June 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Market for vintage auto products gears up

’Tis the season of car shows, cruises, meet-ups and other events that honor classic vintage vehicles.

But the rolling iron isn’t the only way enthusiasts celebrate our shared heritage of automobiles and motoring. There are entire genres of related collectibles that offer a peek into the world of cars gone by without the firing of a single engine.

From retro keys to advertising premiums to mid-century dinnerware from the Big Three’s executive dining rooms, “automobilia” is on the move at swap meets, auction houses and estate sales. Some items are worth a few bucks, others a small fortune.

“Anything auto- or gas-related is hot,” said Mike Eckles, who with wife Lori operates Woodhaven-based Showtime Auction Services. The company holds two auctions a year — the next one is Oct. 25 — at the Washtenaw Farm Council grounds in Ann Arbor and handles a variety of industry memorabilia and vintage advertising, among other specialties.

“We just sold a Ford plate with the Rotunda Building on it — I think it brought a couple hundred bucks,” said Eckles. “Ford is probably the No. 1 automaker for collectors. Texaco and Mobil are the top collectible oil companies.”

Vintage dealership paraphernalia is valuable — an old wooden sign from a 1910s or 1920s Dodge showroom fetched $8,000 recently, Eckles said.

Indeed, the Barrett-Jackson company famed for its classic-car auctions also offers automotive collectibles, and on a more pedestrian level, many online sellers feature the sort of thing you might find kicking around the basement: A vintage Fisher Body employee badge for $30 and a collection of old car-polish tins for $27 are up for offer on Etsy, while eBay sellers are touting old car parts in original boxes and 1960s dealer brochures for a few dollars.

It’s something to keep a lookout for if you’re cleaning out Grandpa’s attic or tooling around to garage sales. Even doodads like those Union 76 orange Styrofoam balls that full-service gas stations used to stick on patrons’ antennae can fetch a price: One current auction features three for $9.99.

License plates are another collectible niche, especially early-days porcelain ones, low-number plates and matched pairs from the days when cars were required to display license numbers fore and aft, Eckles said. The Automobile License Plate Collectors Association (alpca.org) holds swap meets and conventions for members nationwide. Other collectibles niches include automotive factory manuals and miscellaneous car-related literature.

Perhaps the most sizzling trend these days is “petroliana,” the nickname for collectibles from oil companies and gas stations. Aside from colorful, nostalgic 20th century graphics, the retro service station signs andfixturesare popular because “guys with collector cars want to decorate their garages in the same theme,” said Eckles.

Indeed, good-condition porcelain signs from the stations of bygone names like Sinclair can fetch as much money as the vintage cars that purchased fuel from those old stations; Eckles sold a Gold Medal oil sign for $44,000 recently.

Mark Mendenhall is among the nation’s foremost collectors of petroliana, carrying on the tradition started many decades ago by his late father Jack Mendenhall. The family, whose history is entwined with both the gas station and auto racing realms, operates Mendenhall’s Museum of Gas Pumps and Petroliana in Buelton, Calif.

It’s getting harder and harder for the casual collector to stumble across petroliana, said Mendenhall, because demand is so high. “Gas bashes” — meetings of petroliana mavens — take place around the nation; many are listed at OldGas.com.

“I grew up pumping gas, and back then when my dad started collecting he could go out and people would just give him things — nobody wanted this old stuff,” said Mendenhall. “Today you can hardly go to your local swap meet and find things. It’s mostly collector-to-collector.”

Vintage infrastructure like pumps and signs are attractive because they were so well-made and intricately designed, Mendenhall noted, compared to the blah plastic signs and equipment of today. His own cache — on the site of his dad’s old wrecking yard — includes 4,000 porcelain signs, 90 gas pumps and thousands of other items. It’s open by appointment only for tours at $15 per person, and the venue also is rented out for reunions, wedding parties and even memorial services.

Even if you can’t fork out $50,000 for a porcelain sign, take heart, start your engines and keep your eyes peeled. I snapped up a vintage metal oil can for $1 recently at a yard sale and there’s bound to some decent “finds” still out there.

“Let’s put it this way,” Eckles said: “There were a lot of gas stations all around the country back then and they all needed signs.”

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via mpreddy@aol.com.