Hess Toy Trucks Are a Collector’s Goldmine

Ryan Fan

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When you think of Hess, you think about gas. But what people don’t know about Hess is the incredible toy truck market that is an obsession for collectors.

Some Hess toy trucks are valued at up to $3,500. My friend in college has spent his whole life collecting Hess toy trucks and looks at auction sites as part of his daily routine. He would paint the trucks, modify them, and buy parts to put more valuable trucks together. He never told me how much money he made from his hobby, but it was a lot.

“Hess? Like the gas company?” I asked.

Hess was a popular gas company in the northeast, and these days, you won’t see any Hess gas stations since Hess sold its retail business to Marathon Petroleum Corporation. However, the trucks are still around.

History

Of course, I knew my friend wasn’t the only one, but I didn’t realize how big the market is. According to Jake Rossen in Mental Floss, the idea for the toy trucks came in 1964, when Leon Hess decided that the gas stations could make seasonal, one-of-a-kind toy trucks.

The first Hess truck was modeled after an oil tanker with headlights, as well as a tank that kids could fill up or drain with water. The inspiration was the B61 Mack truck and trailer, and it also included a funnel and rubber hose. The company didn’t advertise the toy trucks much. Initially, they only had a couple of small newspaper ads.

Leon Hess was a college dropout turned oil magnate, who went from selling oil door-to-door, and then transitioned to gas stops. In 1933, he founded the Hess Corporation. He was already making mugs, glassware, and other cheap merchandise in gas stations. He also wanted the trucks to include batteries, so kids would have a power source when they opened the truck.

According to Rossen, once the Hess Tanker Truck went for sale, it cost $1.29 and sold out almost right away. They only made 150,000 of the 12-inch trucks. He then released the same tanker truck in 1965 and then sold the Voyager Tanker Ship in 1966. Every year, the company would issue a new toy truck that sold out very well.

Today, the tanker truck in mint condition can sell for more than $2,000. Lines started forming outside gas companies where parents would wait for hours to get toy trucks for their children. Lines still form on Thanksgiving Day for Hess trucks the moment they’re on sale. While Hess doesn’t sell gas anymore, it still makes toy trucks every year.

Every year, there are commercials across cable TV in the northeast that are tuned to a jingle. I have seen these commercials and actually never realized Hess trucks were being advertised since they sound so familiar. It’s been stuck in my head before, and it always starts with “The Hess truck’s back and it’s better than ever!” Each year advertises a different truck, but always starts with the same jingle, and is one of the longest-running jingles in TV advertising history.

Every year, there is also a Hess Toy Truck Meet & Greet at the East Coast Toy Soldier Show. While Hess as a gas company is no longer a mainstay, their toy truck fan page has over 150,000 followers on Facebook.

The Process for Developing a Hess Truck

According to the Hess Toy Truck website, developing a truck takes a very long time. It usually takes two to three years before it actually goes on sale, and more trucks take as long as six years to make it to the market.

First, the company starts reviewing inspiration images, and then they start to review sketch drawings and feature concepts. There’s then a vote of the top two or three designs to go to the next round, where drawings are transformed into 3D rotating images. The models are handcrafted for final design and decoration decisions.

Initially, the Hess Toy Truck only had 75 small hard-plastic pieces. But newer models of the Hess Toy Truck have 200–300 parts. It takes a while for the toys to be produced and assembled until they undergo a quality test to make sure they’re the quality of the rest of Hess trucks. Lastly, the toys are packed into boxes, before being marketed during the holiday season every year.

Ray Patterson

The most notable person who collects the trucks is Ray Patterson, who has a website and collection solely devoted to Hess trucks. He has Hess trucks from each decade from the 60s up to 2020s and makes it his full-time job to have parts, buttons, signs, battery cards, and more for Hess trucks.

Patterson is the most renowned dealer of Hess trucks, with some costing thousands of dollars (usually older ones from the late 1960s). It started out as his hobby but ended up being his full-time job.

He claims he has never worked a day in his life since he’s so passionate about the trucks. He owns every single Hess truck and has each truck valued on his own. To him, each truck is an investment, one where trucks you can buy today might be worth significantly more later in life.

On Patterson’s website, some of the most valuable Hess trucks include the 1967 “red velvet” tanker truck, which can be worth $3,500, the 1969 “Woodbridge” tanker truck, which can be worth about $4,000, and the 1969 Amerada Hess tanker truck, which can be worth $3,000.

Takeaways

The truck has gone from a children’s toy to a collector’s item. The ironic part is that while Hess failed as a gas company, it has thrived as a toy company. Now, most of the company has transitioned to being an “energy company engaged in the exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas.”

What we can learn from the Hess truck’s success, according to marketer Harvey Chimoff, is that the Hess truck offered significant value to people’s lives. It made shipping free and included batteries with each truck so kids and parents didn’t have to go out to buy more batteries. They also included novel design additions like lights and sound to separate themselves from the competition.

Despite Hess trucks being a collector’s goldmine, most people are only interested in them as buyers and sellers because they have a passion for it. For me, I don’t have the same emotional connection to Hess trucks, but I remember how some vintage games, including the original, mint edition of Final Fantasy VII could be worth hundreds of dollars.

We had old versions of some PS1 games lying around that ended up being somewhat valuable — and it was a lesson that you never know how valuable something you own may be in 20 years.

But we can also learn the value of consistency, in both quality and advertising. Chimoff notes Hess trucks had a new vehicle every year since 1964 and had an instant jingle as well. Of course, it was an instant hit, but Hess had to adapt to many challenges, including, well, not distributing at gas stations. Instead, it moved to an online and virtual sales model.

For 56 years, the brand has attracted a loyal following. From the Hess toy truck, we can learn the lesson that sometimes, a brand going into a new market can be very successful, even if it’s an accident.

Originally published at Better Marketing on January 20, 2020.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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