Toy vehicle collector has growing display of auto-themed tin cans

I’ve regularly written for Old Cars Weekly (also published by F+W Media, Inc., publishers of Antique Trader. – Ed.) about my passion for tin toy vehicles. Through the years, mainly searching at automotive swap meets or antique malls, I’ve been able to accumulate quite an eclectic display of these fascinating little vehicles, ranging from a go-kart (with a helmeted boy in the driver’s seat) to various hot rods to police cars (one an Edsel). I enjoy looking at them all and occasionally re-arranging their display order to keep things fresh. Now, if I could just whip up an equal amount of enthusiasm to occasionally dust them, life would be grand.

Somewhere along the way, during the search for my next tin toy car, I stumbled across a different form of tin collectible that equally caught my eye. So, I branched out to collecting cans with interesting automotive-related graphics. To date, I’ve acquired only a handful of cans that mainly would be classed as petroliana, but these few items have taken up key positions on my display shelves.

Just as it has been with my collection of tin toy vehicles, my can collection has been shaped by my budget. The mint condition items from both categories of collectibles are out of my reach financially. But that hasn’t dulled the thrill of the hunt for either item, nor do I feel what few cans I’ve acquired are weaker in their display quality based on the flaws they possess.

And that, I’ve found, is the key to collecting happiness. I’ll go out on a limb here, and claim to have the same mindset as the majority of collectors of just about anything. We have to be extremely mindful of what we spend on life’s non-essentials, so we don’t lose sleep over setting the bar a bit lower to acquire a collectible that includes flaws. In theory, the more flaws a collectible shows, the less expensive it should be. Finding our “flaw tolerance” to stay within budget is the balancing act we collectors of modest means must adhere to if we want to grow our collections (and, in turn, raise our level of happiness).

While that all may sound like a bunch of Zen nonsense, for me, the few cans I’ve collected do have scratches and/or dents. But for what little I paid for each can, I can live with these flaws. I’ve come to accept these imperfections as unavoidable patina or “character lines.” Or, I lucked out and found a can that had damage contained to one area that, obviously, is the side not in prime viewing on my display shelf.

As for the theme or focus of my tin can collection, just as with my tin toy vehicle display, there isn’t one brand or one shape or size. If there is a common thread, it’s that I collect cans that have, in my mind, superior graphics. And while I can’t explain why or how, when I come across a potential collectible can, I know immediately whether or not it’s something I want to add to my collection. This decision is based solely not on a can’s price nor lack of flaws, but rather on its graphics presentation. I can’t speak for other collectors, but I’m sure this ability to “know” when something is right is a common trait honed through years of searching and then deciding in what format to display a collection.

As can be seen by the pictures accompanying this story, a few of my acquisitions range from a one-gallon rectangular can of lubricating oil to a one-gallon round can of anti-freeze to a unique octagonal-shaped can housing a moldable metal repair kit. No rhyme or reason in their categorization, but each is a display gem for its graphics.

And knowing what little I paid for each can adds to both my collection contentment and my ability to continue adding items to my display.

Now if I could just find a grade of tin that repels dust, life would be perfect … ?

Photos courtesy Ron Kowalke.

Ron Kowalke is a market analyst and editor for Old Cars Weekly, an enthusiast publication for collectors and fans of old cars, restoration and old car memorabilia. He may be reached at

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