Car geeks descend on Pomona Swap Meet
Obsessive-compulsive disorder put to good use can be a fine thing. Just ask Matt Zarzana, general manager of George Cross and Sons, Inc., which owns and operates the Pomona Swap Meet and Classic Car Show, an event akin to Christmas morning for vintage car geeks.
“There are people that have a car that will call us and they’re not sure what it might be worth or exactly what options are original,” Mr. Zarzana explained. “And nowadays with the internet you can find out a lot of information, but if you show up with a car there are people here that will tell you everything about it, all the ins and outs, what it should have, what it did have.”
This hands-on experience with the scores of actual human vintage car experts—some might say obsessives—is the bread and butter of the swap meet, which takes place this Sunday, October 15 from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Pomona Fairplex.
For the uninitiated, the swap meet happens seven times per year, offering everything from show worthy, fully restored classic cars down to the tiniest original part for pre-1985 collectible vehicles. You can also pick up memorabilia, books, manuals and artwork.
Mr. Zarzana, who got his start parking cars at the swap meet in 1989, has seen the market through dramatic changes. Like so many other collector hobbies — vintage guitars, jewelry and clothing to name a few — the dawn of the Internet in the mid-1990s was a watershed moment.
“Sure, I think it’s driven prices up, because you can get your product to more people,” he said. “But fortunately, I think we still exist because car guys want to touch and feel and hold the parts that they’re going to buy.”
Car junkies have been flocking in surprisingly large numbers to get their hands on hard-to-find vintage parts and vehicles since George W. Cross III founded the swap meet in 1975. On a sunny day, some 20,000 people will pay $10 each for a chance to pick through the offerings of the 2,500 or so vendors, who in turn pay $50 each for a booth.
And scouring the blacktop for a hard-to-find bumper for a ’64 Impala isn’t just a means to an end for gear heads. The intangibles are the real treasure.
“There’s a lot of entertainment value to what we do, as well as a social aspect,” Mr. Zarzana explained. “The internet can’t affect that, fortunately.”
Indeed, strolling through the rows of cars, parts and memorabilia holds a rare and unique charm among vintage car nuts. It’s a mecca of sorts, with people coming from all around the world to soak in the pre-1985 sights and smells. It’s a grease monkey’s paradise, and not just for locals.
Vintage car lovers from all over the globe make the pilgrimage to Pomona. Each year the Scandinavian collectors fill a shipping container with hard-to-find pieces that will make their way via cargo ship to Sweden. “It’s neat to see people coming every year from another country and buying parts,” Mr. Zarzana said.
The overseas market has been a staple at the swap meet since the collectible car boom in the 1980s. The Japanese were the first to begin importing American classics. Lately collectors from Australia, Denmark, Germany and Sweden have been the primary source of exports, Mr. Zarzana said.
Swap meet patrons come in all stripes, but they are primarily baby boomers. And that demographic, in some instances, is aging out of the hobby, selling off collections and flooding the market with the cars of their youth—mostly 1950s-era classics.
This influx of inventory has resulted in a stable but stagnant market for that segment over the years spanning the pre-recession height of December 2007 to January of last year, according to Hagerty’s Index of Collectible American Cars of the 1950s. It’s uncertain at this point if Generation X is interested enough to keep it growing and stable.
But what’s indisputable is that a certain grade of collector car has proven to be a remarkably solid investment. “Blue chip” cars—ultra collectibles such as 1958 Ferraris, 1953 Corvettes and 1963 Shelby Cobras—have seen average Index values rise from about $750,000 to a stunning $2.6 million over the same period, according to Hagerty’s.
Years ago the vintage car market was pretty well established as “Pre-1975.” That is not the case today; as the ‘50s and ‘60s cars have become unattainable, the swap meet has opened its doors to pre-’85 cars.
“That was mostly on demand,” Mr. Zarzana explained. “There were a lot of people that had ’75 to ’85 cars that they wanted to sell or show, and it’s been great. The ‘80s pickup trucks have gotten popular, as have Camaros from that period. There are even ‘80s Japanese cars that are collectible and popular today. I think a lot of it is that it’s a good entry price point for new collectors.”
So whether you’re a young, budding gear head, a baby-boomer nostalgic for the cars of your youth, or are simply curious about this popular subculture, a trip to the Pomona Swap Meet and Classic Car Show is a Sunday well spent. And where else can you get your start at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m.?
“A lot of our people like to start early,” Mr. Zarzana laughed. “It’s the whole early bird thing. Early bird gets the deal.”
The next swap meet takes place Sunday, October 15 from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Pomona Fairplex, 1101 W. McKinley Ave. Admission, which includes parking, is $10. Children 12 and under are free. More information is at pomonaswapmeet.com.