Palo Alto Weekly Online: Publication Date: Wednesday Dec 18, 1996

People: David Peterson: collecting his past

Collecting vintage automobiles is a common hobby among Fortune 500 executives, movie stars and others big-time bread winners. They fill their mansions' multi-car garages with rare beauties from yesteryear. But even Bill Gates probably can't compete with Palo Alto resident David Peterson in terms of sheer number of vehicles. Peterson estimates that he owns about 2,500 cars. And he doesn't have to worry about having enough garage space to house them; he can just put them in the closet.

Peterson is the president of the Bay Area Matchbox Collectors' Association, roughly 70 members strong.

This 38-year-old Matchbox enthusiast began collecting the little cars as a youth growing up in Wisconsin.

"My dad brought my first one home in 1963, when I was five," he said.

Does he remember what car it was?

"I do," he said. "I'll show you a picture of it."

He opens a book on the history of Matchbox cars and flips through the pages.

"Here it is," he says, pointing to what he calls a RAF pressure refueller. "RAF being the Royal Air Force, of course."

Of course.

"Dad, got me hooked," he testified about his passion for Matchbox cars. "They require a lot of imagination as you roll them around.

"It was pretty darn cheap for my parents too, at 55 cents a pop." Matchbox celebrates its 50th anniversary in 1997, and in half a century the toy cars have turned into true collector items. Peterson explains that collectors usually spend $15 to $100 for these vintage toys, with the average cost being around $35. But, he says, a really rare one can run nearly $1,000.

The cars were originally sold in rectangle packages that closely resembled real matchboxes, and they are still sold that way at some collector shops, he says.

Peterson still has the miniature cars from his youth.

"I never buried them in the back yard," he said. "My mom never sold them in a garage sale."

But he did stop collecting about the time he hit junior high, and didn't really start again until 1992, when he learned about the Bay Area Matchbox Collector's Association. Unfortunately, those cars that would have cost a few quarters if he would have purchased them when they were originally released were now considered collectors' items.

"I've had to go back and fill in (the collection) at higher prices," he said.

The Matchbox group is celebrating its silver anniversary with a display of classic toy cars at the Museum of American Heritage, 3401 El Camino Real, Palo Alto. The museum is open Fridays through Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., for those who want to check out the roughly 260-item sampling of Matchbox cars (for more information, call 321-1004).

Most of the cars on display belong to Peterson.

The focus of Peterson's collection is Matchbox toys made before 1970. He opens a yellow plastic carrying case, filled with small plastic compartments, and shows some of his collectibles--a small red truck with a white shell, a tractor and more. They look like toys that you--or maybe your mom, dad, brother or sister--could have played with as a child. Part of the allure of these Matchbox cars is certainly the nostalgia.

"You pick up this toy that you played with as a little boy, and it takes you back," he said.

He keeps a portion of his Matchbox cars in a display case, the others in storage. Having a designated place for the toys helps keep his hobby from taking over his home--which pleases his wife, Lynne. And it is definitely a hobby that can take over a person's life.

"There's some people who seem to be fanatical," he said. "They'll call you up and talk to you and talk to you, and you'll be like, 'Get a life-- little cars aren't everything.'"

--Jim Harrington