Many people have no doubt played with so-called ‘Dinky’ cars as a child. But that childhood pastime has never truly gone away for many avid collectors across Atlantic Canada, who have collections many kids of all ages would envy.
Borden-Carleton, P.E.I. resident Daniel Smith — who owns about 2,500 diecast vehicles in his collection — recalls his early interest in the toys, including a McDonald’s promotion in which a Hot Wheels-branded car was included in the kids’ meals.
“Dad would pick me up from kindergarten and buy me a Happy Meal, and I’d get one of these Hot Wheels,” he said.
But a fast food promotion had nothing on a piece of diecast car history that was right in the family: his father also owned a complete set of 12 Hot Wheels cars from 1968, the first year of production.
“(He) used to collect Hot Wheels as a kid, but only hung on to (this set),” Smith said. “I was only allowed to look at it when he was around.”
While Smith’s interest waned as he grew older, it revved up again, in part due to Hot Wheels’ approaching its 50th anniversary. And now, about 90 per cent of his collection is from Hot Wheels.
While he owns models from other manufacturers, the sheer number of available cars in Hot Wheels’ slate appeals to him.
“It’s just the variety,” he said. “Every month, they come out with something new. And you get bang for your buck because they will often cost 99 cents to $2 or $3.”
Smith’s own tastes lean toward “muscle cars, hot rod, classic cars,” with his favourite casting being a toss-up between a 1958 Impala and one called Way 2 Fast, based on a Ford Model A twin-blown engine.
He jokes that his fiancee “can partially be blamed” for his huge collection, as she will search on eBay and other websites looking for some good deals on cars.
“She more or less supports my hobby,” he said.
What’s in a name?
One thing to keep in mind when talking about this hobby, in the context of kids playing with so-called Dinky cars or that of collectors, is that the term ‘Dinky’ originates from the name of a British manufacturer of diecast toys from the 1930s to 1979.
And much like how the trade name Kleenex has entered the language to refer to tissue paper in general, ‘Dinky’ has become a catch-all term for small diecast cars designed by many companies.
Some of the top names include Hot Wheels and Matchbox, one-time competitors now both owned by Mattel. But serious collectors can rhyme off other brands, both past and present, and may also be on the lookout for rare vintage items, whether it’s the aforementioned Dinky Toys or the original ‘redline’ Hot Wheels manufactured from 1968 to 1977.
Rob Hire of Lower Sackville, N.S., has been collecting diecast cars for over 30 years. And while he owns many Hot Wheels designs, it’s the specialty brands he’s most keen on.
“One brand, Tomica, they make a really, really nice detailed car, in really good quality,” he said. “It’s $12 for a Hot Wheels-type car, but it generally has nicer detail and even a suspension system.”
Hire owns over 3,500 items, but as a collector, he enjoys seeking “oddball” items and doesn’t have a particular favourite.
“When I first started, I was really into Matchbox, but I discovered pretty soon that it’s hard to stick to one brand,” he said. “Each brand has its own appeal.”
Ryan Mitchell, of Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, co-owns R&N Diecast with his wife Natasha.
The online store is the one major dealer for many specialty brands, and has been a critical source for many Newfoundlanders who enjoy the hobby since the store opened nearly five years ago.
“A lot of my customers were really excited (when the store opened,)” he said. “Before, they had to pay huge shipping costs, and now they have something local.”
Mitchell doesn’t attempt to compete with major big box stores, and offers a wide selection of niche items with brand names such as ACME, Greenlight, GT Spirit and many others. Many of these brands manufacture 1:18 scale cars — meaning the model is 1/18th the size of the actual car — and some of these items can go for between $60 and $300. In comparison, a typical Hot Wheels or Matchbox car would be 1:64 scale.
Mitchell says many of these larger-scale models include incredible detail, such as windows that can roll up and down.
“Some of the detail is really crazy,” he said.
Mitchell said some collectors are “really hardcore,” searching high and low for a specific car. That’s reflected in the fact he ships orders from across Canada and worldwide.
“(If it’s a rare item), they don’t care where it has to be shipped from; they get it.”
There have always been avid fans of diecast cars, but Mitchell noted the hobby really took off after the start of the pandemic.
“People had a lot of money and nowhere to spend it,” he said, adding that while there has been a slight dip since due in part to inflation, the drop is nothing significant.
Mitchell has one theory for why people enjoy collecting these cars: “It’s stuff they’d love to have in real life, but can’t afford it. It’s a way for people to own those cars, as detailed as possible, without paying $60,000 to $70,000.”
Smith can vouch for that theory. Besides his large Hot Wheels collection, he has a couple of “real hot wheels” in his garage — a 1955 GMC and 1984 Chevy Van. He says the diecast toys are a good break from getting dirty in his shop.
“Project cars can get stressful, so it’s nice to just relax (with a diecast car),” Smith said.
Greg Colborne of Truro, N.S. operates a Facebook group called Hub Diecast. It was originally a way for him to sell off some of his collection but he now has over 200 members who buy, sell, trade or simply show off their finds.
While many people enjoy the hobby and the thrill of the hunt for some cool cars, it’s also true that some rare items will fetch high prices. Colborne has sold specialty items that afterwards “skyrocketed” in costs, giving as an example a Candy Striper 55 Chevy Gasser produced in 2014.
“I had six that I sold for $60 each, and now selling for about $3,000 to $4,000 each,” Colborne said.
Colborne has been dismayed with scalpers more interested in making a buck.
“The new collectors that have come into the hobby pay crazy amounts for what they want … and sell to those who need to have it before anyone else,” he said.
Back in Lower Sackville, Hire said one such model that jumped in price was a recent collaboration between Hot Wheels and Gucci, a replica of a 1970s Cadillac Seville by Gucci. The model sold for $125 retail, but Hire has found it on eBay for over $500.
Hire is aware of people who do buy and sell collections as a business, but in general, collecting diecast cars isn’t a money-making scheme.
“If you’re stressing out over it, it’s the wrong hobby,” Hire said. “Some guys have a fit if they don’t get what they’re looking for. I couldn’t understand how you could worked up over a toy — that’s what it is, ultimately.”
But for many who partake in the hobby, it’s not even so much about the little cars but the people they meet along the way who turn out to have a shared interest.
Hire recalls a visit from a friend who brought his young son along to check out the collection.
“The poor little kid didn’t know which way to look,” Hire said. “His head was spinning around like (in the movie The Exorcist). His dad said, ‘don’t touch’, but I said to leave it be; if he drops one and breaks it, I have another one in a box.”
Hire gave that child a bag of cars to take home, something he’s done for children of other acquaintances who’ve turned out to be avid diecast car fans.
When it comes to tips for the novice collector, Smith says “patience is key” if you’re looking for something specific.
As a Hot Wheels fanatic, Smith can point to many potential sources for high-quality finds — besides big box stores like Walmart, Toys R Us and Atlantic Superstore, thrift stores are also a good place to look.
“Even at Price-Mart (a discount store in P.E.I.), I came across exclusive cars I didn’t think I’d see in a store,” Smith said.
Hire, for his part, has his own simple rule: “Have fun doing it. If you’re enjoying yourself, it doesn’t matter what hobby it is.”