And then the chatter exploded. There was talk of airbrushes to buy, expert opinion on soldering irons, whether the ‘Le Ferrari Aperta’ is limited edition or not, birthday wishes for an older member, and finally, someone said, “For once, Hot Wheels collectors are being taken seriously, and not being told, ‘Ye kya teri umar hai khilaune lene ki’ (Is this an age to play with toys)?”
With more than 100 messages a day, India’s biggest Hot Wheels collectors WhatsApp group is always buzzing. Members claim that the value of the collection within the group run into crores. And emotions range from wondrous reactions to pictures of new cars, to helping each other with logistics, to just being happy whenever a member posts a picture of a car they’ve just bought. It’s an oddly warm and safe space for men in their twenties, as well as serial collectors in their 50s their passion for Hot Wheels manifesting with every buzz of the phone.
The group, called, “MAD HCI” (Hot Wheels Collectors India) was started by Vineet Bakshi five years ago. Members of the community consider him the ‘Godfather’ of India’s Hot Wheels collectors. “People don’t have the time to indulge themselves anymore, but this (collecting Hot Wheels cars) is much easier. You reach home, post your collection on the group, buy some stuff, exchange details, talk shit,” he told VICE.
Apart from just starting the group, Bakshi is trying to build an ecosystem around it with a project called HCL Shop. He’s tied up with a distributor to give the group members the latest models as soon as they launch in India, so people don’t have to go hunting, and instead have access to everything they need.
India has an interesting relationship with Hot Wheels. Manufacturing giants Leo and Mattel got into a collaboration, ‘Leo Mattel’, and started manufacturing Hot Wheels in India at a plant in Nagpur, from 1993 till the end of the millenium. “Those cars are highly sought after by all collectors, especially international collectors, because in India at that point they didn't really follow a rulebook for colors and paint. All of which were different from any Hot Wheels manufactured elsewhere in the world where manufacturing quality and the cataloguing would be the same,” says Bakshi.
But in India, Mattel and Leo decided to use their own colors and models, resulting in fusions like a Renault called Maruti 800. “If you normally look at an American (model) released from the 70s, 80s, and 90s—they're all catalogued and follow a set pattern. But with time, these uncatalogued Indian models became even rarer and harder to find because they were never intended in the first place. It makes it even more collectible,” Bakshi adds.
Today, a Hot Wheels Leo Mattel from that period today can cost up to 600 USD. Bakshi and others on the group can afford it, because in their words, “They’re not kids”, and have steady jobs with decent disposable income. A problem that they all have to tackle though, especially larger collectors like Bakshi with nearly 4,000 cars, is that of space. It’s a bigger issue when you’re collecting larger models, like the 1:18 scale.
So how does stock thousands of tiny car models in pristine condition? Especially when collectors, as community members told VICE, get antsy about the condition of the model. Of course they need to be crisp, with clean edges, no creases, pores or bends. Even more importantly, how do you tell your significant other about this very expensive hobby/indulgence?
“Well, it's a closed group, so your wife or girlfriend doesn't know how much money you're spending buying cars,” Baksi says in between laughs. “And yeah, there is the, ‘Ki ye kaam chhote baccho ka hain’ (That this is a kids hobby) stigma, but the retort to that is to always be nice,” Bakshi adds.
“Everything is a conversation piece, even a small toy. There’s a sense of history, a story associated with everything. And people like stories. It’s why they read books, watch movies.”
This conversation helped Bakshi through everything. His parents took him to car shows growing up, and never interfered as long as he did well in school. Growing up, the dude even found a job off his love for Hot Wheels, appearing on Zee News’ automobile show, Wheelocity for many years.
“In the job interview, I was talking to [BJP member, Rajya Sabha] Subhash Chandra’s younger brother, Laxmi Goel, and he used to drive a Honda City. I told him, “ Ye kya chala rahe ho aap, (What are you driving ?) get the new (Mercedes) S class,” Bakshi remembers. “A week after that he called me, said he’s buying 3 of them, and asked me to pick the colors. And when he got his new S Class, the gear shift was on the steering wheel, so his driver didn’t know how to drive it. He called me and I taught his driver how to drive it. We bonded over that.”
This bond manifests itself in the group too, sometimes helping newer collectors learn the tricks of trade. Though he had stopped in school, 29-year-old Earl D’Souza started collecting Hot Wheels again when a couple of years ago he walked into a store, and couldn't figure why he stopped in the first place. A friend of his introduced him to the group. “When I joined, I was exposed to the networking in the group,” he tells VICE.“I learnt how cars are traded, how to import some, stories behind specific cars. I even acquired some cars from fellow collectors which I didn’t have,” he added. Others member chip in too: They pick up things that other members need. If it’s in another part of the country, they even help mailing it. “It creates a sense of harmony through our common hobby, and being a part of it’s fun, especially finding out that there were others who were as idiotic as me,” D’Souza says. “It’s great to see how people with different personalities wrap around a commonality.”
D’Souza self-admittedly doesn’t like interacting with people much, especially on Social Media, as he prefers making connections IRL. Dude is one of many who found refuge among the cars.
“When we started the group, there were many closet collectors who were afraid of being thought of as kids. But when we got together, went to Comic Con this year, had group meets, got a T-shirt, a lot of people started seeing value in it,” ‘The Godfather’ Bakshi says. “Hot Wheels aren’t just toys, but a way of getting to know other people, to socializing, to having a satisfying hobby despite a dull daily routine.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.