Monday, April 21, 2014

Budget Car Collecting

We've all seen TV shows and read magazine articles about beautiful car collections. And if you are a car aficionado, I am sure you wish you could afford to own something like that.

Join the club, my friend.

But lacking the necessary financial resources to own a car collection costing millions of dollars, does not mean that all is lost.

Scale models—from die-cast to plastic to tin metal—are an affordable alternative for the car lover, and all you need to start your collection are just a few bucks.

The toy industry keeps producing affordable toys, and that includes all sorts of vehicles. All you have to do is visit your local Toys R Us, Target, or Walmart, to see the great variety of scale models available.

The least expensive are 1:64-scale models. Prices range from 89 cents to a couple of dollars. Of course the older and rarer the model is, its value can easily reach $100 and beyond.

Here are a three 1:64 scale 3rd generation F-bodies on my desk that keep me company while I work.

1:24 scale is another popular size. However, depending on the manufacturer—as well as age and desirability—prices can vary considerably. I've seen some of the rarer Franklin Mint models sell for hundreds of dollars, while others can be had for reasonable prices.

I just picked up three Franklin Mint Corvettes for around $26 each (including shipping charges). And even though they did not come in the original boxes, they were in almost perfect condition and had the original labels. By the way, those models originally retailed for around $100 each, so I did pretty well with my purchase.

1:18 scale models are another popular size. Bburago and Maisto are two of the most popular manufacturers of "one-eighteen" scale models, but others, such as Greenlight Collectibles also offer many high-quality models, sometimes as limited editions.

I picked up this 1954 Mercedes 300 SL by Bburago at a local swap meet. It was very dirty since it had obviously been used as a toy. But other than the dirt and two missing chrome side-scoops, for $20 it was a no-brainer, so I bought it. After a thorough cleaning and light polishing with a car wax, it looks great on my bookshelf.

The 1989 Turbo Trans Am 20th Anniversary 1:18 scale model by Greenlight, was—much like the real thing—a limited edition. Therefore, prices have gone up significantly over the years. This model originally retailed for $49.95. Nowadays (if you can find one), expect to pay at least 3 times the original amount.

I had to bite the bullet several months ago and buy the one below from a fellow in Canada, since I happen to have the 1:1 model parked in my garage. That's the only reason I bought one. But the attention to detail is quite impressive, so this is not a toy but, rather, a true collectible.


Scale model vehicles are not limited to die-cast metal, of course, although die-casts tend to be of better quality and usually far more detailed than their plastic and tin cousins.

Still, there are plenty of great-looking plastic and tin metal models available, but don't expect cheaper materials to translate into cheap prices. Maybe originally that was the case, especially if they were intended as toys. But toys, although usually produced in large quantities, tend to get destroyed after a while by the small hands that play with them, which means the surviving few will start commanding values far greater than expected.

Scale sizes tend to be different than that of die-casts, at least that's been my experience.

Pictured below are two 1:25 scale plastic models of the 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. These were made by New Bright in Hong Kong. And even though they took a few creative liberties with the body style and decals, they actually are very well made, good looking scale models of the original, with prices ranging from $10 for rough copies to $40 and beyond for never-played-with, new-in-box models.

One thing worth noting is the fact that you can also purchase the kind of plastic scale models you have to assemble, and even though I have several of those, they have remained in their boxes waiting for the day when I will have the time to glue them together.


Like plastic models, tin metal toy vehicles are not as detailed as die-cast collectibles.

Since I happen to love 3rd generation Pontiac Firebirds, I started collecting some of the 1:16 scale models by Ertl a while ago. Prices for these models range from $25 to $40 for models in good to excellent condition without the box, to $100 and above, for NIB models.

Recently during the Spring Turkey Run in Daytona Beach, I spotted an Ertl Fall Guy pickup truck, in the original box (The Fall Guy was a 1980s TV series, starring Lee Majors and Heather Thomas).

Even though the truck and box were not in mint condition, I made a $20 offer to the seller, which he accepted (he was asking $25). This was during the last day of the 3-day event.

The funny thing is that during the morning of the first day, I had stopped by his booth and spotted the model. When I inquired about the price, he told me that he would take $75. I mentioned that someone had scribbled $14 on the box at some point, and he laughed and said that it probably was the price someone wanted 20 years ago.

I did not make an offer at that time, even though I happen to have the Fall Guy Firebird (no box). But on the last day of the show, his price had come down considerably, so he just accepted my $20 offer and I was able to add this cool piece to my growing scale-model collection.

So there you have it. Scale models are a very affordable way to stay connected to the car hobby and—if you are a smart shopper—you can start your own "garage" without breaking the bank or going into debt.

And even though I only mentioned 1:64, 1:25, 1:24, and 1:16 scale models, there are other scale sizes available, all the way to the huge 1:10 scale. I happen to favor the ones I mentioned, but you may want to devote your attention to a particular size.

Die-cast scale models can be found online and at major retail stores, but the best deals are usually hiding in plain sight at car swap meets or garage sales. I've even found a few interesting pieces for my collection at the Goodwill Store.

Of course we all dream of one day owning a 4,000 square-foot garage that will house our full-size collector car collections, and I hope that one day you will attain that dream. But in the meantime, give these "little guys" a chance. Besides, you will need them to decorate your dream shop.