Die-Cast COAL: A Report From The Desktop Motor Pool

The on-going pandemic-inspired shift to working from a home office has had a variety of impacts upon my work environment. In my “real” office, a small space in a nearby town, I felt some need to maintain a presence that was inviting to clients and whoever else might periodically need to come co-work with me. That meant keeping the number of toys (other than my extensive collection of antique computers, which is a whole other story) to a minimum. On the other hand, no such restrictions exist in my at-home office.

This has been a mixed blessing.

Mixed, since on one hand I miss the home/work separation that having an external office provided; but on the other hand being at home means that I get to work surrounded by my collection of toys. It helps when many of those toys are die-cast model cars. Nothing helps pass the time during a grinding Zoom meeting than playing valet in your own desktop used car lot. Or organizing the weekly tiny desk auto show. As long as one can keep a lid on the Zoom-Zoom noises, no one’s the wiser.

It seems to have been a little while since we’ve had a whole article devoted to one’s die-cast desktop fleet. Still, the periodic articles on classic die-cast models – such as Jason’s excellent review of his memorable collection, or a discussion of special edition Hot Wheels – indicates that I am far from alone among CC readers in having a life-long addiction to tiny vehicles. Welcome then to the part of my personal motor pool that I’m – thankfully for now – too large to fit into.

I’ve been an enthusiastic collector of 1:64 (or there-about) models since I entered grade school.

This (yes, this very pictured) “Aveling-Barford Tractor Shovel” from the 1966 Matchbox catalog – #43 – is one of my originals and it has survived being buried in the 1st grade sandbox and a particularly traumatic theft by some (now nameless) peer in Roanoke, VA.

My mom insisted that I go confront the thief – and involve school administration – to get the Aveling-Barford back. It was quite the incident as I recall and probably resulted in said peer ultimately getting a righteous walloping by parents and/or teachers. None of which made me any the more popular in 1st grade. That was an uphill climb and fortunately we moved out of state shortly thereafter, but I got the Matchbox back. And so there you have it. Or there I have it. Over 50 years later.

We kids scribbled on catalogs back then…as if we didn’t care that these would be collectors’ items half a century later. Sheesh.

Let’s just say that I was very serious about my die-cast collection even back then. But that’s not really what this article is about. Rather, this is mostly about my current collection…which just so happens to include all of the models that I had in 1966. And then some.

Before moving on to the newer cars, here are a few more examples of the vehicles that really excited me back then. The working vehicles.

#15 (from the 1966 catalog) “Refuse Truck” was, and is, a constant favorite. There’s something about the term “Cleansing Service” that’s just so satisfying, even to this day. Nowadays, the paint is sufficiently fragile that I want to be very careful with this model. Yes, I know that restoration is possible, but I am neither as talented nor as dedicated as Paul Restorer (34 THOUSAND subscribers). Plus, I kind of like the patina. I know where it came from.

Likewise, “Ford Refuse Truck” – #7 in the 1969 catalog – is particularly well-loved. It has the added feature of having a sliding, working rear half. So many of the Matchboxes from those days have features such as moving parts, little sets of pipes, stretchers, gates, etc.. I loved that stuff…all before it was decided that such tiny parts would be consumed by children and were therefore no longer permissible.

I’m sure that if any child took it upon themself to try to eat the barrels from my tractor and trailer (#50 and 51, 1966 catalog),

or the cows from my #37 Cattle Truck (1972 catalog), my mom would have insisted that I accompany the miscreant to the ER, await the forced expulsion of the barrel/cow/etc., and then report back as to the righteous walloping that said child would have subsequently received from teacher and/or parent (preferably both). The idea of any party taking legal action against Matchbox wouldn’t have been in the realm of imagined possibilities.

It should be quite clear that my limited perspective is due to the fact that a) I did not have many friends who played with my stuff and therefore tried to ingest it or b) I was really pretty good about threatening peers about the consequences of ingesting my toys. I’ll leave you to guess which.

My die-casts didn’t all have to have detachable parts in order to be favored. For example, “Wreck Truck” #13 in the 1966 catalog, has always been a hard-working favorite. Here we can see that it’s providing what is I’m sure much-needed roadside assistance to this more recently acquired 2004 RS6 Avant.

I wouldn’t want to be at the tiny little BP station when the Audi’s lilliputian owner shows up and discovers that he got a 2 wheel tow for his expensive AWD wagon.

Comparing those two models – the 1966 truck with the 2006 Audi – illustrates one way that the Matchbox/Hot Wheels line has changed over the 40 years in between.

The wrecker model isn’t actually identified as to what it was based upon (it’s a Dodge, although I’ll have to leave it to the experts here to be more specific). The Audi is very specific as to year and model. It seems from reviewing the 1966 catalog that relatively few vehicles back then were provided with specifics beyond maybe manufacturer. So we have “Taxi-cab” (#20…from the illustration, I am guessing it’s some kind of GM) along with Mercedes 230SL (#27). I suppose that this has something to do with getting (or not) the rights for certain and specific models. But then again, we also have Pontiac Grand Prix (#22)…which looks like a 2-door, non-yellow, version of the not-specific-to-manufacturer taxi cab.  It’s just always been curious to me as to why certain models are fully identified whereas others are left generic.

While the working vehicles, all of the trucks and heavy equipment, and anything with detachable pieces were my favorites, I did eventually shift my attention to cars. The advent of Superfast in the early 1970s definitely pushed me in that direction.

Starting in the early ‘70s, I began to acquire more and more cars. Among my favorites here were the Lamborghini Marzal (#20) and the Iso Grifo (#14). I recall finding out that the Iso Grifo was produced by a company that had its roots in the manufacture of Italian refrigerators. I’m not sure how I managed to figure that out in a pre-Google world, but I did, and it was a fact that 12-year-old me loved to employ to bore the crap out of anyone who would listen to me (you could count that number on one hand and have fingers left over) in 1972.

As much as I loved the Iso Grifo, I loved the Marzal more. So much that I had (have) two.

Clearly one was played with considerably more than the other, hence the more worn finish. I should note that this means that I had one more Marzal than in fact ever existed in the real world. Although neither of mine was sat in by Grace Kelly, so I imagine that they’re a lot less valuable than the actual car.

And so when I say “play”, what I really meant at the time was “raced”.


Yeah, I have that one too. The car in the illustration.

OK, I couldn’t resist showing it with the closely-related Citroen CX Safari…which has a detachable boat.

BMC 1800 Pininfarina. #56. Another never-produced, yet still real, car. The actual car never made it past the prototype design phase in 1967. The Matchbox model though ran from at least 1969 through 1972. For whatever reason, mine was never a particularly strong performer on the jumps. This would be an early lesson on the difference between the performance claims in ads – or on boxes in this case — versus real life.

I had a lot of boxes of Superfast track, and this bears some explaining. Sometime around 1972 or 3, my mom discovered a local Maryland department store – at this point I cannot recall which one – that was going out of business and slowly liquidating its toy department. The low-low closeout prices offered spurred my mom to purchase multiple sets of Matchbox Superfast track.

The catalog/insert from one of my many boxes of the stuff indicates that there were five basic sets (SF-1 through SF-5) that were differentiated by increasing complexity and their number of components. SF-1 started with a rather sad single strip of track. SF-5 got you what you see above. 180 curves, starting gate, etc.

If there was one thing you could say about Mom (and there are lots of things you could say about Mom, but that’s another story as well) it’s that she was definitely what we would now call a “completist”.

We kids didn’t have much for toys, but if what we did have happened to be produced in sets or collections, we generally had to have them all. She made sure of that to the best of her ability…and when that ability was facilitated by a liquidation sale, we definitely scored. In absence of wholesale discounts, nearly everything we might want was deemed “too expensive” and thus we didn’t get it or had to scrimp, beg, and save for it on our own (i.e., how I got the actual die-cast vehicles). Once she latched onto collecting something, Mom’s logic was that if one couldn’t collect the whole set, there was not much point in even starting by buying just one small part. Right… So it was either all or nothing, most often nothing. But when the switch got flicked to “all”, as they say, Katy bar the door. Anyway, Mom became for a brief and shining moment what I am sure was the DC-area’s leading collector of Matchbox Superfast track sets and accessories. For her, the objective was to buy one of everything, and then several of some just for good measure. Not that she played with it. Rather, it was just sort of an OCD-by-proxy thing. Hence my comprehensive collection of Superfast track sets. Well, in this case I guess I benefitted.

There were times during the traumatic years of moving from Maryland and winding up in North Carolina where I think the only thing I had for entertainment was to spend my days setting up the Superfast race tracks (combining the sets, of course) to run increasingly complicated gravity-fed competitions with my sister.

Of course, my sister had nothing to do or play with either since the family’s toy budget was entirely invested in Matchbox track at the time. So she was my foil/foe/opponent in all die-cast races. In my family, “toy” was something that the children – male, female, whatever – played with. Together. Because it was there. So there weren’t my toys or my sister’s toys…there were simply “toys”. We sucked it up and shared, and if you didn’t like that you could go outside and find some rocks to play with. Or feed squirrels. Whatever. So long as it didn’t cost my parents money it didn’t really matter to them.

A year or so later, when some Raleigh retailer liquidated its toy department, Mom fell into a giant trove of some sort of off-brand Barbie stuff. Another completist project ensued (the hundreds of “outfits” available for those things became all-consuming and dwarfed the Superfast obsession of only a few years earlier), and Superfast was left hanging so far as an object of obsession and something that my sister wanted to play with along side of me. But that’s ok. I had no interest in whatever these dolls were (not that there is anything wrong with that) and anyway I was getting a bit old for playing zoom-zoom with my little sister. I was moving into darkroom photography and using those skills to make money and buy my own toys (all of which related to cameras and darkroom gear).

Oh, and since I know it will come up, how come I didn’t have the ubiquitous orange Hot Wheels track? I’d become familiar with that early on at a friend’s house in 2nd grade. This was the same friend (whose parents were also weird…although in their case because they were Soviet exiles) who introduced me that Fall to this new TV program called “Sesame Street”. Or maybe I introduced him. I can’t remember, because…2nd grade. At any rate, we’d go to his house after school and race cars on his Hot Wheels track and watch TV.  Ultimately we discovered a show called What’s New — a sort of late 1960s public television version of Mr. Wizard that came on right after Sesame Street.  It’s this show (and its theme song) which sticks in my head when I recall after-school racing because frankly at age 8 we’d pretty much mastered the counting and alphabet stuff and without a doubt it was more fun watching a show where the host periodically blew things up than it was watching….puppets.

Sorry Bert and Ernie.

Therefore, I knew Hot Wheels. But I also knew that for the most part back then, Hot Wheels weren’t even attempting to replicate actual production, or even potentially production, vehicles.  My allegiances were with Matchbox and the realistic (although sometimes maddeningly non-specific) models.

I just could never get with the giant exposed engines.

Although I will grant that the paint jobs were quite something. So yeah, I have a handful of the famous 70s Hot Wheels which may or may not be worth money. I honestly don’t know and really don’t care. I don’t plan on selling them.

Part of the mostly-Matchbox VW collection.  For some reason, all of the Hot Wheels VWs are terribly off-scale.

Nowadays I sometimes even mix them up a little. Mixing a little fiction in with the truth.

Beach Bomb is not entirely possible as a real vehicle – particularly not the side-loading version that I have – but those surfboards are removable parts, so I’ll give it a pass.

Likewise, I give the Hot Wheels Hulk-logoed “Spoiler Sport” and the Vette-Van credit just because they’re cool. The Vette-Van looks like something that almost would have been made by a customizer at some point in time.

But I’ve digressed. Sorry.

Bringing this whole discussion up to the present day, nowadays – since Mattel operates both Hot Wheels and Matchbox (Oh, the HORROR!!!!) there’s relatively little difference between the two lines. Both have their share of realistic as well as “fantasy” cars.

This Hot Wheels ‘68 Dart is not quite accurate, but it is close enough that it sometimes shares parking lot space with my more-realistic modern Matchboxes.

Such as this set of dog-tastic ’71 Vista Cruisers.  Although they’re both itching for just a tiny little dab of red paint so that the tail lights actually look like tail lights.  That would of course be my opinion, not Mattel’s.

Naturally, my fleet is heavily weighted toward wagons.


A nice old Fairlane and a MB wagon.

The Mercedes seems to be transporting doughnuts. Maybe it’s been converted to biodiesel and the doughnuts are a gift from the fryolator owner where they most recently tanked up.

The Matchbox Mercury Commuter is an odd duck since the Matchbox version apparently lasted longer than the actual car. I have the 1972 version of the model, but Mercury discontinued the Commuter in 1968. Also, for some unknown reason Matchbox felt the need to put a ginormous graphic of a cow on the hood.

I’m not sure how many actual Commuter owners opted for the cow-graphic. My guess is not many. But should I ever obtain a last year made (1968) Commuter, I will definitely add the cow-graphic as a Matchbox tribute.

And finally, my current fleet has been augmented with a number of vintage BMWs. This illustrates a rather cool feature of the current Matchbox/Hot Wheels offerings, and that’s the fact that if you keep checking you can often find releases in a variety of colors. Naturally, I have to get the new colors as they emerge. Hence three 2002tii’s and three Volvo 850’s. The collection will grow as new colors become available. What is that saying about apples and trees?

This addiction to gathering all of the colors, and all of the cool wagons, and so on is abetted by the fact that I don’t have to go far out of my way to buy these things. Mattel has figured out that selling Matchboxes and Hot Wheels in grocery stores is a sure-fire way of moving models. In my local stores (and it seems that all of the big chains do this), there are Matchbox and Hot Wheels on the end caps of at least four aisles plus a row of cars for sale hanging above the candy on every other check out lane. Surely these are there to capture the attention of shopping cart-riding kiddos; but I have to say that most of the time it’s the adults who I see pulling through the rows of hanging blister packs. At 99 cents a car (that seems to be the going grocery store price), it has become incredibly easy to pick up whatever strikes my fancy during each week’s shopping trip, since going to the grocery store is the one constant in my life since March 2020.

As the work from home thing continues and as easy access to new models from the grocery store causes my die-cast collection to grow by the month, my thoughts sometimes return to racing these things. After all, I do still have all of that Superfast track. Unfortunately what I don’t have is the room to set it all up.

Of course, due to the fact that there’s not an idea under the sun that hasn’t found its way to exploitation and commercialization on the Internet, the planet has multiple YouTube channels devoted entirely to die-cast car racing. Subsequently, I don’t have to go to all of the trouble of setting up my own raceway. Instead, I can spend my time watching other people do what I might could really do myself…and help them as well get rich from the concept abetted by my own laziness.  It’s a wonderful world in which we live.

One of the most prolific of these die-cast racing channels is that offered by 3Dbotmaker. This fellow truly has nailed the color commentary for a real race announcer and runs a race series that allow viewers to send in cars to compete.  I totally love how he treats entirely ridiculous scenarios – such as the fact (something we all learned as 8 year olds) that half of the cars on a die-cast race end up turning turtle and stalling on the track — as totally normal and as if these events were part of “real” racing . It’s a deceptively simple concept, but given the apparent amount of work and talent involved (he has videos showing how he builds up his sets, created his track layout, etc.) I can’t begrudge him making enough money from YouTube to create what is probably a pretty decent living. A pretty decent living playing with die-cast model cars. Arrrrrggghhhhh.

Still, I have to admit that I’d love to run some of my own races where I could match up odd rivals such as my original Superfast Miura against this 2009 Prius. In the world of die-cast, we may just discover the fastest Prius on the planet.

And who wouldn’t want to run the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile against pretty much anything? This ’75 Caprice will do.

That race might need the services of both the 1963 Cadillac Ambulance and the “Poop King” (a truck of no specific model, but yes, the little porta johns/choking hazards do detach). Believe me, these are the scenarios that are developed daily here in the home-office motor pool. Where expansion is only a trip to the grocery store away.