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    The old VW van looks like it’s been through some shit. Rust and tarnish colonize the white top and pale green body. Paint chips away from the side door, a blue color that doesn’t match the rest of the vehicle. There’s more evidence of hard travel strapped to the roof — a couple spare tires, what looks like firewood. And the interior has the kind of well-worn psychedelic aura only long-time hippies could, like, receive from the universe, man: bright flowers edged in gold overlap along the walls like mandalas. The license plate reads: 1977. You’d think that van carried longhairs to Woodstock. If it weren’t the size of an underfed mouse, that is.

    Patrick Thompson sits at a table at Wiltshire Bakery on Barret Avenue where he works and turns the little van over in his hand. Before him, he has arranged a 23-car fleet, just a few of the Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars he has customized over the last few years. There’s the rusty truck with its camper, hauling a trailer with a first-aid kit, a propane tank the size of a pill and an upside-down jon boat with the words “Lady Luck” painted on the hull. An old-timey car that could be in a gangster movie darkens seamlessly from a crimson hood to an almost-black rear end. One big green truck sports some kind of anti-aircraft cannon. On the door, Thompson painted the number 51 and a star. “I called it the UFO hunter,” he says. “I was like, that’s a plasma cannon! That’s not even a mortar cannon! He’s hunting UFOs! I had that story all in my head as well. It’s powered by its own little computer; I just type in what I want to blow up.”

    Thompson often works with little stories in mind. That’s how he achieves such a high level of detail. It’s surgical, so painstaking it makes my eyes hurt. He has taken to using reading glasses when he works, repainting Hot Wheels, adding decals he orders from other artists, painting designs with needlepoint brushes, swapping out parts from other cars to get the wheels and the exhausts and the personalities just right, and then adding over-the-top realistic elements that could convince you that you saw that car sitting in your neighbor’s yard the other day. He uses salt to produce paint-chipping effects, and that rust on the cars is real rust, which he makes with distilled vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and steel wool, crumbling it down into dust and painting it on. Some of his cars have four-wheel independent suspension, a feat he achieves through a technique involving guitar strings that goes completely over my mechanically challenged mind. He works for hours between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. at a little station in the laundry room of his house near Wiltshire, pulling pieces from a junkyard of thousands of cars he has collected for parts, using a tool to hold the cars by their undersides in one hand — steady as time — and painting with the other. He’s so deft that, at one point during our interview, he takes a screwdriver to the bottom of a car and, in about two nanoseconds, splays it open it like a poker hand, the roof off and the interior exposed. He used to produce one or two cars every day. It’s a lot of work for tiny details only obsessive nerds would ever notice.

    Turns out there’s a lot of obsessive nerds for this sort of thing. Thompson has amassed more than 35,000 Instagram followers and says he gets about 100 new ones each week. There’s a whole community gathered around Hot Wheels, and Thompson often gets commissions to make certain cars — starting at about $25 for a less-involved job, which to anyone but people like Thompson looks like a very involved job. He also trades his custom models for pieces other tinkerers have put together. He’s got enough cars to spare — he estimates between 5,000 and 8,000 he’s nabbed from Walmart, Kroger, wherever he can find them. He likes to collect entire runs of one model, all the different factory colors, decals, variations. He’s got about 20 Dodge A100 trucks. But don’t think he’s too attached to them; it’s about the process. He once won a Matchbox customization competition, but ended up selling the car he won — paperwork and all, even the letter saying he’d won. He didn’t need that to remember. On to the next project.

    Of course Thompson played with Hot Wheels as a kid growing up in south Louisville. But he hadn’t collected them as an adult until a few years ago, when he started picking them up to bond with his girlfriend’s son. He built racetracks that ran the length of their shotgun house. The young man has since grown out of them, moved on to video games and YouTube. But Thompson’s still hooked. He’s all but given up painting on canvas and showing in galleries to focus on his tiny cars. “I’m currently 42 years old, still playing with toy cars,” he says. The boyish smile cracking inside his peppery goatee is much younger.

    Follow Patrick Thompson on Instagram at @100littlecars.

    This originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Matchbox Mechanic." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos from @100littlecars // Instagram

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    About Dylon Jones

    Web editor Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet, essayist and journalist.

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