8 October 2006

Fall Carlisle Through the Eyes of a Newbie

It’s been my goal to attend a major car show ever since my first day at Hagerty. When I had the opportunity to attend this year’s Fall Carlisle swap meet and auction, one of the biggest collector car gatherings in the country, I knew I couldn’t turn it down.

For those who have never attended, the Carlisle swap meet might best described as a kind of giant, sprawling garage sale (82 acres of it, to be precise). Row after row of vendor booths, parts shops and display tents cover the Pennsylvania fairgrounds in a blur of activity each fall and spring. Everything from custom rims to magazines to engine coolant is sold.

Hobbyists and restorers come from all around the nation, some driving hundreds of miles, to check out the wares and talk shop with their fellow enthusiasts. Some vendor stands consist of only a tarp with some rusty fenders laid out; others have professional booths lined with colorful banners and impeccably displayed goods. No matter how quirky the item, one man’s junk is always another man’s treasure.

The fairgrounds also boast a Car Corral, where buyers and sellers come together to hammer out backroom deals on a wide range of privately owned vehicles. It’s fun to stroll through and see what’s for sale – you never know what you’ll find. Before the auctions started this year, this was the place where the wheeling and dealing went down.

The first few days were low-key: vendors setting up, crowds trickling in. People often arrive later in the weekend with the intention of moving on to Hershey for the AACA fall meet. I walked around to check out the various vendors, stopping to take pictures and chatting with owners in the Car Corral. I heard about the various restoration projects that were being worked on. If you love the hobby, there’s nothing better than hanging out with car guys (and gals!) and discussing the best places for parts, who has the most work left to do, and what the value of a certain vehicle might be once it’s finished.

Things were in full-swing on Friday, the first day of the auction. Besides having never been to a car show, I hadn’t yet seen an auction, and I was excited to finally see the action up close. I wasn’t disappointed. The energy was palpable as soon as I walked in. Bidders gather in groups near the stage; audience members snap pictures and whisper excitedly to each other. And of course, the auctioneers – whose job it is to crank up the energy and keep buyers excited – also contribute to the fun.

With Carlisle Auctions in its first year, it remains to be seen if it can compete with the big-name auctions in the country, such as Barrett-Jackson. The downside of the initial growing pains is that turnout and sales are generally lower. For example, less than 33 percent of the inventory at the Fall Auction sold on the block this year. However, the upside is that there are incredible deals to be had, as the auctions aren’t overly saturated with bidders. The Carlisle slogan says it all: “Real cars! Real prices!”

I was astonished, in fact, at some of the selling prices this year. Considering the astronomical leap in muscle car values in the past few years, I never thought I’d see the day where an original, documented 1968 GTO in beautiful shape would sell for only $11,000 (see picture). I wasn’t the only one in the crowd whose jaw hit the floor when the auctioneer announced “The reserve is off!”, but everyone quickly realized it wouldn’t be the last car undersold that night. A 1960 Thunderbird went for a mere $5,500; more than one street rod sold for less than $10,000. Sellers weren’t enthused, but buyers seemed positively delighted.

Sadly, the majority of the Hemi engine and high-end cars didn’t sell; in many cases, bidding never even neared the reserves. These beauties, like the award-winning 1969 Ferrari 365 GT 2+2 that crossed the block, would easily fetch high sums at Barrett; if Carlisle makes a concentrated effort to attract more serious buyers, it could do the same. Overall, it was an exciting two-day event that showed strong potential for future successful auctions. If it can build on that momentum, all the pieces are in place for Carlisle to become a major auction powerhouse within the next three to five years.

The weather in Pennsylvania is notoriously fickle, and this year was no different: Temperatures soared, and then plummeted so often throughout the week that it became a running joke to keep a raincoat in one hand and sunscreen in the other. Ultimately, the rainstorms won out, and on Saturday the normally frenzied crowds were reduced to a quiet hum of traffic. Customers loaded the last of their purchases into their cars and started heading off for Hershey; vendors slowly began taking down their tents. The end had come at last for yet another exciting, eventful year at Carlisle.

Not bad for my first show.

– Beth Milligan, Hagerty staff writer

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