The History of the Holiday Hess Trucks

Hess holiday trucks have been around for more than half a century. Over that time, they've become one of the most iconic toys ever made.
holiday hess truck

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” emanates from every speaker in the Western world, mall parking lots turn into scenes of winter chaos, greeting cards flood mailboxes and everything becomes gingerbread- or peppermint-flavored.

These are all telltale signs the holidays are near.

But there’s one other sound, or should we say jingle, that comes around once a year, signaling the start of the holiday shopping season: “The Hess truck’s back and it’s better than ever!”

The Hess Corporation has released a new toy truck just in time for the holidays every year since 1964. What started as a simple gesture of gratitude toward customers has grown into one of the most iconic and collectible toys to ever hit the market.

But how did the Hess truck come about in the first place? For that answer, we’ll have to travel back nearly a century.

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The Origins of the Hess Truck

In 1933, recent high school graduate Leon Hess purchased a used oil delivery truck and began his own business delivering fuel to homes in Asbury Park, N.J. By 1964, he had a burgeoning empire of gas stations to his name. That winter, Hess wanted to offer his customers a gift as a sign of goodwill. He starting selling toy trucks at Hess gas stations that would be both affordable and suitable for kids of all ages.

The original 1964 Hess truck, a replica of the company’s first B61 tanker, was well ahead of its time compared to other toys of the day. Hess was adamant the toy be made with the highest craftsmanship. The truck featured an empty cargo tank that could be filled using an accompanying funnel and rubber hose, as well as working headlights and taillights. The toy even came with batteries to make it more affordable for parents.

The Hess Truck Jingle

For the next 15 years, the Hess truck was sold each holiday season without the aid of major marketing efforts. That all changed in 1980 when the company released its first television commercial. A few years later, in 1988, it came up with a jingle to accompany the ads. The now iconic “The Hess truck’s back and it’s better than ever” tune, which has been used ever since, is an adapted version of the hit 1963 song, “My Boyfriend’s Back” by the Angels.

In 2014, the Hess company sold its 1,200-plus retail gas stations to Speedway. Many thought this would mean the end of the line for the trucks. Hess, however, quickly eased those concerns by announcing the tradition would continue with its 50th anniversary truck. Since then, the toy has only been available online. The transition hasn’t hurt business, as the truck is one of the bestselling toys on the internet, according to Hess.

Hess Trucks Through the Years

For nearly a quarter-century, every Hess toy truck was modeled after an actual vehicle in the Hess fleet. This included different versions of fuel tankers and replicas of Leon Hess’ original oil delivery truck. There were also some outside-the-box toys sold during this time. In 1966, the company released the Hess Voyager, a replica of a real Hess oil tanker ship. Four years later came the first Hess fire truck, designed after the one used at the company’s Port Reading, N.J., oil refinery. Maybe the most surprising addition to the Hess toy lineup came in 1981 with the arrival of the Hess training van. This toy was modeled after the GMC Royal Motorhome Hess used to conduct field training lessons.

These early releases differed from today’s toys in another way as well: they were not always one and done. Nowadays, Hess releases a brand-new model of its iconic toy each year, but that wasn’t always the case. The company sold the same tanker-trailer in 1964 and ’65. It doubled up again later that decade by selling a slightly modified tanker truck from 1968-69 and again in 1972 and 1974. Hess sold its first fire truck in consecutive years to kick off the 1970s, as well as a modified one in 1986. The company also brought back the toy replica of Leon Hess’ original delivery truck in 1982 and 1983.

holiday hess truck

Recent Hess Trucks

It wasn’t until 1988 that Hess released a toy not based on one of its vehicles. That year, the company debuted a combination trailer truck and GT-style race car. These vehicles were also the first to come with license plates inscribed with the year of issue, while the friction-powered race car was the first Hess toy with a motor.

Since the late 1980s, the Hess toy lineup has grown to include just about every type of vehicle imaginable. In 1993, it was a police car. Two years later, a helicopter. Closing out the decade was an RV with dune buggy and motorcycle in 1998 and a space shuttle in 1999. This century, Hess has created everything from tow and dump trucks to jet fighters and monster trucks. In October, Hess announced the 2021 toy would be a cargo plane and jet. Proving just how far the toy has come, this year’s offering comes with a free STEM curriculum guide.

The Hess toy truck has been released every year since 1964 with three notable exceptions. Ironically, gasoline was a main culprit in each instance. In 1973, the U.S. found itself mired in an oil embargo. The astronomical gas prices made manufacturing toys extremely expensive, prohibiting Hess from releasing a new truck that year.

Later that decade, the country was again hit with a fuel shortage, this time in the form of the 1979 oil crisis. This prevented Hess from making a toy for the second time.

The last year a new Hess truck was not unveiled was 1981, when the country entered a recession. It was a time marked by supply shortages and inflated prices, not ideal circumstances for manufacturing.

During those years, gas consumption was discouraged. This meant fewer customers visiting Hess gas stations, the only places where the toy trucks were sold. It simply wouldn’t have been a good business decision to release new toys knowing fewer people would come across it.

How Hess Trucks Are Made

Children’s toys may look simple, but – at least when it comes to the Hess trucks – the process of creating and building them is anything but.

Hess doesn’t give too many clues into what it refers to as the “secretive process” of developing its annual toy. But we do know it usually takes two to three years to get the collectibles from the drawing board to the shelves. However, it’s been known to take up to six years in some cases.

The process begins with a collection of images to narrow down a possible theme. Then some initial sketches are drawn up. The top two or three of these designs are chosen and developed into 3D rotating images. Finally, handcrafted models are built and final design decisions are made.

Hess trucks have always been well ahead of their time when it comes to quality and craftsmanship. Early models comprised about 75 different pieces. Today’s models have anywhere between 200 to 300 pieces, each one precisely cut. Once the pieces are made, the toy is meticulously assembled and undergoes numerous quality tests before being packed in its box and shipped to your doorstep.

Do you collect holiday Hess trucks? Tell us in the comments. 

For more stories like this, visit our auto history page.

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35 Thoughts on “The History of the Holiday Hess Trucks

  1. We only acquired a few of the Hess vehicles as both kids born in W Germany and we really knew nothing about them. Our first USA Christmas was 1980 and, of course, picked up our first one and my son, now 48, has 7 of them. My question: where were/ are they built? I hope not “ you know where”!!

  2. I have collected the Hess trucks ever since 1988. My parents got me the collectable 50th anniversary truck one Christmas ????.

  3. My older brother and I each had the valuable 1965 tractor and tank trailer rig. He convinced me to cut mine up and make a straight tank truck out of it (ruining its value). He still has his tractor trailer in perfect condition. I guess that’s what big brothers are for!
    Regards, Ed A.

  4. In the late 80’s – early 90’s – the Hess station in my NJ neighborhood had a metal Hess plane for sale, along with the trucks. The price was in the $20-$30 range. They sold it for two years and then it disappeared. I have never seen it mentioned in any story about the trucks. I’m sorry I didn’t buy one for my son, but money was tight.

  5. Hi,
    We suggest printing a chart or booklet, or putting on on-line, something that shows them all year by year? We’d love to be able to check off the ones we have and the ones we still need for our son’s collection? Thank you. j

  6. I had bought my son one each year since 1988. However we were hit by storm Sandy and all trucks were ruined by the flood.

  7. My Uncle Ed who was a great all around guy and a terrific Uncle started the tradition of buying my two sons, all the kids in his family and his close friend’s kids Hess trucks. He really appreciated the quality of the trucks and how the trucks came with batteries. My two sons are 29 & 30 and do not have any grandchildren. I however buy a close friend’s grandson a Hess truck every year since he was born. He loves the truck and plays with it a lot Like my uncle I also appreciate the quality and feel when I buy a Hess I am keeping my late Uncle’s memory alive.

  8. My father bought Hess trucks for all his grand children starting in the 80s till 2014 .My son has his collection most still in origional boxes,.Realizing they may be valuable because of the fine craftmanship,he was reluctant to play with them.Now at the age of thirtyfive he will pass them down to his newborn son at some point.Great toys,wnderful tradition,when I see them I think of my father

  9. Is it possible to get a copy of the origin of the Hess trucks to pass on to my grandson. I’m sure he would enjoy reading it. It would be nice to go along with his Hess gift this Christmas. Thanks

  10. I look forward to the Hess Holiday release notice each year, 23 years and counting for me. For the last 5 years I purchase additional pieces to give my grandchildren for Christmas. I always buy one for myself and display 5 recent years in a curio cabinet for all to view. When the grandchildren visit, which is often, ????, they get to choose 1 or 2 to play with, but are required to make sure that the trucks are returned as soon as they are done playing with them. ( haha)
    We love the quality and design and I look forward to next year’s item.

  11. This article would have been more helpful if it had included at least some, if not all, of the present day values of previously made Hess trucks.

  12. As a kid in the early 1960’s, for the holidays, my parents used to get my brother and me toy Texaco trucks. These were made of metal. We loved those trucks. Eventually, Texaco stopped making them and Hess started with their own.

  13. i’ve been buying the hess trucks since 2014, the birth of my first grandson, second grandson came in the following year, l buy every hess truck that goes on the market, ty for keeping it going!!

  14. Thank you for this wonderful history of Hess Trucks. My family has given the trucks to our children for years. This history would be a great addition to the Hess Truck collection. Is it possible to send a print version of this history? Thank you, Diane

  15. Oh yes!! It started when my daughter was little..yes, daughter…it became an annual thing, even when she was grown. I’ve continued it now with my two grandsons, and I have this year’s model just waiting to be a present. I’ve always thought highly of the quality of the toys. When are you going to issue your first electric vehicle?

  16. Have collected all the the trucks from the 1980’s thru 2010 or so..still in original boxes but my kids loved it during the holiday traditions! Thanks

  17. II have been buying Hess trucks since 1980 for my son and have never missed a year. He has everyone of them from 1980 and now my grandson has a collection as well.

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