There’s something strange about navigating the toy aisle of your local big box store as an adult. Quite quickly you realize, with a clarity that was entirely absent as a child, that huge swathes of the playthings designed to be consumed by kids (after haranguing their parents for days and weeks on end) exist in lock-step with media properties that are themselves little more than multi-million dollar advertising platforms.
That He-Man was more interested in moving millions of plastic action figures other than advancing some type of vague form cosmic justice was completely opaque to me as an eight-year-old. Now, deep into my thirties, it’s impossible for me to see the franchise forces behind Transformers or Star Wars as being focused on anything else.
Despite having no rug rats of my own, I still find myself regularly haunting this particular trough of the retail experience, eyes peeled, senses tingling, as I patiently hunt through the rows of brightly colored packaging seeking my elusive quarry. You see, despite possessing the aching joints and general malaise that are the true hallmarks of adulthood, my passion for a certain type of toy has evolved from childish whimsy into that most gullible obsession of the disposable income crowd.
I have become a collector, and what I collect are diecast cars.
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I don’t even know how it happened. What decades-dormant gene suddenly switched itself to on and commanded me to start amassing an entirely impractical collection of 1:64 scale replicas of the life-size cars I lusted after? Because that’s how suddenly the disease seemed to progress: after having left Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Corgi, et al out of my life since my teenage years, the fierce need to acquire and collect swept through me like a supercharged, chrome-riding fever.
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Sure, as a kid I had a big bucket of toy cars to play with on the carpets and rubber racetrack mats at home (but never outside – I refused to let dirt sully my wheels). The fleet was fed by the parental indulgence of a weekly dollar-priced addition on our regular trips across the border from southern Quebec into upstate Vermont (a base price point that to my amazement has barely fluctuated in the ensuing years).
Still, I was never all that focused on which vehicles I purchased and have no memory of any particular pick-ups that I was excited about. While I have fond recollections of assigning my various cars and trucks personalities and back-stories as I built imaginary worlds for hours in family-satisfying silence, the actual hunt itself was entirely unimportant. That is to say, it was nonexistent – there were cars at the store, I took one home, and we had fun together.
All of that has now been reversed, of course. While I am one of the rare collectors who removes their acquisitions from their protective plastic-and-cardboard bubbles and zoom them around my desk before putting them on display, I take significant joy in the random discovery of a long-anticipated new model found hiding behind copies of the National Enquirer at the check-out line, or lingering at the bottom of an overflowing cardboard bin in the aisle at Wal-Mart. It’s almost like I’m rescuing them from languishing cold and unappreciated, outside of my attention, like some bizarre twist on the pound puppy ‘forever home’ trope.
There are other caveats to my collecting that put me at odds with those who are truly ‘serious’ about the Hot Wheels world. For instance, I never buy a vehicle unless I’m actually interested in its real-life equivalent. To me, the pleasure in a holding a diecast car in my hand or seeing it sitting on the shelf in front of me in my office is being able to have it be present in my life despite not having the garage space, budget, or mechanical masochism to own the real thing. I don’t feel the need to own every paint job and wheel combination available for a given model, either, and this separates me from the completionists and rarity-seekers who inhabit a different plane of collecting driven by the need to have it all, rather than an appreciation for what they’re having.
I’m definitely not above the fray, however. I’m at the point where space constraints in my home have begun to slow the rate at which I acquire new cars, which is the sobering wake-up call after which one typically either buys a larger house, rents a storage locker, or auditions for a starring role on Hoarders.
The physical realities of my living space aside, I’ve also become more sensitive to the subtle manipulations thrown my way not just by kingpins like Mattel but also smaller players like Green Light, who ply me with ever-more-detailed representations of my favorite movie cars and classic autos, in slightly-graduated increments of scale. This is a dangerous path to follow, as it could easily lead me to the door of the Franklin Mint (the Fabergé egg equivalent in the diecast world, and the gateway to a much more expensive stratum of collecting).
But although I’ve slowed the pace of my acquisitions, I still feel that thrill of adrenaline when spotting an unpicked bucket of blister packs down the aisle. I never pass even the smallest shelving of diecasts without casting a critical eye over the convoy. And I still make the occasional detour on work trips ‘just to check out’ what exciting surprises of product distribution might lie in wait in some far-flung geography.
Is this what ‘denial’ feels like?