VENTURA — If he could, if he had the money for it, pawnshop owner Larry Kelmanson would collect big, old cars--classic cars like a nice 1950 Cadillac convertible.
Instead, he owns a 1950 red and white Kidallac convertible--a metal toy pedal car that he rescued from rusty oblivion and that now sits alongside dozens of other pedal cars stuffed into his East Thompson Avenue shop.
"I'd like to have the kind of car collection they have at Harrah's. But I don't have the money, so I collect pedal cars," he said.
Kelmanson, 54, has trouble even giving a rough estimate of the number of the sleek little beauties he has picked up over the years.
When asked, he sputters: "Dozens . . . over 100 . . . actually I don't know how many."
The toys, just big enough for a 3-year-old to squeeze into, went out of fashion with children and manufacturers more than two decades ago, Kelmanson said.
In his view, they provide a snapshot of a time when people appreciated fine lines and curves on big machines.
The pedal cars were something he got into when his oldest son, Lou, was a toddler. He picked up the toys at swap meets and garage sales or rescued them after they were abandoned in someone's yard.
"It's true he loves cars, and over the years he's dabbled in collecting antique cars. He's had Packards and Cadillacs, some limos," said Lou Kelmanson, 31. "I think that's part of why he collects them, but I also think the cars give him a flashback to when he was a kid."
Like a lot of adults who collect toys, Kelmanson grew up poor and did not have a lot of toys as a child, his son said.
"If you knew where he came from, you'd understand," Lou Kelmanson said. "Considering all the challenges he went through in his life. I mean he grew up on the streets of Chicago and L.A., and he made something of himself. Maybe he's remaking a childhood he didn't have."
There was a short time as a child in Chicago that Kelmanson owned a little pedal airplane. But it was stolen by another boy when Kelmanson left it unguarded in his front yard.
"Man, I wish I had that thing today," he said.
Part of the reason Kelmanson likes pedal cars is that they are modeled after real cars, and he loves cars--in fact, he likes all vintage vehicles. As a car aficionado, Kelmanson likes pedal cars that are modeled after their real counterparts--old Model T Fords, Packards, Cadillacs and Plymouths, for instance.
Pedal cars come in all shapes and sizes. The most common are the pedal car tractors, Kelmanson said. Those don't sell for much money, but the rare International version can be worth up to $15,000.
Although Kelmanson buys pedal cars, he has never sold one. He either keeps them or gives them to friends and family members. His collection includes a mix of vintage car classics, and old rarities like a woody from the 1920s, a pedal car built in the Soviet Union and modeled after an old communist gas guzzler, and a miniature motorboat with trailer.
"Back then is when they made real cars," he said. "I mean when you saw a Cadillac, you knew it was a Cadillac. Those cars were distinctive. Now cars are all alike."
Kelmanson said he acquired many of the cars at swap meets and garage sales. And his collection occasionally attracts other enthusiasts.
"Pedal cars are like fine art or Art Deco to me," he said. "I'm like any collector who appreciates good art."