“The world’s oldest junkyard jungle, here 80 years,” reads a rusty sign out front that, like Old Car City’s inhabitants, looks like it's seen better days.
More a graveyard than a junkyard, Old Car City claims to be the largest of its kind in the world, home to over 4400 cars, many bearing nation-building names like Chevrolet, Chrysler, Lincoln and Ford, names synonymous with American success. Once proud status symbols, they lie without status, or road tax, or without a gearbox, engine or doors, overgrown with vegetation and claimed by Nature.
America has the land, the expanse where places like this can stretch out beyond measure. Old Car City wouldn’t look out of place in the opening credits of True Blood – a blood-curdling dose of pure Southern Gothic pop culture. The abandoned car lots would also make an ideal eerie location on The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse TV show shot south of Atlanta. It may be the stuff of Southern Gothic nightmares but Old Car City is a photographer’s dream.
Shot to Pieces
People come from all over the country and pay the $10 admission fee ($15 with a camera) to Old Car City, off Highway 411 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The main office houses a few oddities and shinier, well-looked after classic cars – including the last car Elvis Presley bought, a 1977 Lincoln Mark V.
Before you’re let loose on the 34 acres, part of which used to be cotton fields, you get a word or two of warning, delivered with a dose of dry humour. Our orientation was given by Richard Erickson. “If you get lost, at the end of the day we send off flares then we get the junkyard dog out,” said Erickson with a pause and grin. “We don’t have a junkyard dog but I had to say that.”
Visitors should take a moment to fill up on water or empty out. “The bathroom is here or there are several acres of bushes,” added Erickson. It gets very hot and humid in the Georgia summertime heat and the biting and burrowing insects persist so long sleeves and trousers are a must. As for other “critters”, our photography group was informed that snakes hadn’t been seen for over six months. Some consolation.
Old Car City in White, Georgia started out as a general store in 1931, the current owner Dean Lewis told me. His parents ran the store selling clothes, gasoline, car tyres and other parts. During World War II tyres were scarce and his parents resourcefully turned to scrapping cars for spare parts. When the son took over the motor-loving family’s business in 1970 he accumulated more vehicles, including several of his favourite brand, Lincoln.
You could spend the best part of a morning just exploring the main lots and the older vintage-styled office at the front where hubcaps decorate the trees. But deeper in the woods is where it starts to get authentically creepy. Rusted metal names such as Buick and Belvedere and sleek motor mascots and emblems on hoods sprayed in vintage colours, seem countless. Dynamic names like Thunderbird, Comet and Mercury, now paralyzed.
Pine needles fall through broken glass – some holes look like they were made by bullets, right out of a crime scene, one that makes you wonder, what’s in the trunk?
There’s a strange kind of beauty in the broken – cracked wing mirrors framing a fractured image and smashed headlights like sad old eyes. We love to personify cars – think of those clever cars in Herbie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Knight Rider. But here, it’s much closer to a horror story, Stephen King’s sinister Christine. You almost expect headlights to suddenly light up one last time before they give up the ghost. Stumble over fallen branches and you come face-to-face with a smiling bumper with a teeth-like grille.
A spider spins its web through a steering wheel, where hands once gripped. Every car has a story to tell, a backseat romance at a drive-in, a first – and last – date, speeding fines, road trips, always going somewhere, a journey representing hope, a future now lost, accidents down the road, broken down, worn down, run down.
For these vehicles, Old Car City truly is the end of the road.
Old Car City is located at 3098 Highway 411 NE, White, Bartow, Georgia 30184. Call ahead on +1 770 382 6141 to check but it’s usually open Wednesday to Friday 9am to 4pm; Saturday 9am to 1pm.
Right opposite Old Car City is Wes Man’s restaurant – great for the vintage-style décor and Southern food, especially their breakfast and BBQ. Check opening times on their Facebook page or call ahead on +1 770 386 9933.
Find more photos of Old Car City here.