Die Cast Insider - April 1999
© 1999 Paul M. Provencher
Ive talked a lot with true, dedicated collectors. The thing that comes up over and over again is the problem that die cast collectors have with kicking "the habit". I have confessed to anyone who will listen how hooked I am. Anyone who comes into my home or office can immediately see that I have gone beyond the casual interest in little cars. You know what I mean. We all know someone who has a couple of 1/18 scale Bburagos on the mantel that depict a car they either own or dream of owning. But nothing else. Thats it. Just those odd few.
I remember those days. All two of them. But I feel good knowing I am not alone. I may have quit smoking its been five months since I had a butt. I feel good about the prospect of staying quit. But dont ask me to quit collecting die cast vehicles. Even if I wanted to, the manufacturers and their psychologists-turned-marketing experts would probably thwart my best attempts. In fact just when I think I might be starting to lose interest, something new shows up to reel me back in. So I started thinking. What has been going on over the past year that keeps the hobby fresh for people like me who could become jaded very easily? What is it that keeps us going back to the stores for more? When I think about it, there are a few things that come to mind, through the haze of my latest purchases.
The last two years have brought us a broad selection of vehicles to choose from. A seemingly endless list of manufactures, all too willing to cast the ready-made miniatures our way like flies to Bass. One thing that has emerged is the diversity that several of the major manufacturers have shown. I was thrilled to find that Racing Champions has a huge selection of 3-inch die cast vehicles that sell for 49 cents each. Yes, you heard right. Forty-nine CENTS. And my first reaction to this was to think that RC had finally gone crazy and started making "Cheap-O" die casts. Well, on one level its true. Forty-nine cents IS cheap. But I will hazard to say that the quality of the vehicles is a far cry from what is available from "no-name" companies for the same price. And RC didn't go crazy.
On "Street Wheels", the wheel axles are strong and true, the bases on some are chromed-plated, hard plastic with the same EXACT level of detail as the more expensive Racing Champions Hot Rods series. That is not to say that it is the same exact casting as the more expensive series. But close examination of the casting and base suggest that RC has used the same master to produce the tooling for this smaller toy. Without going into the technical details about how the tools are made, suffice to say that a larger detailed model is "traced" to produce a smaller prototype that is then used to make the dies and molds used to stamp or form the parts. A significant part of the cost of producing die cast vehicles is the design and development of the vehicle masters and tooling. So it makes sense to reuse them as a way to offer competitively priced products.
RC has protected the difference between these vehicles and their premium Mint and Hot Rod lines by not reusing the same casting but rather making a smaller one derived from the same design work. The resulting vehicles are differentiated further with whimsical paint jobs, fantastical wheel decorations, and child oriented packaging. And judging by the decorations, very little in the way of licensing expenses beyond that paid to the car manufacturers is leaving the company coffer. Lessons learned by other companies are not lost on RC. In addition to singly packaged offerings are the 5 packs, thematic decorations and numbered issues. Sound familiar? But what is nice again, is the price - five cars for three dollars. It works for me. And it is nice to see a value-priced item that has quality that falls somewhere between the premium branded toys and the 25-vehicle "Mega-packs". I will admit that sometimes my criteria for adding a subject to my collection is not very discriminating. For example, I will buy all but the very most badly done VW Bugs, Jaguars, and Volvos. And also 30s Fords, 39 and 40 Fords of any configuration and quite a few other cars that I have attachments to for one reason or another. But even if I set my standards higher, I probably would still find a place for the "Street Wheels".
Would-Be Die Cast
I have long enjoyed Galoob Micro-Machines. I remember the first time I saw the itsy-bitsy caricatures of classic and popular vehicles. It was a chilly evening in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1987. Faced with a boring evening in a hotel room, I opted to explore the shopping center after a long day at a client facility. There they were - little cars and little dioramas. Working doors and hoods and trunks.
I wont spend too much time going into the details of the various cars. But one thing that is easy to see if you take the time to compare several original MM vehicles side by side is that some are more accurate replicas of full sized vehicles than others. And even for a given marque like the 57 Chevy, more than one version was produced. It is clear that true-scale was not always important. But that is not really a criticism. I love them for their quirky looks, and especially for the incredible detail that is present in the paint jobs. I liked them so much that I collected enough UPCs to acquire a free mail-away promo sets of "gold-plated" Corvettes and a complete set of State number plate key rings... I always fan through the Micro-Machines to see if there is anything new.
I should be quick to point out that these atomic wonders have a tenuous claim to die cast-hood in that the base is made of metal and therefore qualifies the whole vehicle. OK, so some of you arent buying this. But hear me out. There is more change afoot; another manufacturer branching off into an area that they have not explored before. In this case, Galoob goes up-market from the traditional line for which they are so well known. There is something new, and it is great. Buy the time this text goes under your eyes, the first series of Micro Machines Collector Edition vehicles may be sold out. Production of most of them is limited to 20,000 (we are going to have to talk about 20,000 of anything being considered "limited" ) and the series commemorates Corvettes. There are a couple other production quantities to note. There is a "Select Edition", produced in quantities of 13,400, and "Rare" class with only 6,700 pieces being made.
I have mixed feelings about Corvettes. I love some of them. I am ambivalent, at best, about many. If I were to buy a real Vette it would be down to a choice between one of the overpowered 63-67 Stingray coupes or the 99 Coupe. My wife is far less flexible. Corvette ownership is about as likely for me as a trip into space on the next Shuttle flight. I probably wouldn't need the space shuttle to visit space if I came home with a real Corvette.
With this Collector Edition, dedicated Corvette lovers will have 20 different examples to add to their collection, counting color variations. Each car comes in an attractive package that shows the contents to good advantage with windowed openings both front and rear. The platform inside is reflective, much like the smaller siblings in the earlier series. The car is displayed at an angle. Wheels are reasonable replicas of the factory mags issued on the full size cars. What strikes me most about these cars are the fine details painted on. Little things like the chrome trim around window openings. The badges, bumpers and grills are equally well highlighted.
The colors chosen are authentic and pleasing. For example, the Mako Shark has the color scheme that then GM design studio chief Bill Mitchell called for when the real car was developed the colors of his stuffed shark head. The story goes that when the paint shop could not paint the car to match the shark, they painted the shark to match the car. I doubt the shark has been repainted for the benefit of this model, but its a good likeness. The entire series feature some sort of "moving part". Many have opening engine bays or removable convertible tops. Rail Road hobbyists who build layouts and buy Herpa, Wiking or Busch HO-scale vehicles will find these to be a less expensive alternative. For about $3.00 you really cant do much better. I hope that its a winner for Galoob, leading to other series. With any luck the speculators will not ruin what has until now been a fun product to collect. Experience suggests otherwise
What about this notion of "Limited Edition"? Is a production run of 20,000 really limited? What about 10,000? And why are more and more of the popular brands increasing the numbers that are produced and still calling the series "Limited"?
First, lets define what a limited edition really is, from a technical standpoint. Understand that it has NOTHING to do at all with quantities. All the term "limited edition" really denotes is that the quantity produced, whatever it may happen to be, is the sum total that will ever be made. Now I guess consumers enter into something of a gentlemans agreement with the manufacturers on this. After all, I have serious doubts that there is a sanctioning body, counting to make sure that only so many are made. And in any case, even if it could be substantially proven that production of a particular item exceeded the advertised quantity (and I am not implying that this ever happens), I doubt that consequential damages could be claimed and proven. So what a manufacturer says by way of calling something a Limited Edition has to be taken in context. This, coupled with the fact that a production run of several thousands, say even ten thousand, may be "limited" in the strictest sense of the word, surely does not necessarily make the item "rare" and valuable.
Consider that, for whatever reason, several 1997 Matchbox Challenge cars were not released in the planned fashion one placed in each of several thousand random cases. Instead, responding to queries from collectors who realized that collector numbers were missing from the series, Mattel released the Challenge cars en masse. That is to say, they raised the price and shipped CASES full of Challenge cars to places like Toys R Us. Now remember that this series of gold metallic cars was produced in quantities of 10,000 per subject. It is generally thought that 10,000 is a reasonably low quantity. That seems like nothing when you apply that number to 1995 Hot Wheels Treasure Hunt vehicles and think about how hard it is to get your hands on one of THOSE.
But even as late as February 1999 (two years after these cars were supposed to be released) there are dozens of Challenge cars just decorating the store shelves. To further emphasize just how generous 10,000 units is consider this: according to the 1997 Toys R Us Annual Report, there were 1141 Toys R Us stores WORLDWIDE. So lets say that each store got an equal share of remaining Matchbox Challenge Cars. That translates to about 9 of each vehicle type per store, worldwide. If we just consider the stores in the USA, that comes out to 14 of each vehicle per store, across the country. Which sounds just about right. I have found scores of Matchbox Challenge cars in each of the many Toys R Us stores that dot the Greater Washington DC Metropolitan area. And what is even more interesting is the fact that no one seems particularly interested in the Challenge Cars. So in this case, 10,000 would seem to be A LOT of toys.
Of course Matchbox do not seem to be as hot as some other brands. I tend to doubt that cases of Hot Wheels Treasure Hunts in quantities of 25,000 per style, two and a half times the quantity of Challenge cars, would lament on the shelves for more than a few hours. So we have it, another demonstration of how supply and demand influences the true meaning of "Limited Edition". Before I leave this topic, consider also the gold plated, 1/24 scale Racing Champions die cast that are in stores, and produced in quantities of 2499. That comes a lot closer to being what I think most people perceive to be a Limited Edition. And what are they doing? Sitting on the shelves mostly. I keep meaning to pick out one that I like and take it home. But I never get around to it. I guess I just dont see how it fits with the rest of my collection, "rare" or not. Sometimes, things are rare for a reason . I will probably live to regret my procrastination.
What does it all mean?
So, if manufacturers are making a wider variety of products and limited editions are pretty accessible, what does that mean to an average collector? Well that depends on how you define "collector". Websters New Universal Unabridged, Deluxe Second Edition 1983 says a collector is "a person or thing that collects; especially one who collects objects of art, rare books, manuscripts, natural history specimens, and the like." I suppose I should probably get the year 2000 edition maybe there would be some of the current popular definitions. If you talk to store workers, they will define collectors differently. Perhaps something like this: "a person who stores or stocks a quantity of anything hidden or kept in reserve." That is, roughly, the definition of a hoarder. People who neither understand a collectors interest nor exploits the commercial potential of these collectibles would probably define a collector as "a person who lacks sound judgement, is perverse and displays compulsive behavior, is unable to learn from past experiences". (That would be the definition, roughly, of a psychopath.)
If you take the traditional definition of what a collector is, I would say that the future is bright. There are plenty of wonderful things to collect. The prices are very competitive. Life is grand. Lets not take that to mean that everything this collector has acquired will realize an increased worth, its weight in gold. Few items bought today will. But in terms of the quality of the collection, a good collector can amass an inventory of really superb die cast vehicles. Things have changed from the days when the choices were limited to a dozen brands that did not have a great deal of detail, few, if any moving parts, materials that would deteriorate just by being in contact with light and air. Most collectors can be confident that if properly displayed, a modern die cast vehicle is going to look just as nice in twenty years as it does today.
Unforeseeable events will conspire to make some unexpected vehicles highly coveted or rare. There is no accurate way to predict that today. But seasoned collectors can look at what has happened in the past and draw some reasonable conclusions from it. The Honus Wagner baseball card is rare and expensive because Honus or his agent decided not to be associated with cigarettes, but not before a few baseball cards had been printed. So basically the ones that were sold before that decision were not supposed to have existed. I bet most collectors of baseball cards at that time did not even know they existed. It was only after a period of time passed that the status of the card became known. So it will be for die cast vehicles. Some day, a select few will discover that they have an unusual piece that is exceptionally valuable. I would bet my entire collection that the item in question would not have a box that says "Limited Edition" on it. It probably wont even HAVE a box. That is not to say that I will stop saving packaging. But I think I made my point. The best thing collectors can do is collect what they like and display the collection to advantage. Boxes in the garage arent much fun.
If you really think that collectors are hoarders, then the distance to "future" would need to be defined for an accurate prediction to be made. At this time, hoarder and scalper "futures" dont look far beyond the next weekend. Most money to be made on die cast collectibles that were new last week is going to be made before the end of next week. Because once the next shipment of new stuff replenishes store supplies, secondary market prices fall. So the hoarder has to keep moving to generate revenue. And they probably have to keep moving to get customers too because new collectors eventually figure out what is going on (the store shelves are empty because the hoarder makes them that way) and learns to wait for the stores to have new stock.
I know that comments like this are going to make a few people upset. New collectors might be upset to realize that just maybe that friendly guy at the flea market with Hot Wheels is really the one responsible for the empty Hot Wheel racks at the retail store. Or maybe the allure of the great stories that speculators tell are so entertaining that folks dont mind paying a serious premium for their new toys. When I think about the people that I see at the toy shows, the only ones that have any staying power are the ones that sell old toys, fewer toys that are mint in package and not so old toys that really are hard to find for the right reasons. NOT the same toys that are in the stores down the street if I wait long enough. And most of them are collectors. Real collectors, not speculators telling silly stories. I always look forward to seeing them again, and discovering what old treasure and genuine curiosities they have to offer.
I have learned roughly how long a speculator lasts in "the business" and can usually time my visit to their table to coincide with the "going out of business" sales. That is not to say that I get prices cheaper than retail. But I do get to buy some things that I might not have been lucky enough to find in the stores, and not pay more than retail. One of the interesting things about these people is that they seldom really learn very much about what they are selling and sometimes do not realize it when they actually do have something worth paying extra for. So in that sense, I guess they can be handy to have around. J
Of course, that leaves the psychopath. That would be me. My future is also quite promising. Because collecting die cast is just crazy enough to keep me entertained for many years to come! I dont really care whether or not my collection is going to be a good return on my investment. I just like little cars, big cars and everything in between. I have this grand vision of someday having a space large enough to display every single vehicle at once. In the meantime, I rotate through my collection and enjoy each car, one at a time.
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© 1999 Paul M. Provencher All Rights Reserved.
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