KENNEWICK -- Manuel Martinez began collecting cars in 1998.
It's an obsession that took nearly three decades to develop.
The 65-year-old Kennewick man bought his first Volkswagen Beetle in 1969. Now, a pink 1961 bug sits in his driveway and a blue VW he's had since 1973 is parked under a tarp.
In the garage are a 1966 Porsche-red Beetle with Cadillac taillights and a 1980s whale tail.
Most of his Beetles, however, are in the house. Hundreds line the walls of his downstairs den.
"My wife said, 'Why don't you just wallpaper (the den)?' " Martinez said. "I said, 'No, I want to do it with cars.' "
Between the den and the garage, Martinez has more than 2,000 miniature cars, many of them Beetles. Martinez's den is a toy treasure trove for anyone whose childhood involved pushing tiny cars across linoleum kitchen floors or along a sidewalk.
Never-opened boxes of Matchbox, Hot Wheel, Road & Track and more-obscure brands, such as Phat Boyz, hang in long rows. A classic Micro Machines parking garage filled with the tiny plastic cars sits on a shelf near the door. Plastic grocery bags stuffed with loose miniatures sit in a corner.
Martinez's passion for Beetles reaches beyond miniature replicas. He has glass Beetle-shaped Avon after-shave bottles from the 1970s, Volkswagen belt buckles and T-shirts, a Beetle computer mouse, The Lovebug's Herbie Band-Aids and a copy of Disney's Herbie Fully Loaded.
His collection still is swelling, and the recession hasn't slowed him. Martinez buys about one car a week, usually taking advantage of sales.
"I'm going to Ephrata," he said, "so I'll stop at Othello and Moses Lake."
Why Volkswagens? Why the Beetle ashtrays and clocks? Why does he hold on to a 1973 bug with front-end damage?
That blue bug holds a special place in his collection and heart. In 1973, after owning numerous junkers, smokers and clunkers, Martinez wanted to buy a healthy, well-conditioned Volkswagen. He found what he wanted, and Overturf Motor Co. in Kennewick brought it to the Tri-Cities. It was a dark blue 1973 Super Beetle that cost $2,250.
He got a loan but still didn't have enough cash for the down payment. A young salesman at the time, Doug Overturf, convinced his father to sell the car to Martinez and let him make up the down payment in a month or so. Martinez still gets choked up thinking about the trust Overturf put in a man he'd never met.
"I believed in (Martinez)," Overturf said. "And I knew he was a good guy. And he turned out to be a good guy."
A car crash a couple of years ago damaged the blue Beetle's front-end, but Martinez isn't parting with the little bugger.
"I'll be hanging on to it," he said.
He doesn't plan on letting go of the miniature bugs either. At least until the decision is out of his hands. He plans to leave the collection in the den to his grandchildren; the cars in the garage go to his son. "I don't know what my kids will do with this someday, my grandkids. But they're welcome to it."
His wife has been supportive of the hobby.
"I think it's great, you know," Rinda Martinez said, pausing as she helped her grandchildren with their homework. "As long as he doesn't have it all over the house."
Rinda may be in luck, because there's still a bit of space left on a wall in her husband's den.
But that may not last.
The retired Hanford worker recently discovered wild, aggressive looking muscle cars, which he's buying by the box.
* Drew Foster: 509-585-7207; email@example.com