The 1982 J-Body cars (Chevrolet Cavalier, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac J2000, and Cadillac Cimarron) were GM’s first competitive front-drive compact line. Coming hot on the heels of the successful launch of Ford’s Escort and Chrysler’s K-cars the year before, GM needed a hit. Their first attempt had been the X-Body cars, which were slightly larger front-drive compacts launched in 1980. The X-Body cars sold well their first year but then tanked due to quality woes and recalls. Happily for GM, the same issues were not present in the J-Body cars and the Cavalier, along with various badge-engineered siblings, sold well up until the early 2000s. That said, first-generation J-Bodies, sold until 1988, have become increasingly rare. Cavaliers still exist, but Firenzas, Sunbirds, and the like are hard to find. Even harder to find are cars like this one. The first-generation Cavalier was facelifted after just two years on the market and gained dual square headlights. That means this example, parked in Cambridge, MA, is from 1982 or 1983. It is in remarkably good condition for a “disposable” car close to 30 years old.
Because of cars like this, it’s taken Hyundai years to claw back their reputation. The Hyundai Excel was the very first Korean car sold in this country. It came in at under $5000 new and sold very well in 1985, its first year, but it quickly earned a reputation for terrible quality. Even as Hyundai’s cars began to match first the Big Three and then the Japanese around the early 2000s, many people wouldn’t even consider buying Korean. Even now, with cars like the Sonata and the Elantra universally acknowledged to be a viable Hondoyota alternative, Hyundai still has to offer a 10-year warranty to win over skeptics.
However awful it was, the Excel still put Hyundai on the map outside of its home market, and somehow enough bargain hunters kept buying them through 1994 to keep Hyundai USA a going concern even as Yugo, its main competitor, became a literal punchline and retreated tail between legs. It’s instructive to remember that at the time, South Korea was in fact a backwards, repressive dictatorship, so the Yugo comparison is rather apt.
However, while many Excels were sold, it’s very rare at this point to see any around, even the second-generation 1990-1994 cars. The car you see here, which was parked at a shopping center in Dorchester, MA a couple years ago, is a first-generation model. Some googling seems to show that the recessed headlights are unique to the GLS sedan model from 1985-1987, while the hatchbacks, non-GLSs, and later cars all have flush headlights. It’s hard to know though because even Google has few pictures of Hyundai Excels. They were mostly consigned to the scrap heap long before the internet was invented.
The most unique thing about this Excel is that it exists, 20 years after it rolled off the assembly line, and stranger yet is still driving about town. I haven’t seen another running first-gen Excel in years. Of course, the true holy grail is the Mitsubishi Precis, a badge-engineered Excel that was sold from 1987 on. Crappy rebadged cars are always a rarer and better spot than the original. I’ve seen one or two second-gen Precises, but I fear that there literally may not be a single first-gen Precis left in the world.
I’m not going to always do classic American cars. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. I do! It’s just that if you’re interested in seeing a ’69 Chevelle, you can go to a car show in any podunk town and there will be one there. I guarantee it. And yes, it’s cool someone restored it (or even kept it original) after over 40 years, and yes, it’s certainly different from 99% of cars on the road. But if you’re interested in seeing a Nissan AXXESS, or a Subaru XT, or a Ford Fairmont, those aren’t going to be at a car show. They’re also not going to be on the road. There’s no easy way to find one of those, and I think that makes it a much better and more interesting find. That said, there’s plenty of car-show-material cars that I still find interesting enough to put here. I’ve seen a million Dart GTS’s at shows, and yet this one is totally cool enough to post.
I’m pretty sure as street-parked American iron goes, I see more Darts/Valiants than anything else from that era or earlier. There must be some magic combination of high initial sales, robustness, and just enough enthusiasm to keep them running but not to lock them up in climate-controlled garages to wait for Barrett-Jackson 2025. They pretty much run the gamut from restored cars on their way to a show to solid drivers and then on to absolute beaters that you have to wonder how they survived. This Dart falls firmly into that last category.
First of all, it is parked on the streets of Manhattan. In the winter. Last winter, when we had like 50 feet of snow, not this winter. It looks like the driver parallel parks it with the patented “bumper car method.” It has no hubcaps. The paint is faded. And yet it’s a GTS, with at least a 340 V8. It still has the go-fast stripes on the back. Basically this is about as bad-ass a winter beater you can get. I hope it lasts many more winters before eventually being bought, fully restored, and sold for forty grand.
So here’s something that won’t be too interesting to anyone looking from Europe, but it’s quite strange for America. The Mercedes A-Class is the entry-level Mercedes in most markets. It’s a five-door hatch, shorter than a Mini Cooper and and costing roughly $30,000. Mercedes declined to bring it, or the slightly larger B-Class, to the American market for fear of diluting the brand, and also because premium subcompacts never really sell here anyway (see 3-Series hatch, C-Class hatch). However, that didn’t stop this diplomat from personally bringing one over. It’s likely the number of other A-Classes driving around in the US can be counted on one hand. That’s because it’s essentially impossible to legally bring foreign-market cars into the US. The only way to do it and not risk the Feds seizing your car and throwing you in jail (or at least court) is to spend months and many many many thousands of dollars proving to the government that the car meets US emission and crash test standards. And by the way, that involves buying a few identical cars and crashing them into various walls.
However, this person, a German consul member according to this plate-decoding site , happened upon the other way to bring in an unapproved car: diplomatic immunity. Diplomats don’t have to register their car at the DMV and they can drive whatever they want. That still doesn’t quite explain why someone went through the trouble of spending a ton of money to ship this car over, especially when no service shop here will know what to do with it if something goes wrong. Living in Boston, I see a lot of consulate plates, but they’ve all been on unremarkable US-market cars except this one.
I saw this car around Boston a few times in 2009-2010; these pictures were taken at a supermarket. I haven’t seen it for a couple years now, so they’ve probably moved on at this point either to a new car or hopefully just to a new posting so others can marvel at their determination to drive a tiny little Mercedes. A few other interesting things about this car: it is not even a late-model car. It looks like it’s from 2002-2003, so they didn’t even go through all of that trouble to bring over a new Mercedes. Also, you’ll notice it’s actually right-hand drive, so it’s weirdly probably a UK-market car. Just another way this car is a totally reasonable choice to drive around Boston over, say, every other car ever!
I thought for a while about what would be a good, representative first post, and I settled on this Nissan AXXESS. Here’s a car that most people would pass right on by, but for people in the know, it is a pretty rare find. The AXXESS is that rarest of breeds – the car sold in the US for only one year (1990) due to terrible sales. This of course makes it doubly rare later because not only did it sell poorly and for a short time, but parts availability becomes a serious problem down the road. The AXXESS is helped by the fact that it was sold in Canada for five years, so that might make it a little easier to find parts. But still, this is a rare find that probably takes significant effort to keep on the road 20 years after its manufacture.
The AXXESS was sold as the Prairie in European and Japanese markets and replaced the Stanza Van, a groundbreaking sliding-door minivan that predated the Chrysler vans by two years. The Stanza Van has basically disappeared from the roads, at least out East. I’d love to find one, but I’ve glimpsed a total of one in the past 5 years. I see about two AXXESS’s a year, but this is the only one I’ve been able to get good pictures of.
This particular AXXESS was in Montclair, NJ and looks recently (maybe illegally?) parked, so it appears to still be driving around, defying the odds.
So I’ve always been very interested in cars and especially in the unusual cars that you sometimes see around. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t get it, but there’s something about seeing someone still driving some crappy unloved 30-year-old car that nobody else cares about. The point is that it’s irrational and it’s passionate. Nobody has to drive a Isuzu Stylus at this point. It doesn’t make sense on so many levels. The car is essentially worthless except for the inherent value of a running vehicle, but if that’s all the person wanted, they could instead be driving an old Corolla or something – something just as cheap, but with parts availability, and reliability, and the possibility of finding a mechanic familiar with your car.
The same is true of the person who spends a ton of time and money to import some random car that isn’t sold in this country. It’s unreasonable. There are plenty of cars available to suit any taste. The person who simply must bring in, through some questionably legal means, a car that 99% of passersby will not even notice, just to then face outrageous costs and delays if anything at all breaks – these people are deeply, fundamentally weird. They’re weird in the same way as I am.
I’ve been taking pictures of cars that interest me for years, and now I think it’s high time to start sharing them. There are a number of other places on the internet that I’m familiar with offering something similar. I’d like to add my voice to the conversation and add a new venue for car nerds to check out. This will be a little different than some of the other sites. My personal tastes are a little different. A car just being old is not necessarily a qualifier for my site, while a newer car is not disqualified. It’s all about how interested I am by it. I also will be uploading photos from events – car shows and so on. However, cars must past a much higher interestingness threshold to be posted from a show. A Ferrari 275GTB would be posted if I saw it parallel parked on the street, but not at a show. A custom 275GTB pickup, however, would be posted no matter where I saw it.
Sadly, I don’t have the best camera and take most of my shots out and about with my phone. The photography will never be great here. This is more of an illustrated chronicle of my findings. I’ll be writing a bit about each find and what makes it so cool, at least in my mind.
One thing you’ll notice about most of those other blogs is that they are based on the west coast, where it’s dry and warm year-round. Well, unfortunately, I am based out of Boston and New York, where it’s rainy and salty. I’m looking out my window at a snow flurry as we speak. That also means my standards are a little lower. I know that when I went out to LA for a week, I saw more surviving Toyota Vans in a few days than I’d seen for years out here. Some stuff I think is really cool to find may still be a dime a dozen in the “Land that Rust Forgot” (shout out to DOTS!), but just keep in mind that cars here can rust into a pile of brown goop within ten years.
All that said, let’s get going! I’ll be posting here at least three times a week, with three posts today (after this one) to get the show on the road.