For toy collectors, it's an event as anticipated as the arrival of Santa Claus. Every November, gas stations across the country sell limited-edition toy trucks for the holiday season, miniature rolling stock and haulers with working lights and sounds. Some children who received these toy trucks later became truck drivers themselves, while others acquired the seasonal collectible as their own miniature toy fleet.
"Most collectors will get hooked when they receive a truck for Christmas," said Gary Fleming, a toy truck collector and dealer with an online presence for Hess toy trucks (http://www.hyt.com/collectables/index.shtml). "The Hess trucks and the Texaco trucks are very popular among collectors. Some of the early trucks from the 1960s, with their boxes, can go for $3,000 or more today."
Since 1964, the Amerada Hess Corporation has produced limited-edition toy trucks for the Christmas holidays, a tradition started by company owner Leon Hess. Hess wanted children to have an inexpensive toy for Christmas, one that would also promote the Hess gasoline brand. The first Hess truck, a 1964 Mack B manufactured by the Marx Toy Co., had a tank that could be filled with water. It originally sold for $1.29. Today, that truck with its original box can sell for $2,500 to a collector.
Hess brought the tanker back for the 1965 season, and kids all over the Northeast couldn’t get enough of the popular tanker. Eventually Hess decided to continue the tradition each year of offering a reasonably priced petroleum-based vehicle for the holidays. In 1966, Hess released its highly detailed Hess Voyager oil tanker, complete with blinking lights. It may not have held oil, as did its life-size namesake, but the toy version could float in a bathtub or lake.
The 1967 Hess tanker truck featured a red velvet display stand, which is just as important to collectors as the truck on which it would stand (and commands a value of $1,800-$2,000 today). Several other Hess toy trucks joined the major collectibles market, including a 1980 van-shaped training vehicle, which can sell for $500 in near-mint condition, a 1993 fuel hauler with "Premium Diesel" on the side ($750), and a 1995 gold-trimmed “Rolling Thunder” truck, produced by an unauthorized third-party company (Hess demanded that the company shut down production of the “outlaw” toy and give all remaining stock to Hess to destroy; a few pieces escaped to the open market and can command upwards of $1,500 today).
"Hess always made a nice truck," said Fleming. "Originally the company put the batteries inside the toy, and people would put the trucks in their closets to store them away, open them up a couple of years later and then see the battery component is completely corroded when the battery leaks. That's why it's so hard to find the trucks in good condition today. Some collectors will buy old trucks and take the parts off to fix their new ones, so that their trucks will have all original parts."
In 1984, Texaco began its own toy truck line, creating rolling coin banks shaped like a 1920 Pierce-Arrow tanker (1999), a 1930 Diamond T fuel hauler (1990), and a 1932 Ford panel truck (1984). Texaco also sold a special series of vintage die-cast aircraft, selling the "Wings of Texaco" in ornate boxes. "The Wings of Texaco planes have become more popular than the trucks," said Fleming. "You used to get them for under $20, and now the prices are going up every year."
While Sunoco's toy truck line featured everything from a fire truck (1995) to a zoo hauler (2001), its 2004 truck honored the world of NASCAR. That year, Sunoco produced a limited-edition race car hauler, featuring several NASCAR drivers, including Richard Petty, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, on the side. And as an added bonus, proceeds from the sale of that truck benefited the Victory Junction Gang, a campground for children with life-threatening diseases. Sunoco has continued to offer a NASCAR-themed truck, complete with images of various Sprint Cup drivers, up to today.
Other gas stations created their own line of Christmas vehicles, and travelers could stop in at their local BP, Exxon, Shell or Mobil station and pick up a replica 18-wheeler, fuel hauler or other collectible vehicle, just in time for the holiday season.
"I used to get the toy trucks every year for Christmas," said Shawn Miller, a St. Cloud, Minn., truckdriver for Anderson Trucking Service Heavy Haul. "Grandma got them every year for me religiously. It was one of the reasons I thought about driving trucks when I grew up. Even today, I always pick up toy trucks from the gas stations at Christmas, any time I can find them for a half-decent price."
When it comes to the collectability of petroliana artifacts like gas station toy trucks, condition is the most important factor. “Condition” means not only the toy itself, but the box it came in, the cardboard inserts, the decals on the toy truck panels – everything. Some collectors will purchase a beat-up or wrecked toy truck, and cannibalize it for whatever parts that have survived – rear-view mirrors, grilles, lights, wiring, what have you – to place in another toy truck from the same year to repair and/or restore. There is a small market in reproduction or replacement parts for Hess toy trucks, mostly involving lights, wires, etc. Some collectors even sell the tiniest parts – a hose from a 1964 Hess truck, the battery component from the 1966 Hess Voyager boat – on eBay for whatever prices they can get.
Of special note is the 1980 Hess Training Van. The thin plastic casing of the van (which allowed the body of the van to light up) often turned from bright white to dingy yellow over time. Glues that held certain parts on the van roof sometimes dissolved and dripped, creating dark yellow streaks along the van front. And the rear-view mirrors on the van’s front doors would break off at the slightest touch. Any one of these defects could bring a $500 van down to $250 or $125 or less.
Even today, Hess continues to release new trucks and rolling stock at Christmastime, and gas stations throughout the Northeast are besieged with collectors hoping to add Hess’ new holiday offering to their growing collections.
For more information on collecting Hess toy trucks and other gasoline-theme tanker toys, go to these websites:
ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE