Sweet Time at Hershey Meet

“I miss the old days,” groused one old-timer to another. “It’s just not the same.”

It’s true, the AACA Eastern Regional Fall Meet at Hershey just hasn’t been the same since the Hershey Corporation paved the last of the fields used for displaying acres of collector cars, parts and collectibles several years ago. That means that miles of boot-sucking mud are gone from the flea market, although those curmudgeonly nostalgia-seekers could have searched for the mud on Saturday’s show field or in the fields used for parking—had it only rained for two or three days.

Since 1955 Hershey has been the center of the old-car universe during the second week in October. What started as a modest meet for the Hershey Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America has grown into a happening on par with Monterey week in California every August. But rather than an event that caters to the wealthiest collectors and the most spectacular cars, Hershey welcomes every segment of the old-car and -truck hobby. Although it started small in 1955, both the flea market and car show have grown to the point that there are few rivals in size or public attendance.

For 2009 the big news was that a few drizzles and some Friday night rain weren’t enough to turn parking lots to quagmires and back up the sewers. In fact, the weather at Hershey was fairly mild, meaning that the mornings started with a chill and on several days the temperature reached hopefully toward 70. The decent weather meant that tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world could scour the 9,000 flea market spots and 1,000 car corral spaces for all kinds of jewels – and more than a few junkers. (Click here for a photo gallery with more than 200 shots from the 2009 Hershey meet)

Coming from Near and Far

Duesenberg restorer Randy Ema returned to California with a few choice finds for one of his Auburn restorations, while Dodge Brothers enthusiast Wayne Stephenson trekked in from Nashville to both buy and sell. Others count on Hershey as much for the car corral as for the parts on offer. Jed Rapoport, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, didn’t get much time in the flea market because he was busy in the car corral with a Jaguar XK-120 and an Oldsmobile Tornado displayed for sale. The 43-year-old Rapoport first came to Hershey “when I was three weeks old and haven’t missed one since.” Although many enthusiasts Like John Carlson, of British Columbia, or Carl Heideman, of Holland, Michigan, travel long distances and stay nearby, others are like Jerry Evans from Reading, Pennsylvania, who comes in for a single day just to “see what’s there. I’m not looking for anything, but my brothers and I think of it as entertainment.”

Entertainment is part of the key to Hershey, and not just because the flea market spaces are carved out of the parking lots for the “Giant Stadium” and Hershey Park amusement park. As you wander past the 1937 Ford Fenders, piles of battered hubcaps and tables of dog-eared automotive books, you’ll see campers and motor homes aplenty. Driving around Hershey, many of the hotels and motels are full and there are several parking lots exclusively filled with RVs of every size and type. So while many people come to Hershey to buy and sell cars and parts, just as many use it as a thinly veiled excuse to meet up with brothers and car buddies, drink beer, forget to shave and just relax as they walk up and down the rows of the flea market.

Many observers thought that attendance was down for 2009. Several hotels that are usually booked a year in advance had rooms just a week before the meet. Walking the flea market, there was still much to peruse, although there seemed to be a few more vacant spots than in years past. Yet there was still many new and old parts to harvest and the little red wagons and shoulder bags seemed to be bulging, if not quite as full as in past years.

In another departure from prior years, car corral spaces were still available. Several dealers came with multiple cars and there were more than a few low-mileage and very original cars on offer, although asking prices appeared quite optimistic. But still the corral harbored scores of Fords and Chevys and Austin-Healeys and even a tiny Hanover, built just a few miles away.

Inside Trading

Most people think of Hershey as an outdoor event, and it is for thousands. But for the past few years, thanks to RM Auctions, there has been an indoor element, too. Several miles from the flea market grounds, the RM Auction was hosted at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center. Split into two days, viewing started on Thursday afternoon and an automobilia auction filled the afternoon and evening. Viewing continued on Friday and the automobile auction began that afternoon. Dominated by American cars, there were plenty of Fords and Chevrolets and Buicks, though there was also a single Ferrari 250, a pair of MGs and a smattering of classics from Lincoln, Packard and Pierce-Arrow.

Despite an economy that is still in recovery mode, 94 percent of the cars were reported sold. Top sale for the night was a 1931 Marmon 16 convertible coupe that was responsible for $517,000 of the auction’s total of $9.1 million in sales. A big surprise was the $310,500 earned by the Miller 91 front-drive engine and an unrestored 1909 Stanley runabout that garnered $176,000. There were also some good values: A 1964 Galaxie 500 Two-Door Hardtop brought in $15,400; an attractive 1936 Pontiac Master Six Deluxe coupe sold for just $19,800; and for unmitigated fun, a charming 1926 Ford Model T Depot Hack changed hands for $14,850.

The Final Act

By Saturday morning, many vendors and visitors had already pulled up stakes and headed home. For others, though, the Saturday car show is the best reason for going to Hershey. Approximately 1,500 vehicle owners seemed to think it was worth their while to polish up their cars, which ranged from Model Ts to Plymouth Valiants, to several Mercers and a whole class of trucks and buses, as well as antiques and sports cars representing many nameplates. The show field was also thick with visitors who found the appeal of shiny paint greater than that of rows and rows of rusty sheet metal and other parts of every kind.

Despite multiple comments that flea market sales and attendance had flagged and the reality of more empty spaces than usual, tens of thousands of people still flocked to Hershey and went home with parts and accessories they’d never find anywhere else. Friends still met to swap stories, parts and beer and despite the odds, the weather was relatively dry. Forget the grumbling and dire predictions; Hershey is clearly alive and well. Now it’s just a matter of finding a hotel room for 2010.

Jonathan A. Stein is the Associate Publisher of Hagerty’s magazine and hasn’t missed Hershey in 22 years. He always looks and rarely buys, but still wouldn’t consider missing those three days of seeing old friends and walking through the flea market and show field.

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