Arts & Life
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If you tool around in a candy-apple red, 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle, you may owe Daniel Walker a thank-you card.
Walker, a resident of St. Andrews, was headed home from his job at a Selkirk manufacturing plant four years back when he spotted a co-worker’s car, the aforementioned Chevelle, in the staff parking lot. Studying its two-door hardtop design, he murmured to himself, "Hey, I have one of those." More specifically, he had "one of those" in the form of a Hot Wheels toy automobile.
Walker, 31, belongs to a Manitoba-based group called 204 Hot Wheels. What sets him apart from the majority of the club’s 600 or so other members is that in addition to collecting and displaying die-cast cars, he also spends hour after hour painstakingly customizing ones on his shelves by swapping out parts such as tires, engine assemblies and steering racks in a bid to fashion something entirely new and unique.
Noticing the Chevelle, he decided to repaint his scale-model version so that it perfectly matched its larger cousin, with the purpose of presenting it to his co-worker as a keepsake.
Unfortunately, the intended recipient was away the morning Walker brought the newly minted Hot Wheels car to work. Worse, as he was preparing to start his shift a supervisor pulled him aside to inform him he was being laid off, effective immediately.
"I said something like, ‘That sucks; I have this Hot Wheels car I need to give to somebody and he’s not here today," Walker says, seated on the patio of a Main Street coffee shop.
"My boss promised he’d make sure the guy got it but since the two of us had never exchanged numbers or contact information, to this day I don’t know if he liked the car or not. Crazy, eh?"
Like most kids, Walker grew up playing with Hot Wheels, first introduced by American toy company Mattel in 1968. His family lived near Petersfield and he has fond memories of accompanying his mother to Gaynor’s Foods in nearby Selkirk where she almost always let him pick out a new car from a display close to the cash register, while they waited in line to pay for groceries.
Walker eventually moved on from the playthings before getting back into them again about five years ago, this time from a collectible standpoint. He didn’t know customizing Hot Wheels was a "thing," he admits, until he came across a website explaining how to do just that. A self-described "car guy" who studied auto body repair for three years at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School and drives a perfectly maintained ‘94 Cavalier, he thought the hobby sounded "super-interesting." After acquiring a few recommended tools — most importantly, a jewelry saw and corded drill — he got busy tailor-making his toys.
"In the beginning there was a lot of trial and error so I mainly worked on junkers, cars that weren’t worth more than a buck, ‘til I got the hang of things," he says, recalling his first successful custom was an orange, ‘32 Ford coupe he repainted speckled red. "Originally I figured working on toy cars would be a piece of cake compared to what we did at school, except when you’re cutting holes into tiny hoods or snipping mini axles, it’s pretty easy to mess up. On the bright side, it’s a much cheaper fix if you ruin a Hot Wheels car versus the real deal."
"In the beginning there was a lot of trial and error so I mainly worked on junkers, cars that weren’t worth more than a buck, ‘til I got the hang of things." – Daniel Walker
In time, word spread through the local Hot Wheels community about what he was up to. One fellow got in touch asking if he could design an ‘84 Mustang Hot Wheels car to match what was parked in his driveway. Another club member reached out, hoping he might build a scale-model Honda Civic based on a design he’d personally come up with, but didn’t have the wherewithal to complete.
For the Civic he cut the hood open and dropped a new motor inside. Next he added rear drag racing tires then did a fade paint job, changing the colour from yellow to burnt orange. Finally he super-glued "these little tubings" he’d created to mimic dual exit exhaust pipes. He adds that while he’s aware some people rely on 3D printers for parts — the website mycustomhotwheels.com offers a plethora of tips and tricks in that regard — for the time being he’s content salvaging pieces such as axles and roll bars from a stash of cars he keeps around for that purpose.
"Some of my friends and family members used to kind of laugh at me for what I was doing, thinking I was wasting my time, but when I told them people from as far as Newfoundland have paid me to customize (Hot Wheels) cars for them, they kinda stopped laughing," he says, noting he’s currently working on a few projects — dioramas of rusted-out, mini pickups and such — that he will be auctioning off through 204 Hot Wheels in November, with all proceeds going towards the Salvation Army’s 2020 Toy Mountain Christmas campaign.
"I did the same thing last year and managed to raise a couple hundred bucks, so let’s hope that repeats itself this year," he says.
Ted Saunders is one of the administrators for the 204 Hot Wheels Facebook page. Guessing he has in the neighbourhood of 5,000 Hot Wheels cars on display in the rec room he shares with his "very understanding" wife, Saunders, a Ferrari fan, says Hot Wheels enthusiasts are divided when it comes to customizing: some love the idea while others can’t even fathom removing their cars from the original packaging, never mind slicing them into bits.
"I personally like the cars in their original form but after seeing some of the amazing customs that are out there, I can definitely see the attraction to that side of things, too," he says. "I have a few I won from a charity raffle but that’s about it. (Customizing) can be a lot of work, for sure. Probably one of the main reasons more people don’t do it is they simply don’t have the time or patience."
"Some of my friends and family members used to kind of laugh at me for what I was doing, thinking I was wasting my time, but when I told them people from as far as Newfoundland have paid me to customize (Hot Wheels) cars for them, they kinda stopped laughing." – Daniel Walker
One person who does have both the time and patience for the pastime is Sheri Abbey. The Michigan resident started collecting Hot Wheels in 1995 just after her son was born. In the early 2000s, by which point her cache numbered close to 10,000, she attended a toy show in St. Louis, where she spotted a customized Hot Wheels car for the first time. Raised by a father who was constantly building race cars and street rods, she suddenly saw her collection in a whole new light, she says.
"With custom Hot Wheels you drill the rivets out, chop up the body with a dremel tool and add or remove other parts to make it your own with J.B. Weld (epoxy) and Bondo (putty)," she goes on. "You can build anything you want. You are only limited by your imagination."
How accomplished is she? Well, in 2004 Abbey was contacted by a representative from Mattel who informed her she’d been chosen, along with three others, to compete for the United States in an international Hot Wheels customizing competition set to take place in Japan. Once there, each team would have six months to build four custom cars: two mild — "basically repaint and wheels swap," she explains — and two wild, or anything goes, editions. She returned home with two medals, the only two medals Team USA received, she says.
Abbey received another Hot Wheels-related phone call in 2009. This time the person at the other end of the line congratulated her for being one of that year’s inductees into the Model Car Hall of Fame — yes, there is one — for her custom work. She still doesn’t know who nominated her, she says with a chuckle.
"I have a Hall of Fame ring made by the same people who make Super Bowl rings," she says, listing comedian Jay Leno, ZZ Top guitarist and lead vocalist Billy Gibbons and legendary racing drivers Mario Andretti and Richard Petty as some of her fellow inductees. "My Hall of Fame classmates and I spent the entire weekend in Las Vegas. Just incredible and still hard to believe where these little toy cars have taken me."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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