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Did your Hot Wheels come with a legit key that made it go? I think not.

Kidco Burnin Key Cars Kidco Burnin Key Cars

Back in 2019, I wrote about a bunch of real-life car keys with some measure of aesthetic appeal, spurred by the discovery of glitzy key fobs with price tags of half a million dollars. Keys are special to a lot of people these days, and just maybe, it all started in the ‘80s. I absolutely loved going to elementary school with a Trans Am keychain dangling from my backpack. It wasn’t for my parents’s car, though. This was my Trans Am.

Welcome back to Toys of Yesteryear, where we rediscover the cool car toys we played with in our youth. It was a time when instant smartphone access to all manner of car videos didn’t exist, and the best racing game was an eight-bit rendition of Fuji Speedway on Pole Position. Playing with cars was largely a hands-on experience, and we go hands-on once again to play with toys help preserve this era of automotive history.

Of course, the Trans Am was 1:64 scale and powered by a spring, but that didn’t matter. It used a plastic key that looked a lot like real ones from General Motors, connected to a prominent round keychain matching the car’s color scheme. This was Burnin’ Key Cars, and looking back on the fad some 40 years later, the former marketing executive in me loves the brilliant simplicity of it all. Meanwhile, my inner child just wants to see how far it can jump with its spring-loaded power.

Burnin’ Key Cars History

The story of Burnin’ Key Cars begins in the 1960s with a company called Universal Group, started by David Yeh. If you’re a connoisseur of Matchbox cars you’ll immediately recognize Yeh, since he bought Matchbox in 1982. Prior to that, he was making all kinds of small Matchbox-sized cars, and in the late 1970s he created the Kidco brand because hey, Kidco sounds way more kid-friendly than Universal. 

Burnin’ Key Cars by Kidco hit stores in 1980, rivaling Matchbox and Hot Wheels with cars that, while not entirely die-cast, were the same size but with a twist. They could propel themselves thanks to the key-activated spring stuck in the back. Perhaps more importantly, the key also made kids feel like adults, giving them an honest-to-goodness car key to lose carry around. And to emphasize just how cool these little cars were, freaking Optimus Prime—Peter Cullen himself—did the voiceover for the commercial.

When Yeh’s Universal Group acquired Matchbox in 1982, the Burnin’ Key Cars line expanded as part of the Matchbox family. Licensing deals with Hollywood cropped up, leading to spring-loaded versions of KITT from Knight Rider, Magnum PI’s Ferrari 308, the A-Team van, and more. You could get trucks, cars, motorcycles, collector cases, playsets, and folks, you can still get Burnin’ Key Cars today, shiny and new. The brand lives on with Maisto, which lists 14 cars in its current catalog.

How Do They Work?

Here’s the simple brilliance of Burnin’ Key Cars. Take an ordinary Matchbox-sized car, cut a square-shaped slot in the back, and shove a spring in there. It’s a simple toy car until you get the key, which is a piece of plastic with small tabs on the sides. Inserting the key compresses the spring, and the tabs hold it in place until you squeeze it. Doing so shoots the car forward with reckless abandon, sending it towards the jump you set up near the kitchen table, the family dog sleeping by the couch, or possibly, your brother’s nose. I cannot confirm nor deny any such actions in my youth.

That’s the hands-on experience of Burnin’ Key Cars. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this was a toy that also catered to the adolescent ego, making kids feel like adults. The keychains were arguably cooler than the cars, and I suspect this was part of Yeh’s strategy. That’s pure speculation on my part, but regardless of how the idea percolated, it worked. These cars were everywhere back in the day, and you can still jump on eBay to find pretty much any classic Burnin’ Key Car your heart desires. And they’re affordable to boot.

My Current Collection

Full disclosure: I had to pad my original collection for this post. Twist my arm to buy toys of my youth, but when I uncovered the yellow Pontiac Firebird Trans Am and Chevy Monte Carlo police car in my old Hot Wheels collector’s case, they were without the all-important keychains. That’s just unacceptable, especially since I have fading memories of jumping, like, everything with that Pontiac.

Honestly, I’m surprised these are in such good shape. The wheels on the police car are straight and the plastic body isn’t all beat up, though the tiny A-pillar is broken on the driver’s side. The white body is more of a cream color now, but most of the markings are still in place. The same can’t be said for the Trans Am, which used to have NASCAR-style branding on it. The wheels aren’t entirely straight either, causing it to consistently turn left—hilariously appropriate given its NASCAR theme.

The C3 Chevrolet Corvettes are original Burnin’ Key Cars from 1980, but they are new to me. Both are in good condition save for the markings, which are sort of there on the white one and sort of not on the yellow. I bought the yellow ‘Vette first because it came with two keychains, one of which matched my police car. I thought three cars and two matching keychains would make me happy, but then I found the white Corvette online and learned the yellow’s keychain was actually for that one.

Being borderline obsessive/compulsive and stuck with just one matching set, I ventured back to eBay for a flurry of shopping. Now, I have four cars with matching keychains, and they look awesome parked with my Super Spin Car Wash.

And I’m happy to report these key cars are key-tastic. The springs still have plenty of force, and while the plastic keys have some minor warping, each one still does its job. That said, there’s something different about the white Corvette, and by different, I mean way more powerful. After 45 minutes of diligent side-by-side drag racing in ideal conditions (aka the basement), this car consistently went farther than everything else. And it wasn’t even close.

To make this live for you, here are some numbers. My trusty Trans Am and its propensity to turn left finished dead last at 7.5 feet—much of it accomplished sideways. Covering an average of 10.1 feet was the Monte Carlo cop car, which occasionally arced slightly to the right. The yellow Corvette claimed second place, narrowly outrunning the police to 10.9 feet.

But the white ‘Vette … it covered 18.2 feet. It outpaced the others from start to finish, rolling straight and true the entire way. A follow-up investigation found what looks like a bigger spring in the back compared to the rest. Interesting.

Fix, Preserve, Or Pitch?

When I first found the Monte Carlo and Trans Am, I had a few moments of fond memories and then dumped them into the garage sale bin. I played with this stuff as a kid but was never interested in collecting Hot Wheels or Matchbox-sized cars as an adult. But, I reclaimed them before the sale, thinking I’d try to find at least one keychain hiding somewhere. I wanted to see if they still worked, and frankly, these were Burnin’ Key Cars. They should have some burnin’ keys to go with them.

I’m glad I went that route because I discovered this is one car-themed hobby that won’t break the bank. I spent a grand total of $56 acquiring two cars extra and four keychains, with probably half that being shipping charges. Find a buyer with a collection that ships in a single box, and you can create a slice of ‘80s nostalgia for very little investment. And they don’t take up much space, either. 

Will I get more? Probably not, but I still find myself searching online from time to time, eyeballing the Datsun 280ZX or Magnum’s Ferrari. At the very least, I won’t be pitching them as I’d originally intended. They’re simple fun from a simpler time in my life, inexpensive to buy, and easy to appreciate. So I’ll hold onto these for a bit, maybe invite some friends over for more drag racing. 

But before that happens, I gotta find a bigger spring for the Trans Am.

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