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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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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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 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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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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