New Jersey’s Matchbox car museum is bigger than you might think

The Matchbox Road Museum showcases 50,000 pieces of Matchbox memorabilia, including the well-known miniature models, concept cars, one-offs for special events and even board games.

Everett Marshall is the owner of the Matchbox Road Museum. He created because he just loves these little cars. (Bas Slabbers/for WHYY)

Everett Marshall’s Matchbox Road Museum is in an ordinary neighborhood in Newfield, New Jersey, a town just north of Vineland and a little less than halfway between Philly and Wildwood. The museum is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it; you can only see the giant Matchbox model and “Matchbox Road Museum” letters on the side of the converted three-car garage if you turn onto Marshall’s street.

But don’t let the museum’s anonymity fool you. The building comprises 50,000 pieces of Matchbox memorabilia, including the well-known miniature models, concept cars, one-offs for special events and even board games.

“I never say I’m the largest [collection], because you don’t know that,” Marshall, Newfield’s former mayor, said. “I would say that I have the largest public display of Matchbox toys in the world. Period. There’s no question about that.”

Marshall began collecting the toy cars in 1980 after Matchbox filed for bankruptcy. He went out and bought about 50 models for his then-three-year-old son. He fished out his own Matchbox cars and threw them up on a shelf in his basement. He then set out to buy the all of the original 75 models that Matchbox produced annually, thinking that they might become valuable for his son if Matchbox folded.

But when he looked at the models hanging on the wall at the Toys R Us in Deptford, N.J., he noticed that there were variations between cars of the same model. Individual cars had variances. Intrigued, Marshall started buying the variant copies of the same model, and that’s how the museum started.

When Matchbox was a New Jersey company

TYCO TOYTyco Toys bought Matchbox in 1992 and moved operations from England, where Matchbox was created in the 1950s, to Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. This is when Marshall became directly involved with Matchbox. The toy company wanted to create a Mack fire truck model, and a Matchbox employee, who Marshall had met and befriended at a toy show, asked Marshall (who was then a volunteer fire fighter for Newfield borough) for help. The friend came and measured a real-life Mack fire truck, and the resulting model had Newfield Borough Fire Co. printed on the side for a few casting.

Marshall also had his name and company logo (he used to own a petroleum trucking company in town called Marshall Service) emblazoned on the hood of a Buick race-car model. The model was a Christmas gift from a designer friend at Matchbox.

“It was sold, obviously, all over the world…and [my] kids would come up to the counter and say, “That’s my dad! That’s my dad on there!” Marshall said. (That same model is a part of the Matchbox Road Museum’s sign.)

Marshall’s museum became a source of institutional memory for Matchbox employees after the company moved to Mt. Laurel.

“A group of them would come down here and they’d see things that they’d already done that they didn’t know they’d already done,” he said. “‘This is a great idea, let’s do two-for-one!’ Well, you did two-for-one in 1958, why would you do it again? But they didn’t know because they were new people.”

A toy small enough for a matchbox

20150330 MATCHBOX BOX 1200Matchbox started in 1952 when Jack Odell’s daughter needed to bring a toy small enough to fit in a matchbox to class. Odell casted a miniature steamroller and gave it to his daughter. That steamroller would eventually become the first model of original 75 models that Odell and his partners would go on to create.

In 1968, Hot Wheels debuted and became the first direct competition to Matchbox. After Matchbox filed for bankruptcy in 1980, a Hong Kong-based toy manufacturer bought the company. Tyco Toys bought Matchbox from them in 1992, and Mattel – Hot Wheel’s producer – ultimately acquired the Matchbox brand in 1997. Matchbox operations moved to El Segundo, California in 2005 to join Mattel’s other brands.

$6,000 toy car

Certain cars are valuable because of variations in the model: different window tints, defects in the mold, the type or color of tires. Marshall’s most expensive piece is a taxicab from the original line of 75 models. The tires are a different color than all the rest of the toy taxicabs, and that variation earns the model its $6,000 price tag.

Other variations resulted from the toy cars’ handmade origins. Each car used to be hand-painted, which sometimes resulted in different colors and details. The wrong wheels – particularly important to collectors – could have been applied to the wrong models. Matchbox also would often mix colored plastics, creating different shades of windows on the same type of car across castings in an effort to conserve materials.

So why does Marshall and others go through the trouble to collect these defects? “The fun of collecting is hunting, and finding,” he said. “That’s the key to the whole thing.”

Still, he said, hunting is not what it used to be.

“You can’t go to a store and find stuff now,” he said. “It’s just not there. It’s not as much fun as it used to be. There’s no toy shows anymore to speak of. Everything’s on eBay, and people pay much, much more than they should, in my opinion.”

Museum may leave N.J.

20150330 logo man 1200Marshall spends most of his time in Florida, though he doesn’t mind flying north to show visitors the museum. Still, he isn’t certain about the museum’s future.

“I mean, it’s going to continue, obviously, but whether it stays in Newfield or not or moves to Florida, I don’t know.”

As long as people want to see the museum, though, he said he’ll keep showing it.

“Usually when a newspaper article comes out, then we’ll get a bit of a rush, but I’ve got people that come here, ‘Oh, I have an article from five years ago! And we just found it, and we’re finally coming.'”

The Matchbox Road Museum is located at:

15 Pearl Street, Newfield, N.J 08344

To make an appointment to see the museum call Everett Marshall at (856) 697-6900

Related links:

2001 People Magazine story on the museum

2002 New York Times story on the museum

2013 NJ.com story on the museum

 

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