Collecting old cars can be an obsession.
Just ask John Sweeney, longtime publisher of the Folsom-based Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News magazine, operator of the Sacramento Classic Car & Parts Swap Meet and veteran local radio host whose various shows have reached out to thousands of auto collectors and restorers throughout the greater Sacramento region.
“It’s like trading stocks, but they’re tangible things in your hand,” Sweeney said. “There are people who have the kind of funds to do it every day … In Sacramento, I would say there are thousands more who you wouldn’t know are (collectors). They’re underground.”
Sweeney, who will turn 70 in July, said the Sacramento area has long been a hotbed of collectors and restorers of old cars/trucks, classics, vintage models, customs, street rods and motorcycles.
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Collectors’ motivations are as varied as their collections.
Michael Smith, a 60-year-old El Dorado Hills resident, said he’s “been collecting memories for 30 years. That’s how I think of it. (The cars) remind me of good times in the past.”
For South Placer County collector Walt Rogers, 64, “it’s like collecting art. That’s what I consider my (1950-era) cars – works of art.”
Sweeney has been at it since he was 15. Since then, he figures that “well over 900” cars have been in his possession at some point – some of them for only a few minutes or a day.
Sweeney has done some restoring, but his niche is the art of the deal – buying, selling and matching up prospective buyers and sellers. It’s a business that moves quickly.
“I’ve bought five at a time, kept one and sold four. The most I did was 20 at a time. That’s my record. I’ve had people offer me cash on the spot right after I got the car … I do what I do. (As for restorers), I let them do what they do best.”
What Sweeney said he does best is instantly evaluate the marketability of an old car.
“It takes a nose, eye and brain for what it is. I can tell when I get within 20 feet of a car if it will go, whether it’s running or not.”
Historically, it’s a male-dominated hobby. Sweeney said he often gets calls from widows asking him what they need to do to unload a now-unwanted collection of cars.
Sweeney’s fellow car collectors – and an army of auto restorers – are constantly on the lookout for old autos, whether they’ve been restored to mint condition or rusting away in a remote rural garage.
Restorers are particularly obsessed, looking for the exact parts to build into the car model of a given year.
The most recent edition of the monthly Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News makes the point in black and white.
A listing in the magazine’s “Swap-N-Sell” ads touts a six-cylinder engine, three-speed manual transmission and a radiator for a 1958 Ford Fairlane 300. A front bumper assembly for a 1950 Oldsmobile 88 is yours for $200. A “very nice” steering wheel of a 1962 Chevrolet Impala can be had for $125.
Other ads tout radio knobs, brake lights and side fenders for various old models.
Full cars are also on the advertised block. A seller of a restored 1950 Lincoln sedan is looking to get $19,000. A restored, sharp-looking 1967 Chevrolet Nova is listed for “$26,000 cash.”
At the massive Sacramento swap meets – Sweeney acquired the event in 1999, taking over an annual automotive gathering dating back to 1965 in Reno and run by legendary car collector William Harrah – thousands of buyers have shown up at parking lots around Sleep Train Arena over the years.
On April 29, the swap meet will be held for the first time at Sacramento’s Cal Expo venue. Sweeney, who describes himself as an “old car nut,” expects the tradition to continue with crowds of spectators, buyers, sellers and vendors on site.
At the highest levels, car collecting and restoring can be a very lucrative business. At the massive Barrett-Jackson car collector auctions held at venues throughout the United States each year, sellers can rake in millions of dollars on a single car. Six-figure car sales at Barrett-Jackson auctions, headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., are commonplace.
Does Sweeney himself have a dream car after all these years?
“I have a couple on my bucket list. A 1959 (Plymouth) Fury is one that I’d like to have. It’s not a popular car. It’s a big fin car. Just a beautiful car.”