H. B. “Toby” Halicki’s secret car collection was beyond amazing
Words and Photos: C. Van Tune
When Toby Halicki sent you an invitation, you didn’t turn it down. Not only was he the cult hero of the original Gone in 60 Seconds (as producer, director, writer, stunt man, and star), Halicki was a car collector beyond imagination.
Behind the 12-foot-tall blank walls of his junkyard in the industrial city of Gardena, California, resided the most impressive, di-verse, and flat-out huge collection of cars, models, and automotive memorabilia we’d ever seen. It’s been called the largest assem-blage of collectible car items in the country, estimated at more than 100,000 items, back in the day.
Factor in the separate areas filled with model train layouts, pre-World War II pedal cars, and other vintage toys, and there were more jaw-dropping sights at every turn. The total space dedicated to the collection was about the size of a football field, with secret rooms behind hidden panels that contained collectible guns, Lindbergh-era airplanes, and vintage motorcycles.
To drive the point home, a wall in Halicki’s office flipped up like garage door, allowing him to park his commuter car (such as his favorite Rolls-Royce) next to his desk.
It seems almost impossible to be the result of one man’s sole efforts, but Toby claimed to have personally selected and positioned each item in his sprawling collection. As an added dash of artistry, he displayed it all in buildings fashioned to look like an old west town.
Some say Toby’s collection obsession was powered by a longing to create the happy childhood he never had. As one of 13 children in his blue-collar New York family, he had to grow up mostly on his own. He scavenged spare car parts from his father’s towing business and taught himself how to build his first cars at a young age.
He moved to California at age 15 and eventually owned a towing business, which spawned a junkyard and led the creative Halicki to envision how to make the ultimate car movie — much of it shot without permits and with Halicki himself doing many of the stunts.
You already know the story of Gone in 60 Seconds, so we don’t need to cover that here. Our story begins in the early 1980s, when PPN Editorial Director Cam Benty and I got to know Toby as he was putting together his second film, The Junkman.
We worked at Popular Hot Rodding magazine at the time and were introduced to Toby by one of his stunt drivers (and movie-car builder), Eddie Paul.
Halicki’s public persona was that of a hard-living renegade, mysterious and a bit dangerous. In reality, he certainly was a high-energy man who never wanted to waste a single minute of the day, but he was also a nice guy driven by an intense desire for all things automotive: movies, magazines, muscle cars, modifieds, race cars, and much more.
If you loved automobiles, and could recite specs and trivia at his own amazing pace, then he was your friend. Real car guys were IN. Hollywood phonies were OUT. It took Toby all of about one-sixtieth of a second to size you up and invite you in, or simply tell you “There’s nothing to see here.”
So, to get the chance to walk through the gates of the H. B. Halicki Mercantile Company & Junkyard and discover the secret sanc-tum of Toby Halicki is still one of the most memorable highlights of our magazine-writing careers. The fact he invited us back “any-time” led to regular visits, including attending an elaborate “Junkyard Party” celebrating the 10th anniversary of Halicki International Pictures in 1984.
We also were granted access to the collection to shoot an episode of PHR’s own TV show, Performance Plus. Our show’s host was famous racing announcer Steve Evans, the man who created the legendary radio commercial line: “Be there, Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”
Those were good times, with good people.
But, all good things come to an end. In Toby Halicki’s case, it was sudden and without warning. On August 20, 1989, during the filming of a chase scene for his upcoming movie Gone in 60 Seconds 2, a steel cable attached to a 160-foot-tall water tower accidentally snapped, whipping itself around and shearing off a telephone pole that struck Halicki, killing him. He was 48.
Following Halicki’s death, his widow, Denice Halicki, padlocked the collection until the estate’s legal issues could be resolved. In the years to follow, most of the items were auctioned off or otherwise disposed of. As the story goes, all that’s left today are memo-ries of one man’s amazing obsession with all things automotive. There will never be another Henry Blight “Toby” Halicki.
A prized part of my own (very small) collection of automobilia are the vintage car items Toby gave me just a few weeks before his death. He was selling some of his collection to help finance the film and let me have several 1920s–30s hubcaps and car emblems.
Somewhere in my storage boxes crammed full of 1980s video tapes is the Performance Plus episode where we interviewed Toby and toured his collection. Anyone still have a VHS player so we can watch it?