Back to my home pageAnyone looking for a trunk lid to a ‘56 Mercury? Do y’ need an exhaust manifold for a
‘64 Buick? A Chrysler door handle? Tromp the grounds of the 31st Annual Swap Meet of the
Antique Car Club during the third weekend in October in Chickasha, Oklahoma, and these items
and a million more can be had for the right price, or the right trade.
Across acres and acres of the county fairgrounds are cars and pickups, and myriad parts of
cars and pickups. It’s like a great flea market, with much of the trade going on among fellow
peddlers. Many people show up year after year, some even keeping the same location. They’ll
get there early, then abandon their space to cruise other booths. Two guys arrive in front of a
buddy’s space, and one calls out, “Where’s the sorry bastard who sells this—Oh, there you are.”
Then he laughs—“That’s probably what they’re saying about us back at our booth.” Down
another row, a man says, “Someone said Ritchie’s here—anyone know where he’s at?”
Like a flea market perhaps, or like a Gathering of the Tribes. For these are people proudly
holding to customs of the past (and some customizing their holdings). The greatest numbers hail
from the Ford Nation. From the far hills have come many Chevy people as well, and even a few
survivors of the lesser-known small bands: Hudson, DeSoto, Studebaker, and a couple of
Metropolitans down from Canada. Different clans, too—within the Mopar people you’ll have the
Slant-Six clan (the 170 and 225 cu. in.) and the V-8 people (318 and 383).
To get by, you need to know a certain language, with terms like “small block” or “big
block” (Chevy 350 engines); “long-bed” or “short-bed” or long- or short-“box” (pickups—with 6'
or 8' long beds); dove-tail (slanting truck-bed car carrier); overhead cams, flatheads (or “nail-
heads”), Bondo, and much more.
Guys wear black-stained caps and black-stained jeans; they wear overalls and work pants;
black-stained tee-shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets, one from a uniform service with “Ted”
monogrammed above the pocket.
Quite diverse people and cars associate freely. There sits a pristine, ready-to-roar red
Ford Cobra, built from a $12,000 kit (plus the motor and drive-train from a Mustang), and right
next to it a sad-looking ‘61 Metropolitan (“seized up, but not too bad—it was running when I got
it”) on a trailer, asking price: $1,500 (pretty optimistic, it would seem).
A Ford Cobra keeps company with a Metropolitan
Signs you’ll find at the Swap Meet: next to the pickup from Utah with the “GTO Parts”
banner, black marker on cardboard: “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale!” Above one
table of assorted parts: “No Afghan sales!” And propped on a vintage sedan: “If you see this car
on a trailer, call 911 because it’s been stolen!”—proud proclamation that the car is driven and not
pampered. An old 2' x 6' metal sign, white letters on red field, reading, “Mansfield extra mileage
tires,” for sale at $65. Old signs are big business here: every kind of gas, oil, and auto-maker’s
insignia is represented. Old Coca-Cola signs are everywhere.
What you’ll hear people saying: “Well, I don’t really know what I want for it”; “Make me
an offer”; “Oh, you’re killin’ me—I gave more than that for it myself!”; “What’s the least you’ll
take for it?”; “You better get it now—it prob’ly won’t be here when you come back”; “Did ya
find ya one, Jay?” You’ll also hear Hank Williams singing “I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
What you’ll smell: cigar smoke, whiffs of oak fire and ribs from “D’s Barbecue” stand,
sweet caramel fried dough from the wagon selling funnel cakes, hamburgers grilling over charcoal
alongside the man who sits in a folding chair slicing onions.
Always ready to trade
What you’ll see: people dragging small wagons around the grounds to carry their
acquisitions, their thermoses and lunch coolers, and one reclining little girl. A man jockeying a
two-wheel cart with a cream and crimson two-tone pickup door strapped on. A guy carrying a
crankshaft on his shoulder. Three county jail trustees in black and white striped clothes tooling
around in a golf cart—and having a ball—collecting trash.
What you might see and hear: two guys wheeling a motorcycle side-car (minus the
motorcycle), and a passerby saying: “That’ll wear you out in no time—running down the highway
Car parts are just the beginning here: old brochures and vintage car advertisements from
magazines, old gas pumps, some restored and some not, motorcycles, antique toy tractors and
farm machinery, a RoadMaster bicycle, parking meters, and a 1944 bus—a low-slung, hump-
backed gray and white model—with “STATE PENITENTIARY” painted in stark black on the
side (although the man hoping to sell it admits he painted that on; that it used to carry citizens
between Tulsa and Muskogee). A typical space offers car parts, maybe a motorcycle or some
tools, and maybe an old car or pickup or two, or a dozen or more photos of cars for sale at home.
How do people get started in this business? “Well, kind of like a bad habit, I guess—I never really intended to. But in 1957 I bought a ‘24 Model T touring car, and then I started buying some extra parts and pieces for it. And then me and a friend of mine got some more parts at an antique shop, and it just took off from there.” This, from a man standing by tables-full of boxes-full of an uncountable jumble of copper, chrome, cast, and rusted steel handles, horns, and regulators; chokes, diaphragms, and fan blades; calipers, flanges, and actuators; springs, seals, and steering knuckles; and one oil pan for a ‘47 Chevy. Beyond that is the covered trailer with his principal collection of goods.
Then there’s the guy who collected old signs and gas pumps and wanted a traffic light for
his collection but wound up giving $800 for 170 of them, and now travels the country buying and
selling three times that many every year.
Whatever your fancy in vintage vehicles, at some point you’ll lack some part(s) for
it—obsolete, no longer carried by auto parts stores—and the swap meet is the place to find it.
Why do guys (mostly guys, a few women too) pour their time and bank accounts into
ancient and disabled vehicles? What inspires them to battle rust, re-upholster seats, replace
gauges, hunt for rare window glass, straighten fenders and quarter panels, patch holes with Bondo
and paint bodies, tear into engines and drive-trains and overhaul them, and only occasionally finish
the job to their satisfaction? Most would answer with a gleam in their eyes, a little bewildered to
be asked—is it not obvious?— “I just love them old Chevys” (or Dodges or whichever). But cars
don’t love in return, like people or dogs might. What accounts for such powerful nostalgia for an
intractable and antiquated steel contraption?
Look beneath the hood of a ‘62 Chevy pickup, with its 235 cubic inch 6-cylinder engine
humming reliably as a Timex, and enthroned in simple splendor amid empty space enough for
another motor beside it. You can name, and count on your fingers, the various appendages—air
filter, carburetor, generator, fuel pump, and so on—and any mechanic could set the thing right
when it ailed, almost with the tools in his back pocket. Then open the hood of what you’re
driving now, and check out the baffling disarray of oxygen-metering, pollution-fighting, gas-
saving fuel-injectors, multi-point fuel pressure regulators, ports, vacuum-tubes, solenoids, and
sensors of every description; there’s hardly room enough for a fly to light. Today’s mechanics
need special schooling to understand—and high-priced, specialized electronics to speak to—the
No wonder the attraction to an older vehicle. Maybe it’s a car you grew up in, or the first
one you drove. The car you met girls in. The car you traveled cross country in, or got married in.
These old machines are loaded to the roof with associations from a time when we were young,
strong, and unburdened; a time when Becky, slim and angelic, leaned in the window wanting a
ride; long, long before the kids made her tired, before she started harping about your drinking; a
time before life got complicated; a time when it seemed that a man, a woman, or a war meant one
thing and one only. Who wouldn’t long for a ride back to that brighter past?
It’s a brilliant Saturday morning, Indian summer. The idling motor in a flawless ‘34 Ford
Victoria draws almost everyone passing by. One man leans in close and remarks, “It sure runs
smooth, don’t it.” Others stand by saying nothing, seemingly entranced.