One Hoon's Quest to Find the Source of all Diecast Cars

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For diecast collectors around the world southeast Asia, namely the city-state of Hong Kong, has always been that mythical mecca of miniature cars. It is the place where they are made, and it was always said to be best place in the world to find scale models. Or so they said. Stories abounded about shops filled to the ceiling with thousands upon thousands of cars, enough to make otherwise rational men sell their camera gear with the film still inside and get on the horn to their friends back home to ask for loans, making up stories about being in the hospital and needing money for surgery after food poisoning. Or having been robbed. Or being held for ransom by vicious Hong Kong salarymen and their administrative assistants turned kidnappers. Because of, umm, the turmoil in the city’s financial district and everything.

Living in Hong Kong for a summer, I decided on a whim to visit every diecast store in the city and neighboring areas. Since they were all listed in the phonebook as well as lists compiled by diecast aficionados, finding them was easy enough (except for the ones that moved years ago and now hosted stores selling insects the size of guinea pigs). But just how well would the diecast meccas they square up to their legends, and what treasures might lurk there?

My goal was to find 1:43 cars from the late 80s and early 90s, by makers such as Minichamps, Schabak, Herpa and others, ones that are now almost impossible to find without trawling the world’s eBays for months on end, and spending upwards of a hundred dollars on a poorly photographed car that will take a month to reach you from some island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. In a box that someone had clearly been using as a cricket ball on the deck of a postal cargo ship during its month-long voyage to North America.

To accomplish this I had to get past the 100 degree heat, the 200% humidity, as well as the reality that I could instead be wolfing down some of the world’s best and most affordable sushi, Caligula style, from the airconditioned comfort of my apartment while watching Conan at 3:00pm in the afternoon. I also had to contend with the fact that my Cantonese reading skills were limited only to numbers. But navigating Hong Kong was never a problem thanks to the fact that a lot of the signs are in English, and because of the availability of Google maps on my phone. And no, Google did not pay me to say this (what’s wrong with you, Google?)

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Let’s get one thing straight though: the market for scale models in the US is almost non-existent. Most people who buy 1:43 scale models in the US are buying them only for scenery for their O Gauge train layout, which is 1:48 by the way. So what they spend on model cars tends to reflect their commitment to any one particular scale model, and often this means just a random domestic car from the 1950s for five to seven bucks. Anything beyond generally will not make sense for this type of purchaser, so that rules out the availability of anything but the cheapest 1:43 cars from Minichamps.

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The same goes for 1:18, the next “popular” scale. Very few collectors on the US actually stockpile cars in this scale, because very few manufacturers make models that would actually interest American collectors. So there’s not a whole lot of that either, unless we’re talking yawn-inducing 80s Ferraris by Maisto which have been trading pretty freely for around 20 years now. Actual car dealerships are about the only places one can find a limited selection of 1:18 scale models for sale, and needless to say they tend to be from a single marque. And horribly overpriced.

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So I set off on my quest, armed with a very slow 2007 vintage Blackberry for navigation and a partially outdated list of stores. Most of the shops seemed to be located in Kowloon, a district just across the bay from the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong where I was living at the time. While Wan Chai is a sleepy apartment and hotel district bordering the financial center, littered with expat bars and pricey real estate, Kowloon was without a doubt the inspiration for the city depicted in Blade Runner, and essentially exists as such in real life. Over the decades Hong Kong’s construction companies have perfected the art of building 40 story apartment buildings that occupy the same footprint as a 2-bedroom suburban home in Minneapolis. If you have seen The Fifth Element then you have essentially seen modern Kowloon or Hong Kong. Even though Kowloon has become somewhat gentrified since the bad old days of Borg Cube-like structures like the Kowloon Walled City, it still retained a distinctly Blade Runner aesthetic that only exists in Japan’s electronics districts.

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Finding the shops themselves took very little effort, or at least finding the buildings they were housed in was easy. But locating the right floor and area of a building occassionally required some trial and error, as I had to navigate through mazes hosting dozens of other shops and smells you don’t want to experience. Most of the diecast stores I found lived in grimy Japanese-style arcade malls, right next to other Nerdistan haunts like video game shops, action figure shops, and pet shops featuring beetles the size of rats straight out of The Wrath of Khan or Dune. Other shops set themselves up in slightly more swank locales, down the street from high end clothing boutiques and department stores. The locations of the diecast shops varied, but they inevitably neighbored stores filled with giant anime robots and action figures.

I thought about learning a special phrase in Cantonese, one that would let me get access to whatever secret stashes of diecast cars the shop owners kept for their close circle of customers, a situation that I envisioned unfolding in about the same manner as Uma Thurman’s “I need Japanese steel” request to Hattori Hanzo. “I need Japanese cars” I would say to the shop owner in mangled Cantonese. The shop owner would size me up, slowly extinguish his cigarette, and then gently nod and wink at me, motioning me to follow him the back of the shop. We would then walk through a dark hallway, past a room filled entirely with cigarette smoke where old men would be playing Chinese checkers or placing bets on giant insect fights, past a dead-looking protocol droid from Jabba’s palace, and then the shop owner would a flick a light switch on the wall and a bookcase would slide open. As the room would come into view, with thousands of cars stacked from floor to ceiling, he would say to me, with a heavy Middle-Eastern accent for some reason “Just for you, my friend, I have been saving this for you!”

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But then I remembered that since all the shop owners were fluent in English, I could just ask them to show me their best model cars. So that’s what I did. The shop owner would size me up, slowly extinguish his cigarette, and then gently nod and wink at me, motioning me to follow him the back of the shop. “All I have is on the shelves. That’s it!” he’d then say and excuse himself to go use the restroom. And that is actually how it turned out every time I asked them if they had any old diecast from the 80s and 90s.

“You don’t have anything in the back?” I’d ask.

“Everything’s here” the shop owner would say wearily, without looking up from the game he was playing on his mobile phone.

And that was it, though I still allow for the possibility that a lot of stores stashed the good stuff to be hawked online, once the appearance of a shortage for any one item would arise. Perhaps they had even risen to the art of creating artificial shortages by buying up upwards of 50% of production of a limited edition model and then withholding it from sale for months at a time, creating a deficit. That’s something that’s been perfected by Eastern European diecast dealers. 

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The myth of finding model cars in Hong Kong from decades back turned out to be just that, a myth. Most shops were filled with models made merely in the last three years. And that makes sense in retrospect, as there is always the pressure to keep the newest things in stock and always keep up with trends. So finding models of Audis made by Schabak or Solido in the late 80s simply wasn’t going to happen. But the stores were overflowing with hundreds upon hundreds of new releases by Minichamps, and for the past few years this meant yet another Porsche 911 racer in some new racing livery. And that simple fact right there defeated the myth of ready availability of rarities from years ago.

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The local collectors were also seemingly unimpressed with all the racing models by Minichamps, and instead focused on buying things like large 1:18 scale models of everyday cars fom the 90s, like the Mercedes-Benz W124 sedan, or the Volvo 850R. And that raises the question of just whom Minichamps is stamping out all these racing cars for, year after year. The European collecting community, perhaps? But those liveried Porsches certainly weren’t the cars that the local collectors were buying.

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Another major myth turned out to be that the model cars would be laughably cheap, to the point where you could sweep dozens of cars into a suitcase. They weren’t. In fact, both for selection and price, they were about par with the internet, ignoring for a moment the reality that many of the stores on eBay are actually operated out in these very shops in Kowloon. A couple times I stumbled on the very cars that I had seen on eBay months or even years ago, like a green BMW E38 L7 ministretch in 1:43. Months prior I had glimpsed it a few times on eBay, squinting at the screen to see if all the details were glued properly, but I’d never thought I’d be holding that very BMW in my hands in a shop neighboring a giant beetle emporium in the center of Kowloon. About the only thing one would save in buying model cars in person would be shipping costs, which are surprisingly modest out of Hong Kong, unlike some closer locales (I am looking at you, UK).

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Has eBay killed the diecast hobby shop? Since hobby shops that carry diecast cars don’t really exist in our part of the world, I would surmise that eBay has really only raised the interest in the hobby. If there was a huge decline in the number of physical stores in Hong Kong, it certainly didn’t appear that way. eBay only strengthened the retail business, as a sizeable fraction of their sales are now over the interwebs, a worldwide audience these shops didn’t have a mere fifteen years ago.

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What did I end up buying? Certainly not what I came looking for, as packing 1:18 and 1:43 scale models into a suitcase would have meant leaving other things behind. So I loaded up on models of cars that I had never seen in real life in a scale that was travel friendly – the Tomica Limited Vintage line of classic Japanese sedans in 1:64. The details on these cars put many 1:43 cars to shame, and among other elements they feature photoetched trunklid badges that can barely be read with the naked eye. This disturbingly futuristic level of detailing was achieved in larger scales like 1:43 only fifteen years ago. The Tomica 1:64 cars were a bit pricey for their scale, about 9.00 USD each, but the attention to detail like on the Corolla above was amazing. These turned out to be infectious to the point that two cars weren’t enough, and I ended up coming back for more of them every few days. (That’s how they get you).

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If you’re ever dealt a 3-day layover in Hong Kong during what was supposed to be a short hop from Cleveland to Kansas City in your Kennedy-era MD-80 which still reeks of stale Winstons,  and you want to scope out some model cars or giant insects (or both), might I suggest simply visiting one location in Kowloon, the area of Dundas and Nathan Road in Mong Kok. There are at least half a dozen shops there, selling everything from RC cars to model airplanes to street cars in any scale. They’re great for impulse buys or loading up on gifts, and the mere sight of a thousand model cars lined up in a window is amazing.

But better yet, don’t buy anything there and just take in the sights and sounds of the city. Not the touristy sights that people flock to, but walk the streets and parks of the city without any goal aside from passing the time. I guarantee it will be more memorable than spending your time rushing from one tourist trap to another, and a much more real way to experience the city.

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As I wandered through the neon-lit streets of Kowloon at night, I half expected to find Bill Murray just standing and staring passively into some storefront window with a sour expression on his face, as if he’d seen all this before. I’d slowly walk up alongside, and we would stare into the same storefront for a minute or two.

“So, what are you doing here in Hong Kong?” I’d ask in a disinterested tone without diverting my gaze from the storefront.

“Just doing a whiskey commercial” Bill would say.

“Wanna go see some model cars I found?”



[Images: Copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Jay Ramey]

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41 responses to “One Hoon's Quest to Find the Source of all Diecast Cars”

  1. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    you're telling me there are 1:18 scale models of W124s and 850Rs?
    guess i'd better book my tickets..

  2. Maxichamp Avatar

    First, this is an awesome story.
    Second, my handle is a play on Minichamps.
    Third, back in 2005, before I got into collecting model cars, I stumbled upon a large store in Colmar, France, which exclusively sold 1/43 model cars of all brands. Business was not going well as the shopkeeper was smoking outside and lights were off inside to save electricity costs (I assume). They even had a 1/43 Ebbro Honda Accord/Acura TSX in the same color as my car in real life. I wish I had appreciated that store more.

  3. Jeff Glucker Avatar
    Jeff Glucker

    So are you trying to become the official photographer of Hooniverse or something?
    Jeez those are cool shots…

  4. MilesInland Avatar

    HongKong has been bled out for older diecast for over a decade now. That includes the tiny store under the stairs in West Market.
    Next time, try Shanghai, where you can find stores with nearly a million USD in inventory on display, including the giant GT-40s, fresh in the box…or, better yet, try the back alleys in Nanjing, where one small dusty toy shop had some many older diecast, I had to buy another suitcase.

    1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      I did go to Shanghai, went to about half a dozen stores there, didn't see too much really. Where's this one with a million USD in inventory?

      1. Maxichamp Avatar

        You'll love this story. I was in the Chilean desert port town of Iquique. It's one of those free trade zones. There was a dude walking through city traffic selling his wares to people stopped at red lights– 1/8 scale Moto GP bikes. That's how he made a living!

  5. Jared Ramey Avatar
    Jared Ramey

    Well, its good to know I am not the only Ramey that does this when I go to other countries. I did this same thing when I was in Madrid last year. Now when folks ask me about it, I can just say, no, you are confusing me with Jay.

    1. Maxichamp Avatar

      Tokyo has some great shops as well, but pricey.

  6. LTDScott Avatar

    Wow, this brings back some awesome childhood memories. When I was a kid growing up in Australia, my dad worked for Garuda, the Indonesian national airline, and because of this I got to travel frequently. Bali and Singapore were our two most frequent destinations. No trip to Singapore was complete without my parents taking me to some type of toy or department store to load up on Tomicas and other model and toy cars. I have fuzzy recollections of going into multi-level shopping centers with all kinds of stores, just like you described, in search of a small hobby shop where I'd get to pick out a few cars to take home with me.
    Of course these were new toys at the time (mid 1980s), so it wasn't a challenge like your toy hunt. Most of the models were of older Japanese vehicles, so it's pretty clear those trips and the toys I came home with are responsible for my love of Japanese nostalgic cars. Sadly I only have one of the Tomica Vintage collection so far.

  7. CrzRsn Avatar

    If you find yourself in southeast Michigan, you must stop Pasteiner's Auto Zone in Birmingham, MI. I only discovered the place a week ago, but it absolutely blew my mind. Got some pictures for you diecast lovers.
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    Needless to say, I didn't come home empty handed
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    1. onrails Avatar

      Where is this place? I'm not in that area too much these days…but I'm not far. I must go. And Google is not helping me.

      1. CrzRsn Avatar

        Its right on Woodward. Just north of 14 Mile on the northbound side.

    2. JayP2112 Avatar

      Reminds me of HobbyMaker here between Dallas and Ft Worth.
      Had a huge store- die casts, trains, models of everything, rockets, everything!! Everything!!!!
      About 10 years ago it had a going out of business sale. Sad days- but I got a few 1/18s and 1/43s.

  8. dukeisduke Avatar

    Wow, I wouldn't know where to start, but what really caught my eye is the F-8 Crusader.

  9. zackswheels Avatar

    Fantastic story! I really want to get into the collector hobby, but haven't been simultaneously overwhelmed by online retailers and underwhelmed by their stock. I want, no I need vintage Swedish iron of all shapes and sizes!

  10. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    Post of the week so far. Awesome.
    Indeed, unfortunately the internet has pretty much killed the sort of experience you're looking for. There are too many traders out there with ready funds who can speculate to accumulate. So it is with car brochures. There's so many people out there who just buy up everything in sight and immediately advertise it in their eBay shop at an hilarious mark-up. Witness the online shop of brochurequestuk on eBay, and the staggering prices he asks.
    Interestingly, his feedback shows exactly how much mark-up he intends to achieve.

    1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      There's another problem now, one that didn't exist 5 years ago. The level of retailer/manufacturer communication now means that any shop worth their salt just orders up their own limited series something from a given manufacturer, a process that now takes mere weeks with scanning and 3D printing and everything, buys up 100% of that production, and then sits back and doles out those limited cars. Its so easy now that any shop with a few thousand bucks just gets on the horn to HK where the design teams are, and manufacturing facilities out in the mainland are cranking out stuff days later. There are missteps sometimes when manufacturers get creative and end up making stuff that didn't exist, like some stretch Rolls cars, seemingly sculpting cars without photos to back them up.

  11. Maxichamp Avatar

    I bet you guys will dig this 1/20 F1 collection:

  12. Maxichamp Avatar

    Another story. While I was in Taipei, I asked my cab driver to take me to a place that sells diecast cars. He excitedly told me he'll take me to this wonderful place that Michael Jackson took some of his young friends recently when he was there for a concert.
    He dropped me off at Toys R Us. I was disappointed and pissed.

  13. Jay Avatar

    besides eBay is there a market for old Diecast cars? My father passed away a few years ago and left me with a crap load of them. Unfortunately I live in a apartment and have no intention of buying a house to store these beauties after a nasty divorce. So I have to pay for public storage but not only for just the car collection. I guess there is a few rare ones in there like a tucker which I don't know how rare the diecast version is as opposed to the real one. just curious on where to start trying to sell that stuff.

    1. Maxichamp Avatar

      I know a guy in Northern California who buys diecast cars from estates. If he is interested, he'll buy the lot. Where are you?

      1. Jay Avatar

        I am in San Diego.

        1. Maxichamp Avatar

          Contact this guy and tell him what you have.

          1. Jay Avatar

            Thank you

  14. Sjalabais Avatar

    This is the story we have all been waiting for, after you had spread one and another teaser in earlier diecast posts. I get a bit of that "Lost in Translation"-feeling, and my travel foot is itching. Well done! You know, I did some research on IXO/IST and contacted their official site for the specific models I am interested in – the ones that are not listed officially (anymore?) and that are only available on eBay – but their email-account appears to be dead. It all seems like I am too late to the diecast-hobby to be anything but eating the crumbs from a table that has been cleared.

    1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      Things are changing at IXO from week to week basically, but they've really cranked up their production to 11 with all the stuff they're putting out for DeAgostini magazines. Their eastern euro series alone are up to 350 cars or something like that, with new stuff every couple weeks. Contacting them is pointless cause theyre so decentralized, and they won't waste time retailing you stuff cause they have regional distribution contracts with DeAgostini which sells cars along with magazines at newspaper kiosks.
      To be honest, if you get to know one of the bigger eBay sellers from eastern Europe, which I haven't been able to do but some of my friends haves, I heard you can get stuff in bulk without them nickel and diming you with western shipping fees and western pricing.
      Most have tons of inventory from 4 years back that they cant shift domestically by retail, so they're charging triple the street price on eBay. But what they really wanna do is let it go like 10-20 cars at a time in a big box to a western buyer who pays them by Paypal. if you really wheel and deal with them and buy in bulk, they'll let you have stuff at $4 to $5 a piece.

      1. Maxichamp Avatar

        Dude, road trip to Budapest. Let's go.

        1. Sjalabais Avatar

          My thoughts exactly. Dragged my wife and two small kids on such an adventure in Krakow, but I was ill prepared. I spend my entire spare time at the Hooniverse,dammit. So how do I cosy up with the right retailer? I could easily order in bulk, just need to avoid the 25% VAT upon import to make this go round.

          1. Maxichamp Avatar

            I got my diecasts from a Russian guy in Grand Rapids for a while but I think he is not longer in business.

  15. Jay Avatar

    besides eBay is there a market for old Diecast cars? My father passed away a few years ago and left me with a crap load of them. Unfortunately I live in a apartment and have no intention of buying a house to store these beauties after a nasty divorce. So I have to pay for public storage but not only for just the car collection. I guess there is a few rare ones in there like a tucker which I don't know how rare the diecast version is as opposed to the real one. just curious on where to start trying to sell that stuff.

  16. Ray Avatar

    There is a store that stocks up on a lot of expensive diecast cars in Wanchai, located in the upper floor in mall of the CC Wu Building . Got a pic on instagram:

    1. mseoul Avatar

      There is a street market opposite Hopewell Centre in Hong Kong with 5 or 6 "Toy Shops". They may be a little more pedestrian and low end than the specialty die cast shops but for an amateur or starter they'll be OK and the prices usually lower. Did you see this area?
      Not to forget: Great article and photos!

      1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

        Thanks! I lived a block away from Hopewell, and those streets opp Hopewell are actually where I picked up most of the Tomica 1:64 cars, like the Corolla above.
        CC Wu I have been to, that was one of the more high end ones I recall. Excellent giant robot selection there, but the cars were pricey and not particularly varied. High end 1:18s mostly, from what I recall.

        1. mseoul Avatar

          Those toy shops have some great bargains. For Power Ranger action figure collectors: on a recent trip I got 12 standard size pcs. for 100 Hong Kong Dollars. ~ $13 USD. Sorry for off-car talk, but its Hong Kong talk that got me going.
          For the HK native. If you missed the area opposite Hopewell for a few years, its 80% redeveloped. The little market has survived though.

  17. Lotte Avatar

    omggggg this one hits close to home! I'm a native H'Konger and I've just went back last year (if you were there from June to December, we could've totally met up, dude!) and spent a couple days looking for model cars too. Hell, I think I recognize that storefront; it's among a bunch on Sai Yee street, near Mong Kok East station, getting lost coming out of the station and finding a million shoe stores instead (I'm more Canadian than I am Chinese). I believe that's the place with the highest concentration of model stores, as multiple uncles have all suggested that place (with a nod and a wink, natch). And a lot of remote control and plastic 1:24 kits, too. And war game artillery.
    I would like to know where you took that photo of the buses, though!! All I know is the model bus shop inside the swank Langham Place. Which I guess all you tourist muffins already know about 😉 I would've totally caved and bought a bus if only they sold the route I took to work in those months I was there. Alas, my wallet is safe. I bought a Tomica limited edition HK Taxi for way-too-much-for-a-Tomica instead.

    1. Sze Avatar

      In your quest for die cast buses, did you check the KMB customer service centers? There's one in the bus terminus outside the Star Ferry in Tsim Sha Tsui, and I believe there's still one at the bus terminus at Tsuen Wan station.
      I need to get back soon (more American than Hong Konger, but still) – my daughter needs some sweet KMB die-cast buses.

      1. Lotte Avatar

        Really!? I was working in Tsuen Wan. I do tend to get lost, though, the city's so big and busy. I do have a few novelty stationery items (turnstile tape dispenser, trash can pencil sharpener…wait, those are MTR stuff) as gifts. I have a "KNB" diecast bus…thumbs-uppy for getting the real merchandise!
        And to be fair, my "quests" were more like "Let's see if we can find something to do in the afternoon before we have dim sum with grandma"…

    2. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      That bus display, I recall, was in a model bus and souvenir shop in one of the historical buildings in Central, not too far from city hall and statue square if I recall correctly. They had a lot of KMB buses and sets, that's what I remember.

  18. Louis Avatar

    I remember… though it was many years the last time i visited… Kwong Wah street

  19. Sjalabais Avatar

    Btw, if I'd want station wagons in metall or wood or maybe even plastic for my nine month old boy to play with, where and what am I looking for? I am easily overwhelmed by the choice available.

  20. robbydegraff Avatar

    This, is an awesome story. Really good job, enjoyed it a lot!

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