Originally created 10/09/01

Collection reveals a fascination that dates to childhood



As a child, Tom Thirkell spent his summer vacations in a seaside arcade in Myrtle Beach, S.C. With the smell of saltwater filling his nose and bells ringing in his ears, he would spend hours in front of the pinball machines.

Now, as a husband and father, Mr. Thirkell shares his favorite games with his two boys, David and Alex. But they don't have to go to the beach to enjoy the games. They just go down to the basement.

Inspired by his summer memories, Mr. Thirkell has lined his basement walls with pinball machines. He has 21 of them in his North Augusta home and another five at the family's lake house. They range from older electromechanical games such as Captain Fantastic to state-of-the-art machines such as Black Knight 2000, which has a pause feature that freezes the ball with a magnet.

"I'm collecting things I love to play and bringing back memories," Mr. Thirkell said. "At least once a week we're all down here playing together."

Mr. Thirkell bought his first pinball machine soon after graduating from University of South Carolina in 1983.

"I had always wanted a pinball game," he said. "After I got my first real job, I started looking at the classified ads, and, sure enough, there was a pinball machine."

It was a "300" game made by Gottlieb. He paid $275 for the game and $80 to rent a truck to get it to his apartment in Atlanta.

"I didn't know anything about how to take it apart," he said. "But I had the game about two days before it broke, so I had a crash course."

Mr. Thirkell found a pinball-machine repairman and watched with fascination as he took the machine apart.

"I saw him working on it with an emery board," he said. "After that I was hooked."

Since then, Mr. Thirkell has bought and sold more than 50 machines from individuals and at auctions or going out of business sales. He keeps some and sells others to make enough money to support his hobby.

"The ones I've kept have either these emotional attachments to them from growing up or a unique feature," he said. "Many of the games are games I remember playing as a child."

Fireball, one of his boyhood favorites, has a spinning disk that sits in the middle of the play-field.

"That makes for interesting ball movement," he said. "I used to play it all the time."

Mr. Thirkell's favorite game these days is Black Knight 2000.

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"It's a fast one," he said. "The music really gets you going, and it has two playing fields, which makes it difficult to beat."

Mr. Thirkell said his machines have cost between $500 and $2,000, depending on condition.

"But I would say they are priceless for sentimental value," he said.

NAME: Tom Thirkell, pinball machine collector

NUMBER OF MACHINES: 26

COLLECTING SINCE: 1983

OLDEST PINBALL GAME: 1967 Apollo

MOST EXPENSIVE: Some of the games are worth $1,800.

MOST UNUSUAL: Banzai Run, because it has a horizontal and vertical playing field; very few were manufactured because it was expensive to make.

MOST RECENT ACQUISITION: Class of 1812, first and only purchase off of online auction site eBay. It features chattering teeth and a larger-than-life beating heart.

OF NOTE: Twilight Zone and The Addams Family are the top two games on his "want" list.

NEXT WEEK: We profile a collector of turn-of-the-century electric appliances.

Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com.