Just the other day, I was shopping at a local mall when I meandered into one of the pop-up shops that appear during the holidays. It had all the expected cheap items: $2 DVDs, stacks of Beanie Babies, cheap knock-off art, and a table of green-and-white boxes containing Hess Toy Trucks.
When I was 5, two of these boxes first appeared under our Christmas tree — one for my brother and one for myself. The long, skinny packaging featured a picture of a Hess tanker trunk parked next to one of the company’s gas stations amid an idyllic scene of holiday cheer. Each subsequent Christmas, I looked forward to the next addition to my collection.
I wasn’t the only devotee. What began as a holiday promotion became a rock-solid tradition for many families, one with a massive following that’s continued — even as Hess no longer operates its retail chain.
Leon Hess founded Hess Corporation in 1933, when he bought a used truck and began hauling fuel oil to customers. “The Hess logo became ubiquitous to drivers from Maine to Florida,” Tina Davis and Jessica Resnick-Ault write in their 2015 biography Hess: The Last Oil Baron. “The stations became known for their painted white curbs that made them clean and welcoming.”
In 1964, Hess wanted to find a way to encourage more people to stop at his expanding line of gas stations, and settled on producing a toy truck. “It was important to him that anybody could afford to get a really fun, high-quality and durable toy, no matter their income,” explains Justin Mayer, the Hess Toy Truck general manager. Hess also mandated that the trucks come with batteries installed.
The company released the first toy on Thanksgiving, 1964, priced at $1.29 (about $10.05 in 2016 dollars). The truck was a replica of one of the company’s tankers, and featured a functional hose and a tank that could be filled with water. Unlike most of the toys of that time, the tiny truck also included working lights. “It was a really innovative toy for the time,” Mayer noted. “At that price point, it sold out.” Hess re-released the truck the following year. It became a sort of tradition, Mayer explained, that fathers would go out and wait for hours in line to buy the trucks for their children.
In the ensuing years, the company released a variety of toys, including a tanker ship, fire engines, and tractor-trailers, each replicas of the vehicles used in the company’s vast motor pool. The toys’ popularity continued to grow, due in part to the simple value they offered their buyers. The toys were creative, and perhaps most importantly, markedly cheaper than the competition.
The trucks have since become collectors’ items, with entire sub-communities springing up for enthusiasts, some of whom collect the toys to display in their homes. Others buy them for their own children.
One collectors’ community is the Hess Toy Truck Collector’s Forum, a Facebook group with more than 3,000 followers. Its founders, James Galdo and Frank Zottola, met online in search of likeminded Hess enthusiasts. “There was no place for Hess toy truck collectors to meet,” Frank explained in an email to The Verge. So each year, they mingle at an annual meet and greet at the East Coast Toy Soldier Show.
Their Facebook page is vibrant. Its members buy and sell the toy trucks, post unboxing videos, share news, and discuss techniques for customizing the toys. It’s a singular community with an earnest affection for a durable toy truck.
The community eases enthusiasts into becoming eagle-eyed collectors. “We try to educate everyone about the toy,” James wrote. “[And] what bootlegs to look out for.” Prices of rare Hess toys have risen over the years, the pair noted, and the diminutive vehicles can be resold for hundreds to thousands of dollars on eBay. It’s easy for an unsuspecting buyer to get ripped off with a counterfeit.
In 2012, Hess opened an online store to pick up the trucks. Up to that point, the only place you could buy a truck was in one of the stores. “We began hearing every year from people who moved out of our core footprint,” said Mayer.
The move to an online store was fortuitous: in 2014, on the 50th anniversary of the toy truck line, Hess announced that it was selling its gas stations to Marathon Petroleum Corporation. Another announcement immediately followed: Hess would continue to produce its toy trucks, in stores and online. In a regulatory filing, the company ensured the trucks would continue to be produced under the Hess brand, even after selling the stations.
The 2014 offerings included a space cruiser and a carrier truck, as well as a collector’s edition tanker truck with a replica of the 1964 toy tucked inside the tank.
Mayer says the trucks have once again grown in popularity because of online sales. While the company doesn’t release sales figures, Mayer says the Hess trucks are among the bestselling toys in the country every Christmas. “We had our earliest sell-out last year,” he noted. This year is expected to be similar. The company announced their 2016 Truck and Dragster with a short feature on the Today Show. “We hope that it’ll be around for generations to come,” Mayer said.
James and Frank’s Facebook group isn’t the only community encouraged by the half-century tradition. One specialty sales page, Ray’s Hess Toy Trucks, has more than 2,000 followers. The company’s official page has nearly 100,000. Other fuel companies have attempted similar toys, but only Hess has elicited this level of long-term enthusiasm. Competitors may create flashy new toy vehicles, but five decades of tradition is hard-earned.
Back in the pop-up store in the mall, I take a look over the array of boxes: toys from the late 1980s all the way up to last year’s model. Their boxes are in good shape, and for $20, they’ll make enduring holiday gifts. I should know: my own childhood toys recently came out from the basement. With new batteries, they’re enjoying a second life with my own son. This holiday season, he’ll be getting one of the 2016 trucks, just like I did when I was a child.