I would beg my mother to abandon her ironing board—an easy sell— so I could turn it into a miniature autopia. The board's cloth surface maintained just the right amount of friction; a car could glide smoothly, but stay put when parked. A hard surface like a table top argued noisily with a toy car, especially if equipped with those newfangled Superfast wheels.
Speed vs. Accuracy
My childhood pals and I rarely raced our cars. To send one scooting across a floor, or down a track, meant the whole thing would be over in an instant.
On a smooth surface, a toy might travel twenty feet in a second. At a scale of 1:60, that's like a real car reaching 800 miles an hour— four times the speed of Formula One. A beguiling thought, but pretty boring in real life. If you've watched F1 from trackside, you'll know that the spectator sees but a split second of noisy blur.
We got down to eye level with these cars. They had to move accurately, and with grace. As we drove them down the lanes and highways of our bedrooms, they would pick up a fair clip, but we enjoyed the drive. We shifted imaginary gears. The little car bodies rolled in the right direction as we took corners.
Many of the pre-Superfast cars came equipped with steerable wheels. You tilted the car body in the direction you wanted the wheels to turn. This pissed us off. Body roll goes opposite to the direction of travel. You don't have to study Newton to know that.
My room may have been a mess. My shoes scuffed, and untied. I ate like an animal. But my Matchbox cars were tucked neatly in their carrying cases, often in the original cardboard box. In a childhood full of chaos, these tiny machines reperesented order. Thoughtfulness. Peace.
Take your mind off thinking.
Robert Pirsig makes some shrewd observations about mankind and machines in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He feels that mechanical work can give an "inner peace of mind". It involves an understanding of the physical world around you, its potential and limits, and becomes almost a form of meditation.
So does building things. American children of a certain age will recall Lincoln Logs. The toy seemed simple; you stack bars of stained wood atop one another in order to build primitive cabins, barns and forts.
But a young mind had to deal with a number of issues. How do the logs interlock? Which pieces stacked on which to form a triangle? How many logs, of what type, did I need to build a particular structure? For a four year-old, it demanded complex spatial reasoning and a good deal of patience.
Did I actually play with the cabin, farm or fort afterwards? No. That wasn't the point. I basked in satisfaction. I was the master of something. At least one bit of this kid's world was under his control.
Country rocker Skid Roper treasured his toys, too. In a simple ode, he asks his mother what happened to my Lincoln Logs? Right now, he needs their help. He has difficult stuff to think about. Maybe emotional stuff. This simple task will occupy his head, so his heart can think, in its own way.
For me, the song rings true, even if Mojo Nixon spoils it with his stupid harmonies in the last verse.
What happened to my Matchbox cars? To the best of my knowledge, they rest safe in the closet of my brother and sister-in-law's spare room. I left them, well over a decade ago, for my nephew to enjoy. I rather hoped he would treasure them as much as I did.
But these matters are deeply personal, and he chose his own contemplative toy: Star Wars Lego. He even named the family dog Yoda, after his second-favourite Star Wars character. Darth Vader would have sounded odd for a dog.
Metal, in the flesh
Of course, to a modern kid, the collection amounts to little more than an historical relic. But what history!
Mathbox gave kids like me a window on the glamourous world of mid-century European motoring: Ferrari, Lambourghini, Iso Grifo, Pinnafarina, Mercedes ambulances, Land Rover fire trucks, sedans called saloons and trailers called caravans.
When they watch Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, many Americans of my age get the joke about Ford Prefect thanks to Matchbox.
Living in Europe, one stumbles across a real version of these cars from time to time. They almost always cause a double take—like when you see a celeb on the street. Often, they don't look anything like you imagined them
Take the Lotus Europa (#5). Given the shape of its micro-clone, I thought a Europa must be some kind of delivery van (especially since the toy version had a towbar) rather than the sexiest of low-slung, mid-engined cars. Lotus only made 9000 Europas, but the Matchbox version sold in the millions.
The biggest shock came from my first glimpse of a classic Unimog (#49). This was a bit of a dullard in my collection. Interesting enough, but with the bright red and not-quite-sky-blue paintjob, it fell into the stocking stuffer category, rather than making it onto Santa's list.
The real thing packs a whallop. I want this truck. I want to ford streams. I want to climb hills sideways. I want to bowl over saplings as I make my way through a forest. I want to ride this truck like a horse. A real physical, gut reaction.
An emotional lesson
Maybe that's part of growing up. We learn to integrate the physical, the intellectual, the emotional.
When I get in a car today, so many things cross my mind and heart. The order and precision of the dials. The slightly different engine note when the tank is full of 102 octane, rather than 95. And from time to time, the feeling of mastery when you take over the gears and spin some higher revs than, perhaps, is prudent.
Those little cars affected me profoundly. Today, I find it odd to think that many use the word "mechanical" to mean "soul-less".
My apartment, from time to time, may still be a mess. My shoes are still scuffed, and often untied. When nobody's looking, I still eat like an animal. And the great big grown-up automobile I drive still feels a bit like the tiny cars I piloted across the ironing board. My car a haven of peace and order, but at the same time, a source of incredible physical sensations and excitement.
Judging by the concept car below, the people who are designing the next Number 49 get it. Hard to park, but awesome for parkour. I might not buy one, but I'd sure as hell like to take it out for a spin.