Sitting on the sunny patio at the Van Kirk Homestead near Sparta Middle School, Brian O’Neill and Joe Warner talked about the Sparta Historical Society’s Antique Car Show, now in its sixth year. It’s hard to picture a more beautiful setting for more than a hundred unique and gorgeous vehicles – all parked on a grassy lawn with the colorful hills rising along both sides of the Wallkill River as it flows north from Sparta.
Warner and O’Neill bantered as they described how the car show started. Four guys were standing near the museum’s Carriage Barn talking about the donated Model T in it, when one suddenly said, “Hey, we should have a car show here!”
Six very short weeks later, a BMW Isetta and a Studebaker Avanti were among the 40 vehicles on display at the free show, where the only award given was the People’s Choice Award. Last year, the show had grown to 150 vehicles.
The two years they spent working to get the 1913 Model T running turned Warner’s interest in cars into a passion for antique and unique vehicles. A friend gave Warner, a retired deputy fire chief, a Wirt & Knox 1895 hand-drawn hose cart known as a jumper. Success with the Model T gave him the push to restore the jumper, which he brought to last year’s show.
O’Neill was wearing his red Corvair Racing Team jacket, which matches the Corvair he’s owned since 1979 and driven around Europe with his wife, Roberta, when he was stationed in Germany for six years. He first got interested in cars when he was 12 and started hanging around Freddie’s Gas Station, first cleaning, then making coffee runs. When he was 14, Freddie let him change a customer’s oil. He was hooked.
Also critical to the success of the event are Matt, Nick and Roberto Vasquez, who were 11, 9, and 7 when their father asked if they could help with the first show. The boys participated in all the meetings. They were treated as equals, spoken to as adults, and quickly took responsibility for their assignments. In the following years they took initiatives, like negotiating with their middle school principal to arrange for trash bins, extra bags, and removal. The boys run the parking and the People’s Choice Award every year.
Warner and O’Neill have more fun finding the cars than running the show – for example, chasing a ’54 King Midget from Sparta into Lake Hopatcong, honking and flashing their headlights, trying to get the driver to pull over so they could invite him to the show. He came.
The first year’s theme was “Cars Not on Route 80.” The second year focused on four-door vehicles, which are very under-represented at car shows. This year the show highlights “Orphan Cars,” which are vehicles made by companies no longer in business, along with other amazing vehicles from the past 120 years.
The men agree that, besides the beautiful setting, what makes this show so special is no fees and no judging. The lack of competition among the drivers makes for lots of laughter and encourages the exchange of ideas and stories. “And the free lunch for all of the drivers, thanks to Jim!” O’Neill added. Jim’s Automotive buys lunch for the drivers and also provides the music for the show. The Sparta VFW will sell burgers and hot dogs.