For Charlie Mack, it all began on the cement patio outside his Durham home. When they were kids, he and his brother used to spend hours there playing with their beloved Matchbox cars and trucks, using chalk and bricks to construct miniature worlds for their miniature vehicles.
More than 50 years later the patio is gone, but Matchboxes, die-cast toys originally made in Great Britain, remain in Mack’s home. More than remain — they have taken over the modest one-story, wood-frame house just off Route 17, filling almost every room floor to ceiling as well as the basement; there is little else inside the structure. Mack estimates he has more than 40,000 Matchboxes and Matchbox-branded toys.
“I just love little cars,” Mack, 63, says with a grin. “I grew up with it and I never stopped. I could never get into (video) games. Click, click, click; that holds my interest for about 10 minutes. Give me my toys back.”
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In addition to having one of the world’s largest collections of Matchbox toy vehicles and items — in later incarnations the company produced everything from Pee-wee Herman merchandise to plastic space toys — Mack is one of the world’s leading experts on the firm and its products. He has written more than a dozen books on Matchbox toys and has produced a monthly newsletter for collectors since 1977. For 30 years he ran an annual Matchbox convention that at its height attracted 175 dealers.
Mack opens his home to fellow Matchbox fans; just give him a call and he’ll schedule a visit to peruse his massive collection. He attracts visitors from as far away as Germany and New Zealand.
Matchbox’s original parent company, Lesney, first made a name for itself in 1953 by selling a million miniature replicas of Queen Elizabeth II’s horse-drawn coronation coach, Mack says. That led the firm’s owners to conclude there was a market for small die-cast toy cars and trucks. The Matchbox name came from the co-owner’s daughter whose school decreed that any toy brought into the classroom had to fit inside a matchbox, he says.
The firm began producing meticulously engineered replicas of cars, trucks, busses, farm equipment, ambulances, fire trucks and miscellaneous vehicles. Sturdy and just 49 cents each, they proved hugely popular in the U.K., the U.S. and elsewhere. By the early 1960s, Matchbox was churning out more than a million toy vehicles a week, Mack says.
But there was trouble on the horizon. In the late 1960s, Mattel — which today owns Matchbox — introduced Hot Wheels. With sporty racing rim wheels and flamboyant designs, they were faster and flashier than Matchboxes. Facing a crisis, the firm introduced its “Superfast” line with racing wheels and slicker designs in 1969, ending what is known as “the regular wheels” era, Mack says.
Many collectors focus on “regular wheels” Matchboxes made between 1953 and 1969, but not Mack. Turning 13 when the change happened and just beginning to collect seriously, he liked the new designs and values them as much as the old-school variety. Only one room in his house is devoted to pre-1969 Matchboxes, including the coronation coach that started it all, as well as the firm’s first three vehicles: a green-and-red road roller, a cement mixer and a dump truck.
Asked the favorites of his huge collection, Mack says he doesn’t really have any. “There’s just too many,” he says. He does profess a weakness for “errors,” vehicles that have mistakes ranging from a mismatched wheel to an upside-down sticker to a damaged part. Often it’s errors or unusual variations that make the toys valuable. He made one of his biggest sales ever — $10,000 — for a crane truck in a rare color.
Unfortunately, Mack has had to sell some of his most valuable pieces in recent years to pay bills and keep his house. He’s philosophical about it: “Sometimes things have to be parted with.”
Though he was once able to make a living from collecting, dealing and club activities — “I just went to the mailbox and got my money,” he recalls — times have changed. Ebay and the internet took huge bites out of his various businesses and killed his annual convention. At the same time, collectors aged and began dying off. His newsletter has only about 250 subscribers, compared to about 1,500 at its peak in the mid-1990s. To keep body and soul together, Mack took a job at Stop & Shop in 2002, where he still works. He estimates his collection is worth half what it was a few years ago because of falling interest.
But Mack isn’t giving up. He continues to pursue his passion and add to his collection. “It’s just the love of little cars, the variations, the thrill of the hunt,” he says.
Mack shows a visitor five or six cars in blister packs that he bought just days before. He’s always on the lookout for something different and points out that two exemplars of the same vehicle are painted ever-so-slightly different shades of green.
“There’s a variation,” he says triumphantly. “We found something new.”
To schedule a viewing of Charlie Mack’s Matchbox collection, call him at 860-349-1655.