junkyard, junkyard gem, junkyard gems

Junkyard Gem: 1986 Nissan Sentra two-door sedan


It seems that the Sentra has always been with us, but in fact the very first Sentras didn’t show up in North America until the 1982 model year. This gas-sipping econobox became an immediate sales smash hit over here, and the Japanese-built 1982-1986 cars elbowed aside many a Civic and Corolla in the battle for American sales. Sentras began rolling out of Nissan’s new Tennessee factory in 1985, just before the debut of the second-gen version, and so today’s Junkyard Gem in Denver is one of the very last of the Kanagawa-built Sentras sold in the United States.

I’ve documented a few first-gen Sentras in this series, but this one beats all of them for low mileage and best overall condition. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any early Sentra as nice as this one. Just 77,391 original miles on the clock!

It doesn’t have the luxurious automatic transmission, sure, but can you imagine air conditioning on a cheap imported econo-commuter in 1986?

Not many buyers of low-price two-door sedans cared about having a rear defroster, so this is another seldom-seen option.

Sealed-beam headlights were just beginning to be phased out in 1986, so information stickers had to be included on cars with replaceable bulbs.

The interior could use a good scrubbing, but I don’t see any of the rips and gouges you get in most 34-year-old junkyard cars. The Colorado climate is especially rough on car interiors, so either this one came from elsewhere or it lived in a garage for most of its life.

I’m puzzled by the high-power, RV-grade power inverter screwed to the floor under the dash. Perhaps the original owner used an early laptop computer in this car.

With 69 horsepower from this 1.6-liter straight-four, the ’86 Sentra didn’t win many drag races. Fuel economy was excellent, though, and these cars proved to be quite reliable.

America’s best-selling import, complete with lots of futuristic technology.

Nissan was working on hydrogen- and electricity-powered cars way back in 1984.

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Junkyard Gem: 2002 Ford Focus ZTS Mach Audio Edition


Car audio equipment was getting better and cheaper in a hurry, as our current century dawned, especially compared to the stuff you’d get in the bad old days, when a factory AM radio might cost you hundreds of dollars and a lot of aftermarket car-sound gear was both expensive and terrible. Ford’s marketing wizards hoped to lure in some younger buyers for the 2002 Focus — those that didn’t snap up mountain-bike-included Kona Edition Foci a couple of years earlier, that is — by partnering with Mach Audio to build some Focus ZTS sedans with thumping sound systems optimized for listening to the latest Juelz Santana tracks. Here’s a genuine Focus ZTS Mach Audio Edition that I found in a San Francisco Bay Area yard a couple of months back.

Other Ford models, including the F-Series pickups and Mustangs, could get the Mach Audio package during this era.

Naturally, some lucky Focus-owning junkyard shopper (or maybe a fortunate eBay seller) grabbed the Mach Audio gear out of this car before I got there.

The ZTS trim level included a 130-horsepower DOHC Zetec engine (instead of the ordinary 110-horse SOHC unit). Those who sprang for the ’02 Focus SVT got the 170-hp plant.

This car would have been a lot more fun with the base five-speed manual transmission, but the original buyer opted for the automatic.

Built at Wayne Stamping & Assembly in Michigan, sold new at Fenton Motors in Texas, made its way to California… where it will be crushed.

It’s hard to imagine these Junkyard Gems as shiny new cars, treasured by their loving owners and protected at all costs, but that’s how they all started out.

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datsun, junkyard, junkyard gem, junkyard gems, nissan silvia

1978 Datsun 200SX rusts in peace


Nissan had a couple of smash enthusiast hits in the 1990s with the S13 and S14 Silvia, known as the 200SX and 240SX on these shores. Before those cars came here, though, the groundwork for affordable, sporty rear-wheel-drive Nissan coupes was laid by the S10 Silvia, sold with 200SX badging here from the 1977 through 1979 model years. These cars didn’t sell in huge quantities in North America, and the handful that did sell tended to rust in a hurry, so you won’t see many today. I keep my eyes open for such historic machines while making my appointed junkyard rounds, though, and so this well-worn ’78 200SX appeared before my camera lens in a Denver-area self-service yard a few months back.

It’s rusty, oh yes, and it’s crusty as well; the combination of harsh sun and snowy winter here in Colorado has been rough for this corrosion-susceptible little Datsun.

I think this car has been sitting for quite a while, but the United Airlines bumper sticker and Denver International Airport parking pass indicate that it was running as recently as 1995, when the Home of Blucifier opened for business. Before that, this car’s owner may have used it to commute to the old Stapleton Airport.

In Japan, this car got the 1.8-liter L18 engine, but the North American 200SX received the 2.0-liter L20 engine made famous by the Datsun 510 on these shores. In 1978, this engine was rated at 97 horsepower, which was pretty good for a 2,323-pound car in the darkest years of the Malaise Era. For comparison’s sake, know that the 1978 Chevy Camaro Z28 had a 20.5:1 lbs/hp ratio, while the 200SX had a not-so-far-off 24:1 ratio. The 1978 BMW 320i, meanwhile, had a 24.1:1 lbs/hp ratio… and it cost $9,315, while the 200SX sold for just $4,399 (or $18,100 in 2020 dollars).

The body on this car has been corroded well past usefulness, and S10 200SXs really aren’t worth any serious restoration investment nowadays. Junkyard shoppers stripped most of the dash and interior components before I got here.

Still, an interesting piece of Nissan history, and it’s sad to see another S10 headed to the crusher.

With a standard 5-speed manual transmission (reasonably exotic in 1978) and AM/FM stereo radio (a pricey option in most cars in 1978), the 200SX was a steal.

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engine swap, junkyard gem, pontiac fiero

Junkyard Gem: 1984 Pontiac Fiero with supercharged 3800 V6 swap


Like the Corvair, the Vega, and the Citation, the Pontiac Fiero was a very innovative machine that ended up causing General Motors more headaches than happiness, and Fiero aficionados and naysayers continue to beat each other with tire irons (figuratively speaking, I hope) to this day. The General has often proved willing to take the occasional big gamble and huge GM successes in engineering prowess (including the first overhead-valve V8 engine for the masses and the first real-world-usable true automatic transmission) and marketing brilliance (e.g., the Pontiac GTO and related John DeLorean home runs) meant that the idea of a mid-engined sporty economy car (or economical sports car) got a shot from the suits on the 14th floor. Sadly, the Fiero ended up being the marketplace victim of too many issues to get into here, and The General pulled the plug immediately after the 1988-model-year suspension redesign that made the Fiero the sports car it should have been all along.

But what if the plastic Pontiac had never suffered from the misery of the gnashy, pokey Iron Duke engine and had been built from the start with a screaming supercharged V6 making way better than 200 horsepower? The final owner of today’s Junkyard Gem sought to make that very Fiero, by dropping in one of the many supercharged 3.8-liter V6s installed in 1990s and 2000s GM factory hot rods.

The first Fieros came out in 1983 for model year 1984, and the only engine available that year was the Iron Duke 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which generated its 92 horsepower with the full-throated song of a Soviet tractor stuck in the freezing mud of a Polish sugar-beet field. The 2M4 badging stood for “two seats, mid-engine, four cylinders,” just as the numbers in the Oldsmobile 4-4-2 once represented “four carburetor barrels, four-speed manual transmission, dual exhaust.”

This car is a top-trim-level SE model, which listed for $9,599 (about $24,200 today). The no-frills Fiero cost just $7,999 that year, making these cars far cheaper than the only other reasonably affordable new mid-engined car Americans could buy at that time: the $13,990 Bertone (aka Fiat) X1/9. The Toyota MR2 appeared in North America as a 1985 model with a base price of $10,999 and promptly siphoned off the car-buying cash from a bunch of potential Fiero shoppers. (Competition from affordable front-wheel-drive two-seaters such as the Honda CRX and Ford EXP didn’t help matters for Pontiac, despite the Fiero’s prominent placement in the hugely successful “Big Bam Boom” tour of Hall & Oates.)

I was in my senior year of high school in 1983-1984 (driving the world’s sketchiest ’58 VW Beetle, a basket-case ’67 Pontiac GTO, and a staggeringly frumpy Toyota Corona sedan, all of which were purchased for a combined $213, which comes to $538 after 35 years of inflation), and I recall having just about zero interest in the Fiero at the time. The combination of Chevette front suspension, Citation rear suspension, and Soviet tractor engine turned me off (what I really wanted around that time was a new Mitsubishi Starion, even after the Fiero got an optional 2.8-liter V6 and became— in the eyes of Pontiac’s marketers— college-student cool). Anyway, the idea of any new car to take to college was as far out of my financial reach as a working ICBM-defense system was to Ronald Reagan that year, and I ended up ditching the three dangerous hoopties for a reasonably well-sorted Competition Orange ’68 Mercury Cyclone with a 351 Windsor engine swap.

Still, and perhaps in part because I didn’t destroy all of my early-1980s teenage car ideals by actually owning a real-world Starion, I retain a great deal of affection for the Fiero, so much so that I try to photograph discarded examples when I find them during my junkyard peregrinations. In fact, I used my influence as the wise and fair Chief Justice of the 24 Hours of Lemons Supreme Court to help get the much-sought-after 2019 Coppa di Bondo season-championship award into the hands of a team that runs two Fieros in the series. When I saw this fairly intact ’84 in a Colorado yard a bit south of Cheyenne, I headed right to it with my camera ready. When I went to shoot the Iron Duke in the engine compartment, imagine my surprise when I saw this Eaton M62 blower, sitting atop a 3800 V6.

Even though GM never put any member of the 90-degree Buick V6 family (itself descended from the engine that evolved into the Rover V8) into a production Fiero, plenty of engine-swappers have taken advantage of the cheapness of both project-grade Fieros and junkyard supercharged Buick V6s to make this combination a reality. While the 3800 takes up more room than the 60° V6 that went into many 1985-1988 Fieros, it’s still a pretty compact engine (and Fiero swappers manage to get V8s into these cars without too much difficulty, too).

I’m not sure how far along this car’s last owner got with the swap, but I must assume that a manual transmission was an important part of the long-term plan. Yes, the original purchaser of this car opted for a slushbox to manage all 92 of those Iron Duke horses.

The blower has been partly disassembled, though I can’t tell whether that happened before or after the engine went into the car. I can see from this cut-up wiring harness that the wiring ended up being the tallest stumbling block with this project. Wiring a car is tough, as I know all too well, and getting a modern computerized engine to work in a car that started life with a completely unrelated carbureted engine… well, we get in over our heads in a hurry with this stuff. Maybe an angry landlord or spouse demanded the removal of a non-running car, and that phone call to the local U-Wrench yard happened soon after.

You’ll see so much optimism in the early Fiero advertising.

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BMW E39, junkyard gem, junkyard gems

Junkyard Gem: 1998 BMW 528i


I’ve documented plenty of discarded BMWs during my searching of car graveyards for interesting bits of automotive history, but I’ve been remiss in documenting examples of the BMW 5 Series. I’ve shot E12s and E34s, but missed the immediate successor of the E12 (the E28) and the 5 Series that followed the E34 (the E39). E28s and E39s aren’t too difficult to find in the big California self-service yards, so I vowed that I’d shoot the next example of each that I saw when I took a trip to the Golden State last week. Here’s a still-shiny E39 that I found in a yard on California’s Central Coast.

North American car shoppers could buy the E39 for the 1997 through 2004 model years. The 528i had the “traditional” straight-six engine that BMW purists still expected in the middle 1990s, while the 540i packed a V8 under the hood.

The 2.8-liter straight-six in this car was the same one that went into the 1998 328i, and it made 190 sonorous horsepower. The snarly V8 in the 540i was good for 282 horses in 1998. If you can find one with the six-speed manual transmission, buy it!

Most US-market 5-Series cars have been built with automatic transmissions since about the middle 1980s, so I wasn’t surprised to see the two-pedal setup inside this one.

The interior shows some wear and some parts have been yanked, but this car still looked pretty good when it took that final tow-truck ride.

Maybe something broke and the car’s final owner wouldn’t or couldn’t pay for repairs, or perhaps it wouldn’t pass California’s extremely strict emissions test. Once an ordinary 5 Series reaches its 20th birthday, buyers for non-perfect ones are hard to find… and they end up in a place like this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=/YJIs-Mpqy5E

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junkyard, junkyard gem, junkyard gems, volvo 240

Junkyard Gem: 1990 Volvo 240 DL sedan art car


The big problem with art cars comes around resale time: A heavily personalized machine tends to be valuable mostly to its creator and a handful of like-minded art-car aficionados… who would rather build their own rolling sculptures than buy a ready-made one. I’ve seen plenty of such machines in auto graveyards, including the Groovalicious Purple Princess of Peace Taurus wagon, a reasonably famous ’69 Mustang, a glue-gun-extravaganza Toyota Van, a pair of mural-bedecked Corolla wagons, and a Volvo 740 Turbo in full Burning Man regalia. These art cars might not be up to the level of the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir, say, or the Phone Car, or even my high-concept 1965 Impala sedan performance/installation piece, but they were loved and now they have been crushed. Today’s Junkyard Gem, a Volvo 244 covered with art created by a very talented painter, appeared in a self-service yard not far from Pikes Peak in Colorado, and I was there to document it.

There’s a lot to process on this car, so you’ll need to click through all the gallery images to really appreciate the inspiration and sweat that went into the painting project. We’ll start with the decklid, which features an excellent reproduction of van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The version on the Volvo differs sufficiently from the original that I’m pretty sure the artist painted it from memory, which shows a devotion to van Gogh that demands respect.

References to Bible verses, from both Old and New Testaments, cover the car. In addition to the expected John 3:16 and Genesis 1:1 (sort of the Freebird and Stairway To Heaven of Bible verses, in terms of getting overplayed), I found this reference to Colossians 3:17 above the right rear wheelwell: And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

On the decklid, where following drivers may see, a much harsher verse, Isaiah 6:5: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” Jews, Christians, and Muslims can all agree: Isaiah was no lightweight. Certainly not what you expect to see on an old Volvo.

References to Oklahoma abound, so I’m guessing that the artist migrated from Oklahoma to Colorado; the two states share a border.

The blue shark (or maybe it’s a tiger shark) incorporates a door lock as its eye, which I think is a very clever touch. 

Something happened to the rear window soon before this car went into forcible retirement, and so a packaging-tape replacement kept most of the weather out for a while.

Volvo aficionados will want to call this car a 244, since it’s a 240 with four doors, but Volvo dropped the 242/244/245 naming system in the early 1980s. The DL was the cheapest trim level in 1990.

It seems unlikely that junkyard shoppers will want to grab any body parts for their 240s, since the paint won’t match, but someone pulled the 5-speed manual transmission out of this car.

Volvo USA probably didn’t have this art car in mind when they made this commercial for the 240.

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junkyard, junkyard gem, junkyard gems, Lincoln Town Car

Junkyard Gem: 2000 Lincoln Town Car Cartier Edition


The very last of the venerable Ford Panthers rolled off the assembly line back in 2011, marking the end of the decades-long era in which opulently rounded Ford Crown Victorias, Mercury Grand Marquises, and Lincoln Town Cars could be purchased new. Long before that time, though, high-end Lincolns ceased being sold with Cartier badging and dashboard clocks, a tradition that went back to the early 1970s. Today’s Junkyard Gem is one of the final Cartier Lincolns, a once-luxurious Town Car Cartier Edition, found in a yard in northeastern Colorado last month.

The Cartier was the top trim level for the 2000 Town Car, itself the pinnacle of the Panther pyramid.The price tag on this car began at $43,150 (about $65,600 in today’s money).

Mechanically speaking, not much separated the 2000 Town Car from the rubber-floor-mat-equipped Crown Victoria Police Interceptor used to haul projectile-vomiting drunks to the pokey in your town for the past 25 years, and the lines of the $20k Crown Vic are quite apparent when you look at the $43k Town Car.

However, the Town Car benefited from a quadruple helping of leather, serious sound insulation, wood (plastic) trim, and touches such as this “double C” embroidery on the seats. It was hard to top this car for a smooth, quiet highway ride.

The Cartier clock (not really made by Cartier) featured gold (plastic) trim, just like the center-mounted gold-trimmed clocks in 1990s Infiniti Q45s. Yes, I bought this clock to add to my collection, and it works just fine.

Power came from the reliable 4.6-liter Ford Modular V8 engine, rated at 220 horsepower in the 2000 Cartier. This wasn’t tremendous power for a two-ton behemoth, but it got the job done. If you wanted a massive V8-powered luxury sedan that went really fast in 2000, you could have spent $77,850 for a new Mercedes-Benz S500 (302 horsepower) or chosen a $66,970 BMW 740iL (282 horsepower).

It would be pretty easy to build up a monster supercharged 4.6, attach it to a manual transmission, and drop it in a Town Car like this one… and someone should do just that.

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chevrolet nova, junkyard, junkyard gem, junkyard gems

Junkyard Gem: 1978 Chevrolet Nova Coupe


During the 1960s and 1970s, when a car shopper located between Mérida and Alert wanted a sensible daily driver for not many dollars or pesos, the most likely candidates were the traditional compact cars from the Detroit Big Three: Dodge Dart/Plymouth Valiant (and descendants), Ford Falcon/Mercury Comet (and descendants), and Chevrolet Nova (and Pontiac/Olds/Buick siblings). Traditional front-engine/rear-wheel-drive machines, generally with bench seats and most often equipped with straight-six engines, these cars were everywhere on North American roads, well into the 1990s. Now nearly all of them are gone, even the huge-selling Novas, so I try to document these cars when I find them. Here’s a ’78 Nova coupe, spotted in a San Francisco Bay Area self-service wrecking yard.

Decades ago, I drove a ’76 Nova coupe for a while. Purchased for 50 bucks around 1991, it had a rattly 250-cubic-inch six, slow-shifting automatic transmission, and super-tall highway gears. It wasn’t fun, but it always ran.

This car had the optional V8 engine, somewhat unusual for a penny-pinching late-1970s Nova. If this is the original plant — which is unlikely, given how readily these cars got engine swaps — it’s either a 145-horsepower 305 (5.0-liter) or a 170-horse 350 (5.7-liter).

Inside, the remnants of the once-sporty vinyl bucket seats. Most of these cars came with cloth bench seats, of course, and if you wanted the automatic transmission instead of the base three-on-the-tree column-shift manual, you paid extra.

Speedometers for American-market cars in 1978 were limited to 85 mph, but this one stops at 80.

The last model year for the “traditional” Nova was 1979, after which a NUMMI-built version of the Toyota Corolla got the Nova name.

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Junkyard Gem: 2007 MINI Cooper


The original BMC Mini was produced in essentially the same form from 1959 through 2000, surpassing the assembly-line longevity of the Hillman Hunter/Iran Khodro Paykan (1966-2005), Fiat 128 (1969-2009) and Peugeot 504 (1968-2006) but not that of the Morris Oxford/Hindustan Ambassador (1956-2014) and especially not that of the Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle (1938-2003). With such a history, it was only natural that BMW opted to build a retro-styled version after buying Rover in 1994, and our current century has been full of MINIs. Resale value for the early MINI Coopers hasn’t been so strong, however, and so I see quite a few of these cars in the U-Wrench yards of the land. Here’s an ’07 that I found in a Denver yard last month.

This one is a Cooper with the fun 6-speed manual transmission, and the interior still looks decent.

I see the occasional supercharged Cooper S in places like this, and the engines— or at least the blowers— tend to get purchased right away. Someone grabbed the exhaust manifold off this 118-horse naturally-aspirated engine, but it’s a fair bet that an expensive engine problem is what led this car to its final parking space.

Because these cars are so cheap and fun to drive, I see a few of them competing in the 24 Hours of Lemons race series, where I work as a dignified and respected official. Unfortunately for the teams that race them, though, reliability hasn’t been so great.

The center-mount instrument cluster concept has been great for car manufacturers wishing to sell in both right- and left-hand-drive markets.

If you’re looking for a fun street/track project car, you could do a lot worse than a Cooper. They’re quick, parts are easy to get, and you can squeeze one into the garage.

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