Where Cars Go To Die

Living in California had its advantages when it came to spotting near-extinct species of interesting cars; classics like BMW’s iconic 2002 were almost commonplace. Fiats littered Craigslist and the local strip-mall shopping centers. Less common were the vastly superior Datsun 510s, but they could still be spotted if you knew where to look. Residents can and do use classics as daily transportation. I once lived near a guy in Sausalito (just north of San Francisco) with a Jaguar XKE coupe, for example, and by now we’ve all heard about the nut in San Diego with the Lamborghini 400GT sporting over 250,000 miles.

But I don’t live in California any more. I live in Minnesota.

Still, there are plenty of classics roaming around, albeit only six months of the year. Cars and Café, the local iteration of the Irvine, California original—Cars and Coffee—brings out all manner of vintage and not-so-vintage iron, from a gaggle of Austin-Healeys to a pride of Magnum P.I.-era Ferraris to a murder of DeLoreans.

How many DeLoreans does it take to make a murder? Four, actually.

But what about those cars which are not really classics, but are just, well, older? And what if they were at least somewhat interesting back then, but are only so today due their mere existence? I’m talking about the cars that will probably never be actual classics, but draw the eye because they are still schlepping their way around town. What happened to all of those?

I’ll tell you. They came to Minnesota to die.

When was the last time you saw a first-generation Ford Escort? I’ve seen two lately. And not rusty, horrible road warts, either; these examples were probably as nice as they were 30 years ago. Which may not be saying much. Except here it is, in the land where even plastic can rust.

One of my favorite endangered species is the General Motors A-body from the early 1980s through the middle 1990s. These cars are hardly plentiful, and I’m not as big a fan of the Chevrolet Celebrities and Buick Regals I most often spot. However, occasionally I run across a Pontiac 6000, and I consider myself lucky if it’s an uprated SE or STE model.

The 6000SE/STE was the car designed to compete with BMW during the height of the “We Build Excitement” Yuppie love-fest known as the 1980s. A high-output (relatively speaking) 2.8-liter or 3.1-liter V6 motivated the front wheels. Manual transmissions were a little-known special-order item. Tacked-on body kits, alloy wheels (not actually directional, but looking the part) wrapped with Goodyear Eagle GT+4 meats and digital dashboards ensured that Pontiac would always come in third or fourth to BMW’s numero uno status in a Car and Driver comparison test.

When my parents had an Audi 5000S with a wheezy 110-horsepower five-banger, my friend Reed’s parents had a 6000SE station wagon that would roast those Goodyears all day long. It didn’t have the digital dashboard or the steering-wheel buttons, but it did have a center console and bucket seats — flat, horrible, wobbly bucket seats with less bolstering than a sidewalk.

But I don’t care. I’m a child of the 1980s. The soft spot that makes me crank up the Psychedelic Furs and wistfully recall my crush on Ally Sheedy has a spot for cars which, quite frankly, are just trash — but cool trash. And some of this coolness lives on in Minnesota. True, most of the examples have rust holes big enough to put your head through, and many have shed most, if not all, of their body kits. But the fact that they exist at all makes me warm inside.

It begs the question: Why don’t these cars live in places where rust does, in fact, sleep? Why here?

Of course, for scientific research purposes, I quickly scanned the local Craigslist to see how many Pontiac 6000s showed up. We have a 1991 6000 LE sedan, a boring example with a front bench seat and those non-directional directional alloy wheels. But we also have a 1991 SE with the very rare all-wheel-drive package. This one sports the cheeseball STE-style body kit as well as the bucket seats and center console. $2,000 and it could be your winter-beater, a poor-man’s poor-taste E30 BMW 325ix.

Strange examples of cars you don’t really care about, but whose existence is strangely calming, abound in these parts. A circa-1983 Dodge Diplomat I recently spotted landed somewhere between octogenarian cruiser and ex-cop car; it sported neither a vinyl-covered roof nor dog-dish hubcaps. The 1968-ish Lincoln Continental Mark III certainly had a vinyl top; I’d have been disappointed if it didn’t. It also had the scabs and scars of a car that had seen many a cold season.

Why do I bring up any of these cars? Because starting right about… now, I won’t be able to drive my classic BMWs. Sadly, I still have to get to work, and daycare, and our friends’ garages on cold winter nights, where we huddle around our adult beverages reminiscing about our warm drives in the country while summoning brief moments of clarity to adjust valves and refurbish interiors.

BMW rustproofing began sometime around late 2005, and so we hope our beloved Bavarians don’t come here to die. If they happen to live in Minnesota and venture out year-round, however, they do die slow, painful deaths from the bottom of the doors on up. Strangely, the E30 3 Series and E28 5 Series seem to rust less, as a species, than the later E34 Fivers, or E32 and E38 7 Series. E36 3 Series dissolve if you salt your French fries at McDonald’s.

That’s why the real BMW enthusiast will use a Mercedes-Benz for a winter beater.

~Jonathan

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