The 1990s marked the end of an era when there were a number of beloved toy lines, before real toys were overtaken by a tsunami of computer games. The 90s was also the heyday of collectible toys, especially action figures, before that market experienced an implosion in the early 2000s. Do you remember the reports of store fights about rare toys during the holidays? Kids, collectors, scalpers and casual buyers have responded to the trend for limited-edition toys, some of which could fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars on the secondary market. And all of this was before eBay.
The 1990s also marked the end of an era characterized by the strong presence of a variety of small cars in supermarkets, department stores, toy shops and pharmacies – the ranges offered today represent only a fraction of everything that was once within reach. Now, big-box stores often don’t even offer model kits and paint supplies, focusing on moving fewer lines of merchandise much faster than in previous decades. Consumer tastes have also evolved, with once mighty toy lines reduced to a few items on the pegs.
From the perspective of 2019, the toy landscape of the 1990s may look like a giant bubble that has burst, like all bubbles. But one positive aspect of the hoarding that was rampant at the time is that many rare toys can now be easily found for just a few dollars on eBay or other auction sites.
Here are some of our favorite miniature car lines from the 1990s, some of which are still on store shelves, and some that have disappeared and can only be found on auction sites.
Road Champs was a brand that offered many different scale die-cast vehicles, mostly toy quality, but for some reason one of the most popular lines ended up being the Chevy Caprice State Police cars. of the 1991 generation. Of course, the different State Police liveries on these cars were very approximate and they all had the same light bar shape, though sometimes in different colors. These were inexpensive when new, but for some reason the Caprice’s popularity never quite translated into most of the other vehicles Road Champs offered. Jeep Grand Cherokees, also in police livery or without, didn’t seem to do as well at retail, and neither did the Ford Explorer despite map graphics featuring officers with epic police-issued mustaches.
Part of the reason, we suspect, is that Road Champs felt the sculpting of the 1991-generation Explorer and Crown Vic, to the point where you had to squint to see the resemblance. The Caprice didn’t have this problem, although the sculpting was still a bit simplified – you could still tell it was Caprice. The biggest missed opportunity of this line is that Road Champs did not offer station wagon versions of the Caprice, Buick Roadmaster or Olds Custom Cruiser of this same generation, nor the boxy Caprice police cars of the 1980s.
Micro machines were a major retail toy phenomenon in the late 1980s and 1990s, following their debut in 1987. The range of cars, trucks, boats, buses, race cars and airplanes has seemed to grow exponentially, as did the variety of playsets that Lewis Galoob Toys Inc. pumped out each year. The sheer number of different cars was hard to track for comprehensive collectors, but the toys themselves were highly addictive. They also tended to get lost easily when rolling under sofas, so just had go back to the store to buy more (that’s how they buy you).
Micro Machines’ range of cars seemed to peak in the late 1990s, but by then it was already overshadowed by the various television and sci-fi film licenses acquired by Lewis Galoob Toys – these were hunted by scalpers and collectors, and some continue to be highly prized to this day. (We’re talking north of $100 for a large set). Individual sets of Micro Machines cars, on the other hand, can be very affordable today, new, and eBay is your best friend when it comes to finding bargains, as well as rarer sets.
For 1:18 scale 1990s exotic cars, Maisto remains a hard value to beat. And despite the fact that they were produced over two decades ago, they are still very easy and inexpensive to find new in box when it comes to cars like the Porsche 911, Bugatti EB110, McLaren F1, the BMW 325i, the Jaguar XJ220, the Chevrolet Corvette. ZR-1, Lamborghini Diablo or the Ferrari F50. Maisto’s 1990s range was deeper than that, but what remains surprising is how detailed they were for their prices back then and how affordable they still are today.
You may have noticed that all of the cars listed above are sports cars, and that’s just one market factor: Maisto didn’t produce 1:18 scale models of anything like the Volvo 240 or the Oldsmobile Silhouette, so mundane cars from the 90s in 1:18 scale tend to be much more expensive offerings from AutoArt or Minichamps, if they were produced at all.
Have you heard of this small range of cars? Yes, Hot Wheels cars were a powerhouse long before the 1990s, and they only cemented their grip on the super-affordable 1:64 scale die-cast toy car segment by buying out its biggest rival. close, Matchbox, in 1997. Produced by toy giant Mattel, Hot Wheels were offered absolutely everywhere, and their minute variations made them objects that could be collected all day long without running out of things to find – Hot Wheels had mastered the art to keep collectors on the hook decades ago.
To keep track of each, numbers were introduced for each model in 1989, from 1 to 274, with some numbers skipped. The Treasure Hunt series arrived in 1995 to drive collectors even crazier, with 10,000 production sets and a new model arriving every month. If you thought Star Wars toys were hard to collect in the ’90s, Hot Wheels offered a whole new dimension that drove up the prices. Luckily, this Treasure Hunt series was actually labeled as such, because before the internet, it wasn’t easy to get information about models that were limited editions with only a few thousand releases worldwide.
Hot Wheels’ eternal rival was (and is) Matchbox, which started in England in the 1950s as a brand of Lesney Products, until Matchbox was taken over by Hot Wheels owner Mattel in 1997. Matchbox cars of the 1:64 variety dominated die-casting. The early toy business, developing a rivalry with Hot Wheels, but focusing on real cars and trucks in contrast to the wilder Hot Wheels designs while maintaining a toy-like quality. For example: Hot Wheels wouldn’t make something like a Rover 800 sedan, whereas Matchbox had such a thing in the late 1980s. But it was still built to a standard of toy sturdiness, not display quality, so these could tolerate being stepped on (but don’t).
Matchbox had many hits in the 1990s, including NASCAR race cars, designed to be as realistic as possible in 1:64 scale, but its real appeal was very ordinary cars like the Isuzu Rodeo SUV. Matchbox even dabbled in Micro Machines-like Micro Machines-sized five-car packs, largely because what Lewis Galoob Toys was doing couldn’t be patented – it was just a scale model car. The Matchbox version of these were called Micro Matchbox Vehicles.
Let’s say you liked the concept of building scale models, but didn’t have the patience to glue on parts or apply those annoying decals. Revell’s SnapTite model kits were just the ticket, designed to snap together and hold (at least for a while), with non-tearing stickers in place of decals. It also helped that the plastic parts were molded in the correct base color you needed, so you didn’t even have to prime and paint the models. SnapTite models were even available in most major supermarkets. Remember when they had a huge selection of kits? This is no longer the case with many big box stores, as model kits have retreated to craft stores or gone online – the demand just isn’t there for big box stores to keep them on the shelves all year round.
Revell’s NASCAR line was quite popular in the 1990s, but the strength of the model kit line was in very ordinary cars, as well as popular cars like muscle cars and exotic cars. As always, if you’re looking for something specific from decades ago, it’s a lot easier to find it online than looking in hobby stores, as many of them don’t stock hobby items. 20 or 30 years ago. But thanks to the magic of eBay, it’s possible to nab a SnapTite model kit from the 1990s for just a few bucks.
What other model car lines do you remember from the 90s?
Let us know in the comments below.
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