I wouldn’t describe myself as a spoiled kid, but I did have a lot of toys as a child. It spanned a wide spectrum of action figures, plush toys, Lego and various other novelty items. But some of my earliest toy memories are connected to cars. In a way, cars are the ideal toy for little kids. They’re small, so you can carry quite a few around. They’re very cheap, generally around $2 or $3, so they’re easy to get on your average trip to the supermarket. They’re readily available and there’s almost infinite variation, so kids need never get bored. And pretty much any surface is good terrain for a toy car to drive on. Reality need not apply.
I had a fairly large assortment of them as a child, as well as a parking garage. I remember a friend of mine owning a large-scale one that – if memory does not betray me – featured a working elevator for cars, hand powered a pulley and crank system of some kind. It was awesome. If you’re reading this now Paul, thank you for the hours of fun we had with cars, in between playing rugby league and Police Rescue in your backyard. (Balmain Tigers and Brian forever!)
It’s difficult to discuss toy cars without highlighting the two major brands that dominated the toy car market during my childhood – Matchbox and Hot Wheels. These two brands still own the market, with any other brands looking pretty average by comparison.
Of the two brands, Matchbox was the more realistic. By and large, they produced toys based on real vehicles, or at least similar enough that they didn’t stretch your five-year old credibility too far. There was something British and dignified about them. In fact, I’m fairly certain I used to own what I still think of as the ultimate Matchbox car – a black British taxi.*
To contrast – and though I dislike using this expression – Hot Wheels was a lot more American: cooler and edgier, with over-the-top adverts. Their toys tended to be highly outlandish, often bearing little resemblance to real-life cars, or at least real-world paint schemes. Of course, I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that Hot Wheels produced bad cars. Certainly some were ridiculous and unacceptable to look at, but their durability as playthings was never in question.
This trend continues today, and I think it’s actually become even more pronounced as the years have gone on. One of the last Hot Wheels cars I bought as a child (probably around age 12) was some kind of green and purple plane/tank hybrid. Pretty awesome to look at, bright 90s colour scheme and all, but stretching the boundaries of what constitutes a toy car, I tend to think. Their associated playsets followed a similar pattern. Cool as it was to be able to race your cars around a track featuring a T-Rex…well, I think that says it all, really.
Yet despite Hot Wheels having the edge in marketing, a quick survey of a handful of friends reveals an overwhelming consensus that Matchbox was the better of the two brands**, though most (myself included) owned their fair share of both. The argument has become redundant now, too – Matchbox is now owned by Mattel, the creators of Hot Wheels.
The Ugly Truth
Full disclosure: in spite of this great enjoyment of toy cars, I have never acquired a great love of real cars. As a teen, I found car chases in movies unbearably tedious. I only acquired my learner’s license at age 23, and didn’t get my P-plates until I was 27. So if you asked me what my ideal car was now, I would say it was the 1989 Batmobile, without any trace of silliness.
The Vaguely Relevant Finale
I keep an eye on the toy cars in the stores when I’m scoping out Lego and TMNT, but it’s very rare I buy any,
unless it’s for a gift. These days I can take or leave toy cars, due to my lack of interest in the real thing.
But the other night I was in Woolworths and I came across these two beauties pictured above – the Matchbox Desert Thunder V16 and the MBX Two-Story Bus. The photos do most of the talking, of course – everyone loves a double-decker bus, whether real or toy – and it does tie into the essential Britishness of Matchbox.
The Desert Thunder V16 is a little more outlandish, given its paint scheme. The words “T-Rex
Transporter” dot the side, as does a silhouette of a roaring T-Rex. Ordinarily, we’d already be well into Hot Wheels territory with something like this, but look at it more closely. Aside from the out-of-scale accessories sculpted onto the roof, this is kind of convincing as a dinosaur transporter. Well, maybe for baby or juvenile dinosaurs, but dinosaurs nonetheless. That’s good enough for me.
I am a die-hard opener when it comes to toys – but these two beauties are staying sealed for display. Guests to the house will admire their majesty, just as I do.
*Recent toy archaeology at my parent's place indicates that I did! But it doesn’t seem to actually be a Matchbox car – rather, some no-name brand.
**Number of people surveyed: 2 or 3, including myself.