Twice a year, the big Barrie car show and flea market happens near a place called Oro Station, on the southeast side of Highway 11 midway between the Ontario cities of Barrie and Orillia. You have to exit the highway at Oro-Medonte Line 8. When I was new to the show, back around 1996, I had trouble remembering which exit to take... Then I came up with the pun I’ve used in the title of this 2 Cents installment. When I go to the show, I typically come from the north, through Orillia, so I don’t make it as far as Barrie. I started calling the show “Orillia” to myself instead of the generally-accepted name of Barrie.
People at the show raise their eyebrows when I tell them that I drive from Ottawa. “Wow, that’s a long way,” they say. Not really. It’s only four to five hours, driving down scenic roads, buying ice cream in fishing towns, with hardly anyone else on the road. It’s a nice drive, and once I get to the car show, I thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s fun for me from the moment I leave home.
Of all the times I have ever been to Barrie, this trip is head-and-shoulders above the rest. I roamed the fields spanning three days. I made some stellar finds on each day. I got there on Thursday morning, bright and early. I was one of the first dozen customers to enter the field. Thursday morning comes with the advantage of catching all the best deals first, although other good deals trickle in with the vendors as they make their way into the show. I took my bicycle on Thursday so I could ride through the big empty spaces in the field without wasting a lot of time.
During my first coverage of the field, I found buck-a-plate table with some good stuff on it. I picked out some old public service and historic vehicle plates for five bucks. Nothing too exciting, but a good deal nonetheless. I also found 43 and 45 Ontario plates in nice shape for $5 each. I didn’t need them, I suppose, but it was early, and for all I knew, I might not find much else. I needn't have worried.
That Thursday, I did make two unexpected finds. At one stop, I found three brand-new plates from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia, in barely-used condition. Later on, I found a strange, rusty, green-on-black plate from Rio de Janeiro. I suspected it was a souvenir plate, because the number was RIO-1988. For three bucks I picked it up so I could take it home, research it, and solve the mystery. Turns out it’s indeed a souvenir plate, but the colours of my plate are unusual, and make it somewhat of an oddity.
I continued my hunt and made my first big score by getting a slick pair of 1942 plates for a bargain. It’s an easy paint year, and 1942 Ontario plates litter the collecting pool, but I couldn’t beat the number: Y1111. (I cleaned them up when I got home, and man, they look great!)
Terry Ellsworth, a fellow collector and reader of this column, is a fixture at the Barrie car shows, and we finally bumped into each other Thursday afternoon. We chatted and browsed through the vendors. To my left, my eye caught the sunlit flash of a reflective Ontario plate. I glanced over, looked for a couple of seconds, and saw that it was an Ontario plate with a (gasp) bumblebee sticker.
“Hey, I see something good over there,” said Terry, before I had a chance to point it out myself. We took a look. It was beaten up, unfortunately, and the sticker had some roadkill rash on it to boot. I took it for a couple of bucks.
While I was digging for change, Terry said to the vendor, “You know who used that? It could have been a bus, an ambulance, a fire truck, or even a police van.” I could sense the vendor starting to get nervous, so I quickly paid for the item and offered some reassuring comment that we were just collectors. Terry likes to chat with vendors that way, mostly because he’s found that the conversation can uncover some hidden gems (“You know, I have something back here that you might like. Let me get it…”) As for myself, if I see something that’s really unusual, I prefer to minimize the conversation and close the deal quickly without giving the vendor an idea that he has something really interesting (“Oh, then it’s probably worth more. Maybe I won’t sell it…”) I’ve had good finds backfire by showing too much interest, like the time I frightened a seller away while trying to buy a 1959 Ontario diplomat plate.
I stumbled on a rough Ontario passenger plate, number VYL-927. Just a mid-1980s passenger plate. Nothing special, and the price was much too high to consider buying anyway. But the number was notable, because it's almost antipodal to a plate that I have in my passenger run. On my plate-hunting trip through northern Ontario in 1997, I stopped at a wrecking yard in Sudbury and scored 923-VYL. I was thrilled at the time because it was a very early reflective issue with a darker blue shade of paint on the numbers. I didn't buy VYL-927 because of the price, but I did take a picture so I could match the two here.
I found a couple of mopeds for sale with newer reflective plates. I’ve been looking for a reflective moped plate for years, and thought I’d ask the respective sellers if they’d be willing to sell me their plates. One pair of guys looked at their moped, shook their heads awkwardly and said no. “Unless,” they said, “you’d give us $500 and then we’d throw the moped in for free.” Another vendor, with a well-expired plate on his moped, initially said no, but then added, “If you’re serious, I’d let you have it right now for $75.” I asked in disbelief if he was serious, and he was. He claimed to know that collectors would pay that much for one. Or in other words, as Terry said when we walked away: “It’s not for sale.”
The Barrie show is a fairly low-brow event, and it’s full of sexist jokes, moronic comments, mullets and open beer at 8 am. One moron called out “Hey, is that yer homework?” as I walked by wearing a backpack. Another sat down on a bench beside me later in the day and farted like thunderclaps, saying nothing all the while.
The sun set, it rose again, and the day was known as Friday. And Friday was good. I returned to the field bright and early at 7 o’clock. I made my way across the rows, which had filled in somewhat overnight. There were more plates to be found, but most of them were either rusty dime-a-dozen passengers or boring blue-and-white quarterly truck plates.
I stopped at a vendor I had passed over a few times the day before. I hadn’t stopped to look because he didn’t seem to have any plates… turns out I wasn’t looking carefully enough. He had a box of them behind some tables, camouflaged among plastic bags and more boxes. “A buck apiece,” he said, so I flipped through the plates. I found a beautiful pair of 1960 Ontario plates. He also had a mid-60’s Manitoba baseplate in excellent condition (they were reused with metal tabs each year, so those plates are hard to find in nice shape). I also pulled out a low-numbered 1972 passenger, and to my surprise, a yellow mid-80’s dealer plate in nice shape. That was an easy five bucks to spend!
Little did I know that the day would get better. I a vendors who had a beautiful pair of 1934 Ontario plates. My own '34 is a weak link in my run, and I’ve been wanting to improve it for a while. The prices for pairs were ghastly, so I went back to my car to get some YOM pairs with which to barter. I had a pair of 1931 YOM-clear plates in beautiful shape in my bag to swap for them. Better to trade than to buy!
I ran into Terry again and found out that he knew the vendors with the '34 pair. Terry mused that the seller would probably be open to doing a trade. We found the fellow at his table and chatted a while before I pulled out the 31 pair and offered them in trade. The condition was the same, but he'd be getting a slightly older pair with a higher value because of the Ford Model A crowd. He was a friendly guy and saw the win-win aspect of my offer. With a handshake, we sealed the deal and I finally had a half-decent 34 to display in my passenger run.
The day was wearing on. Our shadows were getting longer and the air filled with the aroma of dinner on the grills of camping stoves. Both Terry and I had figured that we’d seen it all.
And then, it happened. Terry saw it first. Sitting on a table, facing us, was the Holy Grail of plates for a young Ontario collector. It was a Lieutenant-Governor plate from 1970——the big colourful crown decal smack the middle——with the digit “2” appearing on either side. It was one of those moments where, in my mind, light beamed down from parting clouds and strains of an angelic choir rang out across the field. We walked over and drooled on the plate, which was sitting on a table that we had both passed periodically during the previous two days. The price tag showed a value of $100.
The seller got up to talk to Terry and I. He said he was a former Ministry of Transportation employee, and claimed the plate was made up for a motorcade during a Royal visit to Ontario in 1970. We were certain that we were looking at the Lieutenant-Governor's plate, but the seller seemed quite sure. Terry and I allowed his claim to go unchallenged, rather than debate the issue.
Now, let me be clear. Terry saw it first, and while I wanted the plate badly, he was in the driver’s seat as far as making offers went. As a matter of courtesy, I wasn’t going to make an offer of my own unless either I was invited to do so or Terry declined the plate.
Terry offered 75% of the asking price. The seller countered with 90%. Terry hemmed and hawed over the counteroffer. “Well, it’s a rare plate, but that sure is a lot of money. I suppose I could do it…”
And then Terry motioned to me and finished his sentence. “… unless Jon here wants to make an offer, too.”
I wasn’t expecting the door to swing so widely open.
“How ‘bout it?” the seller asked of me.
“Well,” I said, “That’s exactly the kind of plate that I actively collect. I’d just give you the whole asking price.”
Terry smiled warmly and shrugged. “Well, there we go! Looks like we’ve got a buyer.”
We chatted a bit longer, closed the deal, and moved on. Terry later told me that while he thinks they’re neat, he doesn’t collect special issues with as much enthusiasm as I do. He said he was glad that I came away with the plate, and didn’t mind at all that I had topped his offer. We were both camping at the Oro Family Campground, and we played some air hockey in the common room that evening. I was deeply moved by Terry's gentlemanly gesture on the field. He never mentioned anything about it, but I consider what he did as an enormous favour, and I plan to repay it someday, either backward or forward.
The sun set again, and I retired to my tent. As I was falling asleep, I could feel with my hands a slight vibration in the ground caused by the stock cars revving as they raced around the Barrie Speedway, which was a good mile distant.
Soon enough, daylight came. Saturday. I had to head home later that morning, but not before taking one last run-through of the sales fields. It was a good thing that I did. While I decided not to add to my highway sign collection (too expensive), I did pick up a few goodies, including an excellent 1961 pair for a fair deal. I also picked up a really nice 1921 plate, just a single, to upgrade the one in my run. The old one from my run, thanks to a recent, serendipitous eBay purchase, is now a matching pair, and I can put them up for trade to someone else.
My final find of the trip came from double-checking a vendor I had seen a couple of times already. He had a bunch of British plate pairs for the MG community. In an adjacent box, I found a 1952 Ontario windshield sticker! It was double-sided and appeared to be an unissued leftover, as there was no number in the registration box. Close inspection of the front and back showed that it was the real thing, and not a cheesy photocopy. Twelve dollars later, it was mine, and an excellent deal at that!
This may be one of the last times I can make a multi-day vacation out of the Barrie Automotive Flea Market, depending on what turns my professional life takes next year. Going forward, I may have to stick to a single Saturday to take in all the mullets, bad posters, deep-fried candy bars, and great plates that can be dug up in Orillia…. I mean, Barrie.