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For some of the best car-spotting, take the train

Published in blog.hemmings.com

All photos by Don Homuth.

Several sites in the automotive press, online and in print, seem recently to have rediscovered the existence of “automotive recycling facilities” that we old guys used to call “junk yards.” By and large, they are obvious places, easily seen from cars on normal roads. There are as many, perhaps even more, vehicles resting in places seldom – if ever – seen from nearby roads and highways. I’d seen places like this many times over the past couple of decades, but hadn’t really given them much thought. It was only on a cross-country Amtrak trip last May, and again this month, that I began to take better notice.

A train trip is a journey through the backyards of America. The rails are often well away from highways, and you can see things that’s aren’t normally seen, like old vehicles left to molder away, subject to the ravages of weather and time. Moss and vegetation discolor the finishes, and rust and corrosion continue unabated. Most auto hobbyists have come across a sight like that now and again, behind garages out of sight, with interesting cars left ’til they are too far gone to rebuild or restore. On the train, these sight are plentiful and fascinating, leading your mind to all kinds of questions about how the cars got there.

How to hide abandoned cars from the road. Note the two 40s-era cars. One is a Chevrolet; the other maybe a Buick?

Amtrak travel is not everyone’s cup of tea. Save for the northeast, Amtrak doesn’t own the rail lines, and trains are subject to delay from higher-priority freight that takes the right-of-way. Despite the complaints one hears about trains being perennially late, one thing they just cannot do is leave a station early. So it’s either on-time or late, to some degree. Additionally, much of the rolling stock is old and subject to mechanical breakdown, albeit infrequently. On one recent trip, we got into Fargo in the middle of a major snowstorm about two hours late or so. Some people complained, until they were reminded that the highways were closed and the airlines weren’t flying at all. We were the only travelers who got through that night.

Long train trips are for those who prefer going somewhere to being somewhere. Think of it as a longish road trip without the discomfort of driving yourself, and being able to look at the scenery as you go by. The best views are from the observation car. Second best is from the upper deck of the “sleeper” cars. The lower decks – we took one once – tend to have a good view blocked because of the angle.

On the prairie. There’s a 57 Chevy station wagon in that pile.

What seems like an endless rolling prairie landscape between Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Glacier National Park in Montana is a look at what the Great Plains has become over the past two centuries. It seems endless and boring, but there are numerous towns scattered along the line. In some areas, it’s where those huge gas and oil deposits are being extracted.

Out in the rural areas, vehicles get dumped behind hills near the tracks, and accumulate over time untouched. Sometimes they are specialized sites. I saw one with just two dozen snowmobiles, another with at least a half dozen motor homes that will never run again, some with tractors and farm machinery, but the overwhelming largest number is cars of various eras.

RIP six old motor homes. Why here? Why at all?

On my most recent trip, the first Amtrak leg was from Salem to Seattle. There was one site just south of Canby, Oregon, with maybe two- or three-dozen cars, mostly from the late/mid 1930s until the mid-’60s. There were several others in Washington. I couldn’t get a real idea what was there, given the vegetation. I was left with the impression that I might want to drive back next summer, walk in and have a look.

The speed of the train too often makes for blurry photos, but you can still identify some cars. On the left is a ’59 Dodge, probably in original paint with good trim. On the right is a ’55 or ’56 Buick 4-door – can’t tell if it’s a hardtop or a sedan. Foreground is a Vista Cruiser station wagon.

There is a problem with car-spotting from a train – the train is usually moving too fast to get a good look at what’s out there. But some things stood out even as the train whizzed by.

Just east of Havre, Montana, on the south side of the tracks were perhaps five- or six-dozen cars, awaiting the crusher. On the top of one pile clearly visible was a black 1959 El Camino, seemingly intact and complete. Even in poor condition, those are not easy to find.

Close to the Ft. Totten Reservation and some distance off, was what looked like a 1960 Ford. Or maybe it was an Edsel, or perhaps a Mercury of that same era. Hard to tell. Just a little further east, a 1959 Buick parked by itself in a field. I remember having seen them previously, and they are still there. Probably will be for a while.

The second car from the left: What is it? Might be a 1960 Ford, or maybe a ’58 or ’59 Edsel, or perhaps a Mercury, with that strange roof trim at the rear sides.

There were three or four what looked like Corvettes, mostly hidden by other cars or vegetation. There was even, on SR14 in Washington east of Vancouver, a Ferrari, just parked on the side of the road with other cars. It might have been a Mondial, or perhaps a late Testarossa. Or, maybe it was one of those look-alike kit cars that were outlawed when Ferrari filed suit against the maker. It was visible on the north side of the track for only five or six seconds as the train went by. No photo was possible. It may still be there. I looked for Corvairs, and found four – two early and two late models.

Oddly, one site had three Pontiac Azteks. Why they were grouped together is anyone’s guess, but they are not going anywhere any time soon.

The windows of Amtrak train cars tend to be dirty from the weather encountered en route. That, combined with the speed of the train, usually makes really good photography all but impossible. Getting any shot at all means having a camera ready for those brief few seconds when the train is going by, and that can be very difficult. An observer is left with only a brief glimpse, not always making identification easy or certain.

It’s enough to say that there is a vast trove of seldom-seen or recognized old cars out there, right back to some from the ’20s. That’s not to say that all, or even any, deserve to be rebuilt or modified into something modern. Some were clearly someone’s hot rod project decades ago. They could be again, but probably won’t be.

There’s an old hot rod, a Jeep pickup and what looks like might be a ’59 Oldsmobile.

For those who find car spotting an interesting part of the car hobby, there are worse ways to do it than taking a long train trip and seeing junkyard sites that would be difficult to spot from a road. And who knows – perhaps you will see the car you’ve been looking for and make a note of where to go back to look for it. Take along a notebook, so you can record what you see and where it might be. Someone – maybe even you – might be looking for it.

Left: ’50s Chrysler Corporation car with good trim and appears straight. Not sure what make and model. Middle: orange Vega/Astre/Monza wagon. Upper right: light blue Mustang II.

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