One Man, Thousands Upon Thousands of Model Cars

Dave Shearsbey looks around at his collection and slowly shakes his head. “I’ve gone overboard,” he says. “I know I’ve gone overboard.”

The thing is, as Dave surveys countless rows of model cars crammed floor to ceiling along every wall of a room the size of a two-car garage, he can see only one-fourth of his vast collection.

That’s right: The other three-fourths of his 20,000 models are carefully packed away: in other rooms, in boxes, in cabinets, in the attic, in a stuffed-to-the-rafters 15x30-foot outbuilding. His collection, you see, has a will of its own.

While Dave’s model collection will indeed boggle your mind, it doesn’t begin to define the extremes of his, er, addiction. Along with models, Dave collects Jaguar memorabilia—a story in itself. He collects automotive sales brochures, advertisements, books and technical manuals. He collects motorsports posters. He collects watches. He collects guns. He collects knives. He collects silver. He even collects full-sized Jaguars (currently seven, including parts cars). 

But we’re just going to tell you about his models. Well, most of them.

Model Behavior

Dave, an engaging import from the United Kingdom who lives near Orlando, Florida, has spent 40 years amassing his hoard of model cars. He is a lifelong lover of all things Jaguar and spent his entire career working for the company, both in England and the U.S. 

As a kid, he was always obsessed with cars—and trucks and trains and planes. Anything with an engine, really. He started amassing—and assembling—models at an early age and has never stopped. He believes that his collection may be unique in size and scope.

“I started buying these when they were 5 cents, or 10 cents, or a couple of dollars,” he says. “I can’t afford the prices that are paid now.”

Even if someone had the money to attempt to duplicate this collection, the rarity of many of the models it contains would make it nearly impossible. Dave explains, “You could never get this collection together today, because so many of these companies are no longer in business. I have stuff people have never seen before. See those Jaguars over there? The company made only 50 of them, and they have been out of business for 10 years. You simply can’t find one today.”

Wide-Angle View

According to Dave, many folks who collect model cars tend to focus on one particular scale, like 1:64, 1:43 or 1:18.  The selection of models in just one of these scales is enormous, providing collectors with thousands of variations—enough of a challenge for most people.

But Dave wanted more. As he puts it, “I’m a bit of an unusual collector.” His collection encompasses virtually all scales, ranging from 1:64 to 1:12, and from promotional models to large toys. The stockpile features examples from about 1000 makers, including Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Yesteryear, Corgi, Dinky, Brumm, Solido, Maisto, Majorette, Reo, AMT, Spot-On, Superfast, Franklin Mint, Danbury Mint—even Jim Beam and Rolls-Royce model decanters, some with booze still in them. And yes, it also contains some Barbie cars. 

The cache includes examples made from tin and pressed steel, zinc alloy, die-cast metal and plastic. It’s got models powered by wind-up mechanisms, friction, electricity and steam—there are even some kid-sized pedal cars. It contains examples from virtually every country that ever made model cars, with vintages ranging from 1901 to today. His models range in value from a few bucks to several thousand, and many still have their coveted boxes.

That is a bare-bones description of Dave’s collection. We could go on, but you begin to get the idea.

The Thrill of the Hunt

Dave says the thrill of the hunt keeps him going. “That complete set of Matchbox 75 models from 1956 to 1966,” he says, “took me at least 10 years [to gather]. I had to have one of each, and I didn’t care how I did it.” 

He flies to England a few times a year, where the model market is stronger and more active than in the U.S. However, he’s bought cars all over the world. 

He goes to shows and swap meets, he haunts garage sales, antique shops and thrift stores, he scours any place a model could turn up. And then there’s eBay, although Dave uses that mostly for selling. A keen trader, he has acquired many models through complicated swaps.

While these cars can be quite valuable, Dave still finds bargains. He recently ran across a rare Marx-made plastic Mack Truck auto transporter in a thrift store. He recognized it immediately. “I thought the tag said $60. I had to have it,” he says. “I didn’t think I had 60 bucks on me. I was ready to use my credit card.” 

Turns out, the tag read $6. He bought the truck immediately. Once home, he looked it up in one of his many reference books and found it listed at $600.

A year or so ago, Dave struck gold again. He was in the market for a metalworking lathe, so he drove to a nearby town to examine one. While chatting with the owner, Dave mentioned he collected model cars. 

The owner took him to an adjacent building, where he revealed a huge trove of model cars. “He had boxes and boxes and boxes,” Dave says. “Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Johnny Lightning and more, all wrapped up.” Turns out, the guy had bought them years ago, planning to open a model store. He claimed he had spent $20,000 on the lot. 

Soon, Dave and the owner were dickering. Did we mention Dave loves to dicker? He ended up trading the Jeep Grand Cherokee he was driving (which he says he had about $1000 in) for the complete store of models. It took a truck and trailer to get them home. “I have maybe 7000 Hot Wheels, still in their blister packs, sitting in my building out back,” he says. “I’m still cataloging them.” Dave never did buy that lathe.

And then there’s the rare red Jag 120 coupe by Matchbox he found at a show. He remembers the seller saying, “Somebody painted it; they’re normally white.” Bells went off. “I bought it for $2,” he recalls. “I was so excited I called my wife and told her I bought a red Jaguar 120. She thought I meant a real Jag.” Dave says that particular model is now worth nearly $600. 

Several years ago, on the Isle of Cyprus, he happened on an antique shop. “All along the top shelf, he had all these old tin-plate, wind-up toys like this one, still in their boxes,” Dave says, leaping up and plucking one off the shelf.

In the store, Dave also noticed a number of cameras—did we mention that Dave also collected cameras? He ended up trading his Polaroid cameras —which were back in the States—for nearly 800 rare tin-plate toys from the 1950s and ’60s. Jackpot.

“The fun of the find,” he says, “is where the reward really is.”

Keeping Track

Over the years, Dave has developed an extraordinary eye for models, their variations and their value, and he knows his collection inside and out. When he’s on the hunt, he says, “I can spot something at a flea market, and I know immediately if I have it already.” 

He claims he knows the position of every car on display in his former two-car garage. “You can come in this room and move any two cars, and I can come in and immediately spot the ones you’ve moved,” he says. Of course, Dave has developed a comprehensive computer record to keep track of the collection, which he says is valued—depending on the state of the market—at around $300,000. It is fully insured. 

What’s Ahead?

Behind every collector like Dave, you’ll find a long-suffering, or at least indulgent, spouse. “At first, it used to upset her,” Dave admits, “and after a while, she started to get used to it.” She even started buying him the occasional model for a present, and he says that a particular Jag XJ12 racing coupe she bought for him is one of his “most precious” models.

Long ago, Dave and his wife reached an agreement: When he retired, he would sell his model collection. Dave retired two years ago. True to his word, he’s been doing some thinning—when he isn’t buying or trading.

Even these days, he can’t resist a bargain; not long ago he picked up 80 desirable models by Franklin Mint. “I have slowed down, and would consider selling the whole collection for the right price,” he says. “My wife tells me it belongs in a bloody museum, not in a house.” 

After 40 years of nonstop collecting, Dave reflects on the results: “Would I start it up again? Maybe just a little bit, but nowhere near the extent I have now.” But then his eyes light up and he tells us about the flea market he plans to visit the next day.

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