Open Menu
Open Menu

One Perfect Day: The Spring Carlisle Swap

Published in

On the East Coast, car weather is an actual season: There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Just like “Winter Project” is also a season that takes up the months between car weathers, these are the cycles old-car nuts east of the Mississippi live by. And, for reasons we don’t completely understand, the central Pennsylvania theater is where these cycles are played out most conspicuously. Just as the end of car weather is signaled by the Antique Automobile Club of America Hershey Region Fall Meet, otherwise known as “Hershey,” the beginning of the season is officially kicked off by an annual event: the “Spring Carlisle” swap meet and auction held 35 miles west in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. And what better excuse for our latest One Perfect Day than to spend it at the Carlisle Fairgrounds? So, let’s go!

It’s not One Perfect Day without kicking it off at breakfast, so let’s do just that. If you’re getting to Carlisle from parts unknown, there’s a good chance you’ll come in on the legendary Pennsylvania Turnpike. Now, the P.A. Turnpike might not seem extraordinary in its current state, but know this: The first commercially viable turnpike in the U.S. ran between Philadelphia and Lancaster in 1792, and we’d submit that the — let’s call it, uh, mixed media — you’re traversing had its roots in that early toll road.

Take Exit 236 (US15 — Cumberland) on the Turnpike and head south on US15 into the sleepy burg of Dill. The town of Dillsburg is a fight between the Old World and New on Route 15: Common roadside bores like McDonald’s and the megalithic Pennsylvania phenomenon, Sheetz, are slowly creeping into the space occupied by long-time holdouts like Back to Basic’s (sic) Western Wear, Nesbit Motel, and Wolfe’s Diner.

Ah, Wolfe’s Diner, built in 1953. Situated on the southern end of the old Nesbit Motel, this was the place to eat and sleep along old Route 15 in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, for many a decade. The Nesbit no longer takes reservations (we tried), but Wolfe’s is exactly what you want in your East Coast diner experience.

Stop for breakfast at Wolfe’s. There are very few of these old diners left in their original footprint. This one is a Jerry O’Mahony dining car built in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was parked on this lot in 1953 and wasn’t added onto, gobbled up by a larger building, moved, or generally screwed with since then. Even the original roadside signage is still intact. And the only way these places are gonna last is if we continue to spend our money in/on/at them. So, do yourself a solid and ignore the siren song of the new Dunkin’ Donuts and the Cracker Barrel and park your carcass at Wolfe’s counter for a half hour before you hit the swapmeet. Thanks, in advance.

Just look at all that glorious stainless! If you can forgive the late-model juice dispenser at the other end of the counter, enjoy the vintage appliances and quilted stainless steel wall panels. We’d actually pay good money to take a clean terrycloth towel and a 5-gallon jug of polish to all this metal, but that’s our own cross to bear.

Full disclosure: We’ve been dumping coins into the Seeburg 200 Wall-O-Matics at Wolfe’s for 40 years, so trust that you’re having breakfast in a living historical treasure. Didn’t find a song on the juke less than 30 years old, so there’s that.

At Wolfe’s Diner, you’re having the Big Mess and a bottomless cup of black coffee. Eggs, homefries, green peppers, ham, and onion flanked by a wall of the toast of your choice, on well-worn, 65-year-old jeweltone Formica. God Bless America.

Get up from the counter, walk over to the cash register by the door, pay your wee bill, then head south on Rt. 15 half a click to Shumaker’s Service station, turn right on to Rt. 74 and make a beeline for the Carlisle Fairgrounds. The good news is that you really can’t not find the fairgrounds, once you get close to town. Just follow the cars and the Amigo scooters and the guys pulling wagons, and you’ll hit one of the several gates to the show. Hot tip: To get the full Central P.A. experience, forego the fairgrounds parking and spend your money on one of a zillion temporary front yard lots…

One of the grand traditions of P.A. fairground shows is the front yard parking lot. Sure, you could spend $10 to park on the fairgrounds property, but why do that when you can give this guy your 10 bucks, as well as your car keys, to park on his front lawn for the day? His wife was selling daffodil bulbs, too, so you have something to bring home with you. Spend local, we say.

Another tradition of Central Pennsylvania fairground events is the front yard for-profit cookouts that line their perimeters. Hipsters would call this a farm-to-table pop-up experience. These guys call it “Griz-A-Grillin.” In your FACE, hipsters! That 1st-gen Riviera on the other side of the tent was really cool, too.

Car Lovers Paradise, indeed.

This ’79 Z28 was parked just inside the main gate at Spring Carlisle. We didn’t realize, at the time, that it was a harbinger of things to come: This year’s swap was chock-full of weird ’70s and ’80s goodies. Then again, this car is now 40 years old, so it’s an OLD. CAR.

Biggest difference between West Coast swaps and East Coast fleas? More prewar goodness on the East Coast. Just a fact, Jack. And Spring Carlisle does not disappoint.

Well, okay… mostly Pontiac Parts.

The one we let get away: This 3-gallon Eelco tank was just the coolest, but we didn’t bother dickering on the $150 price tag. We shoulda, though. Often, these things are pretty well hammered, since they’re usually mounted to the front of a race car and the first things to get hit. But this one was cherry. The time to buy is when you find it…

This ’39 Ford De Luxe gasser-style coupe was neat: We didn’t check to see if it had any history, but it definitely had the right look. We’ll keep our eyes open for this thing at shows all summer.

This is the Harley we shoulda bought: Knees in the breeze and all you squares in your 4-wheeled cages can get lost. Ride-to-live-live-to-ride and the Brotherhood Of The Open Road is calling. Smell ya later, kooks!

A pre-Malaise Era Mustang running Cragars? All day long. We’d leave the patina and dents alone. Maybe a dull clear over everything. Boo-yah.

A ’57 Fleetwood, complete with barn dust, at $6,500.00? Apparently, the motor was out, but included… and those wheelcovers, tho…

One of the coolest things we noticed at Spring Carlisle was the proliferation of the pit bike: a whole little gang of Honda Trails being used to traverse the acreage and not one bit of jackassery or tomfoolery to be seen. To our West Coast brethren: This is why we can’t have nice things.

These ’48-’50 Ford F1s surely are the berries. This one was being sold as part of a “retirement plan,” which is fairly indicative of what’s happening these days. Now, squeeze a blown Coyote and an Art Morrison chassis under that thing and it’ll be around to attract a whole new generation for years to come…

Now, here’s a rare sight: a ’76 Buick Century “Free Spirit” Indy 500 Pace Car. Little rough around the edges, but it’s the real deal and seemingly complete. Even had the factory Buick 8-track player with the dealer 8-track tape in the deck. We probably need this thing.

When the 9th-gen Turbo Coupes came out, we freaked. Wanted one ever since. Nowadays, if you find one, they’re pretty well hammered. This one ain’t a Turbo Coupe or even the rare Fila model, but it was absolutely CHERRY.

On the other side of this pile was the matching red plaid front buckets. There’s some strategy here, but we’re not sure what it was. Pretty sure that somewhere between was a whole Ramcharger.

DON’T JUDGE. It was $5. For the PAIR, you dig? You’da done it, too. Besides, they match our ’84 Hutch Windstyler, so now we just need to find the Mazda B2200 to run them on.

Sometimes, it’s just good to stumble across the classics while you’re out there getting weird on a LUV cab or the front clip of an Interceptor. Sometimes, it’s just good to say, “I could just pay for that and drive away in it.” We know–strange to entertain such wild notions, right?

“FOR SALE: old-timey race car kit. Some assembly required. All parts may not be included. Offers.”

What do you do with your early Chevy fuelie fetish? You put it all out there on a table with a black cloth, bare your soul and scream to the world, “I HAVE A PROBLEM!” Weight the corner of that table down with a finned aluminum drum of dubious origin, and let the encounter group that is Spring Carlisle help you, brother. We don’t judge. The heart wants what the heart wants.


A pre-“B.F.” Goodrich? Only problem with this one is… there was only one. Talk about a rubber unicorn…

A Ford Model A reimagined as a single-axled air compressor? We didn’t know we needed such a thing in our lives when we innocently walked through the gates at Spring Carlisle, but we left with a giant hole in our heart… and no rolling Model A air compressor.

This set of ladder bars stopped us dead in our posi-tracks. We’d build a whole car around these, right? It’s just all Hi-jackers and pull-tabs up in here if we woulda sprung on ’em…

Most parts of a Deluxe grille, a few 2-barrel setup intakes, a dash, a set of doors… you’re on your way to a hot coupe project just by clearing this guy’s tables!

Look, if you’re going to Spring Carlisle, you have to get at least one funnel cake. State law. The funnel cake (or drechter kuche, if you’re hardcore P.A. Dutch) was invented here, so don’t even mess around with a polish sausage or burger. Go straight for the kill. Tell yourself you’ll walk it off. Repeat.

A set of 5-spokes and Wide Oval ‘Stones? ALL. DAY. LONG. Looks like these sidewalls are already dressed, too. There’s no problem these four can’t solve.

Did we mention that Carlisle, P.A. is about four hours from the closest waves?

So, you need an aftermarket electrically controlled AWD conversion setup, do you? How ’bout a complete SelectraTrac kit? How ’bout TWO of them? Only at Carlisle, kids…

This ’72 Blazer with the removable top was just very, very cool. We had a hard time those wheel covers, but Scott Kauffman figured out they were International Scouts. Neat little custom touch, there.

These diamond-tuck 1st-gen Camaro seats were pretty radical. Begs the question: What on God’s Green Earth did they come out of?!?

Good friend and known accomplice, Ken Gross, spied this great little 8N. These will never be not-cool.

Now, at some point, that funnel cake will wear off. You’ll start feeling woozy. Making bad decisions. Those 1,000-count pink zip-ties start looking like something you can’t live without. That means it’s time to eat lunch. Sure, you could blow through a few Jacksons on a burger and a rootbeer, but we’ve got you covered:

Walk back through the entrance gate, get your hand stamped so you can get back in, walk down to the southwestern edge of the fairgrounds and get lunch at the old John Deere dealership-turned-brewpub: Desperate Times.

This is Desperate Times Brewery. Strategically located in an old John Deere dealership at the southwest corner of the Carlisle Fairgrounds, it’s exactly what you wouldn’t expect and exactly what you need after a 12-mile hike around the swap.

The beer menu at Desperate Times. The owners’ family comes from Germany, so there’s that. Then again, this is Carlisle, P.A.: coming from Germany isn’t unique, but doing a great local beer is, kinda.

At Desperate Times, you’re having a hand-brewed Black Forest Schwarzbier and a Mickey Finn: an amazing schnitzel sandwich so big that the roll is really just ornamental. Drizzled with garlic lemon aioli and flanked by a handful of potato chips (the official state tree of P.A.).

Now, let’s get back to the show. You’ve got enough schnitzel in you to become an honorary Pennsylvanian, but you’ve got work to do and you’re burning daylight. There’s needless stuff to buy and opinions to shower complete strangers with…

A shoebox just patiently waiting for you. Softly crying out. Weeping over its long-gone glory. Pining away for its next owner’s dreams to come true. Missing one eyebrow.

Ken Gross also spotted this ’58 GMC stepside that, apparently, is running a Pontiac V-8. Sounds good, actually. Wish we could lift the hood through his pic…

Ken Gross wasn’t the only one who spotted this plastic-fantastic Bug-O-Delivery. And he also wasn’t the only one who cried “NEVER AGAIN” as he walked away with his head held heavy with shame as a conscious car guy.

If you go all the way to Spring Carlisle, and all you come home with is a vintage Gene Berg catalog, it was a good trip, right Dustan? Believe that.

Dustan‘s a microbus guy, so this is proof that you’ll find what you’re hardwired to find at Spring Carlisle. We never saw these 356 drums, btw…

Man cannot live on LS alone. Some try, but that makes for a very boring man. You need a turbo Bug with a giant vintage red police lamp mounted as a third brake light and an era-correct luggage rack to feel ALIVE, man. Serious. Preach it, Dustan.

This ’39 Ford Standard coupe is what the History Channel thinks a moonshine car always looks like. We’re not saying liquor was never hauled in one of these, but we ARE saying that the ’77 Cordoba that actually made more bootlegger runs than a car like this ever did doesn’t make for good (un)reality TV.

We already tried to pry these killer Thrush sidepipes out of Matt‘s white-knuckled hands, but he wouldn’t budge. He’s got those 1-inch-punch hands. We don’t mess with that.

Sometimes, you just need a Chevy wheel cover. We wanna see what Steve Renner needed this one for. Prolly see it on the field next Spring, if he’s anything like us.

Do you have a Cactus lube drum in your garage? Scotty thinks probably not. How ’bout just a Goodyear sidewall? No? Brother, you missed out.

Okay, just the nose of a Greebrier? Lordy loo… the head just spins. Snack bar? The foot of the coolest waterbed ever? Chandelier? Weld it to the back of a pickup truck and make the hi-beams operational? So much potential, Scotty

A cowl, a frame, a wee banger and a dream. What more could you ask for at Spring Carlisle? NOTHING. That’s what.

Scotty also spied this Airflow project just waiting for its next owner. We’ve seen one of these done as a land speed racer, and isn’t that what Carl Breer had in mind way back in the mid-’30s, anyway?


Scotty found this great stash of vintage tin cans for sale–We love these things for that amazeballs mid-century graphic design. Why can’t we still do this kind of stuff? Does everything have to look like it comes from FastSigns?

The crew from True Form Industries snapped this neat smallblocked panel delivery. Hate calling these things rat rods, but we’d still love to hear the backstory on this one.

Welp, you’ve completed your mission: spent all your cash and nearly forgot which front lawn you parked on. Your feet are tired, but you’re happy with your stash. There’s only one way to top off this epic day, but it’ll be a bit of a drive. Which is just fine, because you’re about to traverse some of the prettiest farmland and rural areas of Central Pennsylvania…

Get back on Rt. 74 and head south, about 24 miles. Now, 74 will wind its way through Dillsburg, down through Rossville, cross over the Conewago Creek into Dover Township, up through Dover’s Bald Hills (named for the farming that took place on the tops of these Appalachian foothills) and down toward the borough line. Just before you hit the town limit, you’ll find Bald Hills Distillery on the eastern side of the road. Turn left at the ’49 F3 parked out front and ease into the giant lot.

Jimmy and the crew at Bald Hills have pierced the veil of Dover’s proud “dry” status since the Volstead Act banned alcohol sales in America in 1920. That’s a long time to go without a liquor license, but it also began a long tradition of bootleggin’ up in those Bald Hills. Essentially, Jimmy dragged Dover’s moonshine legacy out of the woods up there behind his new distillery and turned it into the coolest thing in town since Hank Williams Jr. started buying his firearms at Schaffer’s Gun Shop back there on Conewago Road in the ’70s.

The main room at Bald Hills Distillery. One of the coolest things in Dover, P.A.. And you can take that to the bank. Of the Conewago Creek. BOOM!

The still at Bald Hills is a marvel. Jimmy put some of the crew from the “Moonshiners” TV show to work in building some of these beautiful copper pieces, too. Best use of a former garden center we’ve ever seen.

Two of Jimmy’s most popular bottles: straight clear liquor and his Pappy’s Peach. He told us the hot ticket is mixing the Peach with peach iced tea, so we did that with crushed ice and we’re here to report it’s the best thing for the back of the riding mower on a warm spring day.

That’s it. Your One Perfect Day, put to bed. The good news is, there’s not only a Fall Carlisle, but the good folks who put on these events fill the summers with all kinds of great car shows. Which means many more chances to explore this absolutely beautiful part of the country. Let us know if you plan on hitting Fall Carlisle, and we’ll meet you there. Good times ahead!