‍The Portland Swap Meet Returns, But Where Is It Headed?

April 4, 2022

This past weekend was the return of the Portland Swap Meet. It’s billed as the largest event of its kind on the West Coast, attracting more than 100,000 people each year (but Pomona may have something to say about that).  For many of us in the upper left corner of the U.S., it is the celebratory “opening weekend” of our car season.

A typical swap meet for me is full of aimless wandering, over-stimulation, and shelling out cash for stuff I don’t really need but just can’t seem to help myself from buying. The Collector Part Exchange website launched just after the last time the Portland Swap Meet was held, my perspective and reason for attending have radically changed.

You see, this particular swap meet was the inspiration for CPX. We aimed to create a way to keep that marketplace going year-round and, more importantly, let people who aren’t able to travel to this one (or others like it) who need parts on the other 51 weekends of the year to get what they need.

My purpose in going this year was three-fold: follow an actual customer with a shopping list for an in-progress build, meet as many vendors as possible and tell them about CPX, and generally assess the “state of the swap meet” after the two-year hiatus.

On the Hunt for Parts

My friend Ed Godshalk kindly allowed me to tag along with him as he was on the prowl for some finishing touches for the Belly Tank Racer which I’ve been helping him restore. The car has some important appointments coming up this summer and needs to be ready for primetime.

Truth in advertising.

The shopping list was for “little parts” to make this historic relic proper and correct. Our targets included things like period-correct hose clamps, a radiator cap, and a fuel filter. The more patina, the better. The Portland show was a “target-rich environment” since the hot-rod crowd is heavily represented. 

Working with Ed has taught me many things, but I think my biggest takeaway is that no detail is too small. Our senses pick up signals at a subliminal level so even if you don’t “see” something, you still “feel” whether it’s authentic or not. (For fans of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is the idea of “quality.”)

Within minutes of entering the gate, we found a box full of radiator caps at a stall just inside the gate. After some digging and a few quick measurements with the Vernier calipers, Ed had found a winner! A dollar bill changed hands.

Ed getting the low down.

Next up: hose clamps. I had no appreciation for their variety and evolution over the years. We found a stall in the indoor area (a good thing, as the temps were in the low 40Fs outside!) that had all manner of hose clamps. They were new but were the correct style for the period. After some expert advice from the helpful vendor, we ticked another item off the list.

Not so fast! About 15 minutes later, we wandered past a booth with interesting, high-quality stuff. After some perusing, Ed found a treasure: an entire box of hose clamps from the period that had a flange for hand-tightening, just like you’d imagine in a garage in the 1930s. It was surprising how much more authenticity they oozed -- and how these would markedly enhance the car’s appearance. Naturally, these came home too.

The joys of swap meets are the treasure hunts and the sheer tactile nature of picking up and handling what is in front of you. There’s a lot of history in those parts, and that’s the charm and fun of the swap meet in a nutshell. 

A smiling Michelle Rand!

All along the way, I was taking the opportunity to introduce CPX to vendors. Many of these people are pros, so while they do the “swap meet circuit” they also sell online. Based on these convos, I got a lot of positive feedback for our project as a way to support their businesses into the future. I also ran into a surprising number of folks who already knew about CPX and were regular readers of Shop Talk. Thanks! 

We saw some old friends and visited along the way. Some were buyers, others sellers. It was awesome to reconnect with our tribe, which has not been easy to do as of late. Given our efficiency and other competing demands, we headed out before our feet even got sore!

Four Questions After Visiting PSW

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences, and swap meets in general. Here are four questions that have been rattling around in my head. I would greatly appreciate any feedback or thoughts on the subject. 

How will the vendor space change?

Post-Covid attendance is down and it’s not clear when or if it will come back to previous levels. In addition, gas prices are extremely high right now. This is not a great recipe for vendors. At Hershey this past October, 5-10% of the stalls had signs that stated this was their last show. I didn’t see as much of that in Portland, but as a business person, I wonder how many of the thousands of vendors broke even.

The big vendors already do much of their business direct, and a great deal online, so the show is part sales, part marketing for them. Several CPX vendors have shared that the “juice isn’t worth the squeeze” to go to swap meets. For the bigger events to continue, they have to make business sense to vendors.

Business or pleasure?

Swap meets are undoubtedly fun, and I love going to them! The tactile experience of seeing and touching parts is wonderful, getting to meet experts is educational, and just being surrounded by “doers” is a treat. 

However, it seems that fewer and fewer folks are showing up with wads of cash and actually buying parts. It happens, but it seems for many, the fun is walking around and picking up an item or two, and much more about the experience than commerce.

What role will they play in the future?

As vendors age out, will a new generation step up? We need these parts to remain available and to have an outlet for them. We hope CPX can fill that gap so parts stay in circulation rather than ending up at the scrap metal recycler.

I personally believe that, with a few exceptions, swap meets are in a steady state of decline. The overhead will continue to get higher and the payoff lower. I saw it at Hershey, and the same story was unfolding in Portland. 

Every niche has a few big events that will persist. For example, the Techno-Classica show in Essen and Auto e Moto d'Epoca (Vintage Car and Motorcycle Show) in Padova are essential, because they are more tradeshows than swap meets.

A lot of booths are run by "hobbyists" who sell parts for fun, but they are in decline. I know of only a handful of younger folks (I define that generously as less than 50 years old) picking up the reins.

We live in an “instant gratification” society, and folks won’t wait months or even weeks on a build if they can get what they need sooner. With this shift in behavior, it means the vast majority of the time, people will turn to the internet to find what they need now, rather than later.

Why don’t we call them autojumbles like the Brits?

That sounds way cooler!

I really would like to hear your opinions on whether you agree with my perspective or not. Please contact me and share your feedback. 

I will continue to attend our swap meets, and hope that we can find a way to keep them healthy and viable long into the future. They are part of the fabric of the collector car world and hopefully, they can continue for future car owners and restorers.

More Photos

Model T Coils in abundance.

Renowned author Albert Drake signed a book for Ed.

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