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Antique Automobile Club of America displays car collecting and its finest in Hershey

Fri, 22 Oct 2010

Searching for vintage car parts, literature, gas station collectables, or even a nice old car? The best place to look is the annual Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) Fall National Meet, better known as “Hershey.” Now in its 55th year, it's the world's largest old car gathering, with an 1,800-car concours, more than 1,000 cars for sale in the “car corral,” and, best of all, an astounding 9,000 flea market spaces, chock full of more automotive artifacts than you can imagine, all scattered in no particular order on 85-plus acres--that's nearly 90 football fields--or “22 miles of aisles,” as Hershey devotees say.

It takes a lot of walking, but walk we did for four days, for a close-up of this fascinating offshoot of the old-car hobby. The weather was terrific and that brought out even larger crowds than usual. Recession? What recession? We saw plenty of action that indicated the old car hobby is healthy, despite the gloomy unemployment figures.

Hershey began as an old-car show, with just seven people selling vintage parts. The mushrooming flea market soon overtook the car show itself and it's the main reason most people attend. Over the years, many Hershey vendors have moved from selling old parts to collectibles. There are plenty of good quality reproduction parts available, so you don't have to sift through a pile of rusty fenders, but the rusty stuff's still offered here, if you want it. Even better, clean, operable old cars are on sale in the car corral, so you can come to Hershey and trailer (or even drive) home a car that doesn't need restoring.

RM Auctions has held a big sale for the last few years. This year, it moved $8.8 million worth--all 140 cars that were up for sale. Brass cars were flying off the block. It's that kind of crowd. The top seller was a 1929 Duesenberg Model J for $748,000. My favorite was a one-of-a-kind, ultra-rare 1932 Bergholt Streamline, a bold design which preceded the Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow and the Chrysler Airflow. The sleek four-door didn't quite reach reserve on the block, but it sold just after the auction for $82,500.

Hershey in the early fall is a heady cocktail of crisp mornings, damp, always crowded flea market lanes, a faint whiff of chocolate in the air (from the candy factory), and row after jumbled row of cluttered vendor spaces. It's a cacophony of colorful, eclectic, often rusty, always fascinating stuff. The only way to see it all and not miss anything is to scrutinize every space. And when you do, the entire range of automotive collectibles is right there.

Transactions are strictly cash. The swap meet becomes an enormous village, with a five-day life span. Everyone is bartering, trading and wheeler-dealing. People casually pull out rolls of high-denomination bills that would have delighted Al Capone. And they don't take American Express or Visa or Mastercard.

Everything's negotiable, but vendors typically start a little high and don't expect to give up much. Be persistent if you want a bargain. If you really want an item, make your deal quickly, because there's always someone just behind you who'll step up and pay the price if you hesitate.

Some people can't afford even one old car. That's spawned a legion of hobbyists who hoard auto-related collectibles. People go crazy over “petroliana,” service station artifacts: neon and porcelain signs, gas pumps and globes, oil cans, car wax tins and road maps. They save old attendant uniforms, oil company caps, even those funny rubber bow ties. There were 82 (!) Hershey vendors selling gas station items this year.

Petroliana crazies are just the tip of the auto collectibles iceberg. There are fanciers of old pedal cars-- tiny, steel sidewalk kiddiemobiles and airplanes. Devotees of Buddy L, Keystone, and other beautifully-detailed steel toy trucks pay thousands of dollars for them, and there are passionate savers of 1930s motorized race cars (called spindizzies because they were raced in parking lots or on special tracks attached to a tether cord).

Motorized bicycles, like early '50s Whizzers: basically big Schwinn or Columbia bicycles, with tiny bolt-on gasoline motors, are popular. Corgi cars, Dinky Toys, wind-up tinplate Shuco cars, even Bob's Big Boy dolls are in demand. There's interest in automotive art of all types, old car books and magazines, vintage race trophies, turn-of-the century brass auto lamps, hubcaps, even grease caps.

At Kirk F. White's tent, a shiny lineup of exquisite gas-powered model racers, with names like Bunch Speed Demon, Dooling Mercury, Matthews, B.B. Korn, Peerless and Rexner, tempted passersby. Priced in the 1930s-1940s from $12 to $40, about a foot long, they're tagged from several hundred dollars to $8,000 and more for rare one-off's with racing history.

“Running on airplane fuel, they could hit real speeds of 135-140-mph,” says White. “Hardly any two looked the same. You selected an engine, then made your own hood and belly pan. This was a grownup's game,” he explains. At these prices, it still is.

Smaller racers, called “mite cars,” by Ohlson & Rice, McCoy and Cox Thimbledrome are $300-$1,000, depending on condition. “I've had this disease for over 30 years,” White admits. “Good cars are getting harder to find.” He also sells primo vintage motorcycles.

Hershey veterans Bill and Arlene Swain, owners of “Yesterday's Memories,” Brookfield, Wisconsin, offer a treasure trove of 1950s-1960s Japanese tin toys, license tag toppers, dealer signs, pins and badges. “We used to sell old car parts,” says Arlene, “but it became harder for us to get parts, and people seemed to have most of what they needed, so we switched to collectibles.” The Swains ask $150-to-$200 for “Made in Occupied Japan” '57 and '58 Fords that probably cost less than $10 new. If you're a kid from the '50s, you should have saved every toy you ever had. But who knew?

Looking for old photos? Vintage photographs are an accuracy aid to restorers; and they're great to look at and easy to display. Originals are more valuable than recent copies made from old negatives. But it often rains at Hershey, and it's always damp in the morning. Paper goods purveyors are cautious about displaying old photos, manuals, and catalogs, but they're out there, if you hunt for them.

King of Hershey's vendors is Charles Schalebaum, of Allentown, Pa. He always has the rarest, most interesting and most expensive items for sale. “I've been coming since the third Hershey,” Schalebaum says, “and the collecting end is really growing. Interest has doubled in the last five years. These things don't take up as much space as an automobile,” he points out. You can take them home and enjoy them every day.”

Seven vendors specialize in pedal cars. Learn the jargon to buy wisely: There are “Sad Faces,” “Flat Faces” “Dude Wagons,” “V-Fronts,” and “Tooth Grilles,” Murray “Dip Sides” and BMC/AMF “Fishmouths,” Manufacturers like Murray, Garton, Hamilton and Midwest Industries are long gone. If you can't find the one you want, Speedway Motors' Blue Diamond Classics can supply enough parts to build a new pedal car from scratch.

With knowledgeable sellers and buyers on the four color-coded fields, many linked by cell phones and walkie-talkies, Hershey prices tend to be fair and consistent. You can tell what's selling, just by looking at what people are carrying away. There are a few incredible bargains on the first day, when a vendor who may not know the real value of an item meets a collector with a fist full of cash who knows exactly what it's worth. But by the second and third days, sales settle into a steady pattern. And if it rains, as it almost always does, prices are slashed.

Sound like fun? Better head up to your attic. Maybe you've still got that old “Buddy L” fire truck you got for Christmas so long ago; did you save your old gas station uniform shirt? How about your dad's license plates from the '40s, the ones with the same number year after year? Got any old road maps, owners' manuals, old license plate frames? How about those Strombecker models you never assembled, or those Matchbox toys?

Hmmmmmmm, how much d'you want for that stuff?

Next year's AACA Annual Fall Meet will be held in Hershey, Pa., on Oct. 5-8, 2011.

By Ken Gross