I recently pulled up to a car gathering, and as I got out of my car with my camera bag, I heard, “Whoa, that is sick!”
I’m thinking, “Oh, how cool, someone already likes my car, sweet!”
And then BMW CCA member Michael Grabis asks, “How’d you get that pin?!”
Wait, what? After slightly choking on my humility, I looked at the pin on my camera bag. It was pretty cool. Grabis added that it was pretty rare. Hearing that, I immediately removed it from my camera bag and put it somewhere safe—I hope I remember where that was soon.
I wasn’t completely new to the pin-collecting game. Leen Customs—one of my favorite enamel art-pin companies—“pinned” my car earlier this year, and I know others with pins, too—and we know other BMW CCA members who have had their cars pinned by Leen Customs, a company owned by Hansel Echeverria, who also goes by the name Leen.
Since I started expanding my pin knowledge with Grabis, I figured I’d impart some of his insights to you. I knew I was starting with a good resource in Grabis—the man’s Instagram account is @mgcollectibles, referring to the hundreds of pins he has collected, the more than 1,000 1:64-scale diecast cars, and more (I am working a trade currently for one of his 1:18 E9 CSLs). “One reason pins have become so collectible is that there is a low barrier to entry,” Grabis explains. “If you are going to a classic-car meet, you might feel like you need to own and drive a classic car there. But at a pin-drop meet, you don’t need to own a classic car—a handful of pins makes anyone a collector, but even that isn’t required. It’s similar to Hot Wheels—and it’s easier to store.”
Storage might be another leading reason. If you have four cars, that might require square footage rivaling many people’s residences. Pins can be displayed on a board, in small cases, in drawers, on jackets and hats, and until I saw Grabis at that car event, on camera bags.
There is another dynamic to pins, one Leen might have accelerated with some supply-and-demand balancing. “These pins are largely collectible because they are limited,” says Grabis. “For many limited releases, there just aren’t that many of them available. The ones that are rarer are more desirable. This might have been accelerated with the pandemic, when meets were less available, but people were able to look online and find and collect enamel pins.”
I saw the same energy with my pin. We did a 250-unit run at $20 retail, and it sold out within a day. Now you can find them on eBay for $50 and more.
Grabis, an engineer at Divergent 3D, associated with building the Czinger 21C hypercar, is also a car enthusiast. “Pin-collecting gets you connected to so many others. It’s a great community,” he says. “People come out for the pins and meet fellow enthusiasts and collect, admire, and trade pins online and in person.”
Echeverria, a graphic designer, saw an opportunity while at DesignerCon in LA about five years ago. “I noticed that a lot of brands were offering lapel pins, but there didn’t seem to be creative pin art for the car culture,” he says. “I hit up some friends with some killer builds and started what was more of a fun project to keep my graphic design fresh.”
That has led to “close to 1,000” different pins, he estimates. “We come up with the designs through a mixture of clean builds and fan-favorite cars. My favorite might be Rusty Slammington. Something about the patina and small details I was able to capture.”
Echeverria isn’t the only one who likes the Rusty Slammington pin. “There are a number of ways to immortalize a car: a model, a die cast toy, a poster, or a magazine article, to name a few,” says Rusty Slammington’s builder, BMW CCA member Mike Burroughs. “To have cars immortalized as a pin, though, there’s something unique about that. It’s physical, it’s real. It’s a reminder, or a footnote—more often than not, it is the star of the show, and Leen has done a wonderful job celebrating that.”
In addition to creating pins of unique builds, Echeverria has added some new direction to Leen Customs. “Lately, I’ve been focusing more on the brand and creating core collections for the fans inspired by automotive racing, diecast collections, and a series of specific genres,” he says. “For example, this year marked the second season in which I got to work with Formula Drift and the pro-level drivers making their drift machines into collectible lapel pins. We worked with nine drivers this season, and hope to expand to everyone on the roster.”
BMW CCA member and 2013 Formula Drift champion Michael Essa was one of those nine drivers. “We were all really excited for the Formula D partnership with Leen Customs,” Essa says. “I was fortunate enough to be included in the series, and I love what they came up with for the pin. The FCP Euro and Liqui Moly folks and I put a lot of time into the current livery, and Leen captured it fantastically. It was great to see the fan energy for all these Formula D pins!”
Echeverria’s focus on racing and diecast collecting came together with another popular pin: BMW CCA member Rial Barnett, owner of the B Sedan brand, has the unique fortune of having his B Sedan 2002 race car represented by a Hot Wheels car. He now has a matching Leen Customs pin with the same level of detail. “The pin sort of represents how this car came about,” Barnett explains. “The Eibach support, the Hot Wheels development, the Leen Customs pin, my builder’s hard work— I could not have scripted it any better. The pin is the culmination of so many things that went right with the car, even beyond any initial goals we had for the race car.”
He adds, “There’s detail to it that I keep discovering—like the gas filler cap. He even captured the racing seats with the wrap- around headrests in the pin. There is a little splash of red on the windshield where the Hot Wheels banner goes. This car has had so much attention to detail its entire life, and here it is with the commensurate amount of detail in this little pin. It’s also great to be part of the Leen collection. We had a really fun pin-drop event, and the enthusiasm around the pin from so many people was amazing.”
BMW CCA member Tony Adzhemyan was at Barnett’s pin- drop event, which was to be expected, considering that he has now had two cars pinned by Leen Customs, including his popular modified 2002. “Leen Customs pins are every car-enthusiast’s dream,” Adzhemyan says. “From young to old, everyone wants to get their hands on one. It takes a strong set of skills to capture every detail of a vehicle and make an exact replica on a lapel pin. I personally went through a lot of small details on my actual car, and to have Echeverria capture very little detail on something as small as a pin makes all those late long nights working on the car even more rewarding. I just had to have both my cars pinned by Leen. The smile it puts on someone’s face when I hand them a pin is worth it all.”
One pin that Echeverria didn’t need to look far to create was his own unique Leen Customs van that seems to create a summer-afternoon ice-cream-man vibe when it rolls up to a pin-drop event. “I got this van imported in 2019 by the good people at Oishii Imports,” he explains. “It is a Daihatsu Mira walkthrough Kei van, used as a delivery vehicle in Japan for mostly neighborhood businesses. It’s inspired by the Kei vans in Japan, where they turn them into rolling stores, selling anything from snacks to steamed hot buns and coffee. I wanted to bring that style here but for selling pins. With the help of some sponsors, we were able to make one of the most interesting vendor cars on the market today.”
If you aren’t in Southern California near the next live pin drop, Echeverria has noted that the company has essentially assumed an international presence with so many online purchases coming from as far as Japan, Australia, Israel, Guatemala, and elsewhere. While some limited releases are only found on forums and eBay, there is usually a solid inventory of plenty of pins beyond these BMWs. Happy collecting!—Kyle van Hoften
[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften unless otherwise noted.]