Regardless of the type of collectible cars you find interesting, you owe it to yourself to make at least one pilgrimage to Spring Carlisle in Central Pennsylvania each April. In an age where you can find, order, and receive virtually anything online without leaving your couch, its refreshing to actually get out and interact with other car enthusiasts and to see all of the cars and parts available for sale in person.
Spread across 82 acres of the Carlisle, Pennsylvania Fairgrounds is a combination collector car flea market, private seller car corral, and car auction for all year, makes, and models of collectible vehicles. Set over five days (Wednesday to Sunday) at the end of each April, Spring Carlisle draws over 100,000 visitors that unofficially kicks off the collector car hobby season along the east coast of the United States for 42 consecutive years and counting.
How did this start? By the early 1970s, despite a growing interest in restoring and collecting cars from the 50s and 60s, enthusiasts had few options to find parts or other restoration supplies. Up until that time, the only vehicles deemed worthy to collect were pre-World War II automobiles. Becoming friends during this time through their mutual interest in the hobby, Chip Miller and Bill Miller, Jr. recognized an unmet need they proceeded to capitalize on. In September 1974, the pair rented the Carlisle Fairgrounds and held their first event billed as “Post War ’74.” Their inaugural event attracted nearly 600 vendors and 13,000 spectators willing to pay the $1 admission fee in a year mostly remembered for high inflation and gas shortages. Within three years, Fall Carlisle became so well known in the collector car world with sellout demand that it convinced Chip and Bill to add a second Spring event in 1977. Fast forward to today and you’ll find Spring Carlisle has four sections to visit: the massive Swap Meet maze split across three sections, the Manufacturers Midway, the Car Corral, and the two-day Collector Car Auction.
We attended two days of the event: Thursday and Saturday. With two days scheduled, our strategy for Thursday was to focus on the Car Corral in the morning and then observe the auction that started at Noon. That left all day Saturday for us to focus on the Flea Market and Manufacturers Midway.
Arriving early on a cloudy and damp Thursday morning, we walked straight back to the far east end of the fairgrounds where the Car Corral resides. Organized in grassy rows separated by paved paths, spaces get rented before the event on a first-come, first-served basis. Consequently, prospective buyers see collector cars offered for sale by private sellers randomly mixed in an eclectic matrix of antique, vintage, and muscle cars and trucks in a vast range of both condition and price. This arrangement forces prospective buyers to walk every row (and climb the foothill at the North end of the Car Corral) to ensure they see every collector car possible. In this area, sellers set the price they want and while some remain firm, most are willing to entertain reasonable offers. A quick pass through this area on Saturday revealed that cars which hadn’t sold since Thursday were starting to get their prices marked down.
After spending Thursday morning in the Car Corral, we navigated our way west and across the street of the fairgrounds to the Carlisle Expo Center that serves as the venue for the two-day Collector Car Auction. The parking lot leading to the main building is a sensory experience for any car enthusiast. The sound of thunderous V8 engines coming to life combine with the smell of unburned hydrocarbons and the visual appeal of all the collector cars as each lot gets staged to enter the auction area. While heavy rains never came on Thursday, the frequent light sprinkles kept the detailers busy preventing water spots.
When the auction started at Noon, we were surprised the first two lots included a dented 2002 Ford Taurus and a well-used 1993 Pontiac Grand Prix SE. Hardly the stuff of collector car auctions, we were pleased to learn these first two lots supported local charities. The winning bids for each of these cars was only several hundred dollars whose winners immediately donated the cars back several times to be re-auctioned. After several rounds of this practice, the Grand Prix went to a charity that provides good cars to single mothers in need.
As the collector cars started to roll across the block, it was refreshing to see nice driver-quality classics sell at market appropriate prices. Two examples from the first hour included a red 1963 MGB with its nicely preserved original red top sell for $15,500 while a stunning 1965 Turquoise-over-white Corvair Monza hammered for $9,000. Both of these values were correctly around the #3 “Good” level based upon the Hagerty Insurance Online Valuation Tool.
Carlisle Auctions billed the second hour of Thursday’s schedule as the “No Reserve Hour”, where a total of 22 vehicles were sold at No Reserve. This was the hour to attend as $10,000 would have netted you three nice cars: a very well bought 1990 Mazda Miata ($2,000), a high-mileage but very presentable 1997 Camaro Z/28 ($3,250), and a driver-quality Blue-on-Blue 1981 Corvette ($4,000). Not surprisingly, we watched several dealers scooping up these values and a future post will reveal what they end up listing these cars for. What impressed us the most was the genuine fun the Carlisle Auction team was having as cars crossed the block.
We returned on a sunny but windy Saturday morning to focus our attention to venturing through the flea market that is central to the Carlisle experience. Despite Friday’s heavy rains, the paved paths made it easy to navigate the event without getting muddy. While the advent of the Internet makes finding what you need easier, many of the vendors attending Carlisle do not have a web presence and prices are often much more reasonable. For example, at lunch we overheard one buyer proudly tell his buddies he found and bought the stainless trim pieces needed for his ’70 Chevelle for $100 while the cheapest he could find online was $400. The vast maze is not just about car parts. As you walk each row, you find vendors selling tools, car memorabilia, and even custom lawn ornaments. Yours truly even stumbled upon a “Rudy’s Garage” sign that I purchased on the spot for $35 cash as it’s rare to find any kind signage with my first name on it!
The Manufacturers Midway provided a mix of tools, detailing supplies, and new parts tailored to the fast growing Restomod segment of the hobby. Do you have a C1 or C2 Corvette with a great body but badly rusted bird cage? No problem: just buy a complete C6-based rolling chassis to build your Restomod ‘Vette. Do you have a collision-totaled Bronco you want to restore? Why waste time and money repairing the damage when you can buy a completely new body. While these new products blur the line between “original” and “restored” we believe it helps the collector car hobby continue to thrive in new directions.
After two full days and nearly 20,000 steps traveled scouring the Carlisle Fairgrounds, we were encouraged to see so many friendly people still enjoying the collector car hobby. While the Thursday morning crowd of mostly older enthusiasts had us worried about the direction of the collector car hobby, Saturday’s noticeably younger mix of attendees convinced us that while the types of collectible vehicles people are interested in will likely change over time, the enthusiasm for the automobile itself continues to remain strong. If you consider yourself a car enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to attend a Carlisle event soon.