Ashes to Ashes (Part One)

Awaiting the inevitable.

Two 1965 or 1966 Ford Mustangs, a 1953 Cadillac and a 1963 Ford Thunderbird. All images: the author.

Apart from huge metropolises such as New York or Los Angeles, most of the United States’ land area is quite sparsely inhabited, with large areas of undeveloped land. A consequence of this abundance of space was the many salvage yards(1) where cars were simply parked at their presumed final resting place instead of being stacked on top of each other, disassembled, flattened or crushed.

While not necessarily the most environmentally-friendly storage method, salvage yards do provide an invaluable source of spare-parts for those restoring a piece of classic Detroit iron. For those with an interest in classic cars in general and who, like your author, appreciate the peculiar air of nostalgia and romance one feels while walking amongst discarded vehicles in varying stages of decay, these yards are also irresistible. In truth, I should probably use the past tense these days as the vast majority of these salvage yards have now disappeared due to ever more stringent environmental laws and policies that started to take effect, especially since the turn of the millennium.

Countless cars, and with them an enormous amount of increasingly more difficult to find spare parts, have been recycled in the interest of a cleaner environment and, in some cases, a less polluted landscape in the optical sense. A few salvage yards have reinvented themselves as open-air car museums of sorts and charge admission to enter the premises and take photographs instead of parts. Others are still in operation, albeit often in a much reduced capacity, in states where environmental protection laws are applied less vigorously.

In the late 1990s, a good friend, with whom I first became acquainted because of our shared hobby of car brochure collecting, took me to a few salvage yards in the states of Indiana and Kentucky. The following photographs are a selection of many taken over two visits in consecutive years at the largest and best of the yards. The owners were of an easy-going disposition (which is not always the case) and were intrigued by this ‘furriner from yourope’ asking permission to take photographs, so we were welcome to walk around wherever and for as long as we wanted. I have not been there since, and despite its enormous size, I doubt that I could even find it again as it was a in very rural spot and is quite likely since to have been cleared.

Please enjoy this little tour from the comfort of your chair without having to worry about various creepy-crawlies, poison ivy, cobwebs, sharp and rusty edges and the occasional disturbed rodent.


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It is remarkable how resistant to  tin-worm some of these old cars seem, having been exposed to the elements for so many years. The 1948 Dodge in particular appears to have been parked here, not because it was no longer functional, but perhaps because it had simply gone too much out of fashion in the fast-changing automobile landscape of the sixties and seventies.

Even America’s premier luxury car usually suffered the fate of being unceremoniously dumped in a salvage yard after it had outlived its usefulness: a 1956 Cadillac is kept company by a GM colleague from a few rungs down the corporate ladder, a 1959 Pontiac Catalina four-door hardtop with the distinctive ‘flat-top’ roof and glassy DLO.

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Buick introduced its ultra-smooth but somewhat lethargic Dynaflow automatic transmission in 1948. Even though it was widely promoted and quite popular, Buick-ahem- shifted to the ubiquitous GM Hydra-matic transmission in the early sixties. The heavily patinated and faded untouched original badge provides more visual interest to your author’s eyes than its flawless counterpart.

A common practice in salvage yards is to park cars of the same marque together, making life a bit easier for parts-hunters. On the left above, the ‘step down’ Hudson in front is the odd-one-out in a row of early fifties Chevrolets. The bronze 1959 Edsel looks almost as though it could be dusted off, its battery charged, then driven away.

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Not all Edsels have withstood the ravages of time so well- witness this pink example of the same vintage. It does have a rather cool rear-view mirror, though.

Next, two 1950 cars from the opposite ends of the price range within the Chrysler empire: on the left is the lordly Imperial.  At US $3,200, it was almost exactly double the price of the humble Plymouth on the right.

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By 1964, Ford’s Thunderbird had waved bye-bye to any remnants of sportiness, which proved to be the right strategy as sales continued to rise. A new feature of this year’s T-Bird was the ‘Silent-flow’ ventilation. By operating a lever on the console, the driver activated a servo that opened a full-width air vent under the rear window. The result was an extraction effect that pulled air entering at the cowl through the interior and out the vent into the slipstream behind. The famous sequential turn indicators would, however, not appear until the 1965 model.

This 1956 Dodge initially fooled me into thinking it was a rare La Femme edition but it was just a regular Royal Lancer. It’s the end of the road for a 1956 Cadillac DeVille four-door hardtop. Did a very youthful enthusiast park his bike against one of its mighty Dagmars while browsing, one wonders?

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Not only does the photo above provide one with an idea of the sheer vastness of this salvage yard, but the state of the left-front corner sheet-metal of this 1955 Studebaker, plus the damaged windshield, point to the likely reason for this location being its final destination.

This rotund ‘bathtub’ 1949 Nash has been here a while, judging by the little trees growing to the left and right of it and how deeply it has sunk into the soil underneath. Even so, the bodywork appears relatively sound and could have been a useful parts donor.

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In case you are wondering why those rear lights seem to be little worse for wear and unfaded after many years exposed to the elements while the rest of the cars have suffered quite a bit- they are made of glass, not plastic. The two cars are a 1949 Chrysler and an early post-war (1946-48) DeSoto.

Reposing side-by-side are this duo of Chevrolets representing the end of the Harley Earl design era and the beginning of Bill Mitchell’s tenure. The year 1959 saw the introduction of yet another all-new Chevrolet(2) with a daringly styled rear end with horizontal fins, earning it the nickname ‘batwing’. Not everybody appreciated it, and the new full-size Chevrolet was outsold that year by arch-rival Ford, fielding a heavy facelift of its 1957 model with a decidedly more conventional appearance. The tables would be turned again in 1960 as that year’s entirely new Ford was soundly beaten by the slightly toned-down Chevrolet.

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Before the advent of the digital era in photography, you would usually only get a chance to look at the results of your efforts after returning home, days or even weeks later. In some cases, this made the identification of the vehicles depicted nearly impossible, as in the case of the 1948 Nash above. My own guess did not go much further than either just before World War Two or early post-war, but luckily a friend knowledgeable on cars of that era, who owned a few period examples himself, was able to solve the mystery. On the other hand, sometimes just one small clue is enough, even though at first sight it would seem that there is not much to go on: the distinctive  logo on the steering wheel boss gives away the identity of a 1963 Thunderbird.

And so to the wheel-less remains of a first-generation Dodge Charger. The nameplate would only really get into its stride in terms of image with the second-generation Charger of 1968, but this fastback style has its own charm and values have lately risen substantially. Sadly, that re-evaluation has very likely happened too late for this particular specimen….

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A lot changed in roughly a decade of styling, and this was true for the American car in particular. The 1953 Buick is all rounded shapes and soft curves, decorated with a generous amount of hefty, chromed embellishments. By contrast, the Mercury from 1965 is almost exclusively composed of straight lines and, even though it also carries quite a bit of chrome, it all appears noticeably less heavy-handed. This particular Mercury is the ‘Breezeway’ variant, with a retractable centre section of the rear window. Period accounts report that it provided very good, draughtless ventilation, while the longer overhang of the roof panel kept the rear seat area cooler. Whatever its advantages, the option never really caught on and was gone by the end of the decade.

Finally, “Will the owner of the Sunset Coral 1958 Edsel Ranger two-door hardtop please move his car? You’re in a no-parking zone. Thank you”.

Part Two will follow shortly.

(1) Some refer to these establishments as ‘junkyards’ but most proprietors don’t consider their wares -worn and damaged as they may be- to be junk.

(2) Thus making the 1958 model an expensive one-model-year only affair.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

12 thoughts on “Ashes to Ashes (Part One)”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. I love places like this. In primary school one of my classmates’ dad had a scrapyard. We were allowed to play in some of the cars, my favorite was a BMW E3. I spend a lot of time there 😉

    American cars did change a lot in that time. Good to see a Nash here. My grandfather had one, but long before I was born. Looking forward to part two 🙂

  2. Good morning Bruno. Delightful photos, especially the juxtaposition of the new and the life-expired models, and a nice guided tour to get Saturday morning off to a good start. Chapeau!

  3. As a young man, I often visited scrapyards in the London area, but I found them very sad places. So many cars in reasonable condition, that I wanted to save – but couldn’t ( I had no off-street parking ).
    I remember in later years, standing on the roof of an XJ6 while I spannered the Japanese model parked on top, looking down at the wood veneers and thinking how criminal it was to scrap such a nice car.

  4. I worked weekends for a retired engineer who had a large collection of Fords and Alfa Romeos in various states of decay. Often the interiors were okay but rust attacked the bodies. While it could be interesting to sit inside the cars and poke the controls, the melancholy mood felt oppressive. From the collection I can recall a 1977 GTV, a 2000 Berlina, a 1960s GTV, a Ford Cortina and a 1750 Giulia. As a daily driver the engineer had a very rusty 75. In the end it all ended up in the bin and the large site was turned into housing.

    1. If such cars as these hoarded Fords and Alfas are decayed beyond redemption, the best fate for them is being offered to owners’ clubs, who can strip the rotten remains of anything useful. One of the few positives about the massive inflation in historic car values (at least in northern Europe) is that cars which had been bought as parts donors are now cost-effective to restore.

  5. What a splendid story with excellent pictures, thank you, Bruno. I can understand Richard’s melancholic outlook as these things are graveyards. But I more easily see your viewpoint of former wonders that offer (ed) new life to old vehicles.

    As a child, there was but one scrapyard near us. Surrounded by ugly looking fencing, patrolled by unleashed Alsatians and ruled by a grizzled looking fellow who wore a flat cap , chain smoked and seemed to communicate in ever deeper grunts. My dad took me as he needed some part or other for his Vauxhall Viva, circa 1972 plate. Something unintelligible emanated from King Scrapyard with some hand waving and more grunts. After only a few minutes my dad had had enough of finding another Viva and we hastily left, never to return. The site remained for years but then too suddenly changed into an estate of probably fifty or more dwellings. I have no idea where my nearest scrapyard might be.

  6. Next perhaps a cover story on salvage yard(s) specialising on Rolls Royce …..

    In mid 1980’s I went to an aircraft salvage yard. Can’t help but tears dropping.

    1. Aircraft salvage yard: those words make me hark to Daniel’s story on the Pheaton of yesterday, and especially to that fantastic photograph of the boot hinge. A good Flemish colleague of mine would call that “ingenieurskunst” or, in English: “engineering art”. An object shaped by engineering in such a pure form that it attains a beauty as a consequence of its mechanics or function, rather than aesthetics. Think: Alfa Romeo engines of the 1960s, Citroën DS, etc. Obviously this is a debatable statement, as with anything in matters of art and/or taste… Then again, the word in itself also has a beautiful ring to it. Have a pleasant weekend, all!

  7. I remenber looking at HSE (UK Health and Safety Executive) statistics some years ago when I was preparing a lesson for my students on safety at work. The rates of notifiable (i.e. not trivial) injuries in UK scrap yards was terrifyingly high, I suspect partly as a consequence of the congested spaces in which they operate. This was not a problem in the US, of course.

    1. Where I live it´s becoming more and more difficult to find a scrapyard where you can get in and remove yourself the parts you need, due to safety issues. It´s great because I like to take a look at the cars, and you learn a lot removing your own stuff. But walking next to three or even four cars piled up in a precarious balance makes you wonder how they can let people pass in. Or when you see some moron doing acrobatics in a ladder trying to reach a part, or entering the scrapyard wearing shorts and flip-flops (yes, you see that in the summer…).
      It won´t be long before some kind of regulation forbids the access.

  8. I was surprised to discover, recently, that a scrapyard which I frequented in the ’60s is still functioning – not that you’d now be allowed through the razor wire-topped chain link fencing. But my favourite scrapyards were those created at Carlton, just north of Barnsley, by a young entrepreneur named Paul Sykes who, in the ’70s, was dismantling fleets of buses and coaches which the newly-formed National Bus Company was replacing at the taxpayers’ expense. Sykes was making his money selling the Gardner& Leyland engines to the Chinese, but for a small independent operator such as ourselves it was a goldmine of parts which manufacturers like Leyland were incapable of supplying. We could fill the boot of a coach with such as electrical components worth thousands for £50 or less.
    Knowing that scrappies are by nature suspicious people, we’d always lay out all that we’d unscrewed on the floor by the coach for inspection and as a result got some very good deals – like being given a dozen identical double deckers from which to pick out the best seats to make up a complete set for one of our own vehicles. It cost us less than £100. Happy days!

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