Doane Yawger: Don't miss the Turlock Swap Meet

January 14, 2012 

Doane Yawger, Sun-Star reporter


In the old car hobby, it doesn't get much better than an automotive swap meet. It's a massive show, exercise routine, social occasion and shopping experience all rolled into one.

We're really fortunate that one of the biggest old car swap meets in the country happens every January in Turlock.

The Modesto Area A's swap meet will be held Jan. 28-29 at the Stanislaus County Fairground. The event began in 1965 at a Modesto shopping center and moved to the fairgrounds the next year. I've attended the event pretty much every year since the early 1980s. I covers the entire sprawling complex, roughly bounded by Canal Drive, Soderquist and Fulkerth roads and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Several years ago, an estimated 35,000 people attended on a Saturday, and I'd bet these numbers have subsequently grown. Sunday attendance figures would be somewhat smaller but still pretty sizable. There are easily several thousand vendors and more than 500 vintage vehicles for sale on the fairgrounds. Large crowds are just part of the experience.

To do the show justice, I spend from 7 a.m. when the gates open until after lunchtime and easily walk several miles. I try to cover all the vendor booths, inside building spaces and the sprawling car corral in the grassy area near the fairgrounds' central core at least once and sometimes twice.

Auto swap meets are not for sissies -- it can be quite cold and foggy. The show goes on rain or shine; rain certainly will lower attendance, but many of the vendors are in the stables area, which stays more or less dry. Generally, the sun comes out about 11 a.m., leaving you to wonder what to do with the heavy jacket you wore earlier in the day.

The swap meet is sponsored by a club of Model A Ford enthusiasts and you can still find some "early iron" from Henry Ford. Lately, there haven't been too many 1932 Fords, but auto enthusiasts can find whole cars or parts for Model T's, Model A's and later models. Plenty of muscle car parts are available along with accessories for trucks and plain-Jane passenger cars.

Generalities don't always hold true, but I'm reasonably confident the old car lover can find parts or complete examples of just about every vehicle ever made at the Turlock event. You can find taillights, headlights, bumpers, carburetors, manifolds, wheels, tires, shock absorbers, differentials, front suspensions, hubcaps, steering wheels, seats, window glass, doors, trunk lids, hoods, grilles, emblems, scripts -- pretty much the whole schmole, so to speak.

What attracts me even more is the automobilia aspect. That includes car models, vintage signs, books, magazines and gas pumps. You're never really sure what you'll find at Turlock. Many one-of-a-kind items show up, some at bargain prices and others at sticker-shock figures.

For those in the market for an old car or truck, the finished car area is an ideal place to shop. Some car prices are in the five-figure range, but the seller has done all the hard work and you might not find it cheaper anywhere else. If you're a seller, you have to be able to drive your collector car into the grounds so it's likely the new buyer will be able to drive the car home, or at least onto a trailer just outside the complex. It's fun to check out the cars even if you're not going to buy one.

For those who would rather build it themselves, all manner of vendors at Turlock offer engine parts or completed motors. It may mean pawing through all sorts of cardboard boxes or metal crates, but you're likely to find what you're looking for.

There aren't too many rules: No dogs, alcohol, firearms or cruising the grounds are allowed. It costs $40 to sell a vehicle 20 years and older and $60 for a car less than 20 years old. Outside vendor spaces are $50 and $85 for spaces inside the buildings. Spaces are usually booked up ahead of time; prospective vendors need to go on a waiting list. It costs spectators $8 to get in, and the event runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Turlock Swap Meet can be tiring, costly and time-consuming. Or it can be fun and fulfilling, with the buy of the century and something you can't live without and have always wanted showing up. I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

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