Robert Hood  /  MSNBC.com
Hot Wheels collector Mike Stevenson has about 30,000 of the toy cars.
By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 12/13/2004 9:14:16 AM ET 2004-12-13T14:14:16

There is still a cold dew hanging on the shopping carts at 8:00 a.m., when the doors to the Target open, but three eager customers are ready and waiting. They burst past the store employee — who knows to move out of the way — and are off at a brisk trot, cutting through the empty check-out stands, past the magazines, Christmas decorations and kids clothes, on a beeline to the toy section — or more accurately, to ‘the pegs’ where the newest models of Hot Wheels are displayed.

David, a professional on his way to the office; Darrell, retired and in his mid-60s; and Lenny, who works part time, meet so frequently in their common pursuit of the little die-cast cars that they are on a first-name basis.

Darrell taunts the others: "Hey I know where the really good stuff is ... and I'll tell you, for a price."

"I'll give you 50 cents," quips David, who doesn't look up as he picks through the cars, looking for Hot Wheels stock that went on the shelves overnight.

It is a scene repeated every day at mega-stores around the country. Hot Wheels, one of the most successful lines of toys ever made, is also one of the most enduring collectors items.

Determined collectors tell stories of fisticuffs and even injuries in the pursuit of coveted new models.

Collector "Hippie Tim," writing on line, described the day a new Fred Meyers store opened. He arrived before the start of business in search of Hot Wheels:

"It was really an embarrassing scene. First, they started flat out running — one of the idiots was so anxious he tripped over a stack of shopping baskets — good thing he wasn't hurt because then I'd feel bad for laughing at him. Then we get to the pegs — they had two big 4 way displays and some hanging in the aisles. It was pretty silly to watch everyone grab, push and curse over a bunch of dollar cars."

Since the first model rolled off the assembly line in 1968, Mattel has produced more than 3 billion of the 1/64th-scale die-cast vehicles — enough, the company boasts, to circle the Earth four times if placed end to end. In 2001 and 2002, Hot Wheels was the the No. 1 selling toy in terms of units sold, according to a 2003 market study.

The name speaks for itself
Even after more than 35 years, there is a excitement surrounding the cars that toys usually enjoy only for a short time, a la Beanie Babies and Cabbage Patch dolls. Hot Wheels' nearest die-cast competitor, Match Box cars, have been around even longer and have a following, but  not the cache of Hot Wheels.

Why? One reason — ask any guy, big or small — is that Hot Wheels go faster.

"Hot Wheels just smoked Matchboxes," recalls Mike Stevenson, a collector in Washington state. "They were the elite, if you will, as a kid's toy."

His story is a common one among collectors. He had some Hot Wheels as a kid, and then picked up collecting the cars after becoming an adult. Now he has about 30,000 of them. Stevenson buys mainly old "'red-line'' models, cars made in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a trademark thin red line on the tires.

He's in good company.

"To hear of people who have 10,000 Hot Wheels is not uncommon," says Angelo Van Bogart, who writes a Hot Wheels column for Toy Cars & Models in Iola, Wis.

The nation's most prolific Hot Wheels collector is probably Mike Strauss, of San Carlos, Calif. Strauss, 62, started collecting the toy cars about 20 years ago when Shell stations were handing them out for free and now has some 30,000 cars worth an estimated $1.5 million. Some are so valuable he keeps them in safe deposit boxes.

Formerly a food importer, Strauss now makes a living out of his hobby, organizing the semi-annual Hot Wheels Collectors convention.

Everyone's a dealer
The advent of EBay has poured fuel on the trade. On a given day, there are some 25,000 Hot Wheels offerings on the Internet auction site — ranging from brand-new models for a couple of bucks to rare models and collections with reserve prices of $10,000 or $20,000.

In November, a display of 16 Hot Wheels produced in 1968 went for $28,000 in an on on-line auction, still far shy of the highest known price for a single Hot Wheels — $73,000 paid in 2000 for the prototype of a pink Volkswagen Beach Bomb.

Only a few people manage to parlay Hot Wheels trade into a living, but a lot of people make a few bucks on the side from their hobby.

Stevenson has sold Hot Wheels to help pay his daughter's college tuition. He also sold some to buy a  car — to drive.

On EBay, and in the stores, Hot Wheels scams have proliferated.

“Scalpers” have been known to make deals with store employees, paying them to set aside or hide choice models in other parts of the store. Store employees have been rumored to sell them out the back door. Some of the cars on EBay have been artfully repainted or otherwise doctored to look like more valuable models.

Among the most coveted are Treasure Hunts — slight variations on new models that are dispersed throughout the cases of new stock. When they first surfaced in 1995, collectors quickly realized that if they could find one and buy it for a buck, they could sell it for $50.

Ultimately, Mattel had to work with retailers to tone down the race among collectors, conceded company spokesperson Sara Rosales, but she declined to give any details. Wal-Mart is said to have created a new policy to limit personnel from getting involved in the trade, but the company declined to comment.

Maintaining the madness
Why Hot Wheels haven't fallen out of favor is some mix of price and marketing genius.

For kids, Hot Wheels are cheap — about a buck a piece for most new models.

Mattel says there are more than 15 million "avid collectors" ages 3 to 10 who own an average of more than 50 cars each.

The company says it does all its product testing with kids. What it has found, says Rosales, is that cars that mimic the latest trends in real cars do well with this younger set. Now, for instance, the Cadillac Escalade, is popular.

Mattel car also lets its designers go wild, creating fantastical vehicles that seem to have particular appeal for kids — cars like the low-slung, rocket-like "Fast Fuse."

But Mattel is clearly not ignoring the passion of older collectors or their deep pockets. A new line of classic Hot Wheels selling for about $14 each includes favorites like the '67 Dodge Charger — clearly designed to tap into the nostalgia of guys in their 40s or 50s.

Traffic jam?
Some in the Hot Wheels fraternity are becoming concerned that Mattel is flooding the market.

In 1989, says Dave Williamson, a hobbyist-turned-dealer who lives in Vancouver, Wash., Mattel produced a catalogue of all its models — 559 to that point. "They make that many every year now," says Williamson, who runs Toycarcollector.com, a site for buying and selling older Hot Wheels and other die-cast cars. "Then, to make them more collectible, they make a new model, then paint it several different colors, put on new wheels, a new stripe."

With spiraling production of limited edition cars, even a "Treasure Hunt" is not as great a treasure any more. Nowadays, finding one is worth about $10, compared with about $50 for those found in the 1990s.

Some collectors are starting to shun new cars, or specializing in specific kinds of cars — say trucks, NASCAR models or Volkswagens. But some people still walk out of the Wal-Mart with armloads of Hot Wheels, trying to get them all.

"Mattel could put a turd on wheels and people would buy it," says Williamson.

But, he says, in most cases a basement full of toy cars doesn't spell profit.

"People imagine that they are making money," he says. "And they get to feel that way until it comes time to get rid of (the cars)."

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