Common Tread

Why swap meets still survive in the age of eBay

Jul 12, 2017

I first went to AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days 20 years ago, and as I wandered the grounds of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for the 2017 edition, a question kept coming to mind because I couldn’t answer it.

Now that we are deep into the internet age, why is the swap meet still just about as big as it was 20 years ago? Vintage road racing rises and wanes based on politics and lawsuits, styles and preferences change in the judged bike shows, but year after year the grassy parking area at the track fills up with hundreds of vendors selling used parts, used magazines, used motorcycles, used jerseys, used helmets and the occasional unused hot dog. I wondered: When you can scour the world for the part you need and order it without ever shifting from your easy chair, why are these people out here getting their feet muddy and their foreheads sunburned? Why haven’t eBay and Craigslist and a thousand other web sites made this scene extinct?

kick start
Somewhere, there's a formula that links number of kicks it takes to get the bike started and the discount off the asking price. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Swap meets are more than commerce

“It’s not just the motorcycles that make this happen,” explained Kevin Meyers of Eastern Michigan Cycle. “It’s the personalities. It’s the good times, the friends you haven’t seen for a long time. You create relationships.”

mini bike at swap meet
Going shopping at the swap meet with dad. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Meyers should know of what he speaks. He’s been coming to VMD every year since the early 1990s.

“People are looking for a reason to get away,” he says, and then laughs. “I love to get away.”

While Meyers says it’s more about having a good time than making a fortune, at least he is in the business of selling motorcycle parts. For Dale Gordon and his sons, Nathan and Josh, who have a selection of used parts spread out on tables and tarps, it’s not business at all.

“It’s strictly a hobby. It’s not about the money,” says Dale Gordon. “It’s a hobby for me and my two sons and it’s quality family time with each other.”

Dale Gordon as swap meet
Dale Gordon brings parts to sell or trade at the swap meet for the fun, not the money. Photo by Lance Oliver.

For the Gordons, going to the swap meets grew out of a father sharing his love for motorcycles. “I wanted them to have knowledge of motorcycles and how to wrench,” he says. “It’s something I’ve been around my whole life.”

From working on old bikes, it was a short step to buying and selling parts at swap meets, and it appears the passion has stuck.

“There’s not many people our age who are involved with these 1970s motocrossers,” said Josh Gordon. “If we don’t carry it on, who will?”

There is definitely the air of passing on a legacy at a swap meet. Or, as Meyers puts it, “I think everybody here has got a treasure chest of their past and they love to bring it out and get rid of it before they die.”

Motorcycles for sale
One gradual change in the VMD swap meet has been an increase in whole motorcycles for sale, along with parts, tools and apparel. Photo by Lance Oliver.

While I say the swap meet has stayed the same, that’s not exactly accurate. It’s about the same size it was 20 years ago, though it peaked more like 10 years ago. And the mix has changed. There are still plenty of tarps piled high with carburetors or turn signals in a chaotic abundance that makes it seem an impossible task, to someone like me, to find what you’re really looking for. But there are more whole bikes for sale than in past years. Sellers say the stuff that moves is mostly the inexpensive parts and the running motorcycles.

turn signals
The part you need may be there, but you have to find it. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Oh, and hot dogs. The biggest crowd at any tent in the swap meet was around the one selling hot dogs. You may need clutch springs for your 1972 Sportster in a general kind of way, but you're likely to need lunch in a far more immediate kind of way.

So I get it. It’s not primarily about commerce. The swap meet survives because some people prefer seeing old friends, mingling with thousands of other gearheads and getting out of the scrap yard, even if it means sleeping in a tent in a field. “It’s funner than eBay or Craigslist,” Meyers says.

Is the carburetor you need in that bin? Better know what you're looking for. Photo by Lance Oliver.

What about the buyers?

But I figured there had to be more to it than that, and I wanted the buyer’s side of the story. So for that I went to ZLA swap meet expert Lemmy, who wrote our swap meet survival guide three years ago in the early days of Common Tread. He eagerly listed nearly a dozen reasons why buying parts at a swap meet can beat searching the web.

old magazines
Some old parts are made of paper. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Here are a few of those reasons: Some of the guys who’ve been in business a long time and have the best stashes of parts don’t do business online. There’s more room for negotiation on the price in person, or even asking to break down an assembly and buy just the single part you need. There’s no shipping hassles or expense, naturally, and if you know what you’re looking for and find it in those anonymous piles of carburetors I mentioned above, it will probably be for sale at a lower price than online.

And, maybe most important of all, there’s nothing like holding something in your hand — and maybe even measuring it with a dial caliper, as Lemmy often does — to be sure you’re getting the right part and a good part. Lemmy gave me a great example from a swap meet he went to.

“I had a guy try to sell me a ‘perfect’ Knucklehead frame not long ago,” Lemmy says. “I knew right where to check for hidden damage, and lo and behold, that frame was not even runnable. The seller had no idea.”

In other words, 30 seconds in person prevented a lot of shipping costs and returning headaches Lemmy would have had if he had bought that frame online. Not to mention dealing with a seller who might have suspected a scam because he honestly thought there was nothing wrong with the part he was selling.

Sign #2. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Sign #1: The signs at the swap meet are free entertainment. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Another advantage to being able to see and touch a part, alongside the seller, is that one person's idea of "good condition" may not match another person's. If buyer and seller have a chance to point out and discuss an item's good and bad points, there's a better chance of coming to a mutually satisfactory price.

custom seat
Sign #3: It says "custom seat and custom tank," which is technically true, since it's certain this motorcycle did not come stock with a piece of plywood and a scrap of carpet for a seat and a gas can with a bungee cord for a tank. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Finally, if you have stuff of your own, you may actually be able to trade. Swapping still takes place at swap meets. Plus, as Lemmy noted in his swap meet survival guide, there’s something about sitting around a campfire at the end of the day with fellow gearheads. “That never happens on eBay.”