Miniature CC Capsule: Matchbox Cars – The Gateway Drug

009 - El Camino CC

I don’t care what anyone else says.  Toy cars in 1:64 scale (Matchbox, Johnny Lightning, etc.), or any other scale, for that matter, are not exclusively for kids.  Granted, children are the target demographic for these, and if you spend too much time looking through the Hot Wheels display in the toy section at your neighborhood Walgreens drug store without a kid of your own in tow, you may get some side-eye from other shoppers.  (This has happened.)  But every once in a while, when shopping for shaving cream or garbage bags, I’ll pass an aisle with a display of these – one of which will grab my eye.  This might be because the replica is of the year, make and model of a car I once wanted.  It might be because of an outrageous “paint” scheme I really like.  The reason doesn’t matter.  Matchbox cars are still awesome because I consider them to be my first experience with car “ownership”.

698 - 1956 Buick CC

It bears mentioning (again) that I grew up in the U.S. Rust Belt factory town of Flint, Michigan, which is where the above photograph was staged*.  Cars were very much a part of my existence from the day I was old and tall enough as a kid to look out the windows of our two Plymouths (a ’71 Duster and a ’77 Volaré).  Combined with regular sightings of semis attached to carriers loaded with new cars fresh from Buick City or Fisher One, and also lots of dealerships in the Flint area with flashy neon signs and mid-century modern architecture (Summerfield Chevrolet, Applegate Chevrolet), it was enough to make this kid drink the Kool-Aid that it was cars and the automobile industry that made America great.

056 - Chevrolet Camaro SS CC

Having said all that, I had a killer Matchbox car collection when I was a kid.  Well, actually, when you grow up with two brothers, none of you individually ever owns any of them specifically, regardless of who made the initial purchase.  You all own all of them, collectively, often to your collective chagrin.  I suppose that’s a different tangent for another day, but I guess my point is that I / we had amassed several plastic beach buckets of toy cars in varying condition by the mid-1980’s.  I’d also like to point out that in my parents’ household, all such die-cast cars were colloquially referred to as “Matchbox cars”, regardless of manufacturer.

More painful to step on in the middle of the night than Lincoln Logs, but definitely less painful than Legos (which I guess would be pretty much anything), these cars would often be strewn on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, Peter.  Usually, our favorite activities with them ranged from making them go through the toy car wash our parents had bought us for Christmas, whizzing them on the linoleum tile floor in our entryway foyer, or crashing them into each other.  The crashing probably did less to damage some of these cars than the homemade “Earl Scheib” paint jobs I attempted to give a few of them using Testors model paint.  The Dennis brothers definitely had a bent for destruction, but we only took it so far with our Matchbox cars, some of which were among my favorite toys.

My childhood die-cast car obsession traveled with me overseas in the mid-80’s, when my family visited five different European countries while en route to, and returning from, a year spent in my father’s native Liberia in west Africa.  One of my prized possessions at that time was a silver, Corgi five-door Ford Sierra Ghia I had purchased from a Boots store in London.  I purchased Majorette models of a Citroën CX and a Peugeot 104 while in Paris.  Each of those cars was half beaten to death by the time we returned to the United States, but I still have them in storage somewhere.

1974 Ford Maverick Grabber CC

Fast-forward to my thirties, and I again found myself looking at toy cars when I’d go into the drug store.  Initially, it was to scout out gifts for my young nephews and nieces, to educate them on cars from the old school, ones I grew up with and still loved.  But as the kids in my extended family got older, I found myself actually buying these things for myself.  I think the first time I made such a purchase as an adult, it reminded me a little of the time I bought my first pack of cigarettes the day of my eighteenth birthday.  (“I’d like a box of Marlboros, please.”  “I.D., kid….Thanks.  What kind of Marlboros?”  “I guess, you know…the kind everyone smokes.”  “Reds kings.  Here you go.”)  In both instances, I felt a little naughty.  But I liked it.

Dodge Challenger RT CC

My rediscovery of the fun of Matchbox cars coincided with my reconnection with my love of photography.  This turned into the occasional weekday, lunch-hour project where I’d leave the office and take my trusty Canon point-and-shoot and a die-cast toy outside in Chicago’s Loop and try to make a photograph of the car that made it look as life-sized as possible.  In fact, such trompe-l’œil (French for “trick of the eye”) photo projects turned into some of my most fun experiments up to that point.  I’d find myself out on weekends with a few Matchbox cars in my backpack in addition to the usual items (which almost always included my camera), and if I spotted a cool backdrop, sometimes I’d take out a car and try to get a few shots.

AMC Javelin Bridge CC

When my older brother’s oldest son was big enough, I bought him a selection of four cars from the Seventies – each of which would be easily recognizable to most Gen-X’ers my age.  This included three muscle cars: a ’71 Ford Mustang Mach I, a ’71 Dodge Challenger R/T, a ’70 Chevrolet Camaro – and then also a purple, ’72 AMC Gremlin X with an opening hood.  Just guess which one my nephew liked the best.  “Uncle Joe, was the Gremma-lin a sports car?” I can still hear his then four-year-old voice ask me this question as he fondly held the Gremlin in the palm of his hand, basically ignoring the other three.  That kid is now a teenager, but part of me was so proud of him in that moment for just going with the car he liked the best, not knowing or caring what was considered “cool”.  I’d love it if he ended up owning an actual AMC Gremlin one day.

005 - Vega in the Park CC

The featured photographs are some of my favorites taken with some of my prized drug store finds.  I haven’t added any new, such project photos to my portfolio for several years now, but it’s completely possible this bug may bite me again.  It was these 1:64 (and later, 1:24) scale toy cars like these that gave me my first taste of car ownership, giving me the ability to select a year, make and model of my choice in the color(s) I liked the best.  These things brought me much joy and helped start me down a path of being the car nut I am today.  For the record, I was eventually able to quit smoking, but I remain hooked on the automobile.

All photographs are as taken by the author.  *The 1956 Buick was photographed in Flint, Michigan in front of former General Motors Buick Plant 36, which was then under demolition in August of 2011.  All other photographs were taken in Chicago, Illinois, from various points in 2010.

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