Joys Of Swap Meet Madness

story by Paul Garson, Photograph by Paul Garson, Created Sep. 25, 2003
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All That Glitters is Gold: The Joys of Swap Meet Madness

There's a fine line between treasure hunting and swap meet fever since junk, like beauty, is mainly in the eye of the beholder. But for this writer/bike builder the joy of finding, say a `50s Parilla primary cover can be just as intoxicating as a prospector stubbing his toe on a huge nugget of gold or a Schliemann finding the fabled lost city of Troy.

Now the term swap meet itself is subject to interpretation. The concept of finding a bargain runs the gamut from a multi-acre mega-swap like Mid-Ohio to the neighborhood Salvation Army resale store to a simple one family garage sale. One needs to expand one's horizons when thinking "swap meet." All the above offer the potential for significant rewards, and thereby fall under the heading of "swap meet," at least in this writer/rider's lexicon.BSA café sports "raygun" mufflers, another swap meet treasure.

...junk, like beauty, is mainly in the eye of the beholder.

Speaking of so-called "junk stores" a.k.a. antique shops, thrift shops, and the like, a patient and well-trained eye can find motorcycle gold hidden in the nooks and grannies of these establishments. All of us have heard the urban myths about someone buying a twenty-dollar painting only to discover an original Van Gogh between the image of Crusty the Clown painted over it. Or the one about the guy who bought a battered old Harley Hummer, then scraping off the years of grime to find "Elvis" painted under the fender, eventually bringing the owner literally millions of dollars. So much for urban myths, since both occurrences actually took place in so-called "thrift stores." Such stores, especially the consignment ones, can be a gold mine for motorcycle memorabilia such as clothing, photographs, old trophies and such.

In regards to the humble neighborhood garage sale, this writer personally knows of a mint MV Agusta 750 America found in Pasadena a few years ago. Sitting amidst a pile of used clothing and bric-a-brac was the famous Italian classic. The asking price? $3,000. The real world price at the time... about $35,000. This author's friend ran home to get the cash, but just as he returned, to his horror, he saw someone rolling the bike out of the garage and toward a pick-up truck. Moral of the story, bring a wad of cash to any swap meet you plan to attend. You don't want to stay up nights berating yourself over the one that got away. 

This one-of-a-kind bike carries a price tag of only $280. But keep in mind that a "bargain" is a relative thing, so keep things in proportion when buying. Speaking of morals, don't always expect to find them at swap meets. This writer once bought a "restored" `60s Benelli for a mere $350 and was told the reason it wouldn't start was because the owner hadn't been able to find the itsy, bitsy battery the diminutive machine required. Once home, it was discovered that no battery in the world would have kicked the bike over. When the engine cases were inspected, it was discovered the bike was devoid of any innards... for example pistons, crank and valves. But it sure looked good. As they say, buyer beware. Of course, such shenanigans are the exception to the norm of good clean, swap meet fun.... which brings us to haggling.

The sound of the word itself should give you a hint of what's in store. Haggling at a bike swap meet is like haggling anywhere, be it in a market in Marrakech or the famous Davenport, Iowa vintage bike extravaganza held over the long Labor Day weekend or even the one-day El Camino College swap held every October in Los Angles. Watch out for the vendors who have neat little price tags wagging in the wind and attached to their "treasures." You'll be paying extra for the labor-intensive effort they made tagging everything. One man's junk is another man's treasure. You can see why the British call their swap meets an "autojumble."

Yet, no price is fixed unless it is that one component no one else has and everyone lusts after. This writer has even seen bidding wars erupt where the original asking price is left in the dust. In other words, try to keep that poker face when you see that gotahavit part. Look at it casually, maybe ask what it is, feigning ignorance. Say, something like, "That's cute. I could use it as a paperweight." You can catch swap meet sharks testing the waters in this fashion. Some will even hurl insults on the part in an effort to undermine its authenticity. Such behavior is frowned upon and easily seen for what it is. `Tis better to show proper respect and appreciation for the object of your desire. In fact, some sellers will not allow their pride and joy go to just any wallet. Bike parts, like faithful pets, need to go to a good home.

Watch out for the vendors who have neat little price tags wagging in the wind and attached to their "treasures."

Preparing for a swap meet is like painting a motorcycle. It's all in the prep work.

Like all good shoppers, make a list of what you need if you're working on a particular project, say that that '66 Bonneville or maybe something more esoteric like a `53 Zundapp. Bring a photo or drawing of the part, perhaps some serial numbers, data that will help to identify that part you need. Of course you don't have to be restoring some million dollar bike to make swap meeting an adventure. There's reward in locating that correct tank badge for your old Honda Dream or the tail light lens for your humble Sears Allstate, parts is parts, and the hunt is a hunt after all. Then again, just going to a swap meet to start a project requires no list at all. Just the twinkling of an idea. This writer has begun entire bike projects after finding just a pristine sidecover. Take it as a challenge inspired by the motorcycle gods. That's what makes swamp meets so much fun... the unknown.

Yes, that is either a Harley V-twin engine with a serious case of cloning or a radial airplane engine. Now we just need to find the right frame. And if you're into oddities, the swap meet is the place to go. High strangeness abounds, and who knows what treasures lurk in the Byzantine spirals of the vendor rows. Have you ever turned down an aisle and run smack into a 8-cylinder radial airplane engine stuffed into the back of a sagging pick-up truck? (Yep, this swap meeter has.) What flights of motorcycle fancy are encouraged by such encounters. (And yes, there were airplane propeller powered motorcycles. And of course the 1921 Megola with its front wheel mounted 5-cylinder radial engine.) Or let's say, you chance upon an OMP opposed twin engine lying on its side, once used to power a `50s utility vehicle, and now looking like just the right motor to use in your plot to build a replica vintage WWII panzermotorrad. (Such examples abound in this author's swap meet memories). If you can feel the adrenaline pumping at this point, then you know what magic inhabits the thin veneer of rust that can blanket a swap meet like some Merlin-conjured spell.

Swap meets sprout up just about everywhere and anywhere, some small and spread only by word of mouth while others are scheduled well in advance and announced in a timely fashion. You can check your local newspapers, recycler publications, bike club newsletters and occasionally the motorcycle mags for the mega-swap meet events. A snortin' Norton single never looked better.

All swap meet aficionados must make the pilgrimage to the annual AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days better known as Mid-Ohio, this year taking place on July 18-20. It features historic racing with more than twenty AHRMA classes in action on the 2.4-mile road course, along with plenty of AHRMA Vintage Motocross action. Dirt track fans can also take in the Classic Motorcycle Dirt Track Series at the nearby Ashland County Fairgrounds. This year's event coincides with Harley-Davidson's 100th Anniversary yearlong celebration and Harleys are the featured marque of the 2003 AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days. Mid-Ohio's famous and enormous swap meet seems to go on and on draped over the rolling hills and paddock areas. The event draws a younger crowd and a large proportion of the swap meet activity and bikes for sale are of Japanese manufacture with some incredible buys to be had. This one is really a jaw-dropper. It's vast. Bring money and a truck. In addition to the swap meet, there's a motorcycle and memorabilia auction. Make that that big money and a big truck.  Bring money and a truck. In addition to the swap meet, there's a motorcycle and memorabilia auction. Make that that big money and a big truck. 

Another legendary swap meet is the annual Labor Day Weekend Davenport, Iowa event put on by the Antique Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA). This is one of the places the big gun restorers and collectors come to find the ultra-rare antique and vintage machines and their bits and pieces. It's the Willy Wonka of bike swap meets and everything has to be 35 years or older to be sold. Davenport is great for British and American vintage treasures. The AMCA sponsors 11 swap meet events across the country, another big one being one held in Wauseon, Ohio in July. For a full schedule of event dates and locations log on to http://www.antiquemotorcycle.org/

California offers four popular swap meet/bike show events, and they are Hanford, El Camino, Ventura, and the Pomona events. Every Spring the small town of Hanford in California's Central Valley hosts the Vintage Motorcycle Show and Swap Meet, one of the largest classic bike rallies in California. First organized by Frank Conley and the Classic and Antique Motorcycle Club thirty-five years ago, the rally has moved around between the Central Valley towns of Hanford, Visalia and Tulare, and has been produced by a series of promoters, the latest being Bator International, who took it over in 2001.

Bator International will also be producing the El Camino meet on September 28th. The meet takes place on top of a parking structure at El Camino College in Torrance, CA. People camp out and the swapping can start way before the sun comes up. There's a good bike show as well, but the focus is on treasure hunting. You never know what will show up at El Camino. Even Jay Leno. For more details about the Hanford and El Camino swaps log on to http://www.batorinternational.com/ (Bator also stages the awesome Del Mar Concours d'Elegance bike show.)

A forest of gleaming chromed exhausts appear ready to create a "pipe organ" sound track for the El Camino swap meet. Another popular California event takes place at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, sponsored by Dave "Huggy Bear" Hansen owner and operator of The Shop, a vintage bike haven that focuses on American iron. The Shop puts on three all-brand swap meets during the year...March, June and December. The last week in June event combines vintage racing, a bike show and a swap meet for a triple threat funfest. For more details call 805-656-6777 or log on to http://www.cycleshop.com/ If you want to swap shop and watch tank-shifter Harleys and Indians blast around the track, this is a must-see.

Wear comfortable shoes.

About an hour from L.A., you'll find the Pomona Fairplex where just about once a month there's a swap meet big enough to occupy a small country. They're billed as the "West Coasts Largest Antique Auto, Corvette, Porsche, Street Rod & VW Swap Meet & Car Show" but you will find motorcycle related goodies if you have the stamina to walk for several hours through the seemingly unending rows of car stuff, itself fantastic in scope. For more info log on to http://www.fairplex.com/. Wear comfortable shoes.

In addition to the aforementioned swap meets, you can do your treasure hunting at a number of fineShopping for a Harley hillclimber? You never know what you'll find at a classic bike swap. events conducted by Buzz & Pixie Walneck, a name synonymous with classic, vintage and antique bike events. Their annual swap meet schedule of 18 events includes venues in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Indiana. For detailed information call 630-985-2097. 

No mention of swap meets would be complete without mention of the Ultimate Swap Meet in the Sky, better known as the Internet and in particular Ebay where almost any bike fantasy can be realized if the price is right. While the Internet may be the ultimate instant gratification source for your much sought after treasure, don't neglect that garage sale down the street. You really never know what might show up.

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