A long-defunct member of the Chrysler family, DeSoto was represented by a 1951 convertible, priced at US$13,500. Click image to enlarge
By Jil McIntosh
Its actual name is the Hershey Region AACA Fall Meet, but no one calls it that. To antique-car enthusiasts from across North America – and many from around the globe – it’s simply “Hershey”. Forty years ago, seven vendors sold a few spare parts alongside a car show in this small Pennsylvania town; today, the event includes some 10,000 vendor spots. It’s estimated that if you walk up and down each aisle and see every car, you’ll cover 35 miles.
The annual event, held this year on October 5 to 8, was originally intended as a car show only, held by the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA). It’s the club’s premiere event, and owners bring their cars to be judged in the hopes of winning a coveted AACA award; the car show itself runs on Saturday only. But while the show draws thousands of cars and even more people, most come for the flea market and the adjacent car corral, where vehicles are available for sale. It’s all held on the grounds of Hersheypark, a facility owned by the chocolate manufacturer. It’s also incredibly well-organized, with massive parking areas, campgrounds and RV areas, guided crosswalks and an unbelievably smooth flow of traffic. Although you pay US$10 if you want to park close to the grounds, there’s no admission fee into the event.
Hershey has always been important for those who prefer rarer makes; it’s not unusual to see vendor booths devoted solely to long-defunct manufacturers such as Stanley, Packard, Chalmers, Scripps-Booth, Studebaker and Willys, and to older models from current manufacturers, such as Bentley or Rolls-Royce. There are also the specialists: one booth deals only in the earliest one-cylinder Cadillacs, others are for early electric or steam cars, and one surprisingly busy vendor handles only kerosene-powered headlamps.
The Internet has had an effect on Hershey; quite simply, it makes more sense to find a rare piece by the click of a mouse, rather than tramping through miles of vendors in the hopes of spotting something. But there is still a need for the flea market, as many buyers prefer to see their parts hands-on, some items are too bulky to ship, and many vendors’ tables are crowded with rusty and often unidentifiable objects that are put forth only in the hopes that someone will recognize a part he needs. As well, there is a great deal of automotive-related memorabilia for sale, much of which changes hands on spur-of-the-moment decisions. You don’t go into the flea market actually looking for a toy model of a 1959 Cadillac hearse, but when you see it, who can resist?
This year, the weather also had a disastrous effect. To understand the history of Hershey, you must realize that antique-car enthusiasts are a breed apart. (That’s a nice way of saying we’re crazy people.) October in Pennsylvania can be a mixed bag, and in the fourteen years I’ve been attending, I’ve dealt with blazing heat, torrential rain, high winds, and even a bit of snow. Most of the fields are now paved, but “Hershey mud” remains famous (and can still be found on three of the unpaved fields); the thick clay soil, churned in wet weather by thousands of feet, turns into a sticky mud that once pulled me right out of my boots. Most people can work around the weather, but this year, the tail end of Hurricane Tammy dropped five inches of rain in one day, and for the first time, I didn’t have a chance to attend the car show, which was only a third its usual size. I left the swap meet early on Friday when most vendors heard warnings of possible flooding and packed up. As they say, there’s always next year.
The event draws cars from across North America, and buyers from around the world. This is where the rarest of the rare come to play: in previous years, I’ve seen Duesenbergs, Marmons, a Cadillac built into a boat (it was used to promote a Budweiser non-alcoholic beer during Prohibition), the only surviving Ontario-built Barrie Bell, Whizzer motorized bicycles, a 1948 Tucker, land-and-water Amphicars and several King Midgets, tiny build-em-yourself cars purchased through magazine ads. The best part is that every vehicle has to drive into the show area under its own steam (sometimes literally, in the case of Stanleys), and so you get a chance to hear museum-quality cars doing what they were meant to do. Vintage race-cars must also complete a low-speed lap of the nearby track in order to be judged.
This year’s awful weather was probably payback for 2004, when the skies were bright and sunny throughout, and hopefully that’ll mean that 2006 will be beautiful. Mark your calendar for October 4 to 7, 2006, and leave your umbrella at home.