|18 June 2009: The VW Bus: Tired or True? I'm not sure how many of you reading this were collecting 1996 First Editions back in the day. But, if you were, then you were very much aware of a casting that took the hobby by storm: The VW Bus (now commonly referred to as the VW Drag Bus).
If you were fortunate enough to find the 1996 First Editions Bus, then you already know that the casting itself was something special, and completely different from anything else you'd seen up to that point, simply due to the heft, or weight. Honestly, I think the only casting I've collected over the years that even came remotely close to the Bus in weight was the Greyhound MC-8 Bus from 1980, or the Peterbilt Tank Truck from 1986. Other than those two, not many come close to the estimated 114 grams that the Bus commands!
We're quite a few years removed from 1996, and the Bus has stayed true to Mattel's initial adamant mission of being relegated to premium status only, due to the high cost of materials required to produce it. However, Bus collectors rejoiced, simply due to the fact that it was very apparent early on that the Bus was going to be a very prevalent (albeit costly) issue through premium channels. The '96 First Editions bus was followed by a sharp, black All Tune & Lube bus that had some nicely-placed orange flames on the sides. Before you knew it, release after release was being launched. Collectors snapped up each and every offer, along with picking up a few rarities in between, such as the white Employee Christmas Bus, or the gold MVOA (Mattel Vendor Operations Asia) Bus. The sky was apparently the limit for Phil Riehlman's creation.|
The Greyhound and Peterbilt are almost as heavy, but not quite!
So, let's fast forward to the present day. As of this writing, there are currently 52 Mattel-based issues of the VW Bus, starting with the 1996 FE and ending with the 2008 RLC Taxi Bus. Factor in 56 standard Liberty Promotions buses (not including the myriad variation or "Rebel Run" issues) and you've got a whopping total of 108 buses that collectors were able to purchase. That makes the Bus the most-produced premium in the history of the hobby by a country mile. (It should also be noted that Liberty has recently announced an additional TWO releases with their Surfin' Series 7 and 8. That brings Liberty's total to 58 buses, and 110 issues overall...yikes!)
But, is this really a GOOD thing? I would have to say "yes" and "no." Yes, because I am, first and foremost, a Redline and Bus collector. It's the two lines I've chosen to accumulate, and I like the history of Redlines and the cool "now" feeling the Bus line provides. But, that's where my allegiance falters a bit.
I'd have to say no, simply due to the fact that the Bus has become a cash cow to Mattel AND Liberty. I've enjoyed the majority of Mattel-issued buses, with my only beef being the fact that I don't like decals, such as the ones that were used on the RLC "Thank You" bus and the Snake & Mongoose buses. It looks tacky and cheap, and I would think collectors are paying more than enough for these issues to avoid having to deal with poor manufacturing decisions such as this.
And Liberty Promotions? Honestly, I hold my breath every time I hear that another LP Bus is being issued, because you simply don't know what to expect. To date, I have collected only a handful of Liberty buses for one main reason: The majority of them just don't appeal to me, and some of the themes have bordered on outlandish to just plain ridiculous. Case in point: the "Cops and Robbers" theme that was issued in 2006? Ridiculous. There is NO way I'd pay money for those, even being the avid Bus collector that I am. Those particular issues appear to have been thought up in about 5 minutes, and the end result indicates as such. Just tacky and ugly buses, period. There are several other issues that fall into that category as well.
Possibly the most ridiculous Bus issues yet?
Now, on the flip side? Liberty has issued some simply AMAZING buses as well, so I'm not being completely negative toward them. Absolute kudos to whoever their person is that designed the Sturgis sets, Fire & Ice sets and some of the Surfin' Series issues. That's some fine work there, and I have NO problem dishing out the cash for those. They're simply works of art. But, awesome or ugly, the Bus SELLS OUT. Generally.
All of this being said, has Mattel and Liberty banked on the Bus more often than not, simply due to the craziness that was generated so many years ago? You betcha! Why wouldn't they? The Bus is generally considered a "sure thing" when it comes to generating revenue, and new issues incite the "gotta have it-itus" mentality in those who collect it. But, not me. I'm not a completist, and I stand firmly behind my mantra of buying what I like. I refuse to spend hard-earned money on something I don't care for, because it'll just irritate me down the road. I'll take more satisfaction in looking at my collection of buses that I DID want.
But, has the madness subsided? After 12 years, all signs point to "yes." A perfect example is presented by just looking on eBay at the prices that many different buses sell for. Some are FAR below expectations, and below prices that were present only last year. Highly limited editions are selling for very reasonable prices, often just at or above what the seller paid for them. Now, I do realize that the present crappy state of the economy is likely directly relevant to this fact, but...there are other signs.
Hotwheelscollectors.com recently issued 4 highly-limited buses as rewards for joining the Redline Club. The Police Bus was limited to 4k, the Fire Bus was at 5K, the Military Police Bus at 6K and the Taxi Bus at 7K. No matter how you slice it, these were VERY limited offerings. Add them all up, and that's only 22K...far LESS than some of the more limited buses that have been offered throughout the years that sold out quickly! Granted, the Police and Fire buses sold relatively briskly, but the MP Bus was very, very slow to sell out, and the Taxi Bus, as of this writing, still remains. The Taxi is a nicely done issue, and it's one of the more limited buses out there! Yet, it won't sell out. I often wonder if the Military Bus truly ever DID sell out, or if the remains were recycled and the announcement made that it HAD, simply to move on to the Taxi issue. We may never know.
Again, the sagging economy could be directly responsible for this, as each bus would cost you close to $32 after all was said and done. Getting all four would require an investment of $128, overall. Not many collectors are willing to dish out that much money these days; at least not the casual ones, who account for the majority of collectors in the hobby. But, I think itíŽs more than that; the Bus has simply lost the luster of its past glory due to market saturation. There's no inherent thrill anymore, when a new Bus issue is announced. It's more of a cautionary reaction. It's kind of like your favorite song on the radio; you love hearing it when it's new, but after awhile, you barely acknowledge it when it plays, because the stations have played the hell out of it. I truly believe the same thing has occurred with the Bus. Collectors are simply getting somewhat bored with it.
How do you fix this issue? There's really only one way: Stop the over-saturation! Mattel has done pretty well with spacing out their Bus issues, but Liberty has gone over the top with the plethora of never-ending premiums. Some Liberty buses are good; even great. But far too many are boring, garish, under-thought and shoved out to the public with the mentality that "If you build it, they will come." That's a shame, really.
Give the Bus a break. The mold isn't even as crisp as it once was, as is apparent when you take a look at early issues versus current issues. The rivets on the wing aren't as pronounced. The vents on the sides and the headlights and VW logos on the front fall under the same problem. It's tired, both physically and mentally, at least in the minds of many collectors. Time to rest it up for a spell.
But, that likely won't happen. Not as long as the Bus makes cash. And, it will. Hopefully, someone somewhere will figure out that the appeal is dwindling, and that collectors are looking for something a bit more for their hard-earned money in the end. It takes something special, and the Bus USED to have "it." Not anymore. I can't predict what the future holds for the Bus, but it's going to be interesting to follow, I can promise you that. We'll see. Until next month! :) ~Neal Giordano
Coming in July, 2009: "Collector's Conundrum: To Open, or Not to Open?"