sales, it will offer its 2015 toy truck in some New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania shopping malls. This year’s model is a radical-.looking fire truck with a companion ladder rescue vehicle, complete with LED searchlights and sound effects.
Child’s Toy or Collectible? Both.
The early Hess toy tanker trucks included rubber hoses for realism, and the tanks on the 1964-65 models could be filled with water and emptied through the hoses. Working headlights and taillights on early models were supplemented by running lights, emergency flashers and sound effects on later toys. And all have come with batteries included.
The tanker design was updated for 1967, and that year’s toy became known as the “red velvet” model for the velvet-trimmed display base included in the box. Today, these can be even more valuable than the first-year truck, with prices for top-condition models exceeding $2,500. Patterson has a waiting list for good ones.
The same truck returned for 1968-1969 minus the velvet-trimmed display stand, and with minor cosmetic details distinguishing each year. Top-condition examples can approach $1,000 today. Production had increased to 250,000.
From $1.69 to $3,500
Instead of a tanker truck, a fire truck like the one used at the company’s New Jersey refinery was issued in 1970 and 1971. As it does in the car world, a fluke decades ago can affect value today. Patterson explained that in 1971, the company ran out of the printed boxes about halfway through the production run. Plain white boxes were substituted, and at each Hess station, the manager would wrap the box with “Seasons Greetings” tape that the company provided. A ’71 model with the box in pristine condition could be worth $3,500 (it was $1.69 new).
The late 60s tanker design returned in the early 1970s. By this time, annual production had reached 400,000. Such was the public’s affection for the Hess Toy Truck that the company easily sold out of the little tankers even as its customers had to wait on long gas lines during the oil embargo that began in October 1973.
Box-type tractor-trailers alternated with tankers until 1980, when the toy was the GMC Motorhome that Hess had been using to conduct training sessions at its gas stations. (The GMC Motorhome itself had been out of production for two years at that point yet was well on its way to achieving cult status.) The GMC featured a sliding side door and illuminating Hess logos, yet it remained surprisingly inexpensive at $3.29. (That’s only $10 today, adjusted for inflation; a mint condition example could bring $400.) The first TV commercials announcing the Hess Toy Truck debuted that season, sparking higher demand, and Hess sold 600,000.
For the 1982-1983 toy, Hess turned to its history for a 1931 Chevrolet tanker that Leon Hess used to deliver heating oil during The Great Depression. One million were sold, and mint condition examples are worth about $150.
Among the fire trucks, tankers and box trailers that followed, Hess snuck in a surprise for 1988 – a racecar transporter with a separate racecar, for two toys in one. This was a harbinger of things to come, as it did not mimic an actual Hess vehicle, and Hess would continue issuing toys within toys. The 1995 model was a flatbed truck with a helicopter; the 1999 toy was a flatbed tractor-trailer hauling a space shuttle, which itself opened to reveal a satellite.
According to Justin Mayer, General Manager for Hess Toy Truck, each toy takes from two to six years to go from an idea through design to market. “One of the most exciting parts of Hess Toy Truck tradition every year, for many of our fans, is the big secret surrounding the truck’s design,” he said.
Even as it was announcing the end of its retail gas station business last year, Hess was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Toy Truck with a traveling museum. It also issued a special edition toy: a big tanker with a small version of the original Hess tanker truck inside of it, the whole rig illuminated by 92 lights, including 27 LEDs. And yes, batteries were included. It sold for $45.99 and, one year later, you might pay $250.