It’s not quite 7 a.m. on a chilly Saturday in January, and the line of cars is already stretched half mile around the perimeter roads of the Fairplex in Pomona, California. From the driver’s seat of Automobile’s Four Seasons Jaguar F-Pace, it all looks similar to rush hour, but we’re certainly not complaining. Instead, we’re car spotting. There’s a brand-new Corvette Stingray, a 1970s Datsun 510, a ’60s Chevrolet C10 pickup, and a group of modified Volkswagen Beetles, rasping out their signature, air-cooled notes each time a gap in traffic opens.
On any other day of the week, in any other location, this bout of gridlock would bring endless unkind words, blaring horns, and blood pressure spikes. But not here. Thousands of people patiently wait for their turn to park at the Pomona Swap Meet, one of seven such Saturday morning events scheduled for 2017. After 20 minutes creeping along in traffic, we finally filter past the fairground’s parking lot toll gate, and the gathering’s enormity stretches before us. There are countless cars in the general parking area alone, with droves of people making their way forward through the lot to the ticket booth at the spectator entrance. On average, some 14,000 to 16,000 car crazies attend each Pomona Swap Meet. Elevated behind all this are the grandstands and timing tower for the Auto Club Raceway — a well-known dragstrip that has hosted NHRA race events since the early ’60s.
The swap meet itself is a living piece of Southern California car culture. In 1975, George Cross III, then a car-crazed mailman from Santa Ana who owned a Ford Model A and Model T, thought to host an event that would bring car lovers together in a new way. Cross’ primary motivation was to find new parts sources outside his local Ford club, but what the swap meet turned into was something much more. The initial meet, launched in 1975 with $100 and plenty of paper fliers, was a rousing success that brought more than 4,000 enthusiasts together to buy and sell parts, share information, and do a little bench racing. By 1981, Cross hosted five events a year and had moved from the fringes of the Pomona Fairplex (a sprawling event space formerly known as the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds) into the enormous main parking lot.
Cross III died several years ago, but a new generation — George’s sons and daughter-in-law Kim — run the show today. And while Kim married into the family business, just a moment spent talking with her makes her enthusiasm for these swap meets evident, and that’s mainly due to the people they attract.
“These people are true blue-blood Americans,” she says. “They’re the bread and butter of Americana and they’re the nicest people on Earth. This place is the original social media. We get 20,000 to 25,000 people in one parking lot in one day. No one else does that.”
Kim Cross, who has been involved in the company since 1991, tells us that if you were to walk every row of the swap meet, you would cover about 15 miles. (“Bring your Fitbit,” she says.)
On one side of the massive outdoor Fairplex, vendors — more than 1,000 of them on an average day — are set up along rows that run toward the center of the swap meet, where two directions of traffic run perpendicular to the vendor rows. Here, cars to be displayed in the Car Corral area cruise up and down what is essentially the swap meet’s main boulevard. Some idle to their display space, some just cruise for the sake of cruising. Throughout the day, there is no shortage of metal on this main strip, rolling along at 5 mph, slow enough for spectators to get a long look.
Polo shirts mingle with leather vests, tattooed arms extend a handshake toward Rolex-wrapped wrists.
There’s a little bit of everything here. Classic American cars are by and large the majority turnout, but there are plenty of Volkswagens, Porsches, and classic Japanese cars as well. A scrappy looking ’50s MG TD sits on the back of a trailer with a “For Sale” sign on it, while an Austin America trundles into a parking space alongside a hot rod with beer cans for velocity stacks. Elsewhere, a classic car dealer is hawking an ’80s Lamborghini Jalpa across the row from a vendor with so many performance carburetors and wild-looking intake manifolds that you can barely see the asphalt they rest on.
The attendees are a mixed bag, too. Polo shirts mingle with leather vests, tattooed arms extend a handshake towards Rolex-wrapped wrists, and Camaro owners even laugh easily with Mustang enthusiasts. Here, it doesn’t matter who you are or what kind of horse you rode in on. If you “get” cars, you’ll get along with anyone.
Walking through the show, we come across Matthew Graham’s red 1974 Puma GTE coupe — a Brazilian-built, Volkwagen-based sports car that is a novelty to see in California. Graham has been attending the Pomona Swap Meet for decades and brought his Puma in hopes of finding a buyer, but that’s not the only reason he’s here. He’s also brought along his son, Zachary, a budding car fanatic who Graham is excited to share the Pomona experience with.
“It’s a great way to fuel a future generation of enthusiasts,” he says of the event. “These kids can be around these cars and see them run, watch them drive in and drive out. They aren’t just static museum pieces.”
As the sun creeps higher in the morning sky, the smell of deep fryers in action wafts through the air as business picks up at several food vendors, most selling traditional fair-type offerings: hamburgers, barbecue, pizza, and ice cream. Pink’s hot dogs, a Southern California institution, stands out. It has a booth it operates at each Pomona Swap Meet, and well before lunch time a long line of hungry showgoers waits for specialties that include the Trump Dog. We didn’t ask.
But the vendors are what the majority is here to see. Most have their booths setup by 5 a.m., doing business right off the bat. Yes, even in the Internet Age and even in Southern California, people still flock to buy parts — some old and rusty, some new and shiny — with cold hard cash in hand. Eric Froemke of The Truck Shop has been coming here to sell parts since 1985 and still finds it a critical part of his business, part of which is online these days.
“I think people like to touch the parts,” he says. “They like to come out, see what you’ve got, touch the parts and feel them and see if it works for their car.”
Froemke says many folks here are regulars, turning up show after show to chase elusive parts or just see what’s new. “There are always different things here. Maybe someone’s cleaning out a garage, their grandpa passed away, and now here’s a whole new selection of parts that guys can get.”
We walk a several more rows, taking in the sights. In one space, freshly chromed bumpers for what seems like nearly every Chevrolet produced between 1940 and 1970 are wrapped in protective brown paper like oversized deli counter items, ready to be taken home. Next door is someone selling mostly motorcycle parts, along with some vintage-looking signs. At another space, scale-model cars are everywhere, some assembled, some in plastic kit form. We spot a few we had as kids, and a rush of memories floods back. Where do those childhood toys, so important for so many years, disappear to? The Pomona Swap Meet, apparently. It takes a lot of willpower to keep from pulling out the wallet.
Soon enough we come across Richard Romero, another Pomona regular. Romero owns a towing business, but his passion is selling classic car parts. He’s been a vendor at these Pomona meets since 1977. Now his son and grandson come out to help him sell his wares, laying each one out on display and fielding questions from potential buyers. Has the convenience of buying classic car parts online affected the Pomona show through the years? Not according to Romero.
“It hasn’t changed,” he observes. “It’s the same. We have a lot of good customers, I’ve had some for nearly 50 years. It’s a lot of fun. Sometimes people don’t even come here to buy, they’re just here to visit.”
Will Romero’s children and grandchildren be swapping parts, sharing tips, and laughing with friends over barbecue 50 years from now? It seems more than likely. Meanwhile, we’ve got to keep moving. There are still miles of cars, parts, and people left to see.
More Chances to Swap in 2017
June 4, August 13, October 15, December 3 visit www.pomonaswapmeet.com