An Oppo post from the other day got me thinking. In my pensive state, I decided to tell my story. Specifically, this is the story about the attachment I have to these little die-cast toys.


I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania, where most people worked for the steel and coal industries, until the flood of 1977. At that point, companies literally ran for the hills, leaving the Conemaugh Valley a slowly dying place, awaiting nature to reclaim it.

"SOON." — the hills in the background (Deanna Sakal)

As a result, my dad lost his job when the local business he worked for shut down. He kicked around a little while and started driving trucks for Ryder when the VW plant opened in New Stanton. He was a car guy - and I spent many weekends watching him wrench on the family cars and listening, rapt, to his stories of the cars he had in the past. It didn't matter that the stories were bullshit.

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He never let the truth get in the way of an impressive story. His '66 Plymouth Fury III convertible with the supercharged 383 and record player in the dash... his '68 Cougar with a Trans Am racing 302... his Mercedes Benz 350SE coupe that he had to sell because it couldn't be federalized when he was to come back from Rammstein AFB. None of these cars ever existed. His claims that he rode in a 3-seat Ferrari at egregious speeds from Frankfurt to Zurich as a bodyguard to the wealthy owner of the car: Alice Cooper. I admired him and believed all of it. He was filling my mind with wondrous tales of adventure. I convinced myself that I was destined for the same.

Pictured: A car my dad never owned.

Reality falls hard on children, even more than most adults recognize. Or maybe we do, and that's why parents tend to be so protective of little ones. By the time I was around 5 and starting school, I had already acquired a lunchbox full of little die-cast cars. There were the standard Matchbox Superfast and Hot Wheels cars - I distinctly remember a yellow Miura

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A lot like this one (photo: Die Cast Investor)

and a cement mixer, as well as the typical sports cars and 4wd trucks. Strangely, and perhaps telling as I'm on Jalopnik every day, my favorite for a while was a '78 Mercury Cougar wagon.

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Just like this one. Found on Oppo through GIS.

That year also hit me with the realization that I was a bit different from other kids. Because of some unfortunate circumstances and a medical condition that left me incontinent, I became "that kid," in my school. I was relentlessly bullied, and faced authority figures that seemed either not to care or were ignorant as to how to help me. "Kids are cruel," they'd say, and "He's just trying to manipulate the situation so he's in control." $18,000 a year, even in 1983, didn't buy very good talent when it came to school counselors.

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From about the age of five to ten, my Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and HO-scale slot cars were my favorite toys. They were a creative outlet, my fantasy world, and an escape from the reality that I faced at school every day. As I reflect on those years, I recognize some lessons I learned through my obsession with those little cars.

Never Stop Learning:

Every time I got a new car, I would ask my dad about it. What was it? How fast did it go? What was the engine like? As an adult, I realize he was just making stuff up on the fly. He may as well have been completely ignorant. I didn't care. I just had my dad's attention for a while.

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As I got old enough to retain and comprehend more of what I read, the diecast cars led me toward Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Road and Track, and AutoWeek. I read everything I could about cars and memorized statistics that seemed extraneous and insignificant. I could identify almost any car thanks to my conversations with dad and my hours buried in my uncle's car magazines. I could rattle off statistics about their engines based on the weeknights I spent in front of the bookshelf, reading about smog-era American iron in dad's 1978 Chilton Manual

This one. Unlike nearly everything produced in the 70s, it had no earth tones. (PricePi.com)

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This minor obsession is a direct result of those early conversations with dad. Even though he was wrong about a lot of things, he did spark my curiosity about automobiles, what they can do, and how they work. I've maintained this curiosity throughout my life.

Appreciate the Little Things:

Mom didn't work for the first eight years of my life, and money was often tight around our house. Then, dad lost his job because the VW plant shut down. Mom was supporting us on her "regional merchandiser for a grocery distributor," wages. To give you an idea - it wasn't much. New toys weren't frequent purchases, but if I went with mom or dad to K-Mart, I could often get a new Matchbox or Hot Wheels. In the mid-late 80s, they were about 50¢.

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They were small and cheap toys, but they meant a lot to me. I got to have something new even when there wasn't much to be had. Each new car brought a new adventure, new characters, and another conversation with dad. Each new car was another means of escape into new stories that I built from episodes of Knight Rider, Dukes of Hazzard, and The Fall Guy. While the upper-middle-class kids who constantly tormented me brought their expensive Tiger Electronic toys to play with at recess, I had a pencil box with four or five of my favorite cars to push around the playground. They were my respite, and when I brought out the Renegade Monster Firebird, some of the better-off kids were actually jealous.

I mean, wouldn't you be?

Having some little things that I was proud to own, despite the fact that they were small and inexpensive, made me feel good. And the little gesture of getting me something permanent - like the Hot Wheels or Matchbox car instead of the hot pretzel or Icee that my sisters wanted - helped me see that small gifts can be precious.

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Simple is Good.

In addition to the diecast cars, I also liked Transformers, GI Joe, and some other toys, like The Animal trucks. Remember those?

By the time most of the toys I owned reached a year of age, they were broken. Only the diecast cars endured. Their simple, rugged construction led to years of play. Most of them didn't have removable parts to go missing. They didn't break because someone pushed an arm the wrong way. Because they were in blister packs, they never ran the risk of being broken before I even got to play with them.

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I'm looking at you, Omega Supreme. (Unicron.com)

Even the most complex diecast cars I had, my Hot Wheels Crack-Ups, ended up lasting several years. The few that ended up broken and unusable were the special edition cars that had a bunch of extra pieces or plastic.

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I don't know what happened to the car. It was like that when I came out of the mall!

Their simple, rugged construction held up to years of play by a destructive kid. I had a lot of emotional issues that played out on the streets and racetracks of my room, basement, and back patio. None of the other toys had a chance.

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Fantasy is Important

Because I was "that kid," who didn't really have friends, I spent a lot of time playing alone. I spent many an afternoon in my room or the basement, making engine noises and pushing little cars along the carpet, or couch, or down the hallway. I was no longer the kid who pissed his pants in school and was beaten up all the time. I was Steve H, the stunt driver, or racer, or secret agent, who was solely responsible for the well-being of the world. After my homework was done and while mom was preparing dinner, I spent the evenings playing with my diecast or slot cars and engaging in a world far more fantastic and beautiful than the one I actually lived in.

I've spoken to many therapists in my life and I've dealt with a lot of the pain from my youth, and some of them have told me that my fantasies helped me keep from going completely spare. Somewhat related, I also found that,

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The Gesture is Often Bigger than the Object

The "Hot Foot," Firebird I mentioned above was a gift from my uncle, who had picked me up from school one day. Both of my parents were working and I had something to do that afternoon — it may have been rehearsal for a play or the trivia team — and he decided to show up with the Hot Foot in a box on the passenger seat of his Omni 024. It had been a rough day at school. It was close to the end of the year, and the kids were getting antsy, and I remember being close to tears by the time I saw him pull up.

"Hey bud. I got something for you."

The first thing I thought was, "Wow! That's so cool!"

He took me to Wendy's for a Frosty before heading to grandma's house. To him, it was just a nice afternoon with the nephew. The car probably cost about the same as the Frosty, and may have been an afterthought because he was in K-mart getting new floor mats for the car anyway.

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Even so, that made my day.

As an adult, I do all I can to make sure that I make that little gesture. It's part of my consciousness now. I buy my wife flowers about twice a month - just because. I get up early to make sure everything's ready for my wife and I to go to work. I hang out with the niece and nephew and listen to them when they have things to say. I show up at work with doughnuts. Someone has to. It may as well be me.

So that's my story. Thanks for reading. Have a photo of the Hot Wheels parking lot on my desk: