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Tiny Cars, Big Prices: 5 Really Expensive Toy Cars

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For over 50 years, kids have spent their summer afternoons playing with toy cars sporting the Matchbox or Hot Wheels logos. As these kids grow up and are looking to recapture some of that childhood bliss, they wind up paying a pretty penny for cars that once went for small change. Here are five examples.

Matchbox

Started in 1953 by the British company Lesney Products, the Matchbox line of toy cars lived up to their name, as they were designed to fit inside a matchbox so kids could take them to school. Due to their longevity in the market, there are plenty of devoted fans who still collect these small-scale vehicles today. And some of these fans are willing to pay as much for a car that fits in a matchbox as they are for one that fits in a garage.

1. 1961 Magirus Deutz Crane, AKA "Matchbox No. 30"

When Matchbox released their "No. 30" car in 1961, a crane truck whose full-sized counterpart was built by German manufacturer Magirus Deutz, it came with a silver body and an orange crane. Before it was discontinued in 1965, there were as many as 27 variations of the truck, ranging from the type of rivets used to a smooth or bumpy cover on the bottom. Depending on the variation, the value can fall anywhere between $30 - $100. But unless you're a collector, you'd probably never know the difference from one car to the next.

There is one variant that just about anyone would notice, but trucks with that variant are nearly impossible to find. Instead of the standard silver body and orange crane, a handful of pre-production models were light brown and had either a red or an orange crane. Because this color scheme is extremely rare, it demands a high price from collectors. In the 1980s, collector Charlie Mack purchased a brown No. 30 at a neighbor's garage sale for $10. Three years later, he sold it at auction for $10,000. In 2004, Jim Gallegos, whose 35,000 car collection is worth over $1.4 million, purchased a brown No. 30 crane for $13,000. Considering the original price for the toy would have been less than 50 cents, that's quite a nice return on investment.

2. The Matchbox Quarry Truck

Before Lesney Products' Matchbox line really took off, the company considered manufacturing larger model cars and trucks called the "Major Scale" collection. While a normal Matchbox car is around 2" long, the Major Scale models would have been closer to 10 or 11". As a proof of concept in 1954, a handful of Major Scale prototype dump trucks were personally made by chief model maker Ken Wetton. However, right about that time is when the smaller vehicles started to become popular, so the idea for larger versions was abandoned.


Over the years, the other prototype trucks were lost, but one remained in the Lesney offices as a souvenir. That truck is believed to be the only prototype left, as well as the only surviving example of work that can be directly attributed to Ken Wetton. Because of the sentimental value to the company, it was thought the truck would never be sold, making it truly the Holy Grail of Matchbox enthusiasts. Therefore, it came as quite a surprise when, in the mid-1980s, word spread that the truck had been purchased by a relatively unknown collector out of Japan, Takuo Yoshise.

In March of 2010, Takuo Yoshise decided it was time to pass on his coveted treasure to someone else. The truck was put up for auction at a collector convention in England and wound up going for $15,000, making it the largest sum ever paid for a Matchbox car.

Hot Wheels

In 1968, toy company Mattel released a line of miniature cars that took their inspiration from the "Kustom Kar Kulture" that was popular in California. The initial line, now known as the "Sweet 16," offered muscle cars and forward-thinking concept cars, decked out in "Spectraflame" paint jobs that were far removed from the colors you'd see on the real-life showroom floor. To highlight their roots, the little vehicles sported miniature red-rimmed tires, called "Redlines", modeled after the kind that were popular on the real Kustom Kars of the time. Thanks to their novel approach to the toy line, Hot Wheels were an instant success and are still incredibly popular with collectors today.

3. The Beatnik Bandit

One of the original Sweet 16 cars was based on the 1963 show car, The Beatnik Bandit. The car, a futuristic, fiberglass two-seater with a see-through Plexiglass bubble top, was designed and built by none other than Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, one of the most famous car customizers, best-known for creating the counter-culture cartoon character Rat Fink.


The toy Bandit, like all Sweet 16 cars, was produced in a variety of bright, metallic colors. Some, like red, blue, green, and orange, were more common than others. But the rarest of all was hot pink. The hot pink was introduced to the Hot Wheels line shortly after they were first released, in an effort to get girls interested in toy cars. It didn't work, so the color was discontinued, making these cars very rare today. So rare that a "loose" (meaning it was not in its original package) hot pink Bandit sold for $7,070 in 2004. Four years later, a MIB (Mint In Box) hot pink Bandit sold on eBay for $15,250.

4. 1969 VW "Beach Bomb"

Hot Wheels fans will always remember the orange, snap-together racetracks used to create their own racecourse through the kitchen. Making sure that every car runs smoothly on the tracks has always been a concern for Mattel, even today. In 1969, Mattel had to go back to the drawing board more than once to get a newly-designed Volkswagen van called "The Beach Bomb" to fit properly on the tracks. The van, featuring two surfboards that stuck out the back window, was too narrow to run down the track without bumping off the sides, nor could it fit inside a motorized propulsion unit that was sold separately.

After 16 prototypes had been created, the engineers came up with a radical redesign that placed the surfboards on each side of the vehicle, in special stowaway compartments. Not only was this a more off-the-wall car, but it also made the vehicle wider so it would fit on the racetrack. The new design might have fixed the problem, but that has only made the too-skinny Beach Bomb prototypes all the more desirable to Hot Wheels collectors.

People go crazy whenever a new rear-loading Beach Bomb comes on the market, regardless of color or condition. Top of the line examples routinely selling for $15,000 or more. But there is one Beach Bomb out there that could be considered the holiest of Holy Grails "“ a hot pink, rear-loading Beach Bomb. Collector Chris Marshall bought the only known copy of the car from a former Mattel engineer in 1998, as part of a $9,000 purchase of 250 cars, including 25 prototypes. He turned around and sold the hot pink Bomb a year later to big-time collector Bruce Pascal for a cool $72,000. Marshall sold his little car and bought a big one "“ a brand-new Dodge Viper. Pascal took his pink prototype on the road, visiting Hot Wheels conventions and lending it to automobile museums for the world to see.

5. 40th Anniversary Hot Wheels Car

While there's always a chance another hot pink Beach Bomb prototype could appear, there is one Hot Wheels car that is guaranteed to be the one and only model ever produced. It was customized by "jeweler to the stars" Jason of Beverly Hills in 2008 to commemorate Hot Wheels' 40th Anniversary and the production of car number 4,000,000,000 (yes, four billion) in the Hot Wheels line.


The special-edition car was cast in 18-karat white gold, then covered in 1,388 blue diamonds, 988 black diamonds, 319 white diamonds, and 8 rubies, for a total of nearly 23 carats of precious gems worth $140,000. The showpiece came in a custom display case embedded with an additional 40 white diamonds "“ one for each year of the toy line's history. The diamond-studded car and display case were put up as part of a charity auction for Big Brothers Big Sisters. While the gems might have been worth $140,000, the car only sold for $60,000. Quite a bargain.
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What was your favorite Hot Wheels or Matchbox car when you were a kid? What's the highest price you've ever paid to get back a piece of your childhood? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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