Event Coverage: Carlisle Import Nationals

Was that really a Citroen delivery van that just passed me? It was. And did I just see a Lamborghini Countach out of the corner of my eye? Yes. Well, kind of. Standing in the middle of the fairgrounds in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, I’m surrounded by what must be the most eclectic gathering of automobile enthusiasts in North America.

Every year Carlisle Productions puts on the Import-Kit/Replica (IKR) Nationals attracts fans of some of the rarest and most obscure cars ever produced. But unlike the exotic beauties displayed at a concours d’elegance, Carlisle’s offerings are more of your everyday rarities. Cars like Saab, Renault, MG, and even Pontiac’s Fiero (though it’s neither an import nor a kit car) are among the most common at this event, with the import show field divided primarily by nationality. Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, England and Japan are all represented.

All of the great British cars were on hand. Original Mini Coopers shared the lawn with Triumph TR6s and MGBs. A handful of Land Rovers showed up, including one that was a bona fide world traveler, covering ground from Alaska to Africa. A couple of new MINIs made the trip as well. If you were expecting to see Bentleys, Rollers or Astons, you probably went home disappointed.

The Italian group was similarly represented, and was the focus of this year’s event. Alfa Romeos and Fiats comprised the majority of the field, while genuine Ferraris and Lambos were absent. The German field, oddly, was a mix of primarily Audi/NSU and BMW. Volkswagens, typically the most ubiquitous of car-show brands, were unexpectedly light in their presence. Porsche and Mercedes were also missing.

Surprisingly, the largest turnouts were for the most obscure cars. France was well-represented by the numerous Renaults, Citroens, and Peugeots, many of which were driven down from Quebec, the only place on the continent that can probably appreciate the peculiarities of French design and engineering. The Swedes arrived in full force as well, particularly the Saabs. Sonnets, 99s, 900s, Viggens, even a home-fabricated pickup attended.

Though the show leans heavily towards the European marques, Japanese car get their own area too. Perhaps the most popular was the Subaru field, with a fair number of WRX owners making the trip. There was even an ultra-rare Mazda Cosmos on display.

And then there were the Fieros. It seems fitting that the Fiero is included in the import show, not because it was imported (because, despite the exotic name, it wasn’t), but because the Fiero was always something of a misfit. Regardless, owners of these cars are just as passionate as any other enthusiast at Carlisle on this weekend, and the sheer number of Fieros that displayed was impressive.

In addition to all the great imports, the Carlisle IKR Nationals is the best place to check out all the home-built kit cars and replicas. While some of these are just plain strange, others offer a more affordable way to own a rare motoring icon, such as a Shelby Cobra or a Porsche 550 Spyder. Cruising through the kit car area reminded me of my father’s Mechanics Illustrated magazines from the early ‘80s- the headline “Build Your Own Car!” always got my attention, and I always wondered if anyone actually did it. The results, for better or worse, are on display at this show.

This year’s show is estimated to have attracted around 18,000 people in its two days. And while many come simply to look at their favorite cars, others arrive with cash in hand looking to make a purchase. The vendor rows at Carlisle are extensive, encompassing everything from general tools to books and literature to die-cast models. Oh, and if you happen to need a fender for your Spitfire, or a grille for your Volvo 240, someone’s probably selling one.

Technical seminars and presentations were taking place throughout the day for those looking to enlighten themselves. Topic ranged from basic welding techniques to choosing a kit car project. For exhibitors who wished to be judged on their technical skills, the organizers added the Standard of Excellence event. Adding yet another dimension to the weekend, participants are judged on their presentation of either Engine/Undercarriage, Paint/Chrome/Exterior, or Interior/Trim.

The local SCCA chapter was on-hand conducting driver’s school and an autocross on the facility’s short track. Those drivers who preferred a little less competitive drive could take part in the area cruise instead.

The Carlisle Import-Kit/Replica Nationals offers a little bit of something for anyone who considers himself a car hobbyist. We understand that next year’s event will focus on the German marques, almost certainly guaranteeing it will be as incredible as this year’s.

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