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Parts pickers paradise – on the ground at the Portland swap meets

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Dawn breaks over Turn 12 at PIR and down the main straight. Photos by Don Homuth.

Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from Hemmings Daily regular, concours judge and former North Dakota State Senator Don Homuth.

Day One

Hershey, PA, has the nation’s biggest chocolate maker and the nation’s largest auto swap meet.

Portland, OR, has several small boutique chocolate makers, and two good-sized swap meets on the same weekend within a mile of each other.  Biggest swap event on the Left Coast, so it’s claimed. The local perception is that they are essentially the same meet. There’s a backstory to that — the Portland Swap Meet is now in its 52nd year, while the PIR Swap Meet is only about a decade old. Initially, there was some resentment from the senior event, but that has now changed to one of mutual cooperation and support.

Portland swap meet

Car parts… and a scale.

This weekend, the Portland International Raceway Swap Meet opened on Thursday to the early crowds of bargain shoppers looking for that One Special Part. Even at sunrise on a brisk spring morning, the grounds had a line waiting for tickets that stretched for nearly a quarter mile. Within an hour, there were thousands of eager car people looking at the booths that ran entirely around the two-mile road-racing course on both sides. Really.

Portand swap meet

Interesting variation on the golf cart theme: This featured speakers in the back with the amplified digital sound of an SBC through headers and low-restriction mufflers.

Did they find the special part? Some did, and carted them off in Radio Flyer wagons pulled by people or by golf carts and ATVs. The venue even offered a parts pick-up service for delivery to the parking lot, with the $5 charge going to a local charity.

Portland swap meet

The usual and the not so usual.

Though this is perceived as an “auto” swap meet, the booths had much more than just old auto parts, rust/patina (it depends on if you’re buying or selling), complete and project cars, some quite exotic bits that could be discovered only by carefully sorting through cardboard boxes and the usual assortment of aftermarket chromed wheels with wide tires, intake manifolds of various design and manufacture (some long discontinued) and a plethora of Stuff.

Portland swap meet

My buddy’s $5 Weber.

What do you want? (It might actually be here. You may have to look hard and long to find it.)  Need a twin 4-bbl crossover Edelbrock manifold for your SBC? Several. How about an original twin-cam cylinder head for an XK-120 jag? Found one. A thousand dollars, but open to further discussion. Need a hubcap for a Hupmobile of an indeterminate manufacture decade? Found one. My buddy was looking specifically for a Weber 32DFD 2-bbl carburetor, and carefully looked all morning at every booth that might have one.  No joy — until right about noon when he found it. It was rusted, the choke plates wouldn’t move, but it was $5! Sold — on the spot. (It will go on a very nice Fiat 124 roadster he just picked up.) He stumbled across an original mirror for an MGA in a box of stuff the vendor wasn’t sure about. One measly dollar and it went home with him.

Portland swap meet

1976 Corvette for sale.

Portland swap meet

The 1921 Olds tourer with the “patriotic” motif.

Completed cars? Oh yes — a bunch of those. The standard “triple nickel” 55-56-57 Chevys were all over the place, in various models and builds. The 1921 Oldsmobile tourer with the longhorn skull with the U.S. flag decor was… startling. But very patriotic! To someone. Several old Dodge Brothers cars on trailers, none running. Lots of others, in various levels of restoration or running.

Portland swap meet

The vendor sign on the 1958 DKW Munga.

The oddest — it wasn’t even close — was a 1958 DKW Munga — at least that’s what the sign said. It was built for the German military, and how it found its way to the Left Coast is anyone’s guess. You can be certain that no one else you know will have one.

Portland swap meet

Beautifully done 1938 Buick with twin side mounts in front of a pile of wheels and stuff.

The most visually striking effect was seeing either some really nice cars sitting next to what can be generously described as piles of rust or miscellaneous bits. A beautifully turned out 1937 Buick in front of a pile of aftermarket wheels and tires. And where else would you find a bunch of refurbished cylinder heads for various motors right next to a display of old Edison cylinder record players?

Portland swap meet

Perfect blue skies and a wandering path of Oil-Dri.

Unlike past years, this year the weather was about perfect. Sunshine all weekend, no rain in the forecast. Overall, the organizers just of the PIR event say they expect to welcome between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors just to that venue. (Probably double that to the one at the Expo Center.)

Portland swap meet

Something for (almost) everyone, though the sign’s lettering was too small to read.

Was there really something for everyone? No — numerous people were wearing the hand-lettered signs saying “Looking for…” and getting no response. But no question — certainly something for a lot of folks. One wonders how many garage lofts and storage containers were emptied to come to this show.

Portland swap meet

“Needs some work” is an understatement.

The vendors were either completely clueless — just buy the part on the table — or more than willing to tell the story of the part, the car, how someone they knew had one just like it thirty years ago… which is the best part of attending any car event anywhere. We car people do love to tell stories, especially when there’s someone willing to listen to them. The sale is almost inconsequential.

Portland swap meet

Anything to help drive sales.

Organizers related that Wednesday, the move-in day for vendors, had them rushing to set up their own displays, and immediately rushing off to shop the other displays when the public was not yet allowed in. Rumors are that several sets of wheels and other parts were gone from one vendor, to appear at another only slightly marked up.

Portland swap meet

Parts: common, rare and (sometimes) bizarre.

First days are for people with particular interests, wants and needs. They are more willing to pay the initial asking price. As the weekend goes on, the “bottom feeders” will come out, and bits and pieces will be exchanged after lively bargaining.

Portland swap meet

Just needs a tune-up.

This was the first day of the first show. Tomorrow is the first day of the second show. The ambience of the two are supposedly not quite the same, and the shoppers display different sorts of behaviors.

I’ll be there when the gates open.

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Day Two

Well, I didn’t make it on time.  Missed the earlier light rail that stops within a hundred feet of the gate (and also at the PIR event just up the road), so got there 15 minutes later. The place was already crowded.

Portland swap meet

Portland, day two.

If the PIR event was large — and it surely was — this was much larger. Five large buildings plus one large parking lot out front and another almost as big out back. And yes — the ambience of this event was different from the earlier one.

Portland swap meet

Indoors, walking the aisles.

The “professionals” set up inside the buildings.  The companies with the fold-up nice-looking display stands and professionally done signs. They are inside because it often rains here in the spring. Those people are pros — they do the circuit. They actually interact with passers-by. Their prices are commensurate. On the first day of the show, attendees were looking for something specific and were willing to pay for what they want.

Portland swap meet

Some vendors clearly priced items; others did not.

Rows and rows of chrome-plated bits, with few stacks of rusty fenders or heavy steel parts of unknown provenance. A fair number of unrestored dash instruments, lights and such for patina-seekers. An equal number of restored or newly made parts for everyone else. It was all there.

Portland swap meet

A for-display-only small-block Chevy.

The world is paved with gussied-up small block Chevrolet engines — some just for display (several had metallic painted exhausts, so you could tell) and some obviously meant to be drop-ins with lots of horsepower. Claims of 500-600 bhp were not uncommon, though unverified. Swap meet customers are not always able to tell.

Portland swap meet

A Jaguar V-12 for sale. If you have to ask the price…

Portland swap meet

This Riley was the most exotic motor on display. The asking price? $13,000.

The occasional Mopar or Ford motors, mostly big-block variants, were not as well turned out, so appeared the more genuine. There were some few exotics — the Jaguar V-12 complete with transmission was all oily sitting on its stand, with no price. But the pristine-looking Riley motor had a $13,000 price tag. The vendor is seeking That One Buyer who might want it, who may or may not be here.

Portland swap meet

Part of the 10 percent not automotive related.

As it was at PIR, the real Swap Meet action is outdoors. That’s where the really interesting stuff could be found. The meet claims to require that something like 90 percent of all vendors must display automotive-related wares. Probably correct.

Portland swap meet

Most of it’s about cars, but sometimes there’s no telling which cars.

Rows of rusty fenders, some with scrawled notes telling what they were from — a staple of every swap meet anywhere. (There are more rusty original fenders from 1930s- and 1940s-era cars than will ever be made into automobiles). They, too, seek that One Buyer who needs That Exact Part. One must admire the tenacity of the vendors who keep hauling this stuff across thousands of miles, to show after show.

Portland swap meet

Some offerings nearly defy description.

Outdoors is for the empty-the-storage-unit-or-garage displays.

“What’s in that box?”

“Mustang parts.”

“What Mustang parts?”

“I’m not sure — take a look. Anything you find that you need is two dollars.”

Portland swap meet

Is the time spent searching through the box worth the savings? Apparently — there were lookers who spent a good half hour digging through unmarked boxes for That One Part.  Some of them seem to have found it. Possibly for one dollar.

Portland swap meet

Best humorous sign. Fine print reads “Buy one get 200 free.”

Generally, vendors come in two sorts: Those on their feet who make eye contact and seek to talk with passers-by about what they are looking for, and those who sit on folding chairs in the back of their booths with dour looks and taciturn manners. The former want to sell something; the latter might or might not allow you to buy it. If you insist.

There’s little sense in even starting to mention much of it because one can’t do justice to the sheer volume of it. The photos will give an idea.

Portland swap meet

It’s the people at these events who are more interesting than the stuff. This being the first day (and a Friday when most casual car hobbyists are still at work), the hard-core folks were out in force. The guys with the oily T-shirts, lots of (equally oily) beards, the fat wallets with chains in their back pockets — those folks appear to work in shops in the Pacific Northwest from Montana to northern California. They were knowledgeable, informed and knew precisely what they were looking for. They also drove hard bargains. Listening to the negotiations while walking by was educational.

Portland swap meet

First-generation Corvette project.

Which leaves us with the cars on display. There were many more than at PIR the day before, and only a few were the same cars.

Portland swap meet

The most expensive car on site was this $350,000 Shelby G.T. 350.

Inside the building were the “restored” or otherwise updated automobiles. They were not bargains. The priciest was one claiming to be a genuine Shelby G.T. 350 at $350,000. The guy sitting in his chair wasn’t getting much business. He was looking for that One Person, and said he would be patient till they showed up. If not here, then some other meet later in the summer.

Some of the “restorations” were (cough!) questionable. Anything from brass-era tourers to somewhat overdone street-racer muscle cars.

Portland swap meet

Second-generation Corvette project.

Outside had some of those, but many more project cars. Car hobbyists know that many projects are started but never finished. Just on the Corvette scene alone, there were variants of first-, second- and third-generation cars on the lot, some looking pretty good and some real basket cases. Nothing newer than those.

Portland swap meet

Some projects needed more work than others.

Sitting on the trailers, a dozen or so made one wonder —  how could those ever be brought back? Apparently they can, else no one would be discussing them.

Portland swap meet

Someone, somewhere needs this for a restoration.

Which leads me to a theory about swap meet vendors. They are apparently some of the greatest optimists in the nation. Their optimism seems to break into two forms: (1) Those who believe that Someone Somewhere really does want what they have to sell, and they are prepared to buy it at any acceptable price, and (2) Those who are optimistic that Someone Somewhere will actually pay anywhere near the prices they are asking for what they have.

Portland swap meet

The vendor claims this 1946 Morris is particularly rare — one of 10 to exist.

Those are not quite the same sort of optimism.

Everything can’t be covered in one article. It must be experienced rather than described.

Portland swap meet

No question what this was, or how much the vendor was asking.

This meet is sponsored by a cooperative effort of six car clubs in the Pacific Northwest. That alone is a signal accomplishment, and it’s been going on for 52 years. Each meet by itself would be far larger than most regional swap meets. Vendors came from as far as Minnesota, and together the events garner worldwide notice, demonstrated by a documentary film crew from France on the grounds, discussing this as an “event sociologicale/culturale.” Visitors have flown in from Australia and Europe, while the Left Coast crowd comes from every state along the Pacific. These two events, across four days, are a good explanation of why, how and most especially who is involved in the car hobby in the Pacific Northwest.

Portland swap meet

Two of the nicest ladies at the show, with endless helpful suggestions if someone was interested in old Chevrolets. One said she had a vintage husband with a vintage car.

Figure 70,000 to 80,000 over the weekend for this meet, and another 30,000-40,000 for the other. It may be more than that this year, the weather being unusually good.

My buddy and I walked more than 15 miles on the two days, without backtracking or paying really close attention to everything that could be looked at.

Put these swap meets on your calendar.

(For me, personally, I never did find the Corvair valve cover. Maybe at another swap meet…)

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