A long drive to see some little cars


Why was I doing this again? Here I was, on a mostly deserted Interstate in the smallest hour of the morning, one fading radio station as my only companion, headed for a too-short night’s sleep in a motel bed with none of the comforts of home. What, you may ask, would lead anyone to put himself out like this?

Well, the short answer is that I wanted to spend time with the cars and people at the Carlisle Import & Performance Nationals – and, since they were unlikely to drive the 350 miles to come to my house in Massachusetts, I had to go to them. Logical enough. But why I – and you, too, probably – feel a need to keep going back to the same car shows, year after year, was a question worth contemplating.

Bud Cadwallader of the Central Pennsylvania Triumph Club showed his 1958 Triumph TR3.

The show that I refer to as Import Carlisle, mainly because I usually can’t recall its most recent official rebranding, has been written on my calendar more often than not over the past decade. It’s one of the earlier shows in the season, taking place in mid-May, and it’s also one of the few big multi-marque shows devoted to imported cars. Those are reason enough for anyone’s interest.

As I said, I’d gotten a late start, which meant that here wasn’t a lot of other traffic on the Interstate to compete for my attention during a late-night reverie that stretched into the early morning. I asked myself: What was it about the eight hours that I’d spend tromping around the show field that made the 12-hour round-trip worth it?

Saabs@Carlisle attracted 209 cars this year, easily continuing its string of highest attendance awards.

For the many folks show up with their cars in support of a marque, or a club, or both, the answer to the question is obvious. Exhibit A, part of which is shown above, is the Saabs@Carlisle club, a group that formed for the purpose of making a big impact at the show, and has pretty much retired the attendance trophy. (They brought out 209 cars this year, which is 40 cars short of their record, but still more than doubled the turnout of the second-place club, Volvospeed.)

Charles Birkline’s 1987 TVR 350i is powered by Rover’s classic 3.5-liter V-8. The car was the successor to the V-6 powered Tasmin 280i.

TVR owners set course for Carlisle because it doubles as their club’s national convention, known as Out of the Woodwork. Similarly, a handful of regional Datsun Z-car clubs gather there each year for their East Coast Z Nationals. The fairgrounds has become a shining beacon for a growing number of French car enthusiasts too, who motor in in a variety of Citroens, Peugeots and Renaults (and who seem especially disinterested in the idea of trailering their cars, no matter how far the distance traveled). Liberte, egalite, fratiernite – these are hard concepts to argue with. The heavy lifting of organizing the French car meet falls to Citroens at Carlisle and the Renault Owners Club of North America.

Paul Anderson and Dave Agar set off on a three-wheel tour of the show grounds, showing off the capabilities of the hydropneumatic suspensions of their Citroens. There’s a video of the whole thing, and you can watch it here.


Although I threaten to bring one of my own cars every year, I so far have an unblemished record of arriving in something that wouldn’t be welcome on the show field, thanks to my procrastination and inability to carve enough time out in the garage to properly prepare the 1968 Rover 2000 TC or the 1978 Bertone X1/9. (Maybe next year, guys, but I wouldn’t wager on it if I were you.) So showing the flag hasn’t yet been my motivation.

This 1959 Volkswagen was among the many project cars looking for a new owner.

One extremely good reason to trek to Carlisle is to shop in the car corral, or look over the many projects for sale in the vendor area. Looking at photos online and emailing sellers is the way things usually have to be done today, but it’s refreshing to be able to examine several prospects first-hand, and be able to chat with their sellers. Asking prices can be reasonable, too — for example, I saw a solid Bugeye Sprite project with a modest asking price of $2,000.  I have so far resisted the urge to buy a car at the show, though I’ve given it some serious thought in the past. (Especially that year when I looked over those two roadworthy XJ6s.)

I do like the Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie and the chicken and corn soup that the Stolzfus family serves up from their stand under the grandstands, but I could probably find both of those things a lot closer to home. And though I’m always lured to the (sadly ever-shrinking) vendor aisles, it’s by no means a guarantee that I’ll find something that has to come home with me. The weather is seldom a drawing card, as it rains more often than not — though this year, all three days were dry. (The superstitious Yankee in me fears that we used up next year’s supply of good luck in the weather department.)

David Kirwan’s 1979 Honda Civic might look stock, but look out — below the hood is a turbocharged, JDM Sir B16A engine that makes 400 hp with 30 pounds of boost, and enables the car to rocket from 0-60 in less than 3.8 seconds — quicker than a Jaguar F-Type R.

With Carlisle, it seems that the appeal comes down to three things. First, it occupies a spot at the start of the show-season calendar, making it a sort of Opening Day to be counted down to during the dark days of winter. Beyond that, it has two attractions for me: cars I’ve never seen before, and people I can’t wait to see again. Carlisle is unusual among foreign car shows in the mix of vehicles it attracts, and if you were expecting to find fields of Porsches, or Jaguars, or Alfas, you might be disappointed. Why is that? Primarily, it’s because the show is built around participation by national clubs, or their local chapters, a few of which I’ve already mentioned. The Austin Healey Sports & Touring Club was there, and so many of Donald Healey’s wonderful creations were gathered. The North American Spitfire Squadron, the Audi Club of North America, the BMW Car Club of America, the National Capital Fiat Club and Opel Motorsports were also among the than 60 organizations represented. (The full list is here.)


For many years, Carlisle Events has tried to boost attendance and enthusiast participation by marrying its import-car show with another event, and this series of combinations has had mixed results. The addition of kit cars long ago helped fill some of the empty spaces on the field — for a time, it drew out large numbers of Pontiac Fieros, which were then popular fodder for kit-car conversions — though there has never seemed to be much overlap between the two camps. In 2016, the import and kit car show was reunited with the Performance & Style show after a decade’s separation, putting slammed, stanced and shaved late-model Hondas on the same field as concours-prepared MGs. Will the two come to enjoy each other’s company? Will the aromas of old leather and burning rubber make a pleasing cocktail? Or will this be another mixing of oil and water? Time will tell.


Next year’s Import Carlisle will be held on May 18-20. If you’ve never been, consider checking it out. Sure, the shoo-fly pie is good, but the company is even better.


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