Rising at four o’clock makes me think I should be delivering the Omaha World-Herald, my hometown paper, but the reason I got up so early on Sunday was to be among the first arrivals at the Pomona Swap Meet. Events at Pomona’s fairgrounds, from drag races to street rod shows, have always sounded tantalizing, and now that I live in the San Gabriel Valley, I wanted to come to this meet. What would I find? Who else would be there? Arriving twenty minutes early, I sat in a line of cars until the gates opened at 5 a.m., which was forty minutes before sunrise.
Soon after paying $9 to park and $8 for admittance, I was looking at a 1970 Ford Club Wagon that was exactly what my high school wrestling coach, Dennis Scheer, used to drive. It had a red bottom and white top and a slightly pointed nose that suggested the consumption of an obtuse triangle from David Stodola’s geometry class. Hearing me observe that I never believed I’d see one of these passenger vans again, another early bird responded, “There’s nothing you’re not gonna to see here.” He might have a point, but to Mary Gehrts, the English teacher, he is hereby remanded for remedial work on double negatives.
Indeed, after going decades without seeing a Ford van from the E-Series that was introduced in 1969, I then saw another — this one jacked up in the rear and appearing in horrible condition. The seller, representing another project for Miss Gehrts, had stuck notebook paper under a windshield wiper; I reproduce the message verbatim:
“Ultra rare 69 Ford van E-300 will trade for 66 427 AC Cobra & cash must be genuine Cobra.”
Laughing aloud so early in the morning is a rare pleasure.
Next in the “nothing you’re not gonna see here” department was a 1926 Star Four coupster. This was Durant Motors’ competition for the Model T; the indefatigable Billy Durant used Star as his keystone brand as he tried and failed to put together another General Motors after being forced out of GM by Pierre S. DuPont in 1920. The present specimen was a two-owner car in running condition, but the asking price of $16,000 seemed awfully steep after a walkaround revealed wooden wheels in poor condition, a missing running board, a missing mascot, and other flaws.
The case of a 1957 VW Beetle showed just how demanding the buyers could be. The sun had only been up for twenty minutes when a man from the VW Club of Hawaii worked over the Bug’s seller about its serial numbers. The Hawaiian had looked under the back seat at the oil pan, which he said had the errant number.Finally he walked away, beetling his brows, without offering against the asking price of $9500.
Infiltrators to the VW and Porsche corral came not only from Hawaii but also Europe. One was a homely 1954 Austin, and another was a 1978 MGB. But a 1965 Saab 96 ($4200 or best offer) intrigued me. I had only glimpses of these in my youth but loved the car and was vaguely aware of its rally wins. With the two-stroke, three-cylinder engine, it sure didn’t seem like the thing to buy without a lot of research and preparation; maybe a lucky Saab aficionado stumbled upon it, found the subject and predicate agreeing in number, and took the car home.
Around 6:40 a.m., patrons were lined up thirty-deep at the ticket windows as I began a stroll through the congeries of car parts. Vendors pay $40 for a twenty-by-twenty space and display Weber carburetors, VW axles, Chevrolet trim, and every other swap meet staple from straw hats to old steel lunch boxes. While she shivered in her sundress — it was still in the fifties — I chatted with a woman from Granada Hills who had an appallingly bad tattoo on her back: a skull with a wraparound red bow atop the forehead and butterfly wings for ears. She described her unappreciative son’s follies with the VW bus she’d bought him, and then she went stalking replacement glass for her own Beetle.
Walking out at 7:30 a.m. with a pair of guys from Phoenix who said they come over for every swap meet, I noticed they were leaving empty handed, too, so I didn’t feel like a freak. Besides, my head had filled up, brimming with wicked thoughts for a Sunday morning.I came home wondering how that Saab would do with the latest Honda VFR powertrain. — Ronald Ahrens
The Pomona Swap Meet is held at the vast Pomona fairgrounds six times in 2011 and is scheduled for seven dates in 2012, and if you walk all the aisles in the car corrals and parts vendor areas they reckon you’ll cover 15 miles. The amount of VW and Chevy offerings alone is simply astonishing.