Carlisle Events: It All Started with a ’54 Corvette

Carlisle Events is a company that stages nationally and internationally recognized collector car shows at the Carlisle Fairgrounds and other locations. It is not a small operation, employing a full-time staff of 27 and another 300 on a part-time basis. But, like many enterprises, its origin is humble.

Owner and partner Bill Miller, Jr., 69, recalls the day in 1973 when the seeds were sown.

“My friend, Chip Miller, and I attended the fall show of the Antique Automobile Club of America in Hershey. He owned a ’54 Corvette and thought we could sell it there,” says Miller. “We parked at a designated place and left a note on the windshield stating that we would come back every hour to talk with any interested parties. An AACA official was waiting for us when we returned and told us that we could not sell the Corvette at the show because it wasn’t an antique. Frustrated, we left and began to conceive of the idea for a car show with older, but not antique, vehicles. Among venues we considered, Carlisle Fairgrounds offered the best rate for staging such an event. That’s how we got started here.”

Miller and cars go back a long way. As a child living in Allentown, he loved to watch a nearby Kaiser dealership unload new inventory. “Got me in trouble a few mornings, when I was late to school because I tarried too long there,” he says. “And I was always filling my school notebooks with drawings of cars.”

A life-long Kaiser fan, Miller has owned a ’51 Henry J sedan since 1969, one with 17,000 original miles on it.

Miller’s family moved to Harrisburg in the 1950s, and he attended Susquehanna Township and East Pennsboro High Schools, graduating from the latter in 1961.

“After that, I enrolled in the Harrisburg Center for Higher Education, which eventually became HACC,” says Miller. “Took some courses at Messiah, too. Meanwhile, I had been working summers at the Sunderland Chevrolet dealership in Lemoyne. I was asked to stay on, but I had already paid my tuition for the upcoming Messiah semester. Next day at the dealership, I found a check on my desk to reimburse me for the tuition. So, I decided to forego college and remain at Sunderland.”

Miller worked in sales for Sunderland 12 years before purchasing Elizabethtown’s Garber Motor Company and renaming it Bill Miller Ford-Mercury. He eventually sold that business to devote his full attention to Carlisle Events, Inc.

“Carlisle was one of the first for-profit car shows in the country,” says Miller. “We charge admission, but see to things that other shows don’t: clean restrooms, no trash, good food. Everyone who walks through the gate is treated like a guest.”

The company has an event every other weekend from April through October. They are planned about a year and a half in advance. Most are at the Carlisle Fairgrounds, but there are also ones in Auburn, Ind., and Bloomsburg, Pa. A January show in Allentown, Pa. is sandwiched between November and February events in Zephyrhills, Fla.

“Our spring and fall auctions are the best attended events,” says Miller, “and generate over $2 million in sales. The average transaction is $50,000. The August Corvettes show ranks third in attendance, while the Ford and Chrysler Nationals round out the top five. We get about 500,000 people throughout the season. Just about every state is represented, but about 80 percent of patrons are from within 300 miles. Anyone in the world of collector cars, which is a term that we coined, has been here or knows of us.”

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