Remembering Hot Wheels Designer Ryu Asada

Freda Walters

Great automotive designers change the world. Their ideas and inspirations create the moving furniture that forms the background of our lives. Ryu Asada was one such designer. His work was small: sized to fit in the palm of your hand. Nevertheless, he changed the world.

A Key Lead Product Designer with Hot Wheels, Ryu died March 23rd of complications from cancer, aged just 42. The outpouring of sorrow from the enthusiast community was immense. Everyone who knew him spoke of a man who radiated an infectious positivity. A man who was kind, genuine, engaging. They struggled to put into words what was so special about him.

If you have held one of his Hot Wheels castings, then you have met Ryu. Each one is a little artwork. There are hidden Easter Eggs, whimsical ideas, a sense of fun. Transforming a real car into a Hot Wheels isn’t just about shrinking it down. Proportions can be distorted by the change, there are limitations to the manufacturing process, and the result has to be capable of scorching down the brand’s signature orange tracks.

Ryu’s designs just look right somehow. Along with accuracy, they capture the essence of whatever the machine happens to be. They contain joy.

Born in Osaka in 1978, Ryu grew up a couple of hours away from Suzuka Circuit, Honda’s home turf. Osaka may be considered the Detroit to Tokyo’s New York. People from Osaka are less reserved than those in Tokyo. They are friendlier. They seem to have more fun.

The Asada family album shows a beaming boy in front of his father’s bright red second-generation Prelude. It would be the beginning of a lifelong obsession with Honda; later photos show Ryu sketching a CRX in his kindergarten class. His drawing is shockingly good for such a young age, highly accurate and displaying proper use of three-dimensional perspective.

Asada’s Honda obsession ran the gamut.

Ryu AsadaInstagram

“Ryu wasn’t just an amazing designer, he was brilliant,” said Bryan Benedict, Design Director for die-cast and vehicles at Hot Wheels and Matchbox. “Before he started studying design, he got a degree in physics.”

While enrolled at the University of Oregon, Ryu met Hazel Diaz at a drawing class. The pair would marry, and were inseparable right to the end. “Ryu had a strong will and never gave up,” she said. “He always looked at the positive side of things.”

After graduation, Ryu enrolled at ArtCenter College of Design in their prestigious transportation course. Notable ArtCenter alumni includes Peter Brock, Nissan’s Shiro Nakamura, Chip Foose, and Hyundai’s Luc Donckerwolke. It is one of the world’s foremost design schools and its graduates have shaped automotive trends for decades. Emerging talents are often scouted from the College, and Ryu was at first snapped up by Peugeot, working in France for a brief period. He returned to the US to work for Mattel in 2004.

Designing toy cars was what Ryu Asada was born to do. An obsessive modeller and R/C car fan from his youth, he was always creating things with his hands. He had catholic tastes in cars, owning three Subaru SVXes, but also buying a Sable GS as his first car, and building a slammed, Taurus SHO 1/25th scale kit that he customized into a wagon. In tribute to his University of Oregon days, he fitted the model with a GO DUCKS license plate.


Asada’s 1/25th scale slammed Taurus.

Ryu AsadaInstagram

Originally starting out at Matchbox, Ryu worked on the main line of cars and trucks. He was involved with SEMA show builds like the Matchbox Superlift Jeep and Superlift Ford F550 firetruck. His first Hot Wheels, a futuristic nuclear-powered racer called Gearonimo, was done as a guest designer. The first real car he designed for Hot Wheels was, of course, a Honda.

Ryu’s motto was, “Honda Forever!” While he loved all cars, Honda was his particular obsession. He modelled a 1/64th scale Hot Wheels S2000 that exactly matched the Spa Yellow real-life version he drove to work (across the Pacific, his parents also owned a yellow S2000). He later also bought an NSX, which he set up to look like the 1991 Suzuka Grand Prix pace car he remembered from his youth.


Ryu’s design for the Porsche 944

Hot Wheels

He designed vehicles that meant a lot to him,” said Hazel Diaz Asada, “The Porsche 944 with stethoscope [one of Ryu’s Easter Eggs, visible through the rear glass] was a nod to one of Ryu’s doctors who owned one and took care of him during his battle with cancer. They became good friends and went on drives together. He had a memorable childhood growing up with Honda cars and dedicated the Prelude to his mom with her exact license plate.”

“We had a hard time getting him to watch Game Of Thrones with us,” said longtime friend Ben Hsu, co-founder and editor-in-chief at Japanese Nostalgic Car. “He said, ‘Why would I want to watch something that doesn’t have any cars in it?’”

“When somebody dies, everyone always says they were a positive person; it can’t always be true,” Hsu adds, “But with Ryu, it really was. He was just so upbeat, 100 percent of the time, even through chemotherapy.”


Courtesy Ben Hsu

In 2013, Ryu came over to the Hot Wheels team as a lead designer. What he did over the next several years would transform the brand, and infuse it with new vitality.

If you get up early on a Sunday morning in Yokohama, and head down to the Daikoku Parking Area, sitting just off the elevated freeway that skirts Tokyo Bay, you will see the most varied and concentrated automotive enthusiasm on the planet. Ryu took that level of enthusiasm, and distilled it into a toy car you can fit in your pocket.

Ryu didn’t just bring Japanese cars to Hot Wheels, he brought the Japanese-style appreciation for all car culture to the brand. He designed JDM fare like the Honda City Turbo – complete with twin Motocompo folding scooters on board – but also the S1 Lotus Esprit, and the Lancia Delta Integrale, and the Audi RS6 Avant, and the Lamborghini Countach pace car from the 1983 Monaco GP. The Hot Wheels display at your local grocery store started better reflecting the broader tastes of automotive enthusiasm. It shifted, and people noticed.

He also possessed a curious and charming sense of whimsy. During a coffee break, he felt inspired by a toaster, and created Roller Toaster, complete with pop-up slices of bread. He combined bosozuku style excess with an obscure Noppo-style “tall-boy” model kit from his childhood to craft the fun and cartoonish Manga Tuner. He designed a hamburger truck called Buns of Steel.


Just some of Ryu’s designs

Ryu AsadaInstagram

Most Hot Wheels designers come up with concept sketches and then work with sculptors to make them. Ryu was the lone exception. He worked directly in three-dimensions, sculpting his ideas with a virtual tool. He could simply see things differently from other people.

“He really brought the brand to a new level,” says Benedict. “And his kindness, his smile, his compassion… we really want to honor him by trying to be more like he was.”

“The whole time I knew him, he was dying,” says the usually irascible Tim Mings. “He never said a word of complaint. He was just one of the most legit people I’ve ever met. Just a cool cat.”


Tim Mings

Mings runs Merciless Mings, a restoration shop specializing in early American Honda products. He worked with Ryu on one of his last projects, a casting of the pioneering Honda N600. “I basically cyberbullied him,” Mings jokes. Every time a new Hot Wheels was shown on Japanese Nostalgic Car, Mings would show up with a comment asking when the N600 would get its Hot Wheels moment in the sun.

This is that moment. Isn’t it perfect? Ryu’s design is subtly altered from the original, fitted with fender flares and a discreet chin spoiler. Everything you need to know about the delight of caning a tinny little two-cylinder Honda down a canyon road is right there on display.

“Ryu loved how cars connected people.” said his wife Hazel. “He created meaningful relationships by sharing his passion for cars with others.”

The night I heard he had died, I rooted through my personal stash of unopened Hot Wheels to find two of Ryu’s castings. I walked in and gave one to each of my kids as they lay reading in bed, an Integrale, and a Dajiban. With small expressions of delight, they opened them immediately, that characteristic sound of a plastic blister pack tearing away from cardboard. I went back to check on them later, and my younger daughter had fallen asleep with her van still in her hand.


Brendan McAleer

That Dajiban is now her friend. Where she goes, it goes. She doesn’t need to understand the automotive subculture that it represents, only that it’s fun, and fast, and has a cool go-kart hidden onboard. She loves it.

photographer david chickeringstylist

Hot Wheels

Ryu Asada has died, and the automotive world seems dimmer for the loss. He was one of us. He was the best of us. But from that flame, a hundred thousand sparks are lit. Rest well, Ryu. The automotive enthusiasts of tomorrow sleep tonight with your life’s work under their pillows. You put a piece of yourself into everything you created. We thank you for your many, tiny, precious gifts.

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