Hershey has everything you’re looking for. The challenge is to find it.
It’s the world’s largest automotive haystack. For bona fide car enthusiasts, the premier “must do” event is the Antique Automobile Club of America’s (AACA) Eastern Division National Fall Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania, commonly known as the Hershey Swap Meet.
Hershey is unlike any other automotive event in the world. You’ll literally find miles of vendors – 10,000 total – selling everything from Model T Ford radiators, Stutz wheels and Hudson Hornet hubcaps to original gas globes and porcelain signs.
Tuesday, October 9, will be set-up day this year at Hershey, which hosted its first meet in 1955. The car corral and flea market open bright and early that Wednesday for a four-day run. But, be warned: You’ll need a map – and perhaps a helicopter – to cover what’s there plus the auction grounds and food vendors. Veterans will wear their best pair of running or walking shoes and can be identified by the wagons or dollies they bring to haul their newfound treasures back to their pickups and trailers.
But Hershey is more than just parts. Tire kickers can shop an eclectic array of collector cars in the vendor spaces or in a dedicated car corral containing more than 1,000 vehicles. Several major auctions occur during the weekend, including the Hershey Auction by Kruse, a new RM auction and a Bonhams & Butterfields automobilia auction.
The Saturday concours is a gathering of 1,500 of the finest cars in America arrayed for judging in more than 100 classes. It’s capped by a gala banquet and awards presentation that evening at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center.
Remarkably, entrance to Hershey is free, another reason why car enthusiasts consider this event fall at its finest. You’ll bump into friends and acquaintances here in spite of the 100-acre sprawl throughout the town chocolate made famous. You’ll hear foreign tongues because Hershey has global reach. You’ll see smiling faces because there is no reason to get testy during this week of the year, especially if you respect two caveats. First, don’t assume that you’ll snag the part you need to finish the restoration of your 1914 Xenia even though it’s probably here – the needles at Hershey are hidden in the world’s largest haystack. Second, the weather changes its mind more often than a bride-to-be.
Braving the elements
I attended Hershey last October, not only to provide Hagerty’s readers with this preview guide, but also to hunt for parts I needed. Pre-WWII British motorcycles and Ford Pintos are my soft spots. The latter affliction is attributable to the road racer Car and Driver magazine campaigned decades ago currently residing in my restoration bay.
While there, I ran into Ralph DeAngelis of Stamford, Connecticut, who has made uninterrupted visits to Hershey since 1957. The 85-yearold Model T enthusiast recalls, “In the beginning, most of the cars were inside the stadium with the flea market outside. After a few years of free admission, they began charging $5 to display what you had to sell. [Today, a standard vendor space large enough to park one car costs $80.] I came to sell and buy parts, some of which I took home for practically nothing. Cars are my hobby and I’ve owned a Model T since I was 9.
“We slept on the field in our van until one year when my wife, Josephine, woke up, looked out the window and exclaimed, ‘My gosh, we’re in the river!’ It rained so hard during the night that the water was lapping over the top of our tires. Since then we’ve stayed at a motel.”
But don’t wait until the last minute to look for lodging: If you don’t book at least 60 days in advance, you’ll be commuting up to an hour to and from the event.
Finding hidden treasures
Experienced shoppers know Hershey attracts rainstorms the way a trailer park seems to lure tornadoes. While the mud and muck used to run knee deep in places, conditions have improved over the years.
Now the four fields – coded orange, green, red and chocolate – are located on asphalt. Only the car corral had turf underfoot last fall, but that’s likely to change this year when the entire event will be staged on hard and dry (at least when it’s not raining) surfaces.
Attendee Karl Krouch brings what must be the world’s largest collection of tools and jacks to sell at Hershey. Back home in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, he displays a few pieces in an antique mall. Packard owners bring copies of their car’s factory toolbox contents to stir through more than 1,000 neatly arrayed wrenches, screwdrivers and pliers. Krouch’s own merchandise is coded with a white tag, while his son’s wares have green tags.
Matt Larson, a friend from the Motor City Cadillac-LaSalle club, was still in the Navy when he attended Hershey for the first time in 1969. Reminiscing, he explains, “My wife, Michaline, gave me 90 minutes to find the 1937 LaSalle headlamp parts I needed while she read a novel.”
For the past 19 years, Larson has come with friends from Detroit to host the club’s hospitality tent, which is a magnet for Cadillac and LaSalle enthusiasts from all over the world. “Al Haas, Jerry Karasinski, Paul Ayres and I rent a motor home, drive from Michigan and camp next to the tent for the duration,” Larson says. “Showers and permanent restrooms are available on the premises. I’ve enjoyed watching Hershey grow by a factor of 10 to become the world’s largest car enthusiast gathering.”
Unlike an online auction, where you can quickly hone in on your prize, Hershey is all about the hunt, as often as not for unexpected treasure. I stumbled across the Erector Set and construction trucks of my youth in pristine condition. Only at Hershey would you find a pair of ’72 VW Super Beetles parked in the car corral next to a 1927 Ford Model T. I enjoyed witnessing a buyer who selected a rusty part from the $1-a-piece pile haggle the seller down to 50 cents.
Tom White, a retired Massachusetts engineer who was asking $195,000 for his exquisite 1957 Chrysler 300C convertible, told me about a unique 1958 DeSoto Adventurer he owns with working Bendix Electrojector fuel injection. My list of cool cars in the corral included a 1963 Valiant with 9,000 miles, a perfectly refurbished ’72 Datsun pickup, and a ’62 Corvair rampside pickup.
Rest assured anyone who ventures here with money to spend and a lust for cars probably won’t leave disappointed. Thanks to the addictive nature of Hershey, I’ll be back to continue my treasure hunt this year.
Visit local.aaca.org/hershey/go.htm and click on the “Accommodations and Attractions” link for lodging information.
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2007 issue of Hagerty magazine.