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Downsizing These Cars Is No Mere Toy Story

Hobbies * Auto collector Bruce Meyer joins forces with Mattel to create a quartet of new Hot Wheels collectibles based on his racing machines.

November 28, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bruce Meyer has been collecting classic cars since 1964, along the way scoring blue ribbons at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and other major shows for the meticulously restored hot rods and race cars in which he specializes.

Mattel Inc.'s Hot Wheels unit has been making die-cast replicas of cars almost as long as Meyer has been collecting the real things. The company has produced more than 2 billion of its tiny but realistic Hot Wheels vehicles since 1968, fueling a mania among hobbyists who buy and trade the scale-model cars for many times their similarly scaled-down sticker prices.

It would seem only natural for these two local forces in car collecting to come together. And so it is that Mattel has turned a quartet of famous racers from Meyer's garage into a set of Hot Wheels collectibles and with him will showcase the cars--the real ones and their tiny replicas--at a fund-raiser Saturday for the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

Tens of thousands of enthusiasts have built Hot Wheels collections, letting the El Segundo toy maker's models stand in for famous cars and trucks they could never afford full-sized.

In fact, notes Carson Lev, director of design for Hot Wheels racing and collector products, the Mattel unit divides itself into two business groups: the kids' side, with cars stamped out as children's toys and priced about $1 each; and the adult side, which produces collectible scale models for marques ranging from Chevrolet to Ferrari as well as collector sets of historic vehicles, famous race cars and other vehicles of significance.

One popular line has been a series of four-car sets of classic vehicles. More than 30 of them have been produced, including several that feature vintage race cars, and now the Meyer Gallery quartet will join their ranks.

Meyer is using the occasion to benefit one of his other great passions, the nonprofit Petersen museum, which he serves as chairman.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, the Hot Wheels design staff will gather at the museum along with Meyer, the four cars that inspired the model collection and the cars' original builders.

The cars are the So-Cal Speed Shop Belly Tank dry-lake racer built in 1952 by shop founder Alex Xydias; the Agajanian Special Indy car that won the 1952 Indianapolis 500; the Pierson brothers' 1934 Ford 3-Window Coupe, a dry-lake racer that set a class speed record of 152 mph in 1952 and achieved a best-ever top speed of 227.33 mph in 1991 with a heavily modified Chevrolet V-8 under the hood; and the Greer/Black/Prudhomme full-body dragster that gave National Hot Rod Assn. star Don Prudhomme his first top-fuel ride and has the best won-loss record in drag racing's top fuel class with 237 victories in 241 starts.

The Agajanian Special has been on display at the Petersen in the permanent Bruce Meyer Gallery; the others are moving to the Petersen for Saturday's event from two of the other museums with which Meyer shares his collection.

Xydias, brothers Bob and Dick Pierson and J.C. Agajanian Jr. also are scheduled to be on hand to talk about the cars they built and raced and to sign boxed sets of the Hot Wheels models.

Lev says the $39.95 set is the last four-car collection Hot Wheels will make, as it turns its focus to single-and two-vehicle collectible models in the future.

Although the individual Hot Wheels collector cars cost as little as $8 when new, demand for highly collectible models can send prices soaring. A rare Hot Wheels model of a beach bomb VW bus done in the early 1970s recently sold in a private exchange for a reported $72,000.

Mattel even operates a Web site, http://www.hotwheelscollectors.com , to enable collectors to keep track of their acquisitions and the ever-changing value of models. The company says the largest known Hot Wheels collection contains more than 10,000 models and has been appraised at more than $1million.

Proceeds from Saturday's model sales and autograph session at the Petersen will benefit the museum foundation.

Admission to the Petersen Automotive Museum, at 6060 Wilshire Blvd., is $7 for adults; $5 for senior citizens and students with school ID; and $3 for children 5 to 12. Admission prices will be halved for those who purchase one of the Meyer Gallery Hot Wheels sets at the event. Information: (323) 930-2277.

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Staff writer John O'Dell can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

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