Die Cast Insider - March 1999
© 1999 Paul M. Provencher
|Down the Road
Every once in a while, we need to stop and take stock of the hobby and where it is going. To borrow a phrase, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Never before have we had so many choices. But at the same time we have never had so many people competing for the same stock. I consider it a good problem, to have trouble deciding what to buy because there are so many great things to choose from. I consider it a bad thing to hope that I can find this item or that before the flea market "dealer" corners the market and holds them ransom for ridiculous amounts.
It's a good thing that so many things are available from various sources on the Internet. I have been an active user of the Internet for five years. In that time I have probably traded, sold and bought as many die cast vehicles "online" as I have in stores. Because of my cautious nature, my ability to recognize the deals that are "too good to be true" or maybe because of blind dumb luck, I have yet to be scammed or ripped off. And conversely I would like to think that I have treated people the way I like to be treated. But still, I have born witness to a few instances of deals gone badly online. Mostly it is people using bad judgement or not communicating effectively. And then there is the online auction...
If you ask people who use the Internet to stay in touch with die cast collecting, what they think of the online auction, you will get a mixture of answers. You will find a group of people that trade amongst themselves and essentially use no money. These folks generally abhor the auctions. That's because prices run high for items that can be found for a small fraction of the cost. These folks feel that the auction helps to artificially inflate prices of die cast on the secondary market. And they might be right. New collectors see the asking prices (meaningless in my opinion) and later the actual selling prices, and begin to think that maybe this stuff is "worth something" now! So out they go to reap the harvest. To make a long story short, they may end up holding the bag - full of last weeks hot die cast that is now old news. These folks will learn their lesson one way or another. They will either become more cautious collectors, or (unfortunately) better speculators.
The other group of people on the web, those that like the online auctions are a mixed bunch. Of course you have the scalpers - they are the mercenaries of the hobby. Places like ebay have provided them with a new crop of customers who have a need for instant gratification and a credit line to match. But there are also a lot of people who selling there that have really great stuff. Old collectibles that really are what the hobby was once all about. There are people who have new stuff that is hard to get, but not because of scalpers, but rather because it was sold in some offbeat way, like promotions or trade-show give-aways, or legitimate dealer-only distribution. And there are people like me who sell a little bit, and buy even less. But there are deals to be had if you keep your wits and know what you're willing to pay. And if one let's the need to be first on the block override good judgement and patience, items can be bought at incredible premiums, only to surface in the weeks or months that follow at regular retail outlets for earthly prices. My advice for buying new, so-called collectibles online is to be VERY well informed about what is truly hard to get, and be patient for the scalpers to lose interest in new items, and keep shopping retail stores - most stuff eventually shows up.
As for what I see being worth buying now if future value is a consideration? I can just about guarantee that the mass-produced, hyped, instant "collectibles" are rarely, if ever going to appreciate significantly. On the other hand, there are all kinds of die cast out there that are quietly coming and going that will definitely be "worth something someday". For example, Limited Edition and Special Editions in the Mattel Hot Wheels line will now be run in much higher numbers than previously, with the minimum order raised from 5000-10,000 pieces, to 25,000. I believe that the last few items made before this change in policy (several of the J.C. Whitney specials) will be great items to hang on to for a few years. Also, along the same lines, several cars made by Mattel in both the Hot Wheels and Matchbox lines for use in multi-car packs and play sets will be worthy additions to serious collections due to their relatively short runs and potentially low survival potential (kids will get most of them).
I find it encouraging that there continue to be more models available for the adult collector. They are designed to depict real cars, have authentic details, and sufficient variety to keep long-term collectors interested. I have always been far more interested in historically accurate models than wild outrageous hot rods and dream machines. These days the stores are awash with what I like. Even Johnny Lightning succumbed last year and produced a James Bond 007 series of cars. I had a conversation with Thomas Lowe (online) and got the distinct impression that we would never see a European car in the Johnny Lightning line. Tom prefers American cars. But here are an Aston Martin DB5, Sunbeam Tiger, Toyota 2000GT, Lotus Esprits, and in the Evel Knevel line, nothing less than an Aston Martin Lagonda. The latter is a car so unusual that I doubt that many people in the USA will even know what it is!
Another change to watch for in this hobby is the tendency for longtime collectors to concentrate more on "blue-chip" collectibles and less on instant collectibles. I have had conversations with several collectors who have become bored with chasing each new release. Some have sold collections of recently manufactured items and started spending the money on old pieces - early Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Johnny Lightning, Schuco, Tekno, Sommerville, Dinky, Corgi, etc. They end up with a much smaller but much more solid collection of vehicles that are much harder to find in good condition at any price. In parallel with this shift will come the sell-off of collections amassed in a short period of time by new collectors who lose interest in collecting die cast. In some cases these collections will be great bargains, in other cases, a break-even proposition for the seller at best. In rare cases, there might be a small windfall, but none so large as to finance much more than one semester's college books.
Manufacturers seem to be widening the range of subjects. It used to be that we had stock contemporary vehicles, hot rods, tractors, and most of these the popular vehicles known by one and all. 1957 Chevy lovers, VW Bug aficionados, Porsche cognoscenti have never had much trouble finding a model to match the car of their dreams (or the one in the garage). But now we have castings of milk trucks, a broader range of classic cars, great tractors and farm equipment, racecars and vintage vehicles of every persuasion.
I worried over what vehicle to write about this month. Just when I thought I would have to go into the dungeon and fish around for something, a package appeared on my step. I am still like a kid when it comes to boxes in the mail. But the best part of this delivery was opening the package and seeing the contents. This has to be one of the nicest large-scale die cast vehicles I have seen in ages. It is the Ertl American Muscle Classics, 1935 Auburn Supercharged 851 Speedster.
Gordon Buerig and his staff designed it in just two weeks, borrowing from the 1933 design. About 600 of these cars were built for the two year run, ending in 1936. Most cars did not survive for various reasons, making genuine survivors rare and valuable. When new, they sold for about $2,200. (Put into perspective, a 1935 Ford V8 cost around $400 if memory serves me correctly) Recent auction sales show that good examples fetch over $100,000.00. As I have mentioned before, reproductions are made on modern chassis, but are worth significantly less. Auburns are Classics, according to the Classic Car Club of America. (By the way, Mustangs are not.)
This model excels in a number of areas. Most notably, the engine covering is hinged in two places, in the same way that the real cars are. It opens to reveal a highly detailed Lycoming straight-eight cylinder engine, complete with supercharger, wiring and plumbing. The Cord's centrifugal supercharger is driven by bevel gears from the camshaft. The top-mounted exhaust manifold leads to the outside pipes. The colors on the engine are reasonably accurate. It should be noted that the "piano hinge" that supports the top two sections of the hood is bare metal where it shows and painted red inside - nice touch.
Another outstanding feature is the fact that the headlights are very nicely assembled using clear plastic lenses and chrome "buckets". Unlike other Ertl models, the headlights do NOT have a little pin in the center to hold them in place. This makes for a very realistic looking headlight.
There are several markings on the car. The sides of the hood feature the "SUPER-CHARGED" badges. The panel on the rear deck behind the seat has a keyhole. The rear license plate says "District of Columbia, 1935", number 35-851. The taillights are chrome with red painted lenses that say "Auburn" on them. Both sides of the car have fine pin striping running down the body molding from nose to tail.
The details do not stop there. Inside the open car, the dash panel precisely replicates the individual gauges in crisp detail. The machine turned dash in this model is one type of dash found in these cars. Another is the more plain painted metal style. The wiper motors are present and accounted for just as in the real car. The windshield and glass are well done in chrome and clear plastic. The seating is a pleasant surprise. I picked up the model holding it with one finger on the seats and discovered that they were soft! The rest of the interior is nice too. The foot pedals are correct, as are the gear lever and handbrake.
The exterior of the car is sweet. It is painted with shiny red enamel paint. Flawless, really. The front and rear bumpers are chrome, mounted on black "springs" and attached to the body, complete with the rubber "boot" where the two meet, painted in black. The suicide doors open. There are door handles both inside and outside. The door hinges are painted silver. The area below the doors has the chrome plate. The panels behind the doors feature the same chrome mascot as that found on the radiator cap. On the passenger side, a golf club compartment is molded in, but does not open. The door of this compartment has a keyhole printed on it. The rear fenders have chrome splash guards. Sitting atop of the right-rear fender is the gas cap and rubber body molding.
The sides of the hood have pairs of chrome-accented, gray louvers. The classic external exhaust pipes emerge from beneath the hood, pass through or past the fender to the detailed exhaust system underneath the equally detailed chassis. The radiator grill has great detail, and includes the vertical "851" script. The radiator area is flanked at the bottom with two vertical chrome trim accents and centrally mounted "V" symbol below. The radiator mascot is correct, although the space between the body and wings is filled in, most likely because the figure would be too delicate in this scale if done otherwise.
The front wheels steer, moving the steering wheel at the same time. The wire wheels have chrome trim rings. The car sits on wide white-wall tires. The hubcaps have highly detailed, three color "Auburn 8" markings. If you are a Speedster lover, you are going to love this model. Here are some web sites that contain more information about the Auburn:
I took my son Teddy, now 16 months old, "aware" and interested in Hot Wheels, along for a look-see at what KMART had. I guess my normally friendly Hot Wheels lady must have finally had her fill of Hot Wheels "collectors"...
We went to the Hot Wheel section, started perusing the racks and here comes Ms. Friendly. The same women that I usually see, have a friendly chat with while I look and so on. Not today. She starts out nice enough, "Looking for anything special?" Well you know, I always want to blurt out "Treasure Hunts!", but I make do with "Stuff I haven't seen before and don't have." She presses me to be more specific. This is my first clue that something is not quite right today. So I patiently say that I don't know what the names of the cars are, I just know when I find something that I don't have... That seems reasonable enough, right? Maybe not.
She starts complaining up a storm about how I am making a holy mess and she is never gonna get home because she is going to have to "clean up" after me. (I have changed the words to protect the mid-westerners) This took me off guard, especially since I had just started looking, the racks were nearly spotless, and I have countless times squared away this very store after I finished, while we talked. I am not your average "collector".
Anyway, long story shortened, she continues to be so miserable that I mumbled my thanks and Teddy and I just quietly walked around the end of the aisle and looked at the Hot Wheels there. A couple minutes go by and she comes around the corner and starts complaining again. Now keep in mind that the store is gonna be open for at least four more hours, so it's not that I am making her wait for me or anything like that (which I only ever did once, in Canada, but that is another story for another day). So fine, complain away: I am not making a mess, and I am not really even listening. She goes away. Then I turn around and see three Hot Wheels cases (opened) and neatly stacked on a shelf at knee level. So I open the flaps, look down in, see nothing interesting and look into the other two, practically without moving them from their resting-place.
Oh boy, here she comes, around the corner again, raging and coming straight for me. She rips the case I am looking into out from in front of me and goes storming away, reaming my butt for making a "HUGE mess and ruining" her night. I was waiting for the baby to start crying but he was a real trooper and just stared in her general direction. He's gonna be a great card player. So I figured what the? I walked over to her and said "Are you the same person that is usually here?" She says "Yeah, for the last year". So, I just quietly said "Gee, I am surprised - you and I have talked several times, you were always very friendly and helpful and I enjoyed you. What happened? I don't even recognize you tonight." Well I guess maybe I hit the nail on the head, but I got no response - didn't expect one, really. Teddy and I took our Dodge Concept car with the purple interior and went to the check out stand.
What makes people so HOT about these little cars? I will never understand how it turns people into such animals. My guess is that this poor nice lady has been abused by so many so-called "collectors" that she can't muster up the energy it takes to be her normal nice self. But that doesn't mean I have to be nasty. See you in the aisles!
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