Elliot Handler, co-founder of toymaker Mattel and inventor of Hot Wheels, dies at 95

Elliot Handler, 95, a pioneering toymaker who co-founded Mattel and invented Hot Wheels, died July 21 of undisclosed causes.

He died at his home in Century City, Calif., according to his daughter, Barbara Segal, after whom the Barbie doll was named.

In 1945, Mr. Handler and his wife, Ruth, founded Mattel out of a garage workshop in Los Angeles with their friend Harold “Matt” Matson. They called it Mattel, a name fashioned from Matson and Elliot.

The first Mattel products were picture frames, but Mr. Handler soon developed a side business making dollhouse furniture from picture-frame scraps. After the Handlers bought out Matson, they turned Mattel’s focus to toys.

Mr. Handler’s product-development and design talents were complemented by his wife’s marketing savvy. Early successes were musical toys, such as the Uke-A-Doodle, a child-size ukulele, and a cap gun called the Burp Gun, which the Handlers advertised on the new medium of television.

The company’s biggest hit was Ruth’s invention: Barbie, a teenage doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust who debuted in 1959 wearing a black-and-white striped swimsuit. Ruth had been inspired by her daughter’s fascination with paper dolls and named Barbie after her.

At first, Mr. Handler and male toy buyers were skeptical of the doll’s potential.

“Ruth,” Mr. Handler reportedly told his wife, “no mother is ever going to buy her daughter a doll with breasts.”

He was wrong, and Barbie became the top-selling fashion doll in the world, beloved by girls and collectors alike. The stylish and buxom doll also prompted controversy: Many critics attacked the doll for being anti-feminist and said Barbie — with her 39-21-33 proportions — promoted unattainable body expectations for girls.

By 1965, sales topped $100 million, and the company joined the Fortune 500, largely because of sales of Barbie. Today, Mattel is the world’s largest toymaker and is headquartered in El Segundo, Calif.

In the late 1960s, Mattel was looking for a toy that would appeal to boys as Barbie had to girls. Mr. Handler came up with an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles that would incorporate speed, power and performance, as well as cool car designs.

Introduced in 1968, Hot Wheels featured customized designs and eye-catching paint jobs and went on to become a number one-selling toy brand.

But the Handlers also faced downsides of success.

Daughter Barbara and her brother Kenneth were said to be teased incessantly because of their affiliation with the famous dolls (Ken, Barbie’s longtime boy toy, was introduced in 1961). Kenneth died in 1994.

In 1975, Elliot and Ruth Handler were ousted from the company by new corporate managers. Three years later, Ruth was accused of having doctored Mattel’s books to deceive shareholders and was sentenced to community service and heavily fined.

Elliot Handler was born April 9, 1916, in Chicago and grew up in Denver.

He moved to Los Angeles after high school and, in 1938, married Ruth, his high school sweetheart, whom he had met at a charity dance. He studied industrial design at the old Art Center School in Los Angeles while she worked as a secretary at Paramount Studios.

Before founding Mattel, he was drafted to serve stateside in the Army.

In recent years, Mr. Handler lived a quiet life, renting out a studio space where he would often go to paint, his daughter said.

Ruth Handler died in 2002. Besides his daughter, Mr. Handler’s survivors include a brother; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

— Los Angeles Times