It's a miserable, wet, 45-degree day in Portland as I compose this. And for the first time in a decade, I have missed the 44th annual Always-in-April Portland Swap Meet.
Billed as the largest event of its kind west of the Mississippi River, it claims to have over 4,200 vendor stalls and 50,000 shoppers. An event held at Portland International Raceway, just next door, attracts a large crowd as well.
But as I have said before, swap meets of all kinds are rapidly losing their relevance in today's collecting world. Fifteen years ago, when I owned a restoration shop, Exotics Northwest, I recall looking forward to the swap meet, as I needed a three-Stromberg intake manifold and carburetors for the Devin I was restoring. In fact, I found several to choose from.
And my collection of Dinky and Matchbox toys always grew in April, the result of prowling the halls of the swap meet.
But today, if I go to eBay and type in "Stromberg," 399 results come up. And if exactly what I need isn't there, I'd simply set my loyal and trusty account to email me when a listing that matches "Stromberg and intake" appears.
Simpler to find things online
The magic is completely gone with regards to finding toy cars at swap meets. A search for "Dinky" produced 1,871 results, and "Matchbox" 14,415. How much simpler and more convenient it is to look at them online, from the comfort of my home (okay, actually from my office when I'm supposed to be working), click a couple of buttons, and have them sent to me at home.
Also, swap meets used to be the only viable alternative to Hemmings for selling a collector car. One April, my booth had a 1969 Road Runner (orange/black, 4-speed, buckets, 383, nice car, paid $3,500 and sold for $5,000) and an MG TD (burgundy/black, fine driver, paid $6,500, sold for $8,500). Buyers came looking, sellers were prepared, and deals were put together.
In the pre-Internet days, it was even possible now and then to steal a car; friend Bill Woodard and I snagged an Isetta one year for $6,000 and drove it home, dead-mouse aroma and all. It went away a few months later for $9,500.
But today, all the sellers are hooked up to cyberworld, and consequently all the asking prices tend to be otherworldly, as if there were giant Speed Channel cameras following every transaction, and every price was going to be a world record. Where's the fun in that for a buyer?
Can you hear me now?
And if you do go to swap meets, communication with your partners is a no-brainer today. When I first started attending them, one of the biggest challenges was staying in touch. In the pre-cell phone era, you would arrange to "meet by the big tent at noon." Invariably, someone would get caught up in a deal, and after 30 minutes of waiting you would go on with your searches, and maybe that night back at the hotel you would touch base again.
This situation was ameliorated slightly when the first hand-held CB radios were mass produced. I remember long-time collector and friend of SCM Bob Ames boasting how he and co-conspirator Monte Shelton had snagged a pair of CBs, and could prowl the paths at Hershey independent of one another, yet be instantly in touch if they came across the crown jewels. I was jealous.
Today, not only can you make a cell phone call, you can send a picture to your buddies, either to inquire about value, or, post-purchase, to brag about your find.
More reasons to avoid going
In fact, the primary reason to go to swap meets today, in my opinion, is for the bragging rights. You gather with your buddies each night and dump your bags of booty on the table, like children coming back from an evening of trick-or-treating. Each bit is examined, and the group gives its collective thumbs-up or thumbs-down to your acquisition.
But in the end, it gets easier and easier each year to just pass. If the weather's not good, if the schedule is crowded, if there's a rally, if you've heard that the parking is difficult-those all become reasons to tilt the scales in favor of avoiding the swap meet altogether, and getting the junk you really don't need anyway by going online.
It's not to say swap meets won't continue, it's just that they now exist in a much more crowded marketplace, with far more choices for gearheads who have an afternoon to waste. Most swap meets exhibit an organizational antipathy to the Internet; I would suggest that those best positioned to survive will learn to embrace it and use its power to enhance their events. Offering vendors a way to list their wares online would be a start.
The magic months
Despite our current gray skies, it's time to prep your old cars and motorcycles for the months ahead. Here in Portland, May through October is our sunny time-six months, 26 weekends, just 184 days. What we hope for is the confluence of good weather, properly running machines, and days labeled Saturday or Sunday.
The underlying passion that ties us all together is the exhilaration we feel when we actually get our cranky old cars running, and spend time with our (often cranky as well) old friends, on empty roads to nowhere.
If I were the king of your summer calendar, I'd have you pull it out right now and clearly mark out the weekends you are going to spend enjoying your cars. I've got mine done already.