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Snapshot: Bellefonte collection features rare array of mint Matchbox and other die-cast vehicles

by on December 02, 2019 1:06 PM

For anyone who collected Matchbox cars as a kid, a walk around Christian Bechdel’s elaborate display is a fascinating trip back in time.

But for Bechdel, it’s much more than that; it’s a 50-year labor of love.

Bechdel has more than 13,000 die-cast vehicles on display in his small museum in Bellefonte.

He’s partial to the classic Matchbox vehicles, made by Lesney Products from the early 1950s through 1982. But his collection also includes Corgi, Dinky, and even Hot Wheels, though he’s not a fan of the latter’s “freakishly futuristic” models.

Similar to baseball cards and other vintage collectibles, the hobby can be serious business.

“I don’t like to use the word toy, because these aren't toys; these are collectibles,” Bechdel says.

While Matchbox vehicles sold for 59 cents in the 1960s, many produced through the years are worth much, much more these days.

For example, someone a few years back sold a rare BP Dodge tow truck with a reverse color scheme (green body, yellow bed, gray hook) on eBay for more than $8,000, he notes.

“I don’t think you’ll see another one; not in my lifetime,” Bechdel says.

But Bechdel doesn’t sell any of his vast array of vehicles. For him, the joy is in the collection.

As with many people, Bechdel started gettng the vehicles as a child (he grew up in Beech Creek); he still has some of the originals from those days.

“Although I played with my early Matchboxes outside, I took pretty good care of them and they did not become play-worn,” he says. “I did at one point sacrilegiously paint orange-red tail and turn signals on some of my cars, but that didn’t last long.”

In the early 1970s, Bechdel “got more serious” about his collection.

While his originals weren’t thrown out, he’s replaced them with vehicles in better condition.

In 1980, Bechdel viewed “a large local, mainly 1960s Matchbox collection. I had never seen one like it before, but the sheer grandeur and beauty took hold of me and it became my life’s goal to have a similar collection,” he says.

Consider that mission accomplished.

His collection was helped along by a college girlfriend, he says.

She “had a large, mint 1960s Matchbox collection that she was willing to give me, but her parents insisted that I pay her market value for them,” he says. “It was worth it because the cars were in great shape – fortunately, her parents had the wisdom to limit play to indoors only.”

He’s further built the collection through retail, mail order, die-cast show collecting, and eBay.

Bechdel’s die-cast collection features vehicles from countries all over the world, including Spain, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The collection includes one-of-a-kind factory errors, pre-productions, and custom-made vehicles.

“I’ve got everything from Argentina to Israel,” he says. “I just spread myself all over the place. I don’t just have a particular category; I get all makes and models.”

While the collection includes virtually everything under the sun, emergency vehicles head the list.

“The variations are just incredible to me, so I focus on that,” he says.

It’s those variations that can make the vehicles quite rare.

Bechdel says he has virtually all emergency variations except that “unattainable” BP reverse-color tow truck and a Mercury police station wagon he’s seen listed in a catalogue with twin amber-colored dome lights.

“I don’t think it exists,” he says.

Among his collection is a white Mercury police car with a rare red (rather than blue) dome light.

In 1991, Bechdel even purchased a real 1965 Cadillac ambulance, which he drove for 17 years until the motor stopped working.

Bechdel’s museum also features vintage railroad collectibles, including wooden crossing gates from Lock Haven that date to the 1920s or 1930s. But his most treasured piece is a New York Central sign workers cut from the side of a boxcar for him as it was being scrapped.

“That’s got to be my best railroad prize,” he says. “You just won’t see anything like that saved.”

In 2013, Bechdel moved his collection into its current space at South Spring Street and lower Bishop, across from NAPA Auto Parts. He’ll open his collection – mostly displayed in cases he’s acquired through the years – to visitors on December 14 (during Victorian Christmas). The display is also open by appointment – call (802) 355-9086.

As for how he continues to build his collection, Bechdel says that, “A lot of the stuff on eBay, I don’t even go and look for it; it just finds me. …I’m just around in the right place at the right time, and I come across something.”

 

Mark Brackenbury is editorial director of Town&Gown.

 

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