Here’s Why Swap Meets Can Be A Godsend For Your Projects

Well, where else are you going to find the instrument cluster for that 1957 Chevy Bel Air?

Swap meet gold - Volkswagen Beetle
Swap meets are great places to pick up little pieces of history, like this Volkswagen Beetle. [Photo: City of Firsts VW Club via Flickr]

You know the old saying; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Alternatively, one man’s trash is another man’s discussion with his wife explaining why he bought a rusty oil pan for a 426 Hemi. Or even a clean example of A Volkswagen Beetle.

To us Americans, there’s something about swap meets that just feels right. It’s a paradise filled items that someone wants to get rid of as much as someone else wants to own. We pride ourselves in part on what we own, and car people in particular spend years upon years collecting these little pieces of history.

If you have never been, a swap meet is a weekend-long garage-sale like happening where buyers and sellers of car parts and related items go to barter. “So it’s junk,” you say. Oh, no — It’s so much more than that.

Yes, the advertising leaves something to be desired. But if you’re looking for something specific, you may hit gold at a swap meet.

Swap meets are experiences that high-five your senses.

First of all, there is a taste. Every swap meet has a unique funk that seeks out unsuspecting nose holes and leaves behind a strange tang. Whatever rust, oil, burnt coffee, and an old boot smells like somehow transfers into a vulgar bouquet for your mouth. No doubt this is the result of forgotten about 50-year-old car parts in the garage sitting next to grandmother’s Dictaphone.

Your eyes and lungs are equally assaulted. Often patrons completely ignore the “No Smoking” signs, and instead light new cigarettes with the fading embers of the ones they just smoked. For us non-smokers, our eyes water in protest of the noxious air. And there is no better place to cry than in front of four-hundred meaty handed guys who got up way too early on a Saturday.

And that’s just the beginning of what sets the atmosphere. I once saw a 6-foot plus tall gent wearing a sandwich board sign around his neck that said: “Wanted: 67’- 69’ DZ block forged steel crank. Also, a woman to make me breakfast.” It was indeed a memorable moment. I’m sure that I saw a rogue sparrow peeking out his beard.

tflcar car quiz clue
Swap meets can be a godsend to find parts for cars that time forgot, like this one.

Mastering your skills

There are certain techniques to squeezing the parts that you need from a swap meet.

I like to go early in the peeking hours of the morning when the sun slowly begins to peek over the horizon. That’s when most parts are available, but the prices are still full. However, if you need something particular, like for example some hood trim for a 1955 Pontiac Chieftain, it’s a must you drag your butt in early.

If you are looking for the best price, the trick is to wait until the last possible moment at the end of the day when people are packing up. I’ve found that most sellers of used parts want nothing to do with packing it all back into the truck they brought them in. Or back into the garage where they are usually stored.

One of the best bargains I’ve found at swap meets are tools and shop supplies. I don’t ask how people are able to sell brand new name brand wrenches for one-third of the cost of buying at a store. Or 80-grit grinding discs for less money than a cheeseburger, but I’m happy they do. Just don’t expect the best quality. My personal philosophy is to buy tools and shop supplies in bulk because they will inevitably break. Sometimes they’ll break after just one use.

I find it impossible to walk out of a local swap meet without buying something. It’s like a disease. Usually, I buy far more things than I came there looking for, similar to shopping at a major discount store. However, even if you go to browse or hang out with your fellow car nuts, the mighty mounds of rusted swap meet gold may inspire you to clean out forgotten car parts in your garage.

Of course, that just makes room for you to bring some more car parts home.

Editor’s Note: Matt Brenner is a weekly op-ed contributor to The Fast Lane Car. In these pieces, he provides insight into parts of the car nut’s lifestyle we can all appreciate.