For more than 40 years, one green-and-white truck has found its way under more New Jersey Christmas trees than any other toy.
We were knights in search of the Holy Grail—my father, my son, and I, three generations of Kents in my father’s Lincoln. We drove for four hours, from Trenton to New Brunswick, up and down Route 1, Route 206, and Route 130, desperately seeking a Hess gas station that still had in stock one of the company’s signature toy trucks. It was the second week in December. We returned to my father’s house in Monroe Township, in Middlesex County, having learned a bitter truth: When it comes to acquiring the most prized holiday gas station toy, if you snooze, you lose.
Each year the Amerada Hess Corporation, founded in Perth Amboy but now based in New York City, puts the trucks on sale a few days before Thanksgiving and limits sales to two per customer. By mid-December, just about all of the 1,355 Hess gas stations from New Hampshire to Florida are sold out. By then the truck has appeared on nearly a thousand Web sites, where its value can double by January and triple by the following November, when the next year’s toy is unveiled.
The fascination with Hess trucks is not just a guy thing. Each year Susan Hitzel, a third-grade teacher in Egg Harbor Township, buys one for her son, Nick, and another for her daughter, Natalie. “It wasn’t just because Natalie wanted what Nicholas had,” Hitzel says. “I played with my brother’s Texaco trucks when I was growing up, and I used to collect and restore antique dolls, so I pay attention to how toys are made. I’ve seen the other gas station trucks, and they’re not made as nicely. The Hess trucks are virtually indestructible. And they do all kinds of things—they light up, they have sirens, they have special features—that the other gas station toys don’t. If you’re going to collect a toy, this one is worth having. My kids have one for every year since they were born. I can’t imagine not getting Hess trucks in November.”
Although Amerada Hess maintains a Web site about its toys, www.hesstoytruck.com, the company didn’t respond to requests for interviews with Chairman John Hess, the son of the late company founder Leon Hess, who is said to carry on his father’s tradition of approving each year’s toy. “That’s because of the kind of guy Leon Hess was,” says a retired Hess marketing executive who signed a nondisclosure agreement when he left the company and asked not to be identified. “Leon Hess was the exact opposite of Donald Trump. Even when he did things that would make him look good, like giving away free gas to school bus companies during one of the fuel shortages so kids could get to school, he didn’t want anyone outside the company to know.”
It was Leon Hess, the longtime owner of the New York Jets, who first thought of a seasonal toy for his employees and friends, as well as drive-in customers. The original Hess truck, a tanker that could be filled with water and emptied through a delivery hose, was released in 1964. It sold for $1.29. Among those on Hess’s gift list were National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle and a Hoboken crooner named Frank Sinatra. Over the years, the company expanded its roster of toys with fire engines, helicopters, a police car, an airplane, a space shuttle, and, on its 40th anniversary last year, a sport-utility vehicle. But in the hearts, minds, and wallets of collectors, not one has supplanted the Hess truck.
The Marx Toy company designed the first series of Hess toys, including the famous 1966 Voyager tanker ship. Today Hess orders about 2 million holiday toys, which, along with the miniature editions sold in May, are made in China.
“What kid in the world doesn’t love trucks?” asks Michael V. “Mickey” Harwood, who ought to know. Harwood, 58, a retired airplane pilot for Hoffman-LaRoche, lives today in Fort Lee. Back when he was seventeen, he bought his first Hess truck—the original 1964 tanker—at a Hess station at the Little Ferry circle on Route 46. “I took it home, took it out of the box, played with it, and went back to that gas station and bought six more,” Harwood says. Years later the station would achieve a measure of immortality as the subject of a watercolor illustration in a book that Harwood self-published. The Hess Toy Truck Collector, a guide for like-minded souls obsessed with the company’s annual holiday offering, would become the bible of Hess toy-truck collecting.
Growing up in Palisades Park, Harwood was familiar with the Texaco gas station toys, but to his eye they didn’t compare to the Hess trucks. “Hess was the first oil company to design original toys in a series and retain control of the molds for their trucks,” Harwood says. “You couldn’t get them anywhere but from a Hess station.”
By the time Harwood bought the Voyager tanker ship two years later, he was in love with the Hess toys. He got chummy with gas station owners and even Hess executives, who, he says, would tell him how many trucks were manufactured in a given year, tip him off about special-edition trucks not sold to the public, and enlighten him as to why no Hess toys came out in 1973, 1979, or 1981. “Leon Hess thought it wouldn’t be a good thing to promote the sale of gasoline when gasoline was in short supply,” Harwood says.
In 1991 Harwood also published a price guide. He started buying and selling Hess toys as well, referring to himself as the Hess Toy Truck Collector, but the company’s legal department sent him a cease-and-desist letter, forbidding him to use the company’s trademarked name. So Harwood shortened his moniker to the Toy Truck Collector. Over the next dozen years, Harwood says, he racked up nearly $2 million in annual sales of his book, price guide, and collectible toys. He established standards for pricing, with the most valuable toys labeled MIB, for mint-in-box, referring to a toy whose box had never been unsealed. (That 1964 truck, the original? Today, in mint condition, it would fetch up to $3,000.) And he’d warn collectors whenever he sniffed attempts to flood the burgeoning market with fakes and knock-offs—“toys that Hess never made but somebody put a Hess logo on,” he says.
In 1995 Harwood started another business, Taylor Made Trucks, designing and manufacturing trucks for rival oil companies Amoco, Shell, Union, and Texaco, as well as for Hershey Foods, Wawa Food Markets, Lionel Trains, Sears, NJ Transit (a flatbed truck that carries a caboose), and the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association (a tanker truck bearing a sign warning that it contains pepper spray). Harwood says that he grossed $4 million a year from making toy trucks, though few of his trucks were best sellers—and none sold as well as the Hess toys.
Thanksgiving Day sales of the Hess truck generated so many crowds, says the former Hess executive, that police departments all over New Jersey were complaining. “They didn’t want to have to call out their officers for holiday duty when they should be home with their families,” he says. “So we decided to move up the sales date a few days, just to take the heat off.” On the day the truck went on sale in November 1999, the company sold more than 580,000 of them, a single-day sales record, according to Jay Wilson, the vice president of investor relations for Hess.
Harwood once sent a copy of The Hess Toy Truck Collector to Leon Hess, who wrote back congratulating him “for a very professional accomplishment.” “That’s all I ever heard from him,” Harwood says. Although he stopped designing and making his own toy trucks two years ago, Harwood continues to publish his price guide, whose mailing list contains the names of some 49,000 collectors across America. And he still buys Hess trucks, though how many, and for whom, he won’t say. “Is there a Christmas tree in a house in the state of New Jersey that won’t have a Hess truck under it?” he asks.
Well, maybe one. Harwood’s son won’t get a Hess truck this year.
“He collects Texaco,” Harwood sighs.
Bill Kent wrote about New Jersey’s record-setting roller coasters in the May issue.