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Longing for the Days of Matchbox and Hot Wheels When It Comes to Buying a New Car

by on June 05, 2018 4:00 AM


Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels cars. As a kid these two items took up many happy minutes of my youthful life as well as a few dollars of my allowance and paper-route money.

In the days before a young man turned 16, before he got a driver’s license, could drive a real car on a real street and feel like the King of the Road, the best alternative to feed that “need for speed” was to purchase miniature replicas of the cars you dreamed of one day driving, put them in cases you could carry over to a friend’s house, and spend hours playing with them and daydreaming of the time when you would sit behind the wheel of that exact car. So I did.

Every week or two I would put some coins and a few dollars in my pocket, walk or ride my bike to the toy store in center city Williamsport (or sometimes tag along on a family shopping trip), and trudge downstairs to the enormous display of die-cast metal miniature cars. They were all encased in their own cardboard and clear plastic packaging and hanging from peg hooks on a slat wall, often with several different cars on each peg. Every car and truck had realistic details and wheels that spun true. Some even had working doors. All available to purchase for the princely sum of 99 cents.

I would spend what seemed like an eternity in front of the display, pulling vehicles off the wall, carefully considering them one-by-one – Matchbox cars for more realistic visualization, Hot Wheels for more futuristic imaginings – checking my mental inventory of whether I already had the car or not, and placing them back on the wall until I finally made a decision. Then I would take my purchase upstairs to the checkout counter, pay, go home and add the new object of affection to my growing collection.

In the decades since I’ve had the opportunity to, by myself and with my wife, buy a number of real full-size cars. We’ve owned, in no particular order, vehicles manufactured by Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Toyota, Dodge, Plymouth, Ford, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Honda. We’ve bought more than one vehicle from a couple of those brands, and a few of them fed youthful images of fun and excitement on the open road. But a number of them mainly fed a desire to satisfy a rational, financially-responsible need.

And in almost every case, the amount of time it took to make a buying decision was proportional, dollar-by-dollar, to the amount of time it would take me to make a Matchbox-buying decision. So the perceived eternity became a perceived eternity times thousands.  

Recently we found ourselves considering the addition of a new vehicle to our family. Something we hadn’t done since December 2009, and something I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.

It was in this less-than-excited mind-frame that a week ago I joined my wife in laying the early groundwork for what might become the next Hook household vehicle with a Disney character nickname. Currently we have Mickey and Daisy. We exhausted Minnie in 2009. Since this new vehicle will primarily be driven by my wife, it will receive a female character’s name. I believe Grandmother Willow is leading in the family voting.

The first thing which stood out as we began our research – like a 900-pound sore thumb – was the pricing. I still clearly remember the first time in my life when we spent more than $20,000 on a car. And the purchase in December 2009 had been the first time we cracked the $30,000 barrier. Perhaps this played a part in why it’s almost a decade later before we are attempting this process again.

Because it appears a vehicle capable of completely, safely and comfortably enclosing four good-sized humans and transporting them with reasonable speed and power is now over $40,000. In my mind I believe anything costing that much should have a bathroom, a bed and a place to cook. Since we do also own a 36-foot Class A Recreational Vehicle, I know from whence I speak.

But that is the universe we find ourselves occupying these days. A new, all-wheel-drive vehicle with three rows of seats and a few other amenities will cost you more than $40,000. It appeared we were going to have to adjust the mental reality of what we planned to spend.

And in a karmic bit of nudging, the internet provided us with the news that the giant consumer credit reporting agency Experian had just released their first-quarter 2018 “State of the Automotive Finance Market.” It seems automotive financing is setting all kinds of records. The average amount of a new car loan for the first three months of 2018 was $31,453 – a record. The average monthly payment was $523 – a record. The average loan term is now just over 69 months – and 72 months is the most common term chosen. Even used cars got into the act, setting a record of $19,536 for the average amount financed.

Those in the industry will say at least part of this is not surprising news. As interest rates rise – the average new vehicle loan now has a 5.17 percent rate – then loan payments also rise if car prices stay the same (and they’re not going down).

All of which means the mental numbers we were tossing around in our heads regarding price, down payments, and loan length needed some adjusting. And as we take our time adjusting to this new reality we just might set a record of our own. The longest we’ve ever owned a vehicle was 10 years. If we can hold off on this decision for another year and a few months we’ll break that record.

In the meantime I might just go spend a few dollars on some Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars.

John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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