Just before Christmas, 1980, Everett Marshall III came home clutching 20 Matchbox toys. His wife, Christine, thought they were stocking stuffers for their son Everett IV, then 3. So she dutifully wrapped each miniature car and truck and put them in the child's Christmas stocking—throwing away the boxes.

That was when she discovered the depth of her husband's feelings for Matchbox toys. "He looked at me," she says, "and told me he had to go out and repurchase all the cars because the box makes it more valuable." In fact, Marshall's Matchbox mania, nurtured during much of his 51 years, has made the Newfield, N.J., mayor one of the world's foremost collectors of the teeny toys—"the high priest of Matchbox," in the words of Jim Alley, a senior vice president of Mattel, Inc., which acquired Matchbox in 1997. His 26,000-piece collection—worth at least $500,000, Marshall estimates—has long since outgrown his home and occupies its very own free museum, visited by hundreds of toy enthusiasts every year, in what used to be his grandfather's garage.

Marshall, son of the late Everett II, a trucking executive, and Elizabeth, 78, a homemaker, isn't into Matchbox cars for the money. "Numbers," he says, "don't really matter to me. I want people to see what there is." There may be another explanation: "I walk in on him sometimes," says Christine, 49, "and he's rolling trucks across the desk. He's still a kid."