A Toy Story: How the Hess Truck Became a Holiday Staple and Conjures Up Childhood Nostalgia for Some

The Hess truck has been sold every Christmas since 1964, with collectors eagerly awaiting the latest year’s model.

For some folks, hearing Christmas carols is the official kickstart to the holiday season, but for others it is the music from the commercial jingle, which sings “the Hess truck is back, and it is better than ever.” 

The Hess company doesn’t just use the chorus of their song as a catchy jingle, but as a mantra to do right by their customers, according to Justin Mayer, the general manager of Hess Toy Truck.

“Our commercials that air every year… ‘The Hess Truck's back and it's better than ever,’ we do that not just because it's a fun song, but that is actually sort of a mission statement. And every year we are trying to do something that is better than what we've done in the past. I mean, we would take that extremely seriously,” he tells Inside Edition. “Now, the goal always was to get the toys into the hands of children, and here we are 60 years later and it still remains a hugely popular Christmas gift. So I think we're on the right path.”

The Hess truck has been sold every Christmas since 1964 with collectors eagerly awaiting the latest year’s model.

Avid collector and author of “Hess Truck Encyclopedia,” Mike Roberto tells Inside Edition Digital that the history of the toy is rooted in ways to promote the gas business.

“Back in the early '60s, Leon Hess, the owner and founder of now Hess Corporation, wanted to do something for the customers of Hess Gasoline,” he says. “Now, remember back then Hess wasn't on the radio, on the TV, you just went to your local gas station. So it was something to draw people in … Ultimately in late 1964, they came out with the first BMAC tanker. It was a big hit. They brought it back again the next year.”

Leon Hess, who grew up during the Great Depression, didn’t have much in terms of toys at Christmastime. His idea of the truck was also a way to make children smile during the holiday season and not have their parents cry when they opened their wallets, Mayer adds.

Leon Hess - Getty Images

“He wanted to create essentially almost as goodwill, a super affordable toy that kids could play with right out of the box. It was easy to acquire, and it was priced at a $1.39,” he says. “It was just such an amazing value that it sold out superfast and now you had a little bit of that scarcity effect, frankly, and the next year it was sold out. So it actually built momentum around the holiday season initially of just, this is an unbelievable toy.”

The toys became such a hit that at one point, the governor of New Jersey had asked the company to stop selling them on Thanksgiving because of the crowd control and a way to cut back on cops working for the holiday, according to Mayer.

“We moved off of Thanksgiving sales because the governor of New Jersey asked us to,” he says. “They didn't want to have to have the police working on Thanksgiving morning to manage traffic at the Hess stations.”

As those who have been collecting the coveted toy trucks for most of their lives, it conjures up images of childhood and a simpler time.

For Frank Zottola, an avid Hess truck collector who was raised in the Bronx, tells Inside Edition Digital that his grandmother had lived down the road from a Hess gas station and getting his first truck when he was about 5 years old was something special.

“So one of my earliest recollections is actually opening it up, getting it in her apartment in the Bronx, asking for the lights to be shut off, so now I can use these headlights, and driving it around under the furniture and around the living room in the dark,” he recalls. “There was nothing with headlights at that time. I had the typical Tonka trucks and Hot Wheel cars, but a truck that you can turn the lights on, for me, that's what it was all about.”

Part of Frank Zottola's Hess Collection - Frank Zottola

James Galdo got his first truck in 1970 and tells Inside Edition Digital via email that he “played with it every day nonstop.” He played with it until his mother put it in the attic. He found it in 1981 in its hiding spot and says he has been collecting them ever since.

“I believe so many people still love Hess because of the tradition. Most collectors my age in their late 50s have kids. They get to pass those memories down to their kids and their grandchildren. This is a strong tradition that Leon has started. From the very first truck for $1.39,” he says.

“I can remember waking up on a cold brisk Thanksgiving morning. Mom is cooking her turkey in the oven. The smell of Thanksgiving is in the air while my friends and I head to Dunkin Donuts for a cup of hot chocolate before we run from station to station to buy the limit of two trucks per person. Which was a brilliant marketing tool Hess used. At my age, Hess is one of the biggest links I have to my childhood,” he adds.

For Mike Roberto, it is a way to remember his father, who was terminally ill when he was a child. He remembers going to a Hess station for the first time and seeing the pristine condition it was in and then getting the truck. Roberto says that when his dad passed in 1991, every time he saw a Hess station he thought of his late father.

“That's positive neural association. That's what McDonald's does to capitalize on their Happy Meals. They want a kid to see that red box and always think happy thoughts. Hess had given me the thought of my dad forever in my life. I'm in my garage, I've got Hess signs on the walls. So every day when I drive home and the door opens, I could think of my dad. It's the best gift ever that I could always have that happy memory of my dad. I think that that's what happens to a lot of people. It's passing down that gift,” he says.

“There's so many things that are quantifiable. Let me tell you what's not quantifiable, but 100% truth. Here's the deal. We all want to be remembered. When you love somebody, you want to give them a gift,” he adds.

Part of Mike Roberto's Hess Collection - Mike Roberto

The Hess Toy Truck has also become a popular collector's item as the unique gifts are only sold the year they are released. However, the past experience in getting the coveted toy is about as important as the actual truck.

“For me, that was the beginning of the holiday season,” Zottola says about when the truck was released.

“If you weren't 6 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, waiting on a physical line with strangers in the freezing dark, to get your Hess trucks, you didn't get one. And the only other way that you could get one,” Roberto adds, “... there are stories from people where it's almost like a drug deal. It's like, 'Hey, I need some trucks, man.' And you got somebody go, ‘I can get you some trucks. Listen, meet me by the back door five o'clock, I'll get you two trucks.’ ‘But I need four.’ ‘I can get you two. Take it or leave it. Cash only!’”

However, as times have changed, the Hess Corporation closed their gas stations in 2015, moving the purchasing of the beloved trucks online.

Since it has been sold online, “the Hess Toy is the largest selling toy SKU online, period. There's nothing bigger than the Hess toy. And we love toys, we love all categories of toys, we love different brands of toys, but from a volume perspective, this is still a hugely popular item,” according to Mayer.

“The fact that Hess is no longer a gas station is irrelevant, because for many people it was never about that Hess was a gas station. It's about Hess produced this really amazing toy that, in many cases, for some people who are collecting it, accrued value over time. But for others it was just a great Christmas toy. The kids love to play with it. And that recipe hasn't changed,” Mayer adds.

In 2023, Hess was bought by Chevron, but the companies promised fans that the trucks will still be rolling.

“Because the toy is so hugely popular, the companies jointly announced that the Hess Toy Truck is going to continue,” Mayer says. “So when you hear about a $53 billion deal in the news of the day, it's more about, ‘Is the Hess Toy Truck going to continue?’ I think that tells you just how important it is.”

The way fans obtain the toys may be changing but the love is still the same.

“The toy was more than a toy, it was an experience, and we're lacking that experience. I certainly understand from the business end of it why they did what they did, and I'm sure the people in the business realize what was lost, the brick-and-mortar building, the experience that goes along with the purchase, the trip out,” Zottola argues. “But it's a little whitewashed now. It's a little sterile purchasing it online.”

Part of Frank Zottola's Hess Collection - Frank Zottola

Yet, thanks to the digital realm, fans have been able to get trucks worldwide. Galdo says that via a Facebook group that he and Zottola run, they have been able to reach collectors not just in America but in Japan, England, Ireland and South Africa.

There are even toy shows where the three men interviewed in this story display parts of their collections and meet enthusiasts from all walks of life around the country who all proudly share their special connection to the beloved toy truck.

“I have met people at toy shows and signings and people coming up to me going, ‘I wish I didn't destroy that thing.’ Hey, listen, if you didn't destroy that thing, that means you had fun with it. That means you played with it. That means that that imprinted on you. If you never touched the dang thing, you may not have that desire that you do today,” Roberto says.

As times change, certain traditions stay the same, and that value still holds true at Hess.

“Our business model is based on the assumption that we're going to build amazing toys that are going to last for generations and be passed down. That becomes really important because that enables us to create different vehicle types over time and fill in what we view as the imaginary Hess play world,” Mayer says. “Too quickly nowadays, they move on to their iPads or some sort of app. We provide them a reason to keep coming back to physical, really good emotional play every year that continues to expand this imaginary world.”

Here is to more years playing in that imaginary world.

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