Little Big Things (Part 1)

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It’s two minutes to midnight and the flop sweat anxiety is at its peak. Our embattled collector – let’s call him Chet – having worn out the carpeting pacing back and forth in front of his computer now takes his seat, focused, muscles tense, eyes glued to the second-by-second countdown of the auction clock and gets ready to click. Chet knows full well the nature of his competition, the bidder from Ohio, Diamond Jack, who always waits until less than thirty seconds remains on the bid clock before upping the ante by a thousand bucks and walking away with it.

But Chet really wants this car. He’s done his research, he knows the book price and he knows it’s going to go high, guaranteed over book, because there’s a buzz on it. The number of people watching this car and bidding on it all week tells him so. He knows that Diamond Jack knows, too. Chet is ready for Diamond Jack’s famous last second ploy. He’s prepared. He’s got the cash. But only just.

Walking away with it. Walking away with what? A mint, honey-gold Charger. Or a carded ice-blue Nitty Gritty Kitty. Or perhaps the Holy Grail: a Hot Pink Rear-Loader Beach Bomb. For seventy-thousand dollars, no shit. When Chet first got himself into this hobby he couldn’t believe some of the prices, not just the hundreds of dollars but the thousands and even the tens of thousands. It seemed crazy at first – who in hell would pay that kind of money? But the money only upped the intrigue for him. It only enhanced the attraction. Fueled the vibe. He was hooked almost from the first moment.

Beach Bomb? Not this time. On the block tonight is a Heavy Chevy. Yellow with dark interior. 1974. Collectors are iffy about the “tampo” cars with their enamel paint. And it’s the green version that’s rare, anyway, worth perhaps four times the yellow. Hence, an auction for a car like this can get heated or just die on the vine. But this car is clearly “mint.” And from a “top rated plus” seller, a dude who takes good photographs, doesn’t try to hide flaws, posts honest descriptions. Ships fast too, in good packaging and, like any pro, he takes returns. All of which means this Heavy Chevy is ripe, authentic, a good bet. Chet knows the time is now for this car. All the auctions he’s been following, all the painstaking research, all the patience, all his keen attachment to this casting in this color – it just does something to him when he looks at it, jazzes him, makes him feel good, makes the world a better place. He wants this car. He’s gotta have this car.

Bidding kicked off at a token one-hundred dollars last week and all the wannabes have by now shown their hands. The days drifted by and the price inched up, ten bucks here, fifty bucks there, clueless amateurs thinking their bids matter. If they’re serious they’ll learn fast. If not, if they’re just sentimental dabblers looking to revisit their pleasant youth, to recapture a trinket and a fond memory, well, they’ll learn, too, and fall by the wayside, never to be heard from again.

Meanwhile the real players, the bid masters, lay in wait, pokerfaced in terms of their auction presence. That’s what’s crazy about online auctions: the unknown. The watching and the waiting – the scheming – that you can’t see, that you don’t know, can’t know anything about until bam! – it’s over. And you’ve lost. Or overbid and feel like an idiot and hate the car when it arrives because you’re a fool and doomed to lose two hundred on reselling it. Yes, the bid  masters have been lying in wait the whole week. Waiting until tonight. Just like Chet. Until the last hour when a few of them lost their nerve and pounced too early, driving the bidding well past the book value. And right up against our man Chet’s absolute maximum budget. Fuckers. Dumb asses. Now the auction is heated, dammit.

Fuck it, he tells himself. I’ll sell the Roger Dodger to help cover the extra, it’s flea bit[1] anyway. And I paid too much for it because I was a newbie, I got burned. Not this time. This is a great car and everybody knows it. This time I know what I’m doing. Hell, I’ll goddamn work some overtime if I have to. I gotta have this car. Thirty seconds left….

A wave of doubt assails him. What the fuck? Where’s Diamond Jack? Does he know something about this car that I don’t? Is he laughing at all of us, at me as soon as I bid the $550? Or is he asleep, blowing this auction off because he knows this car isn’t worth it, that this auction is a joke? Tick, tick, tick. No, I’m in. Fifteen seconds left and that fucker Diamond Jack is out there, I know it, he’s going to bid with five seconds left just like he always does. This car is perfect, it’s a cool casting, fuck it, I’m going $650 and Diamond Jack can feel what it’s like to get shit stabbed….

So-called Redlines are the most desirable collectable toy cars on the planet. Sought after, bid on, invested in, mythologized, these particular Hot Wheels were manufactured by Mattel from 1968 to 1977, the product’s first ten years of production. The term “redline” refers to the red stripe on their tires which mimicked various so-called muscle cars of the era.[2]

Mattel, by the way, established in California in 1945 and named after its founders Harold “Matt” Matson and Elliot Handler (Matt-El), initially sold picture frames, then dollhouse furniture.[3] They produced their first hit toy, a ukulele, in 1947 and thereafter created many successful toys including their best-selling and perhaps most famous, the Barbie Doll in 1959.[4] Hot Wheels, with die-cast car bodies and springy, responsive wheels with bearings designed by an ex-missile designer at Raytheon, Jack Ryan,[5] were a smash hit – “the fastest toy car in production!” read their advertising – and today, with more four billion or so Hot Wheels having been manufactured, (more than the number of real cars in the world) and with new models costing, remarkably enough, virtually the same as they did in 1968 – namely, a dollar or so – there are collectors of all ages, including adults with massive collections of 30,000 cars, or exhibiting almost every known redline, say.[6] The average adult collector is said to own 1,550 cars and children between the ages of five and fifteen an average of forty-one.[7] There is even a so-called cottage industry of Hot Wheels customizers, folks who utilize Dremel tools, welders, air brushes and custom wheels and tires to transform the original toys into ever more outrageous expressions of the casting’s initial outrageousness.

The point is, Hot Wheels may still be sold as toys and collected as such mostly by kids, but there exists a significant culture – and it is a culture – of serious, even speculative adult collectors who are even now driving the collecting hobby, especially that of redlines, into fairly rarified airs where a mint-condition car in a rare casting and color can routinely fetch $500 to $1,000 at online auction. The Hot Wheelers even have an annual collector’s convention, collector’s newsletters and published pricing guides. And, over the years, Mattel has variously manufactured and promoted cars aimed in advance at the adult collector market – numbered series, for example, and limited-edition models known as “treasure hunts” that disappear from retail racks and bins or straight from the shipping boxes by way of clandestine production run and store distribution research endeavored by the most intrepidly devoted aficionados of the rare and difficult to attain.

[1] “Flea-bit”: a collector’s term for beat-up cars with paint nicks.

[2] onlineredlineguide.com, retrieved 9.12.2017.

[3] wikipedia.org, “mattel,” retrieved 9.12.2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aaron Miller, “16 Things You Didn’t Know about Hot Wheels,” thrillist.com, 1.8.2015.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Wikipedia.com, “Hot Wheels.”

Don’t miss the next installment, “Little Big Things (Part 2),” right here on carnegieolson.com….