Driving his father’s tanker truck around Asbury Park, N.J., in 1933, 19-year-old Leon Hess probably had little inkling that he would become one of America’s most successful businessmen—and, almost as an afterthought, create one of the most successful holiday toys in history.
For the first few decades after founder Leon Hess (above) first started selling the trucks in 1964, before holiday shoppers could buy their gifts with the click of a button, anyone who wanted to get their hands on one of the Toy Trucks needed to go to one of Hess’s physical locations.
The business is petroleum colossus Hess Corporation. And the toy, of course, is the Hess Toy Truck, a yearly limited edition so popular that it always sells out. “Families across the country have a new truck to look forward to each year and know that it will be something special because of the quality,” said Toy Truck gm Justin Mayer. “They last for many years and the collection grows across generations within families.”
But none of this looked likely to a young Leon Hess in the worst year of the Great Depression. Indeed, the family business failed soon after. But Hess possessed management skills beyond his years. He reorganized the company and got it running again. Then Hess bought a bunch of old oil tankers and turned them into a terminal in Perth Amboy, N.J. When WWII came, Hess served as Gen. George Patton’s fuel-supply officer. And when the fighting was over, Hess returned to New Jersey, built his own refinery and began opening gas stations under his name.
That’s right: a gas station (above).
In 1964, a now-prosperous Hess decided to do something nice for his customers and began selling a toy truck for the holidays. Though he insisted on top quality, Hess priced the truck at just $1.29 ($10.56 in today’s currency). By keeping the supply limited and stocking the toys only at his gas stations, Hess had also, unsurprisingly, devised an excellent marketing tool—not least because the trucks rolled the Hess name and company colors right into American living rooms.
Boys were entranced by the trucks’ level of detail. The first model—a 1964 B61 Mack tanker—featured working head- and taillights, rubber wheels and a fuel tank you could fill with water and drain with a hose. To this day, the trucks feature up to 300 parts. But it was dad who ultimately drove the sale, and for him, the truck boasted another attractive feature: a facilitator for male bonding. Well into the 1980s, TV ads for the Hess Toy Truck showed fathers and sons playing with the trucks on Christmas morning.
Early advertisements of the Hess Toy Truck (top) highlighted its realistic headlights and taillights. Of course, it’s practically impossible to purchase one of the trucks for a mere buck or two these days—older collectibles run for hundreds and even thousands of dollars, while the 2018 RV model is sold on Hess’s site for $33.99 (along with an ATV and a motorbike).
“They created a tradition among kids and their dads of getting one every year,” observes Chris Bensch, chief curator of the Strong National Museum of Play. “And now, they have momentum. It’s not Christmas without a Hess truck—whether it’s for kids or for dad.”
The momentum was such that, even after Hess Corp. sold off all of its gas stations in 2014, moving truck sales online, the demand remains as high as it always was. The truck (whose price has risen to $33.99 for 2018’s model) still sells out, and fans now wait for a text alert that arrives around Thanksgiving, telling them when that year’s truck will go on sale. Those who don’t sign up see the company’s TV spots that retain the catchline, “The Hess truck’s back, and it’s better than ever!”
Keep on Truckin’ While the market continues to push in the more-faster-cheaper direction, the Hess truck is a proud anachronism. Sure, it would be easier and cheaper to just tag a generic toy truck with the Hess name, but the company refuses to do that. Hess still makes each year’s truck to spec, and the design process begins up to three years before the model hits the market. Hess has also diversified its offerings to include fire trucks, police cars and even a tanker ship. This quality and diversity has kept older models in demand. The 1967 tanker truck now has a book value between $350 and $425.
“For many families, Thanksgiving Day started with a trip to a Hess gas station before the turkey even went in the oven,” Mayer added. “Even now, fans tell us they look forward to seeing the newest Hess Toy Truck commercial on TV because it marks the beginning of the holiday season.”