At 7:40 a.m. on January 6, I was in my truck in the parking lot of Handlebar Coffee in Santa Barbara, California, mesmerized by the eBay app on my iPad Mini. The Hot Wheels Custom Camaro I had auctioned far exceeded my expectations. Bidding started at $37 and rose above $200 before the final minute of the week-long auction. Already two observers had told me that the die-cast Camaro, sized to fit in a child’s open palm, was special. Worth much more than I expected.
This story originally appeared in Volume 11 of Road & Track.
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With nine seconds remaining, a bid came in at $252.50. The price quickly reached $1002.50. Then it soared to $6666.66 with less than five seconds to go. But a bigger, hidden earlier offer was already available, and eBay’s bot automatically bumped the price up to $6766.66 over time. I had just sold a small miniature car that I had owned since 1971, when it was given to me at the age of 10, for almost seven thousand dollars. Plus $7.50 for shipping.
Surprisingly, the highest bidder paid almost immediately, and eBay took $850.16 as their 12.55% discount and an additional 30 cents as their “final value commission.” My net total was $5923.70. The buyer, Brandon Nielsen of Ogden, Utah, paid $5292.07 an ounce for the weight of the blue Camaro. Consider that at press time the price of gold is $1932.50 per ounce. At $5292.07 an ounce, a new Honda Civic Si would have an MSRP of $251 million.
“My bid was $7777.77,” Nielsen later explained. “I didn’t think it would come close. But I wasn’t going to lose. And the guy who bet $6666.66 probably didn’t think he could lose either.
Hot Wheels was my refuge. I didn’t have many friends when I was a kid; I’ve always been socially awkward and can be counted on to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I did not smash my Hot Wheels or display them. I have accumulated and cherished them. When I was down there, I was buying a car. Feel? Same thing. Retail therapy, die-cast comfort. And I continued to do so for 53 years.
“A toy is usually about three years old,” says Larry Wood, a Hot Wheels designer for more than 40 years. “So it’s over. It’s time to make a new toy. We thought Hot Wheels were over, and then people who bought them as kids started buying them for their kids. And started collecting. It was adult collectors that kept Hot Wheels going.
There are a number of reasons people collect things – to connect with their childhood, to bring order to the chaos of their lives, to escape. The first generation of youngsters whom Mattel beat with Hot Wheels commercials are now reaching empty nest prosperity. It was the right time to sell my reserve of 7000 cars. I sold the equivalent of a few car storage bins, maybe 600, to a store in Phoenix for almost $2,000.
But the car that made money, this Camaro, was given to me by my fifth grade teacher. Mr. Marr had a closet full of Mattel products in his classroom at Adams Elementary here in Santa Barbara. I never thought he liked me, but I managed to get two cars, the Camaro and a Mustang.
Both the Camaro and Mustang were “Over Chrome” cars – early Hong Kong-made production cars that were chromed before being painted so they would look good in publicity photos. Few were made, and no more than a few dozen are known to survive. How they fell into Mr. Marr’s hands is a mystery.
Mr. Marr let my friends Tim Talkington and Peter Toms and I publish a mimeographed journal for the class that year, but I never felt a personal connection to him. Then, three years later, a letter I wrote in defense of the United Nations (I was that kind of eighth grader) appeared in the Santa Barbara News-Press. Mr. Marr then wrote me a nice note saying that he might have underestimated me. It was a nice gift for my ego.
When Charles Marr passed away a few years ago, Hot Wheels collector Anita Smith acquired his cache of Hot Wheels, including three Over Chrome cars. Most of the known Over Chromes date back to Mr. Marr’s closet at the Adams School.
Kids and adults don’t treat Hot Wheels the same way. For adult collectors, they can be an obsession. But I treated Hot Wheels with a boyish reverence until a few months ago, when my adult ego realized my childish identity was accumulating significant value.
The first thing I published was this journal in Mr. Marr’s class. And I’m still a writer. I can always use more money.
Money from my Camaro and Mustang Over Chrome, which was run down and cost about $3,000, helped pay for my son, Jack’s tuition at Carleton College.
My Hot Wheels have always been an escape. And now they have become a greater blessing. Charles Marr, a man I barely thought about for 50 years, prepared me for my career in a significant way. And my children benefit from his gift all those years ago. Sometimes the best escape is to appreciate something you take for granted.