From Hot Wheels to Hot Dogs on Wheels : Cars: Harry Bradley is one of the country’s top automotive designers, but he’s also worked on toys. He recently redesigned the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.


Something about the sleek lines and brooding bulk of the 1941 Buick Special sedan grabbed young Harry Bradley. He didn’t yell out or run up to peek in. And unlike most 5-year-olds, he didn’t badger his parents to buy one.

What he did was go home and draw it.

Fifty years, tens of thousands of sketches and hundreds of sleek sedans later, Harry Bradley is still at the drawing board, the favored spot for one of Southern California’s best-known automobile designers and illustrators.

It is there that the Rancho Palos Verdes resident has designed Indianapolis 500 race cars, land speed record vehicles, the National Football League’s helmet cars, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Mazdas--even the original line of Hot Wheels for Mattel Toys. The latter was probably one of his easiest designs. It was based on his own customized El Camino that he drove to the office.


“It’s not uncommon for a designer to say that that’s my automobile,” he said. “But the first Hot Wheels really was my automobile. Still, it’s an unusual profession. One day you’re working on a design in a studio . . . and then about six years later you’re standing on a street corner watching the car drive by.”

One of the early members of the auto-as-art-form school, Bradley’s hand helped fine-tune the shapes of some of the famed muscle cars that roared out of Detroit during General Motors’ heyday in the 1960s. Today he splits his time working as a consultant for some of the best-known auto makers in the United States, Japan and Europe and teaching his specialized craft to students at the venerable Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Bradley is to cars what Christo is to landscapes. He takes familiar automobile shapes and bends them and twists them, adding a sense of motion and drama to an otherwise drab picture. Industry veterans say there are few people in the profession as skilled at transferring complex, three-dimensional automotive designs onto two-dimensional sheets of paper.

“His drawing ability and his sensitivity about automobiles really sets him apart,” said former student Tom Peters, who heads one of General Motors’ advanced design departments in Warren, Mich. “The other stuff you see is like cartoons. But his drawings show how you could actually build the car. It had thinking and complexity in it.”

That is perhaps why Bradley was recently tapped to modernize the world’s most famous traveling tube steak, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, nearly 50 years after the motorized hot dog was introduced.

The new design, which he turned out at the Bradley Automotive Design & Illustration studio he runs out of his home, was recently wind-tested and found aerodynamically sound--no easy feat when you’re talking about a 23-foot-long fiberglass hot dog and bun.

The surprising thing, Bradley said, was that even after attempting to stretch the limits of the new corporate promotional vehicle, such as giving it a racy “Star Wars” look and thinking of linking several hot dogs together, a modified version of the old shape won out. And whether hot dog or hot rod, car enthusiasts will be able to see the Bradley touches when the new Wienermobile hits the streets next year.

“It’s not much different than working on a BMW luxury sedan,” Bradley said. “You don’t want to tamper with the lineage just to bring in some modern features. It’s something that everybody is familiar with. And as it turns out, the best design is one giant wienie on top of one giant bun. It just works.”

Bradley should know. Since he first fell in love with the ’41 Buick, he has been drawing cars, buses, trains, vans and almost anything involving motorized transportation.

This despite, or perhaps because of, his own lack of mobility. Bradley contracted polio in 1949 and permanently lost the use of his legs. If anything, he said, it probably helped him seek out a profession that would allow him to work sitting down.

But once he sat down, he never stopped moving. Bradley graduated from New York’s Pratt Institute in automotive and product design and later received a master’s degree from Stanford University in biomechanics. In the early 1960s, he went to work for one of GM’s design studios and worked on a long line of powerful cars produced by the company during that era.

His own passion for hot rods led him to customize several of his own cars, including the one that led to the new model car line that Mattel introduced, quickly becoming the company’s second-biggest toy, trailing only the mighty Barbie doll.

“My son was probably the only child in America who didn’t have a Hot Wheels car,” Bradley said. “He couldn’t have them in the house because when you have crutches, you can’t have tiny little cars on the floor hiding in dark places.”

After leaving Mattel, Bradley struck out on his own, designing show cars for television shows and movies and working as a consultant to the major auto makers on a variety of models.

For Bradley, the inspiration can be found in finding some whimsical design or a breathtaking shape that breaks from the mundane pack. It is one of the reasons he believes that the European and Japanese auto makers have left America in the dust when it comes to designing and building new cars.

“I think the American auto industry is in a permanent state of decline,” he said. “The Japanese especially have taken hold of the sense of futurism and joy and history and reshaped it.”

Still, his passion for the art of design is tinged by a pragmatic view. Auto shapers are forever fearful that they may be remembered as the man behind the Pacer or the Pinto. Bradley admits responsibility for coming up with the idea for GM’s retractable station wagon gate and window, akin to an electric garage, that was clumsy, badly designed and poorly received.

“You have to have a real built-in sensitivity that what you’re designing is something that is potentially lethal and dangerous,” he said. “You have to remember that you can be walking across the street one day and get run over by the very car that you designed.”

For now, Bradley intends to turn his attention to other types of mechanical products and to continue pushing the limits of automobile design.

“I want to take the automobile and distort it and bend it and modify it in a dreamlike way,” he said. “I want to express my thoughts about automobile design that will have meaning for all sorts of people. And if I can continue to take risks, then I’ll be pretty happy.”