As a child, John O’Laughlin would go to the toy store with his father and they would dump out bins of Hot Wheels — dozens and dozens and dozens of cars — then put them back one by one as John searched for the particular models he wanted to take home so he could disassemble, modify and paint them to his precise specifications.
Now 23, some things haven’t changed for the Meadville native. Last week, he and his father went to stores in search of the newly released Hot Wheels Electro Silhouette, the third in a five-car “Green Speed” series depicting solar-powered and electric vehicles. They picked up about 30 models of the tiny diecast toy, and O’Laughlin already knows he would like to make a few adjustments to them — just like when he was a kid.
“I’m super into Hot Wheels. I would take them apart, customize them and paint them and do all this stuff,” he recalled last week inside the commercial art studio at the Crawford County Career and Technical Center. “I designed little wheels for them, printed them (on a 3-D printer), painted them and everything and stuck them on the car.”
Still, some things have changed since O’Laughlin tinkered on do-it-yourself Hot Wheels projects.
For instance, instead of working on them at home or at the CTC, O’Laughlin took a few of the cars with him Sunday when he headed back for his senior year of college at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan.
Also, he designed this particular Hot Wheels car.
From the tilting chin spoiler to the see-through side panels to the elongated and nearly microscopic “JO” stamped on the triangle of black plastic just in front of the steering wheel, O’Laughlin fashioned the futuristic speedster during a three-month internship with the Hot Wheels division of Mattel Inc. last year.
Amazingly, however, finding Hot Wheels cars that he actually designed on store shelves may not even be the top highlight from O’Laughlin’s past year. You might say that the Meadville Area Senior High and Career and Technical Center graduate is on a roll: he took a year off between his junior and senior years to work in southern California for some of the leading designers of automobiles in the world — not just toy cars, either, but a traditional auto maker and a leading producer of all-electric vehicles.
Over that time, O’Laughlin completed a trifecta of internships so fantastic as to seem almost dream-like. Rather than pinching himself to test its reality, however, he can simply heft the Electro Silhouette between forefinger and thumb.
During his time off from the College for Creative Studies, where he is a student in perhaps the most prestigious automotive design program in the world, O’Laughlin started at Hot Wheels, then moved on to Honda’s Advance Design Studio for another three months, before spending the first half of 2019 at Tesla Inc.
The time at Hot Wheels and Tesla were particularly meaningful to Denny O’Laughlin, John’s father, who heads the commercial art program at the CTC where John learned the fundamentals of design. Denny recalled John’s childhood dreams of working for the two companies as the two of them showed off the Hot Wheels cars and the proud father played a slideshow of his son’s best work.
“That’s all he would talk about,” Denny said of John’s fascination upon hearing of Tesla and founder Elon Musk’s plan to launch the electric car company. During their search for John’s new Hot Wheels last week, Denny couldn’t help but recall their similar trips when John was a boy. The juxtaposition of present and past trips proved emotional.
“I almost lost it,” Denny said.
While father and son were able to find plenty of the Electro Silhouette during their tour of big box stores, they located just one version of the racing truck that John designed during his internship.
They’ll have a chance to find more, however. John O’Laughlin has two more Hot Wheels designs expected to be released in the next few months. Both are “character” cars — vehicles designed in the spirit of fictional characters. O’Laughlin isn’t at liberty to disclose which characters, but he did say that one is affiliated with a popular space-based Hollywood franchise and the other with a villainous character that has been featured on stage, in film and on TV for decades.
There are worse jobs than designing Hot Wheels full time, according to O’Laughlin, who described the experience as the most enjoyable internship he’s had.
“They want you to have fun,” he said. “It’s designing toys for kids — you’re supposed to have fun.”
At Hot Wheels, O’Laughlin was the primary designer for the four cars he worked on, and the work required a broad range of automotive design skills.
At real car companies, no one person has that degree of input on a design, he said — certainly not an intern. Teams of designers, engineers, sculptors, production planning and marketing staff all have a hand in shaping the concepts that take form over years. Still, O’Laughlin said, his half-year at Tesla resembled an apprenticeship.
“They want you to learn the skills you would need in the real world to design cars,” he explained.
O’Laughlin hopes to put such skills to use for many years to come after he graduates.
As his father said, “This is somebody that lives for cars.”
The interest in cars dates back as far as John can remember, he said — “Since I could walk, I think.”
“I just really, simply, like cars,” he said, “and then I also decided I like to make things look good.”
His father was his first art teacher, John said, but was mostly hands off, providing the tools he needed to pursue his interests.
John later became what Denny described as “a child of the CTC,” a description John agreed with.
“I had a lot of time in here to experiment with different tools and gained a ridiculous amount of fundamental skills,” John said with a glance around the room where his father is beginning his 20th year of teaching.
His experience at the school, John added, set him on the road he finds himself on now — and he thinks he knows where that road will take him. Entering the automotive design field can be as competitive as entering professional sports or becoming a fighter pilot, according to Autoweek magazine. Even if he makes it into the business, it could take a decade or more of development before his designs find their way to the highways of northwestern Pennsylvania and the world, but that’s O’Laughlin’s goal
The future of automobiles, he said, is electric, and he hopes to have a hand in designing that future.
“That’s what I’m dead set on,” he said.
But before he gets there, he plans to do a little customization on one of those Electro Silhouettes he and his dad picked up at the store.
Why modify a car that he himself designed?
“I’m just going to tweak it,” he explained, a sheepish grin flashing, “so it looks exactly like my sketches.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.