Earlier this year the world of diecast has lost a legend in Otto Kuhni. If you don’t know his name, you surely know his work. Otto was a freelance graphic designer in California in the 1960s when he got the call from Mattel… They needed an illustrator with a passion for cars, for their new brand of diecast vehicles, and well, the rest was history.
Otto was the man behind many of the bright orange hued illustrations that were emblazoned on Hot Wheels items… advertisements, carrying cases, lunch boxes, and of course the packaging itself.
It takes a talented, passionate artist to create something so simultaneously realistic yet fantastical. Otto’s illustrations blended enough correct details of the model cars with the slightly exaggerated and distorted fantasy of speed and motion it could attain as it zipped down orange track through kids’ imaginations.
He continued working with Hot Wheels into the mid-1990s, especially when retro-inspired art was required. After that still occasionally did some art for them when only his hand would suffice. For these wildly memorable images, he was inducted into the Diecast Hall of Fame in 2012.
Perhaps his most famous illustration was the blue car on the original Hot Wheels blister card. It looked sleek, muscular, and sort of familiar. A little bit of Mustang, some Charger here and there, maybe some Riviera… It was every car and no particular car all at once. He blended elements of the styling from Ford, MOPAR and GM so seamlessly, you swore it was real.
However, Otto didn’t base the illustration on any one real car, nor was it based on a model. Despite being emblazoned on the cards of millions of Redlines, there was never a diecast version of the car… until 2008, that is. In honor of Hot Wheels’ 40th Anniversary, the Custom Otto, as it was called, finally came to life in 1/64 scale. It has since been released in premium level versions, such as Redline Club cars, but also one very rare variant… this one was encrusted with Swarovski diamonds, rubies and even black diamonds on the wheels. It celebrated the 4 billionth Hot Wheels car ever made, a fitting debut for a design that had been there all along. There was only one of this version of the Custom Otto, by the way.
There was only one Otto Kuhni, too.
15 thoughts on “Hot Wheels Illustrator Otto Kuhni Has Died, But His Art Lives On”
Otto Kuhni will be greatly missed! Such an amazing talent, and a significant part of Hot Wheels history. I will always remember the time my kids and I had dinner with him at Taco Bell next to the Hot Wheels Convention, and he took so much interest in the kids and made them feel very special.
I was so lucky to call Otto a friend. His work with Hot Wheels was truly remarkable – and incredible. Stretched for decades.
He also did work for Cox, car and airplane model companies and more.
Bruce, I envy you for having known him and also for all his work that is in your collection, thanks for allowing us to use those images! If you ever get that museum started you ought to have a Kuhni room!
I met Otto at the honorary dinner Bruce Pascal arranged back in 2005. At first, he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the adulation of us collectors who were blessed with the opportunity to meet a true legend in the history of Hot Wheels. He graciously posed for dozens of pictures and signed posters, box sets and lunch boxes! By the end of the evening, one could tell that he was genuinely gratified to see that his contribution to the hobby brought smiles to the faces of so many people. His legacy lives on.
Wow, an amazing part of Hot wheels history that Otto was, the man, the legend. I feel he is as legendary as George Barris was in his artwork, thank you sir for your contribution to this wonderful hobby we have come to love. You will be greatly missed, even though I have never met you or anyone who has made or created these little cars, you will forever be in our hearts and minds. May you rest in peace in Diecast Heaven. Prayer to your family and friends
I glad I had the chance to meet him at the Convention. Remarkable work. He was able captured the speed of Hot Wheels in artwork. He will never be forgotten.
Otto, will defianlly be missed. Such a great person and amazing artist, no way to replace what he has created for many years………..RIP my friend……
I never met Otto personally, but I see his work and am reminded of the impact he has made on the Hot Wheels brand, and in the industry of die cast cars, every day. He will be missed, and his work will live on to inspire many others as it has for me. Thank you, Otto!
I had the opportunity to meet and talk to Otto occasionally over the years and very much enjoyed talking with him. He had a great passion for his work and was very humble. It is my understanding that when collector team contacted Otto, he had been retired for quite a while and was in his 80’s when he picked up his brushes and started working for Hot Wheels again. His illustration style was a perfect fit for Hot Wheels expressing the excitement and speed of Hot Wheels with its intense color and dynamic views. His illustration work definitely was a key ingredient in the early success of Hot Wheels. I know it made an impact on me as a child when I was playing with Hot Wheels. I am thankful to have met Otto, he will be missed.
I was thinking about Otto Kuhni today and was sad to read of his passing. In addition to everything mentioned in the article and comments, Otto was an accomplished builder and flier of scale balsa and tissue models. His peanut and pistachio scale models (13″ and 9″ wingspans, respectively) were incredibly accurate and detailed, and flew beautifully.
We both belonged to the famous Blacksheep Exhibition Squadron of Burbank CA in the 80s and 90s. I lost touch with Otto some time after moving from SoCal to Portland Oregon in the early 90s.
Otto was a charming fellow, a consummate artist and a skilled model airplane craftsman & pilot.
Hey Bruce, Randy Nall here, I contacted you on EBay and thought this a better way to exchange info. I am a Redline Collector and we share a mutual friend, Wayne Jabobson. My brother, Robert Nall ran boys toys at Mattel for 30 years and also had a relationship with Otto. I was very interested to hear you bought some of Ottos work and was hoping I may be able to buy a print of a piece.
Best to you, Randy
Otto was a great guy, and totally blown away by his Hot Wheels “celeb” status. I knew him through the conventions and was proud to be his friend. He honored me with a 1 of a kind portrait of a rare purple ( yes, when I found it I actually called Bruce, who said “Purple? Are you sure it’s not magenta?–do you remember, Bruce? It was only, ummm, let’s see…20 or so years ago;)/white interior Olds 442, mint with a tiny nose ding…a great story for another day…anyhoo, he not only did the piece, he gave me the pencil sketch too…I have a photo of he and I and the car somewhere…if I can find it I’ll add it on…a true gentleman and a great guy…he will be sorely missed.
Black and white sketch
Hi Neil, would it be possible to purchase a print?
Thank you, Randy
I would love to get a print of Otto’s work!