The Wonderful, the Rare and the Weird at the Portland Swapmeet

Every April, the Portland Expo Center becomes ground zero for automotive bargain hunters and seekers of rare parts — and, sometimes, weird stuff.

Six of Oregon’s biggest antique auto clubs run the annual Portland Swap Meet: Historical Automobile Club of Oregon, Horseless Carriage Club of America Portland Regional Group, Vintage Chevrolet Club of America Columbia River Region, Ford Model A Club of America The Beaver Chapter, Early Ford V8 Club of America Columbia River Region Group, and Rose City Model T Club.

Some gearheads say it’s the largest car swapmeet west of the Mississippi River. I don’t know whether that is true, but I do know that thousands of dealers in all things car filled four giant exhibition halls. Tables were draped in chrome — bumpers, grilles, trim spears and more.

Parts and cars weren’t the only things on display. The Treit and Davenport Bonneville streamliner made its first public appearance. Sixteen dedicated racers, fabricators and support crew (totaling over 300 years of auto experience) built the Target 550 MPH car. Their aim is — you guessed it — 550 mph on wheels. The 43-foot land-speed vehicle sat squarely in the middle of one hall, and it attracted a crowd throughout the three-day event. I hoped someone would light up the two Dodge Hemi V8 engines that power this screaming beast, but no one did.

The Portland International Raceway — just south of the Expo Center — hosted a magnificent strewing of auto parts and trinkets onto lawns and tarmac. It looked as though old cars had careened across the parking lots and sprayed parts and body panels in all directions.

What about the weird? A mannequin wearing a jester hat and gripping a vacuum cleaner and fur coats shared a stall with $20 golf clubs. You could even buy a radial engine (of unknown origin and dubious condition) for $2,500. Sellers and buyers haggled over race cars old and new. If I wanted a vehicle for post-Apocalypse transport, there were half a dozen to choose from.

PIR hosts two swapmeets a year — one in the spring and the other in the fall. The stalls are set up all the way around the nearly two-mile track.

A desperate need for parking and space links the two epic swapmeets together. PIR and Portland Meadows (the local dog/horse race track) serve as giant parking lots for tens of thousands of shoppers and gawkers.
I did have a shopping list for my 1967 Impala, but this year’s parts selection left me more gawker than active buyer. I found plenty of parts, but didn’t find anything I needed to bolt onto my Impala. I did find an authentic dealership pamphlet that described accessories available for 1967 Chevrolets, and I bought my mom a period brochure to go with her 1963 Ford F-100 unibody.

While my search for the rare and desirable parts I needed didn’t pan out this time, I did get a satisfying helping of the weird and wonderful. I was surprised that I didn’t spot the parts I needed, but there is always this fall — or next spring. I’ll definitely have a new search list of Bowtie goodies.

Where are your favorite places to seek out automotive trash and treasure?