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One Perfect Day In Turlock – The Hemmings guide to the best, biggest, first swap meet of the year

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This just sums up everything good about the Turlock Swap Meet: @clydeathan doing the boxer’s championship belt hoist with his 2nd-gen Firebird nose–a great score and evidence of a day well-spent. Photos by author, except where noted.

When we talk about the big automotive swap meets worth making plans around, here at Hemmings, we nearly always mean Spring Carlisle. Or Hershey. Or Fall Carlisle. Or any of the Goodguys shows east of the Mississippi. We’re spoiled by some of the best swaps in the country, and they’re just down the hill or over the way, there, from our shop in the Northeast.

But the operative word there, is “some:” the West Coast – blessed, as it is, with pretty good weather all year long and some of the most enduring and diverse car culture in the country – also hosts some of the biggest and best swaps. And they’re also known by single-word names: Portland. Pomona. And the winter fantasy: Turlock.

The Turlock Swap Meet, Sponsored By The Modesto Area A’s, A Chapter Of The Model A Ford Club Of America–better known simply as “Turlock,” has been testing the limits of the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in the fair city of Turlock, California, on the last weekend in January since 1966. And, while it’s been famously competing with the Grand National Roadster Show in Southern California for attention on that same weekend, there are more than a few So-Cal gearheads who make the five-plus hour trip north to Turlock on Saturday, only to turn around and am-scray back to the Fairplex in Pomona for the last day of the big car show on Sunday.

Turlock is a sleepy little town southeast of Modesto–right in the center of California’s Central Valley. Out on Route 99–which parallels its more famous big brother to the west, the infamous I-5–Turlock is thought of as “out there.” In reality, it’s not hard to get to from anywhere on the West Coast, which is evident by the sheer diversity of car culture represented across all the booths crammed into the fairgrounds’ 72 square acres. So, while most might think of it as the center of America’s produce cornucopia, once a year in January, it becomes the center of the old-car universe.

But look, it’s an epic swap meet, so the best favor we can do-you-for is to deliver you this handy Turlock guide in pictures. Big, juicy, lusty pictures. And for that, we’ve tapped our friends in the Instagramosphere to come along for the ride. Think of it like your newest car buddies throwing you in the truck, promising you the best day of spending all your money that you’ve had in a year. You’re welcome.

We’ll start out the day at Cindy’s Restaurant at 526 N. Golden State Blvd. Cindy’s opens at 6 a.m., just like any self-respecting diner, but they’ve also got easy parking for your dually or your Miata (we don’t judge). Get off Rt.99 at the Fulkerth exit in Turlock, turn south on N. Golden State, pass by the fairgrounds on your left (watch the old guys pulling Radio Flyer wagons across the train tracks), cross W. Canal, look to the left and bobsyouruncle. Get there at the crack of 6 a.m. and you’ll wait in line for a table. Get there at 7 a.m. and you’ll have the best of Cindy’s witty and charming staff lavish their attention on you, as you watch the 6 a.m. crowd amble off to the entry gate.

Cindy’s is just like any other great, local diner in California: You can get your standard Denver Omelette or your three-eggs-the-hard-way, or you can go native and get a proper Mexican diner breakfast. If you choose that more fulfilling path, go for the Menudo, the Chile Verde Omelette or do what we did: the pork enchilada breakfast. The coffee comes early and often, just like the continuing commentary from your attentive server. And, like a Yelper claims in his native Northern Californian dialect, “Oh, did I mention hella affordable????? Love this place.”

As you navigate the edges of Turlock, keep your eyes open and pay attention to its eccentricities from a by-gone era: the Turlock Ballroom– what IS that?!? Welp, come back in the spring and you’ll find Turlock’s Portuguese community prepping 20,000 pounds of beef for a week-long Festa celebration that the entire town is invited to. The place is right next door to Cindy’s on N. Golden State, so you’ll know where to come back to in May. Matter of fact, let us know and we’ll meet you there. If 10 tons of beef is wrong, we don’t wanna be right.

The entrance to the Turlock Swap is really not like many others you’ll see–mainly because of the diversity of cars rolling through the Craftsman-style gate. Lowriders, Tin-Lizzies, customs, trucks, muscle cars, bikes, hot rods, street rods, JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) and vintage race cars of all stripes. Like we said, California is the melting pot of car culture, too. State’s Evidence A: not just a perfect ’70 Riviera, but a lowered Pagan Gold ’70 Riv with 100-spoke wires and a set of Vogues. Just beautiful, man. Also, the Model A Club does a great job of organizing this show. Just like the L.A. Roadsters, though, the membership is getting long in the tooth and needs some youngsters to pick up where, someday, they’ll leave off. Something to chew on…

An early, lowered VW camper running those so-cool EMPI-style 5-spokes, sitting next to a 1st-gen Thunderbird? PLEASE AND THANK YOU. The idea of the “Cal-Bug” is still strong on the West Coast, and this little guy just screams campfire-on-the-beach. Dreams are just a wad of cash away, friends.

A stock, restored ’57 Chevy Bel Air is always good, we don’t care who you are or where your loyalties lie. Sure, a set of those “vintage” wide-white radials makes a 60-year-old car track better out on Route 99, but we’d change them back to era-correct bias-plys. See, there we go, being all ‘car-guy’ about it and changing everyone’s car without plunking down the cake that affords that kind of opinion. Oh, well.

A set of old, chromed homemade headers for sale at one of a million booths. Spent a few minutes arguing with the rando standing next to us, as to what they’d fit: Nailhead? Ford small-block? Olds Rocket? You tell us… The point is, you’ll not only find unique stuff at Turlock, you’ll no doubt gain some tribal knowledge through the anthropology of things, here. Neat. But we didn’t pop on ‘em.

What is that–a ’32 Ford Phaeton 1:1 model kit? Make a deal with the owner of all these parts and you’re halfway to Flavortown on a hot rod that fits all your friends, your dog, your hibachi grille, a case of beer and two Frisbees. That’s the genius of these hot rod projects: It’s really just a matter of access to a trailer to drag it all home and a copy of Hemmings Motor News. Look, that’s just the truth, right there.

This ’32 Ford Model B truck looks like what most ratrodders today try so hard to achieve: an honest patina and an honest history. And, in this case, it looks like this one’s got 50 years of Turlock under its belt, if we’re to believe the claim scrawled across the visor. We didn’t get to talk to the owners of this thing, but everyone standing around it was young, and that just warms our little black heart.

This was a great booth: a vintage Monterey canned-ham trailer, complete with an Astro Turf carpet laid out and lots of goodies for sale. The owners are a great couple who’ve been a fixture in Northern California hot rodding for a long time, even though they’re young—this is always the great inspiration of Turlock–lots of fun with people who clearly love the experience of a swap meet just as much as buying and selling stuff. Good times, right?

Mmmmmm…tasty. Just look at all those great, old, finned-aluminum inliner valve covers and goodies! While it’s hard for us to justify dumping lots of money into making an old 6-cylinder fast, a table full of Nicson, McGurk, and Fenton goodies sure does make us want to dump some cash into making one look oh-so cool.

Selling dreams of glory for a measly $120.00: All you need is this yellow Deuce cowl and you can build Milner’s coupe around it, in no time at all. Love the ambition, love the salesmanship, love the hustle. #thestruggleisreal

LOOKIT all that gold! The story, here, is that the seller got hitched-up with a San Francisco Bay Area estate-sale manager who goes into all these homes, finds old speed equipment in the garages of these old houses, has no use for any of it, calls this guy, then this guy drags it all out and watches as we drool all over his tables. Crazy. But, this is why we go to Turlock, right?

Awright, two things to say about this pic: 1) swap meet headwear is unique to car culture. That straw hat worn by @happydaze40 is a direct descendant of the pointed, woven rice paddy hats worn on the Bonneville Salt Flats from time immemorial, when land-speed racing got organized enough to get people to spend a week out there with the sun bouncing off the white salt and into their eyes. Richy-Rich’s modern, cotton interpretation of that has seen its fair share of sun, too. And 2) a homemade pulled pork sando from their swap spot tastes soooo much better because it was made with love. And a little whiskey in the barbecue sauce, maybe.

Think of Turlock as an anthropological dig: @happydaze40 found these “Tenzaloys” that Dick Beith made out of his E-T Wheels center and Buick rims in the early ’70s. Dick would have the center (or “spider”) cast in this Tenzaloy stuff, they were bolted to the rims, then the bolts were hit with a weld so that they didn’t back off. The backs of the spiders were cast with “Wheel Centre” on one spoke and “Walnut Creek” on the opposite spoke. They were a wheel of choice with Northern California lowriders; everybody just called them “Tenzaloys,” and they’d typically see some cracks in them from hopping a little too much. Learn something everyday at the swap meet, no?

Is that $5,500.00 for a stocker Model T roadster pickup? Ummm…ALL. DAY. LONG. See, this is what’s so great about hot rodding right now: A kid without much money, but just enough garage floor, can build something really cool out of a project like this. Imagine this thing with a boxed frame, an early Buick Nailhead V-8, a four-speed, and a set of shiny, black steelies in whitewall bias-plys. All for under $10K. Agai–just a copy of Hemmings and a trip to the swap meet and you’re on your way to GLORY.

Mmmmmm… magnesium. Magnesium is some sort of magical powder that comes from Saturn, and when it was compressed and formed into speed parts 50 years ago, it had this mysterious power to 1) burn forever when set on fire and 2) transform into a fat stack of Benjamins 50 years later. Honestly, if you can find a full set of magnesium American Racing Torq-Thrust wheels for less than what you paid for the car you want to run them on, GET ‘EM. There are some crazy prices out there for this stuff, tell you what.

There were more than a few camera phones pointed at this nifty ’38 Chevy bomb at Turlock, but we dig the shot @micolindo took of it. This is one of the elements of Turlock that make it unique: lots of lowrider influence all over the place. With “bombs” like this firme ’38 to ’70s-era coupe and all kinds of great chain steering wheels and hydraulic suspension parts and flipper hubcaps, living the lowered life is totally possible, here. You could leave Turlock with not only the right car, but CDs, Raiders gear, magazines, and all the accessories you need to do it right. Love this stuff.

Car clubs are always in full effect at Turlock, too. @micolindo got pics of a few of the dozens of car clubs represented there, and this is always a good sign. Everyone knows it takes a village to build a car, so when you’ve got your friends’ help, it’s the tide that raises all boats. Or tubs, or land-yachts, or barges, or whatever you call your car. Find the right car club, and you’ll have friends for life, kid.

Another shot of how some guys do Turlock: Figure out what you’re looking for, let your crew know, spread out, and keep your cell phone handy. There’s always power in numbers, so we’re lucky that @micolindo got this rare shot of Brown Persuasion C.C. actually all standing still, in the same place, at the same time. Love to see what they found…

@bavaracing is actually the brothers Bava–perennial favorites at Turlock, and when you see one, the other two are probably close by. This pic came with a great description: “This was the dude cooking the tri-tips (chef of sorts) for the Model A club… I was trying to get a picture of him leaning over the meat with the cig in his mouth. Missed it.” And now that we’re talking about it, another unique feature of California swap meets is the “tri-tip.” This is shorthand for a tri-tip sandwich–a cut of beef that’s as common at West Coast swaps as funnel cake and pork rolls are on the East Coast. And never the twain shall meet. Or, in this case, “meat.”

The @bavaracing camp at Turlock is always a stop worth making: The hospitality is on-point, and there’s always a Frito boat and a snort of something to warm the blood on-hand. When you’re at Turlock, everyone is either a friend or soon-to-be buddy, and it’s not too crazy to say that old car parts are the great equalizer. We should teach a high school course on this stuff.

One of the @bavaracing brothers keeping warm with a vintage NOS front car seat cover, made out of lord-only-knows. Probably some strain of asbestos. But when you’re busy looking at car parts, it’s wise to wrap one of these around you so everyone knows you’re a serious buyer. Only guys wearing a ’40s-era car seat cover like High Plains Drifter could be serious about bartering on, say, a bald 50 year-old tire and corresponding wheel. Serious stuff, man.

What do you do when you come across a trailer full of waaaay prewar wooden wheels and crazy old rear ends and arcane parts and other stuff that’s all the same color of rust? Well, you find what you need on the bottom of the pile, of course! @bavaracing demonstrates the “Turlock Shuffle,” as potential targets…uh, we mean, buyers, dig through the heap ‘o gold.

@calistylz took a great pic of this curiosity: 1/10 of an Impala… the entire side of said Impala, including wheels, but only about a tenth of its width. Hang it on a wall? Weld it to the driver’s side of a Prius? Find a whole one, cut it into 10 longitudinal pieces and give your bratty nephew a slice every year on his birthday, starting at age 6? Love to meet whoever it was who ended up with this thing.

This Cadillac was clean as a whistle, and all that acreage of sheetmetal looked just right on those pinner whites and wires. @calistylz got the right shot of it. This is the perfect entry-level car to get into, if you want something custom. For not a ton of money, you can build a great custom, put it on ‘bags, and easily find every part you need, all day long.

Ah, wheels! One of the guilty pleasures of Turlock is the sheer volume of wheels you get to perv on in every row, in every corner of the fairgrounds. @calistylz got this great shot of wires, EMPIs, E-Ts, tri-bar spinners, and Appliance center caps all in one place, at one time. There were so many knock-off wheels made that look alike, we have a hard time identifying them as a true Appliance or a true EMPI or a real E-T or an authentic Rader, but that’s part of the fun of Turlock—figuring it out or maybe not and just having fun with them.

Absolutely love this shot of @chevybabe_yaya209 in a very cool and very desirable ’67 Oldsmobile Cutlass lowrider. This was one of the best cars at the swap, and it’s the kind of shot that gives us hope for the future of old cars: love, dedication, and personal style oozing out of every corner of a car that becomes a central element of an entire lifestyle. So good, we can barely stand it.

Amidst all the Malaise-Era deals and the Chevy square-body truck scores and the Model A dickering and the metric tonnage of parts bartering, comes this Brass Era speedster. See that? Usually associated with East Coast shows, there’s even a touch of “Hershey” in the Turlock Swap and @creepersfrankie snapped a pic of this early Model T cut-down on a trailer, just patiently waiting for its new forever-home.

This ’30/’31 Model A roadster pickup had ‘bitchin’ written all over it: full-fendered and running whitewall cheater-slicks on the rear, we have no idea what’s under the closed hood, but we’re guessing its cylinders are in a V-formation, and it left with a new owner. @creepersfrankie got a good shot of it before it disappeared.

Here’s a typical great score at Turlock: @full_time_weirdos got this pic of a clean set of unilug Keystone Klassics running Cragar tri-bar center caps. Crazy to admit that the wheels those Pep Boys-level Keystones we all had on our high school cars are now collectible and pulling the big dollars. Well, “big” compared to what we paid for ’em new… back when cassette tapes were $5. Whatever. You know what we mean.

Talk about a great pre-safety bumper #wagonofconfusion–this ’70 Ford Country Squire was clean, clean, CLEAN! And those simulated woodgrain vinyl panels looked sharp, too. @full_time_weirdos got off a good shot of this thing as it sat in the corral. Did it sell? Was it just there to tease us? Who knows, but it’d be great to see that thing floating down Rt.99, up on full plane…

There are few things as cool as a Shoebox layin’ frame. And this ’51 Ford has all the right stuff doing all the right things. These ’51s are Kryptonite for us and we’re guessing @full_time_weirdos feels the same way about them. Great thing about living in California: You could drive this thing every day of the year. Which is exactly what we’d do with it.

Another clean little Ford for sale was this mild custom Econoline truck. We rarely see these things, but when we do, it’s usually the van. So, the truck is even cooler, but we’ll admit they’re an acquired taste. This one was dandy and @full_time_weirdos must’ve thought the same thing.

Here’s a look we saw a whole lot of about 10 years ago: Take an obscure make/model, put a decently worked V-8 in it, put an axle under it, run whitewall slicks and ’60s-era aluminum wheels, give the original paint a fake patina, and make sure the rearend hooks. @full_time_weirdos got this shot of a 1959 AMC Rambler wagon that checks all the boxes. Also add this to the list of cars we’d commute daily in.