The shadow of Swap Meets past lingered at Fall Carlisle 2022

Benjamin Hunting

The swap meet is a time-honored tradition in the classic car community. For decades, these gatherings have offered owners the opportunity to snag rare parts, connect with fellow enthusiasts, and tie together far-flung reaches of the hobby. Whether for a weekend or a week, the name of the game is flea market fun.

If anywhere can be considered the apex of America’s swap meet scene, it’s the events at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Fairgrounds. Launched by Chip and Bill Miller in 1974, this 82-acre site roughly halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh hosts two major highlights of the swap season. This well-trod ground was regularly crammed to the brim every spring and fall, thanks in large part to a pair of swap meets that bookend the summer season’s car shows and events, hosted at the same spot. For a sense of scale, Carlisle Events claims a world record for the biggest automotive flea market on the planet—specifically the April meet, which lures 100,000 attendees to pick its nearly endless aisles. After all that pent-up winter energy, the spring brings a surge to Carlisle’s swap meet.

Benjamin Hunting

Despite this lengthy history, the golden age of the American swap meet appears to be over. There is now a cloud hanging over not just Carlisle, but nearly every major swap meet in the country. Its name is the internet. We all know how digital platforms, such as eBay, have proven an incredibly efficient resource for fans of even the most obscure automobiles. The global market for once hard-to-find vehicle parts was effectively made accessible to anyone with an internet connection. Rather than leave the house, it’s now possible to one-click order (or at least, haggle over with a Facebook seller) those NOS tail lights or that missing interior trim from the comforts of one’s living room.

Carlisle swap meet sign
Benjamin Hunting

That convenience means fewer crowds at in-person swap meets, and that has forced vendors themselves to weigh the hassle of trucking their hoard to the middle of Pennsylvania. Cataloging and listing parts on eBay, Craigslist, or a message board certainly seems easier. It’s a vicious cycle, with fewer sellers further reducing the incentive for buyers to visit swap meets like Carlisle. The literal graying of the hobby plays a role here, too; for every once-reliable swap meeter who stays home because they can’t be bothered to attend, there’s another who’s finally decided they’re too old to make the trek.

I’d never been to Carlisle, but did grow up hearing stories from my father about its overwhelming size and fantastic atmosphere. This fall, the two of us decided to make the eight-hour drive south from Montreal. Ostensibly, the goal was to try to snag a grille for my Grand Wagoneer project, along with a set of tires and wheels for one of my father’s Studebakers. But I was just as eager to learn just how much the swap meet scene had changed in the years since my father frequented its many stalls. What I discovered was a world in transition, with a past echoing into an uncertain future.

Still big, no longer full

The original fall event kickstarted the tradition, but it was typically smaller than the spring blow-out. Still, the Carlisle of my father’s memories was too expansive to be absorbed in a single day. We budgeted two, but by the time the late September date arrived, Hurricane Ian was pushing unpredictable weather up the entire East Coast. It was looking less and less likely that we’d get a full 48 hours of dry conditions to explore Carlisle’s full glory.

Benjamin Hunting

By the time we arrived at the gates early on Friday morning, Fall Carlisle had already been humming along since Tuesday. From the slightly elevated vantage point of the Fairgrounds’ main entry, it was possible to get a sense of the swap meet’s general topography: row upon row of tables, tents, and ground-covering tarps delineated the prime vendor space on the right side of the field, with the grand stands, auction buildings, and notary title transfer service buildings lining up along the middle. On their other side lay another section dedicated to sellers, with the massive uphill climb of the car corral fitting like a boot at the very tip of the action.

Our initial browsing revealed the mainstays of any successful swap meet: a huge spread of brochures, promotional material and automotive books here, a stack of intake manifolds there, and (of course) the presence of classic car industry stalwarts like Coker Tire claiming a significant chunk of prime real estate. Happily, I noticed a lot less of the usual flea-market dreck; Carlisle publishes a (not necessarily enforced) requirement that each vendor’s stock be at lest 80 percent automotive. The idea is to keep the Beanie Baby and cheapo t-shirt crowd from choking the aisles. It seems to be working.

What surprised me most was how easy it was to move through the site. The major swap meets I’ve attended in the past have been packed shoulder-to-shoulder, but Fall Carlisle’s density was more muted. On occasion, a wave of wagon-toting shoppers would breeze past, but they left behind a gap in the crowd that never really filled in. While it’s possible that the threat of foul Saturday weather had kept at least a few people at home, Friday was warm and only occasionally cloudy—perfect for picking.

Dwindling on both sides of the counter

The lull gave me the opportunity to chat with several vendors and get their perspective on the evolution of the Carlisle swap meet.

“It’s changed. It’s really changed,” said the proprietor of one of the larger parts and memorabilia outfits. “It’s the people that change the most.” His father had died six years beforehand, he explained, and his close friend and business partner also passed just a few years later. That left him in charge, but not all operations are so lucky.

“Those older guys are gone and no one is taking their place,” he continued. “The younger folks aren’t here because they’re not interested in these kinds of cars. And the crowds are getting smaller on both sides.”

Even the larger sellers are increasingly staying put in favor of selling online. “You might see them come here with big, bulky parts that are expensive to ship because that attracts buyers looking to save some cash,” he said.

The shrinking of Carlisle’s crowds was confirmed by other sellers throughout the day. “Fifteen years ago you couldn’t pay for a spot,” one old-timer explained. “Now, they’ve opened up everywhere.” A look across the field’s second, hillier half showed as much, with the gaps between each tent and even spaces in the car corral growing wider and wider as the distance from the main entrance increased.

No sub for a real swap

Online sales have their pitfalls, too. The relatively low cost of entry has, in some areas, increased competition to the point where pricing has become a race to the bottom. Profit margins are as low as 1 to 2 percent when factoring in the fees charged by major marketplaces and payment processors. That’s not much of an incentive for sellers, especially those not moving massive volume.

Carlisle swap meet 5 dollar table
Benjamin Hunting

For buyers, too, there is a counterweight to the frictionless aspects of online purchasing. The inability to actually examine what you’re buying prior to handing over your credit card number brings with it inherent risk. This is one area where a swap meet has the information superhighway handily beat. Go ahead and pick up that carburetor. Figure out if that chrome trim is the right brightness to match what’s already on your car. Give it the once-over. Look for the telltale signs that you’re dealing with an original and not a reproduction part. Feel the heft in your hand while you formulate your bargaining strategy.

All of these opportunities vanish in a world where you’re forced to rely on a seller’s grainy pictures and often-vague product description. Equally absent, too, is the chance to tap into the institutional expertise locked inside the brains of the old-timers still willing to hang their shingle out for a week in Pennsylvania. You never know when a conversation about a car or component will lead to a revelation. Suddenly you’re talking to someone who spent years on the assembly line that built your vehicle, or a person who has exactly the piece you’re looking for. It’s sitting in the barn at home. Swing by anytime, you’re told.

The link to the history of what you’re holding in your hands is impossible to replicate across the digital divide. One swap meet humanizes the hobby in a way a thousand episodes of reality TV restorations cannot.

No drowning out the die-hards

Carlisle swap meet dash
Benjamin Hunting

On our way out of the gates Friday we encountered a large contingent of sellers who were closing up shop and choosing exodus over the approaching storm. Indeed, the remnants of Hurricane Ian were not to be denied. Our second day at Carlisle was a wet, soupy mess. The sopping field on Saturday was a near ghost town.

Still, more than a few diehards (like us) decided to brave the elements in the hopes of making one last sale or score. As the rain relented for an hour or two around noon, I wandered what remained of the car corral, imagining a life in which I took a chance on a $5000, sunburned third-gen IROC-Z. I had to snap out of it to talk my dad out of offering $750 for a Mustang II that “turns over but won’t start.”

As the skies once again grew dark and my pants drank in the cold precipitation all the way up to the knee, I managed to get a reasonable facsimile of what I came for. It wasn’t the exact part I had planned on, but in our last half hour at the meet, I struck a bargain with an equally-soaked Chevy square-body seller for the rights to a ’73 pickup grille. My plan is to mount on the wall at home as a display for my Hot Wheels collection. “I’ve got another dozen of these stacked in the garage at home,” he told me with a wry smile, upon finally accepting my sodden roll of $20 bills.

That kind of transaction does not translate to my mobile phone or home PC. A serendipitous convergence of weather and commerce landed me a deal on exactly the kind of “too big to cheaply ship” part that once served as the primary lure for swap meet attendees. I trundled back to the puddle-stewn parking lot with the chrome piece tucked under my arm, feeling satisfied but still rather wet. True, the internet never gets rained out. But it rarely makes a memory, grim or glowing. I genuinely wish I could have seen Carlisle when it was closer to the latter.

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    I bought my rear quarter and a couple of other panels for my 65 Impala there and probably saved a few hundred bucks in shipping. I like the internet for new and small, but for big and/or used you can’t beat a swap meet.

    Great story! We were just talking the other day about the thrill of going to the Carlisle and Hershey swap meets and trying to walk the entire thing over 3-4 days. The decline of these “huge” events sure seemed to happen quickly. Who knew that “the good ol’ days” would be only 10 years ago?

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