At 7:40 a.m. this past January 6, I was in my truck in the Handlebar Coffee parking lot in Santa Barbara, California, mesmerized by the eBay app on my iPad Mini. The Hot Wheels Custom Camaro I had placed up for auction was far exceeding my expectations. The bidding started at $37 and passed $200 going into the last minute of the weeklong auction. Already two watchers had told me that the die-cast metal Camaro, sized to fit in a child’s open palm, was special. Worth much more than I was expecting.
This story originally appeared in Volume 11 of Road & Track.
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With nine seconds left, a bid came in at $252.50. The price quickly bumped to $1002.50. Then it rocketed to $6666.66 with less than five seconds to go. But an earlier, lurking larger offer was already in, and eBay’s bot automatically knocked the price up to $6766.66 as time ran out. I had just sold a tiny toy car that I had owned since 1971, when it was given to me at age 10, for close to seven grand. Plus $7.50 for shipping.
Astoundingly, the high bidder paid almost immediately, and eBay took $850.16 as its 12.55 percent cut and another 30 cents as a “final value fee.” My total net was $5923.70. The buyer, Brandon Nielsen of Ogden, Utah, paid $5292.07 per ounce of the blue Camaro’s weight. Consider that, at press time, the price of gold is $1932.50 per ounce. At $5292.07 per ounce, a new Honda Civic Si would carry an MSRP of $251 million.
“My bid was $7777.77,” Nielsen later explained. “I didn’t think it would get near that. But I wasn’t going to lose. And the guy who bid $6666.66 likely didn’t think he could possibly lose either.”
Hot Wheels were my refuge. I didn’t have many friends as a child; I have always been socially awkward and can be relied upon to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I didn’t smash my Hot Wheels or display them. I accumulated and cherished them. When I was down, I’d buy a car. Feeling up? Same thing. Retail therapy, die-cast comfort. And I kept doing it for 53 years.
“A toy usually has like three years,” explains Larry Wood, a Hot Wheels designer for more than 40 years. “Then it’s over. Time to make a new toy. We thought Hot Wheels were done, and then the 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 any number of reasons why people collect things—to connect with their childhood, to bring order to the chaos of their lives, to escape. The first generation of youngsters Mattel pummeled with Hot Wheels ads is hitting empty-nest prosperity right now. It was the right time to sell off my 7000-car stash. I sold a couple of storage bins’ worth of cars, maybe 600, to a shop in Phoenix for almost $2000.
But the car that brought the bucks, that Camaro, was given to me by my fifth-grade teacher. Mr. Marr had a closet filled with 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 the Mustang were “Over Chrome” cars—early production cars manufactured in Hong Kong that were chrome plated before being painted so they’d show up well in advertising photos. Not many were made, and no more than a few dozen are known to survive. How they got into Mr. Marr’s hands is a mystery.
Mr. Marr let my friends Tim Talkington and Peter Toms and me publish a mimeographed newspaper for the class that year, but I never felt much of a personal connection with him. Then, three years later, a letter I wrote defending the United Nations (I was that kind of eighth-grader) appeared in the Santa Barbara News-Press. Mr. Marr wrote me a kind note then saying that maybe he had underestimated me. It was a nice gift to my ego.
When Charles Marr died some years ago, Hot Wheels collector Anita Smith acquired his cache of Hot Wheels, including three Over Chrome cars. Many of the known Over Chromes trace back to Mr. Marr’s closet at 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 youthful reverence until a few months ago, when my adult ego realized my childlike id was hoarding some significant value.
The first thing I ever published was that newspaper in Mr. Marr’s class. And I’m still a writer. I can always use more cash.
The money from my Over Chrome Camaro and Mustang, which was in ratty shape and went for about $3000, helped pay a term’s tuition for my son, Jack, at Carleton College.
My Hot Wheels were always an escape. And now they’ve become a more significant blessing. Charles Marr, a man I hardly thought about for 50 years, set me up for my career in significant ways. And my kids are benefiting from his gift all those years ago. Sometimes the best escape is appreciating a thing you’ve taken for granted.