Fifty years from now the Petersen Museum may feature a diorama dedicated to the social gathering once known as an "automotive swap meet." Young children will tug on their daddy's shirtsleeves and ask, "Thousands of people just showed up and walked around for hours, hoping they might find something?" And Daddy will answer, "Yes, and they called it fun."
If the display is accurate, few of the vendor and shopper manikins will be wearing Armani suits; variations of denim will be the rule. There will be no Weight Watchers or exercise equipment booths visible, although it would appear both offer services that could be of use to the participants. The majority of the vendor spaces will be equipped with propane-fueled barbecue grills, and the aroma of greasy hamburgers and well-done Polish sausages will fill the air.
The museum's explanatory note will comment that, "Although private supplies of alcoholic beverages were officially forbidden, copious amounts were consumed from something called long-necks, concealed in artifacts known as coolers."
You might guess that I've just had a less-than-thrilling experience at a swap meet. I spent a day at the "Always in April" event held each year in Portland, Oregon. Billed as "the largest swap meet west of the Mississippi," it offers around 4,000 vendor spaces, both indoors and out, and reports four-day attendance near 100,000.
In years past, I have participated there as a seller; my 1969 383-ci Road Runner went away at one, as did my 1953 MG TD. I bought a 1958 Isetta one year, and another year I found a triple-Stromberg carburetor setup for a Devin-bodied something-or-other I was having restored at my shop, Exotics Northwest. (We opened in 1989 just as the market was peaking, and had the pleasure of riding it downwards on the backs of restoration projects that were worth less daily, while labor and material costs continued to mount. Since 1991, I have stuck to pen and ink.)
One year, I had a swap meet booth to represent the Alfa Romeo Market Letter, the precursor to Sports Car Market. With a pile of used 1930s Chevrolet differentials being sold to the right of me, and wiring harnesses for International Harvester pickups offered to the left, you can imagine how successful a weekend it was.
This year, I wandered around for a few hours, ogled a few '60s muscle cars tagged with last year's hopeful asking prices, bought some vintage shop manuals for the SCM fleet and went home. I could have accomplished the same thing from my desk in a matter of minutes, and saved the parking and entrance fees, along with the time it took to go to and from.
Change or Die
Over the past decade, the Internet and eBay have changed the rules concerning buying and selling parts and cars. For instance, I am currently looking for a complete ashtray assembly for my 1965 Giulia Spider Veloce; I'll just set up that search on eBay and sooner or later I'll be notified that one is for sale. That process certainly trumps spending all day wandering up and down the aisles of a swap meet, hoping to spot my coveted part somewhere in the jumbled piles of stuff.
The number of vendor booths was down noticeably at the Portland swap meet (although I am told a competing, better-organized event at Portland International Raceway next door is still showing growth). Over a decade ago I asked members of the "Always in April" organizing
committee if it would be possible to have booths grouped so that foreign cars might be in one section, and American cars in another. "What, and spoil the thrill of the hunt?" was the response.
This is not to say that automotive swap meets are about to go away; they are compelling social events, and a mainstay of commerce for a non-Internet generation. They have a future, although one that will slowly dim, as stalwart swappers move to that great meet in the sky.
But the future doesn't have to be so bleak, if the meets become more user-friendly. My advice would be to first segregate the booths by make and marque, with another section for "mixed models, U.S." and one for "mixed models, foreign." Further, vendors should be able to post some or all of their inventory, or at least the types of inventory they have, on a web site, downloadable as a pdf that could act as a road map for buyers.
I'm not expecting that sellers will suddenly start keying in every cracked 1965 Ford Galaxie taillight they have stashed away, or that attending a live event will ever be as time-efficient as searching on the 'Net. I'm just suggesting that it might behoove the organizers of swap meets to pull their heads out of the Jurassic swamp, peer at the changing world, and do what they can to improve the swap meet experience. If they persist in their current patterns, they may find that the ruthless predator that is the Internet has turned them into dinosaurs trundling toward extinction.
Speaking of riding the digital wave, the SCM web site (www.sportscarmarket.com) is now available in French, Spanish, German, Japanese, and other languages with the click of a mouse. I can't guarantee the translations won't make linguists cringe in some cases, but it's a start. And I'd like to thank our IT specialist, Bryan Wolfe, for making this happen.
Following up on our very successful downloadable Buyer's Guides, with more available every week, digital back issues of SCM are now available online for download in pdf format. They are searchable by keyword, and printable. It's a terrific way to keep a library of our reference information on your home computer and your laptop. Issues from January 2006 to May 2007 are available for just $6 each, twelve for $48, at our web site. More back issues will be available on a regular basis.
On to Monterey
SCM will be having its sixth annual Insider's Seminar, in conjunction with the Gooding and Company auction, at their tent at the Equestrian Center in Pebble Beach. Held on Saturday, August 18, it will feature a keynote address by noted collector, historian, and proponent of automobile connoisseurship, Miles Collier. His topic will be "No Regrets Collecting." Other notables, to be announced, will comment on the major challenges facing the hobby, and I will lead a discussion about the market and where it is headed.
Then participants will form small groups and, under the tutelage of SCM experts, examine in minute detail some of the cars being offered by Gooding and Company. Our experts will be available to help you with any questions you might have.
Space is limited, sign up today. For more information, go to page 99, or www.sportscarmarket.com/seminars.