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 younger, one or two of these boxes would appear under our Christmas tree every year— one for my dad 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. I never realized how popular this toy was to the masses, I just thought that since we lived a block away from a Hess station it was an easy grab for my parents; nonetheless every 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.