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COLLECTORS: Wheels of dreams

The obituary of the inventor of Matchbox cars, Jack Odell, who died at 87 on July 7, quoted him as saying almost four decades ago that he wanted to be remembered as a "damn good engineer."...

The obituary of the inventor of Matchbox cars, Jack Odell, who died at 87 on July 7, quoted him as saying almost four decades ago that he wanted to be remembered as a "damn good engineer."

It was a remarkable bit of understatement from a man who so completely captured the imagination of junior car buffs around the world. He made his first one for his daughter, Anne, and they took off from there, eventually selling billions. Collectors would spend hours playing with and critiquing their cars, and pitting them against one another in imaginary high-stakes races.

I should know. I was one of them.

In grade school, my car collection was a consuming hobby. I saved allowances, then carefully weighed every new purchase based on some complex metric involving authenticity, likely speed on a track, and, of course, the cool factor.

I faced difficult choices. I bought a folding carrying case to hold my Matchbox and Hot Wheels collection, but it held only 72 cars. These were choice spots, given to those classic muscle cars like Mustangs, Challengers and Camaros, nestled behind plastic windows, sealed off from the elements. Every new car I bought meant another would have to be swapped out, fending for itself on the shelf. The cars that made the cut were so well cared for, I thought they would last forever.

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Inevitably, I moved on to sports, and my carrying case wound up deep in the back of my closet. Sure, I was still interested in cars - I often tested myself by guessing the model of a car at night just by the shape of its taillights from 50 yards away.

By high school, I wanted a real car, and delivered papers for three years to save $1,000. The '69 Beetle I bought from a neighbor cost me $200. (I had to put a bit of money into it for necessary upgrades, including a leather and wood gearshift knob.)

I thought of my collection again when I was 29, and my wife, Jeanetta, was pregnant with our first child. Any offspring of mine would surely cherish my cars and see challenging hills and jumps for a dune buggy in the folds of a blanket, just as I once did.

Several years later, I would occasionally haul out my collection for our first daughter, Anna, and then our second, Sophia, to see if it would take. Unlike with Anne Odell, it did not.

I brought them out when friends came over with their children. I winced at first when some of them would crash my Lamborghini Marzal, Mercury Cougar and other prized models from the '60s. Over time, wheels went missing. Paint jobs were nicked. Cleanup was a pain, and my carrying case was replaced by one of those big tin popcorn bins.

The bin has a lid, though, and I make sure it's shut tight. Someday, after all, there will be grandchildren. And maybe my car collection, inspired by a damn good engineer, will get a second life.

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