Kids and adults alike gawk in awe when the Wienermobile drives by. That split second, that passing glace, it’s enough to make a memory that’ll last a lifetime. I still remember the first time I saw the Wienermobile on the open road. But let’s meet Harry Bradley, the man behind the meaty machine and other automotive designs for General Motors and Hot Wheels.
Harry Bradley’s early career
Born in 1939, Harry Bradley loved drawing cars from a young age. The 1941 Buick Special sedan was an early inspiration for his career choice, which led him to study industrial design at New York’s Pratt University. In fact, Pratt University was recommended by General Motors themselves, who hired Harry after he’d graduated. And while working for GM, Harry received a master’s degree from Stanford University in biomechanics.
Though his tenure with General Motors was short, Harry spent four years putting his hand on some of the most iconic 60s muscle cars. And while Harry never had a production, or even a concept design pinned entirely to his name, pictured above is his own customized Bel Air, which he called the La Jolla.
It encompassed Harry’s design philosophy, taking what we understand about a car and morphing it into something else. And that way of thinking translated to his next, most popular career: designing the first generation of Hot Wheels.
Harry Bradley designed some of the first Hot Wheels cars
It’s 1968, and toymaker Mattel is launching a brand new line, Hot Wheels. Small, die-cast car models for children to play with, and Harry was in on the ground floor. For one model, he took inspiration from the El Camino he drove to work. Others were carbon copies of the Dodge Deora that never made it to full production. But he didn’t stick around, leaving in 1969 before the company really took off.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Harry explains, “My son was probably the only child in America who didn’t have a Hot Wheels car. He couldn’t have them in the house because when you have crutches, you can’t have tiny little cars on the floor hiding in dark places.” You see, part of Harry’s decision to design automobiles at a desk is because, at the age of 10, he contracted polio. Though the inability to use his legs never stopped him from enjoying all things automotive and using his drawing gift.
After leaving Mattel, Harry began teaching at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (where many automotive designers, such as Bryan Nesbitt, end up in some capacity). But on the side, he runs a design business in his home. This allows him to consult with major automakers on designs, while also being hired for more obscure projects. One of with included the modernization of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Harry designed the modern-day Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
We say modern day because the Wienermobile has been around since 1936 (making it three years older than Harry). Back then it was crude sheet metal that resembled a hot dog, but that’s where the iconic look originated. However, when Harry was tasked with the project in 1995, there were talks of redesigning the Wienermobile altogether.
Modernizing it (for 1995 at least) could’ve meant a design similar to a Star Wars spacecraft. There were also ideas of linking hot dogs together to make a chain rather than just the one hot dog in a bun. But Harry explained that “You don’t want to tamper with the lineage just to bring in some modern features. It’s something that everybody is familiar with. And as it turns out, the best design is one giant wienie on top of one giant bun. It just works.”
That design mindset still holds true, with the Mustang Mach-E being the most recent talking point of lineage versus modern-day demand. But Harry is a rare breed, able to take what we know about cars and flip it on it’s head. He’s designed land-speed record achievers, the football helmet cars you see at games, Indy 500 vehicles, and this custom Corvette wagon that’s currently on sale. And while Harry believes automakers don’t design cars like they used to, they also don’t make auto designers like Harry anymore either.