LOS ANGELES—At a crowded toy convention last month, Bruce Pascal delicately pulled a small plastic cylinder from his pocket. He popped the cap and out slid a 3-inch-long bundle swathed in bubble wrap.
"I'm asking $35,000," he said, unwrapping his treasure: a die-cast, deep-purple model of a Volkswagen bus, made in 1969 by Mattel Inc.'s Hot Wheels unit.
Washington, D.C., didn't make this sale at the 17th annual Hot Wheels Collectors Convention in Irvine, Calif. But he has bought and sold several other Hot Wheels toys for five-figure prices in recent years. He paid what's considered a record for a Hot Wheels item: nearly $70,000 for a one-of-a-kind, hot-pink prototype of a VW bus model, called the Beach Bomb.
It's now on display at the Hot Wheels exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
After 35 years and 3 billion toy-car sales, Hot Wheels is in a world of its own. There are about a dozen competitors — Italy's Bburago and domestic brands such as Ertl, American Muscle and Maisto. But these toy firms focus on larger-scale, more accurate reproductions than Hot Wheels' basic line of cartoonish models.
Although sales have fallen and flattened out in the past two years, in part because of a weak economy, no one comes close to Hot Wheels' estimated $275 million in annual sales, second only to Barbie in Mattel's lineup. And none has the hard-core following of adults, probably 25,000 strong, that collects old models and keeps driving prices higher on eBay and at such upscale auction houses as Sotheby's.
Real Corvette unclaimed
British dealer Charles Kitson sells a software program to track 24,500 Hot Wheels products, including 1/64-scale car models, racetrack sets, lunchboxes, children's shoes, posters, coloring books and other paraphernalia.
Collectors prize older Hot Wheels in pristine condition and often keep them in their original packaging, unopened. That's probably why one Hot Wheels buyer missed the chance to turn a 99-cent Corvette model into the $35,000 real thing. In 1993, Hot Wheels celebrated the production of its 1 billionth car with a promotional campaign that included a special edition, gold-colored Corvette model. One toy came with a coupon that could be redeemed for a real 'Vette.
But the winning Corvette coupon was never claimed — and the giveaway expired.
"We assume that one of our collectors purchased the product but didn't open the package, to keep the packaging in mint condition," Mattel spokeswoman Alisa Feinstein said. "More than likely, the collector still has it and never realized it was the winner."
'Gets in your blood'
There are occasional tales of marriages destroyed by manic Hot Wheels collectors, with their compulsion to overspend on the tiny metal cars.
Ross "Buzz" Anderson, 52, said it was the spending and the household disruption caused by his need to display his treasures that cost him his marriage. The Solvang, Calif., resident, a freelance legal writer, said that when his wife filed for divorce in 1987 she cited his hobby as a reason.
"She told me she was sick and tired of me wasting money on 'those [expletive] little cars that are taking up all the room in the spare bedroom,' " Anderson said.
He had about 1,500 Hot Wheels items back then. His collection of about 12,000 vintage toys today includes about 8,000 Hot Wheels pieces, Anderson said. "It just gets in your blood."
A few years after the divorce, Anderson's ex-wife accompanied him and their son to a Hot Wheels convention, where he sold two of the cars from the collection she had disliked so much.
"She quieted down," Anderson recalled, "when I got $5,000 for the pair. She was with me years earlier when I paid about 50 cents each for them."
Many enthusiasts say their collections are driven by a simple impulse.