Big Boys' Toys

Maybe you always wanted a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL or a 1955 Ford Thunderbird or. my personal favorite, a 1962 Corvette. But when you salivated over these cars and hundreds of others as a child, the money in your piggybank made owning one of these beauties a far-off dream.

Now you're 20 (okay 30) years older, and you're still mooning over your dream car. But when you check your piggybank these days, owning one of these beauties is still a far-off dream. After all, the baby needs a new pair of shoes, your daughters need ballet lessons, and the family needs a big sport utility vehicle to schlep from one costly activity to the next. However, there is hope for those of us bucks-challenged car aficionados who long to have a collection but can't swing the cash to emulate Jay Leno or David Letterman. The answer? Die-cast model cars.

"Aren't model cars just for kids?" you may reply. Not these days, fella. Sure, die-cast cars from Hot Wheels, Johnny Lightning and Matchbox are still great low-cost toys for children, but the real heat in the die-cast business today is driven by adults. After all, there are millions of us out there who owned some of these die-cast cars as kids, but it always seemed like some rich kid down the block had a lot more of them than we did. Now, for a relatively modest investment, we can own a set of model cars that would make that snotty rich kid (who is probably in rehab these days) green with envy.

In fact, the same mentality that is driving the resurgence in hot rods and muscle cars is behind the big surge in die-cast cars. The market has responded to the desires of aging Baby Boomers with a wide variety of models that offer something for just about every car collecting taste. In addition, die-cast models seem to get more elaborate and more expensive every year, but there are still plenty of great low-priced die-casts to choose from.

Do you like exotic cars? A Ferrari 550 Maranello will set you back $213,990, but a die-cast Hot Wheels version of the car will dent your wallet just $24.99. Are you a NASCAR fan? A real-life Winston Cup race car could cost up to $100,000, but highly detailed 1/24th-scale versions will cost you just $49.99 a pop. Do you have a hankering for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? Instead of getting on a wait list for the privilege of shelling out $10,000 or so, you can get a pretty slick 1/10th scale softail for $24.99.

While single die-cast models are extremely popular, special sets are also gaining incredible steam as great gifts. How about a "Drive-In Collection" that includes a '49 Mercury, '50 Buick, and '32 Ford Deuce Coupe? Who could say no to the "50th Anniversary of Porsche" set complete with 550 Roadster, 930 Turbo, 917 GT racecar, and Boxster? If you want hot rods, street rods, stock domestic classics, upscale foreign makes, or even magazine-themed sets, they are all waiting for your order.

My personal favorite is the Johnny Lightning "Rock & Rollers" collection that includes 1/64th-scale models of Pontiac GTO, Ford Mustang, Ford Thunderbird, "Woody" wagon, Ford '32 Coupe hot rod, and a Shelby Cobra plus individual CD singles of the songs that made those cars famous. (Classic tunes like "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surf City," and "Hey Little Cobra.") Quite a parlay for just $39.99. (Okay, I admit it. I bought one online this morning.)

Richard Adkins has become the guru of grown-up model collecting, and a wide variety of die-cast cars are available in his catalog and on his Web site adkinsstore. Other sources for die-cast models include Hemmings Motor News, the Franklin Mint, and The Sharper Image.

Face it, guys, most wives would rather put up with a couple dozen die-cast models in the den than a multi-thousand-dollar project car in the garage.

Jack R. Nerad has been collecting die-cast cars since he built a Duesenberg SJ model as a 10-year old. His life hasn't been the same since.