By Chris Bright
I just got back from Hershey, Pennsylvania, where I made my first visit to the Antique Auto Club of America (AACA) Eastern Fall Nationals. It’s safe to say it was a Hershey like no other: it did not rain a single drop, and the event was returning after its first-ever hiatus in 2020, due to COVID, which ended its 65-year streak uninterrupted events. The vibe was equal parts “happy to be back” and “trepidation.”
Typically, the Fall Meet, commonly referred to as “Hershey” for short, is one of the largest collector car events in the U.S., attracting more than 100,000 people annually. It has three components: a huge Flea Market with 9,000 spaces; a Car Corral for selling unrestored cars; and the prestigious judged Car Show held on the last day. All the events are hosted in Hershey where the AACA’s national headquarters resides. The gathering is primarily about American cars, with an emphasis on antique cars from the early part of the 20th century, but all makes and models of collectible cars are welcome.
While the Fall Meet is new to me, Hershey definitely is not, as I grew up just a few miles away. It was a true homecoming for me! The annual event is set in the seemingly endless parking areas around HersheyPark. As a kid, I had an annual pass to this huge amusement park, so it became my personal playground. Subsequently, it was also where I had my first summer job operating the century-old Carrousel. I also attended many memorable summer concerts in Hershey Stadium, including a Grateful Dead show. (I was working as an usher. The definition of "useless" is an usher at a Dead Show.)
My first experience at the Hershey Fall Meet was both really enjoyable and somewhat concerning. The good aspects were the friendly people, impressive organization, and perfect weather. The down side was thin crowds, and a seemingly greater number of vendors than attendees.
Given the lack of attendance, I’d be surprised if any more than a handful of vendors were able to even cover their costs, although I get the impression that for many “profit” was not their main motivation. Several professional outfits candidly shared with me that they were not coming back. We’ll see if or when the Hershey crowds return as the AACA is already paring back a day for next year.
Thankfully mobility scooters were plentiful which made the show accessible for many seniors. More than a quarter of the 2021 attendees had them by my estimate. In years past, when the Flea Market was held in a muddy field, many in this crowd surely wouldn’t have been able to navigate it. It's great that the organizers have adapted.
On one hand, I was walking around with what felt like the car world’s “greatest generation.” The amount of wisdom and passion these people have is palpable. They’ve done things. On the other hand, there were precious few people my age and younger -- and I’m on the far side of middle age.
What was true for attendees was also true for the vendors. Nearly every row (and there were soooo many of them) had at least one handwritten sign announcing this was the seller’s last year attending the show, and they were looking for someone to buy them out. What happens if no one takes them up on their offer?
It made me worry for the future of antique and collectible cars. Who will look after the Ford Model Ts/As a decade from now? Antique cars in original condition are only good for about 35 mph, and not too comfortable on modern roads. Also, they are not investment-grade cars. Many can be found for $15-25,000, but they require a special kind of person to operate and enjoy them. Make no mistake, there are some very valuable cars like Stutz's, but the more ordinary examples are what is vulnerable.
It will be interesting to observe this demographic shift. Hopefully there will be sufficient numbers, whether it’s family members or young folks, who get the “bug” to take the reins. I do know the AACA has programs aimed at engaging younger people and inviting them into the tribe.
Further, we need to make sure that the supply of rare, original parts does not inadvertently get sent to the junkyard. Hopefully, Collector Part Exchange can grow to be a part of the solution by helping to be a clearinghouse for inventory buy-outs -- something we are very passionate about, and currently addressing.
Vintage automobiles are genuinely historic items that deserve to be preserved and enjoyed for generations to come. On this we can all agree. We need to honor our elders and make sure their life’s work and passions can continue to live on.