The handmade cardboard sign that hung around Brian Miller's neck read: "Need '67 Nova parts."
Miller was wandering between vendors, searching for small parts at last month's Seattle Auto Swap Meet at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds in Monroe.
For Miller, automotive swap meets are the best places to find rare pieces for older cars such as his Chevrolet Nova, which he is restoring at his Marysville home.
Bits of chrome, plastic pieces and heater parts are too small-ticket for companies to reproduce profitably or for sellers to bother listing online. But at swap meets, Miller says, people throw all kinds of little things into boxes.
He holds up a few difficult-to-find sections of dashboard trim. "Sometimes you get lucky," he says with a smile.
An automotive swap meet is a garage sale on steroids, featuring tables full of hubcaps, chrome bumpers, old steering wheels, eight-track tapes -- even fishing poles and harmonicas. Rusting car frames sit on trailers, waiting for someone to restore them to their former glory.
While there are usually some automotive companies at swap meets, the majority of buyers and sellers are individuals or mom-and-pop businesses.
Tom Thompson drove all the way from Edmonton, Alberta, in search of vintage dashboards. He found a '58 Chevrolet dash in good condition for $150, which he says he will resell for $450 after installing a wall mount and a Bose sound system inside.
Like most people at swap meets, Thompson doesn't shop for his parts online or maintain a website, instead preferring to buy in person and resell through word of mouth.
After pulling parts from three trucks to build a single running vehicle, Mike Nisius, of Maple Valley, was offloading the extra components at the meet. His trailer showcased chunky transmission parts and the back window of a Studebaker.
Nisius also avoids the Internet, explaining that if he listed his parts on Craigslist, he would have to spend time writing up the details and fielding endless questions from buyers. But at a swap meet, customers can see and feel the parts before buying.
Swap meet tips
- For buyers: Get there early. The best stuff goes fast on the first day.
- Bargains can be found late on Sunday, especially on heavy and bulky items that vendors don't want to drag back home.
- For sellers: Smart vendors will buy early on the first day, then sell the same item for a profit later in the meet.
- Reputation is everything. Be friendly and have fun.
"People come out with a list in hand, and they just have at it," he says.
Part of the fun of swap meets is the scavenger hunt, but there is a deeply ingrained social aspect to them as well.
"There's a lot of camaraderie," says Bud Worley, of Renton. He was at the meet with the Northwest Classic Chevy Club, whose stall was showcasing a row of antique gas pumps. "You see people you haven't seen in a while, and there is a lot of social interaction."
"It's mostly a lot of junk," he jokes. "But it's junk someone else needs."