A Driving Passion

Pennsylvania: In the borough of Carlisle, indulging the American appetite for automobiles.

September 30, 2001|By Bruce Friedland | By Bruce Friedland,SUN TRAVEL EDITOR

George Uzupis is standing under a tent at the Carlisle, Pa., fairgrounds, admiring the 1965 Corvette he just bought for $60,000.

"A 50th birthday kind of thing," he says of his purchase, adding that he got exactly what he wanted: "Something red and fast."

In his khaki pants, polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, the Lawrenceville, N.J., resident, married with children, seems mild-mannered enough. But Uzupis, like most of the 58,000 people here for the annual all-Corvette show, is crazy for cars.

And why not? He's an American.

Automobiles have become such a fundamental part of our culture that we couldn't possibly manage without them. And perhaps nowhere is car culture more evident -- and celebrated -- than in the sleepy borough of Carlisle, where the faithful gather at the fairgrounds by the hundreds of thousands to worship at the altar of internal combustion.

Last month was the all-Corvette show. Next week is the four-day Fall Carlisle "swap meet," which draws more than 100,000 buyers, sellers, hobbyists and vendors from all over the world.

In all, Carlisle Productions, a business in its 27th year, has 10 shows annually that run the automotive gamut from kit cars to trucks. At Fall Carlisle, you could buy an Edsel or sell a Karmann Ghia. Need parts? They've got everything from axles to ashtrays. One vendor's sign at the Corvette show said simply, "Nuts, Bolts and Screws."

"I feel like a kid in a candy store and I don't have enough nickels in my pockets," says Dick Capello, who drove with his wife from Smithboro, Mass., in their '67 Vette to attend the Corvette show.

He bought an alternator from one of the more than 800 vendors in attendance, and was searching for a set of wiper blades that his wife, Janet, estimated would cost $150.

"Crazy," she says, shaking her head at the price. But she is having fun, and her husband is in "car heaven."

"I grew up in the Happy Days era," says 55-year-old Capello, when souped-up roadsters and muscle cars were the objects of teens' desires, and the automobile, then as now, held the promise of power and freedom.

Michael Marsden, Eastern Kentucky University provost and a longtime student of American automotive culture, puts it this way: "The happiest day of your life is when you get your driver's license."

Historic attractions

As a tourist destination, Carlisle is overshadowed by its more well-known neighbors, Hershey and Harrisburg to the east, Gettysburg to the south. But this pleasant town of 18,000, tucked in the rolling countryside of central Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley, is not without its charms.

The town may lack the variety and sophistication of Annapolis or Georgetown, but its restored buildings from the Revolutionary War and Civil War are worth exploring.

There is plenty of antiquing around town, and enough history to hold one's interest. (Three signers of the Declaration of Independence were from Carlisle, and, yes, George Washington slept here.)

Carlisle is also a college town. Dickinson College and the separately run Dickinson School of Law are a few blocks from the center of town, known as the square, and the U.S. Army War College, with its own share of history, is nearby.

Although Interstate 81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike connect nearby, the area is still largely rural. On the highway, industrial complexes have sprung up between cornfields, but on the winding back roads, the landscape looks much as it must have a century ago.

Carlisle was founded in 1751 and named for the English town of Carlisle. It would take more than 200 years, however, before a couple of guys named Miller truly put the "Car" in Carlisle.

In 1974, Chip Miller and Bill Miller, unrelated Pennsylvania natives, hit upon the idea of starting a car show. The year before, Chip tried to sell his '53 Corvette at the Antique Automobile Club of America show held annually in Hershey.

The event's organizers, accustomed to dealing with pre-World War II vehicles, turned up their noses at the idea of Chip Miller's "used car" being sold at their show.

"I said, 'Bill, what's wrong with this situation?' " he recalls, and the two friends decided to start a show that would focus on post-war vehicles, those big-engine, full-of-chrome, tail-fin beauties their generation had grown up with. They chose Carlisle because it was conveniently located and because they could rent the fairgrounds inexpensively.

That first show in 1974 drew 13,000 people, and the Millers were off and running. Seven years later, they bought the fairgrounds, expanded, and now, nearly half a million people turn out every year for Carlisle Production events.

The typical car hobbyist, Chip Miller says, starts by buying a favorite model from his youth.

Maybe his Uncle Joe had a '55 Chevy, so the new collector gets one and starts to fix it up. He goes to a car show to buy parts, sees what other people are doing and ends up joining a car club. Eventually, he restores the '55 to mint condition and then starts entering it in competitions.

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