To most Americans, the name “Hershey” means chocolate just as Cadbury does here. But to car lovers all across the United States it has another significance: the biggest car gathering in the world.
The Hershey company and family have assumed a more than commercial importance in American life; around the huge factory in Pennsylvania where the chocolate is made has grown an entire town and its suburbs where everything carries the company name. Hershey the town encompasses Hershey Park (containing Chocolate World), Hotel Hershey, the Hershey Convention Centre, the MS Hershey High School. . . Even the street-lamps in Hershey High Street are in the shape of Hershey Kisses, a favourite product in the range.
Hershey is also the headquarters of the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA), whose Hershey Region first put on its Fall Meet, a concours and autojumble, in 1954. Then it took place inside the Hershey Stadium; now, 34 years later, the stadium is one detail within a staggering 180 acres dedicated to this three-day car bazaar.
It remains essentially a concours and autojumble, or flea-market as it is known over there, but so enormous is the number and range of cars and parts that collectors, restorers and car-lovers come from all over the world searching for the vital component, from the mundane to the exotic, needed to complete their current project.
Amongst innumerable rows of stands, whole blocks are devoted to Model T Fords, or Chevrolets, or French cars; some deal only in magnetos, or car brochures, toys, tools or tyres, automotive art, racing engines or complete cars. Some show no signs of specialising at all: tatty boxes contain Mercedes bumpers, Jaguar door handles and old magazines.
In the Corral at one corner of the vast field, private owners display 1500 cars for sale, including a 4WD gas-turbine-powered single-seater — “ready for historic racing”! Stretching away on the plain below the Hershey Hotel are the three fields, called Blue, White, and, inevitably, Chocolate, into which the 9100 stands are divided. Stallholders return to their own spots year after year, and like any small town, some suburbs are more desirable than others: Blue is the longest-established, where the official HQ tents and the “old families” are, Chocolate is younger, bigger and increasingly fashionable, and White is on the wrong side of the tracks altogether—over Hersheypark Drive, where it caters in general for the scruffier end of things.
Most traders (and they vary from full-time quality car dealers to families simply turning out the garage) stay on the field in a variety of tents, campers and mobile homes right up to custom-built coaches which carry their own hoovers, so the meet becomes a social event, too. Between setting-up on Wednesday and striking camp on Sunday afternoon there is a host of things to do apart from autojumbling: tours of the town, the factory, and the neighbouring Amish country; a talent show, movies, parties, a banquet and games— and those are the official events.
As darkness falls over the endless lines of awnings, tables, tents and campers, barbecues break out on every block and the crackle of searing steaks mingles with the thrumming of generators and the over-amplified racket of the terrible hill-billy singers who come every year to sell ruinous old Chevrolets by day and draw a large crowd of wincing listeners by night. Some stall-holders stay open under floodlights until midnight, while others suspend business and roam the lines in the chilly October evening, chatting tirelessly about cars to everyone they meet. Lost bargains and overpriced pigs-in-pokes are forgotten in this off-duty period, and the atmosphere is that of a giant and cheerful late-night garden party where the tales of America’s genial friendliness are well borne out.
It is estimated that a quarter of a million people attend the meet, to which entrance is free, though Herco charges $5 for parking. Most throng in on Saturday, the day of the concours. Filling the stadium car park by 10am are no less than 1800 gleaming vehicles, mostly American, in 33 different classes arranged by year. Parts of the park look like factory storage areas, where entire rows of identical and perfect ’57 Chevys face scores of spotless Ford Thunderbirds. Model T and A Fords also abound, though in more variety, and amongst the Plymouths and Pontiacs there are many rarer vehicles too J-model Duesenberg, Auburn, and the remarkably ugly Kaiser Darrin with its sliding door. Only perhaps 30 European cars feature.
These 1800 vehicles are competing for places in a fiendishly complicated hierarchy of awards. Veteran judge Charles Coulter, one of 600 certified judges hard at work on Saturday, explained to me the two parallel prize structures: Show Awards in each class are decided by a team of five, comprising owners of similar cars, who therefore have expert knowledge of the model.
The more prestigious AACA National awards are decided by a committee of 12, who attend all the big meetings. Each car starts with 400 points, and is marked down for blemishes and unoriginality. Honours rise through Junior and Senior National to the pinnacle of glory achievable only at certain meets, a Grand National First, after which a car is “retired” to what is known as Presentation class. Many of these cars are taken to meets in box trailers to preserve their pristine state, and malicious rumours say that it is possible to win major awards with a non-runner, but that cannot happen here: one of the theatrical aspects of Hershey is that the cars parade through crowds of applauding spectators as they enter the showground.
An event the size of Hershey requires year-round organisation, and most of this is done by volunteers. AACA Executive Director Bill Smith explained that the task centres on 500 or so Hershey Region members from amongst AACA’s total of 52,000. Even on the field, the only paid workers are the emergency services, although there are hundreds of green-and-white-hatted workers looking after everything from programmes, through daunting traffic management schemes to aerial photography and the high-wheeler bicycle races.
Officials travel by golf buggy, essential given the sheer acreage. It takes a good 40 minutes to walk from the edge of Blue field to Rolls-Royce Row in the opposite corner, assuming one can make it without being tempted to stop by tables glittering with thousands of chrome car badges, racks of tinplate toys, enamel signs, or those wonderfully over-the-top chrome-plated Sixties Schwinn bicycles. One stand displays the irresistible sign “Tenth Annual Going-out-of-Business Sale”.
Possibly the most impressive displays are on the two stands devoted to automobile art. A fashion has arisen for large and elaborately detailed tableaux in china or bronze, depicting a car at speed in astonishing detail, the whole thing perhaps a yard long. More restrained sculptures in bronze and silver dating back to Edwardian times crowd the shelves, jostling with Brooklands and Indy trophies, jewellery, glass and enamel pieces with motoring themes and huge price tags.
On every “street corner” a couple of small boys operate a thriving transport business, carrying heavy purchases in an assortment of hand-carts at an hourly rate. Men stroll past with cardboard signs around their necks or in their hats: “Wanted — Pierce-Arrow parts” or “56 DeSoto for sale”.
Serious buyers are obvious from the big canvas bags slung over the shoulder, not just for convenience, but for security. Many a rare item turns up on a stall where the seller has no idea of its value, but the price will shoot up if he sees his customer carrying similar items. And in the close world of rival East Coast restorers, several people may be trying to find the same Lucas side-light, so it pays to be coy. I saw several pieces, particularly lamps and lenses, bought for $20-30 and resold half an hour later for $300 to someone who just had to have that part to finish a job.
Like any autojumble, prices range from the knowingly extortionate to the unknowingly cheap; what is truly valuable is expertise, the ability to pick out from a box of Ford parts a dynamo belonging to a Bugatti. And it is vital to get cracking at dawn on Wednesday morning. By 8am, my host, who concentrates on European sporting machinery, had collared a set of Phantom II hubs, an unused Amilcar headgasket, a coil of new drive-chain for a 1904 Northern, a brand-new and boxed fuel gauge for a 2.3 Alfa Romeo, plus a further two desperately rare Alfa parts— the magneto drive and one headlamp lens for an 8C 2900. Components like these just cannot be found when needed in a hurry, and to have them in store is priceless. Regulars are fond of saying “If you can’t find it at Hershey, it probably doesn’t exist”.
No single operator can get around the stands fast enough to beat his rivals to all the prime stuff, so some of the big dealers and collectors employ a team of scouts with two-way radios, who check with the boss to identify parts and to establish acceptable price limits before bargaining begins. To the bulk of the people who attend, Hershey is essentially a fun event, a huge automotive theme party. But for many it has become a professional necessity, and missing it would be a disaster. Visitors from overseas will find it plays havoc with their luggage allocation for the return flight, but for anyone at all interested in cars, it is almost worth the flight for this alone. This year’s Hershey will take place on October 5, 6 and 7. GC