An Arizona mechanic named Nick Dawson just scored the “barn find” of the century: a 1993 Toyota MR2 Turbo with less than 1,500 miles on the clock. But getting the car wasn’t easy, because it had been stolen from the dealer 25 years prior.
Dawson told me over the phone that he was at work one day in Arizona when he finally decided to take a closer look at a white MR2 that had been sitting around the shop since he’d started there three and a half years prior.
The car looked dusty, the paint underneath looked rough after years under the Arizona sun, and the interior was toast. But despite the car’s flaws, the mechanic—who was looking for an efficient vehicle to give his 300,000 mile 1998 Chevy K1500 Z71 a break—asked the shop owner about trying to have the car titled. “Have at it, but it’s gonna suck” the owner allegedly told him.
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According to the mechanic, the car had been towed to the shop in Buckeye, Arizona in 1999, and, after asking over the phone to have the car fixed, the “supposed” owner was never heard from again.
I spoke with the Arizona shop owner, Jim, and he told me that the MR2 just showed up out of the blue one day. “Wrecker dropped it off and said a guy would call me,” Jim told me over the phone. “[He] called me and gave me a name and a phone number. He wanted to make [the car] start and run, and [for me to] just let him know what [the price] was going to get into.” The seats were missing, the radio was gone, and the anti-theft light was blinking on the dash, Jim recalls.
I asked him if he suspected the car was stolen. “Well, not at that point, I didn’t,” Jim said. “Because—I forget the story [the owner] gave me—whether he had just bought the thing, or had it and it was broken into and stole the seats and stuff out of it. I honestly do not remember.”
After struggling to figure out how to fix this foreign vehicle (Jim says his shop fixed mostly American trucks at the time), Jim called the owner back. “I need to call this guy and tell him, ‘hey we’re gonna have $200 to $300 in this thing, bare minimum,” he said.
“I never could get ahold of anybody, and I tried several times,” Jim told me. “And [I] kinda looked the car a little more over, and, you know, there’s not a single piece of paperwork in it. No nothing, no registration...no plates.”
Jim told me he just forgot about the car, which at that point, he suspected might have been stolen. “It just sat and sat and sat, and I just, basically forgot about it. It’s been sitting there, I dunno, 20 years or whatever.” He told me he did try to get an abandoned vehicle title at one point, but that ended up being too difficult, with Jim saying “it was just a nightmare...I wasn’t in love with the thing, so I said screw it...I just kind a blew it off.”
When Dawson started working on getting the vehicle titled in the fall of 2017, the car was in about the same shape as when it had shown up to the shop nearly two decades prior, except for a bit of extra wear from all the years under the sun. “It definitely was rough when I got it,” he told me over the phone. “The inside was completely destroyed. Whoever had stolen the vehicle and stripped all the audio equipment and the seats and anything out had taken that whole center console out...basically the entire body harness was cut out of it,” he said.
But the interior was the least of his troubles; getting a title for this abandoned MR2 was a real chore, and in the end, would take Nick about six months in total. “[The process] was rough, to be completely honest,” he told me.
“In order to file for the abandoned vehicle title, I had to get a level 1 vehicle inspection done...that was the first time it was pinged as stolen,” he said.
That’s when the local police came to look at the car. “All they knew is that it was stolen in ‘93,” the mechanic told me over the phone. The police then signed off on the inspection, punting the MR2 over to the abandoned vehicle outfit in the Arizona Department of Transportation, ADOT.
After waiting 70 to 80 days to get a title, Dawson called ADOT, and learned that it was still in talks with another police department, waiting to be given the go-ahead. “At that point, I had gotten sick of waiting on the Department of Transportation, so I contacted the police directly myself.” After explaining the situation, a detective from the city where the car had been stolen years ago came to inspect the vehicle.
“There is a nine out of 10 chance that you are not going to get this car,” the detective allegedly told the mechanic before describing the process. “I’m going to tow the car away, I’m going to go through my records, I’m going to find who the previous owner was,” he allegedly said.
“If they want the car, they get the car. If they don’t want the car, it goes to the impound yard.” The mechanic told me that the officer said once the yard had the car, they had to wait a certain number of weeks, before they could apply for an abandoned vehicle title and sell the car to the mechanic.
“So [the detective] towed the vehicle away...went through their records, figured out it was stolen from the dealership with dealer plates in ’93,” the mechanic said.
I spoke with that detective, auto theft detective Mulvihill of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and he told me what he knew about the MR2 theft. “It was in fact stolen; it was stolen from a Toyota dealership in the Phoenix metropolitan area,” he told me. “Looks like it was stolen from a dealership with dealer license plates on it, so the car was most likely brand new. I know it had extremely low miles on it when I saw it,” referring to his inspection of the car at the mechanic’s shop.
When the detective went to look at the car, it didn’t look so hot. “It appeared to be sitting where it was for years. The tires were almost melted to the ground when I looked at it,” he said. “Looked like extremely low miles on it. Sitting there for years. We confirmed it was an act of stolen, [the mechanic] filed for the abandoned title, and they granted it.”
When I asked him why the dealership didn’t take their car back, detective Mulvihill told me he wasn’t sure, instead simply describing the process the Department of Public Safety went through. “Once we find a vehicle that is stolen, we recover it, it’s towed to a tow yard...and then the motor vehicle division goes through their steps trying to contact the original owner...to see if they want the vehicle, he said. “And if they get no response, or they get a response where the vehicle is not requested to be returned, then they grant the title to whoever is in possession of it.”
Eventually the car made its way to the impound yard to sit for a few weeks; shortly after it arrived, Dawson says, he received a letter from the Department of Transportation authorizing the transfer of the title into the shop’s name.
So after confirming with authorities, Dawson went to the Department of Transportation, showed the necessary documents, and got the title transferred. He then took the MR2 to the shop, got the car through emissions, registered the car, and transferred the title to his own name after paying the shop owner $500. “While I was getting it registered, it got pinged as stolen again, but once again, I had all the legal paperwork; had all of my ducks in a row. Got my title, and that was that.”
So now Dawson owns this ridiculously low-mileage Toyota MR2, but it’s definitely a project.“It’s not perfect, but it’s about as close as you can get for a car from that era,” he said, going on to mention a few dings and paint chips here and there, and that the front bumper could use some paint.
The car needed a lot of work just to get to its current condition. For example, the mechanic told me it was “incredibly difficult” to find seats for the thing, and that he had to drop $400 to get a pair shipped from Ohio.
He also dropped about the same amount on tires, and had to empty his wallet for fuel lines, a fuel pump, a sending unit, interior panel buttons, two rear speakers, an eight-inch subwoofer and a head unit.
“I think, all in all, I’ve got just around $3,000 in the car, and that’s including six months of insurance, registration, tires, everything,” Dawson told me.
He says he thinks he could fetch around 15 to 20 grand for the car, but that he has no plans to sell the Toyota. “At this time, I don’t think anyone could pry that thing out of my hands....[I] completely intended on having [the MR2] sold by now. But it took less than 100 miles to realize that this car is not going anywhere. It’s mine. I love it.”
He went on to gush more about the car. “Being behind the wheel of that car is—it’s just, it’s different. It feels intuitive, it feels special... it kinda sounds lame, but you really do feel the road and feel the car working through you...after feeling that, I don’t wanna give it up.”
He said maybe four years down the road, he might sell the mid-engine sports car, but not now. “I’m not hurting for money that bad. Not to get rid of something that makes me that happy.”
The self-proclaimed “bowtie boy” told me how different it was driving a little turbocharged MR2 versus his big K1500 and his 1963 Chevy C10. “To go from big-block Chevys to little a two-liter turbo is kind of a culture shock for me, and I’m digging it so far,” he said. “And I tell you what, 24 miles to the gallon is a hell of a lot better than the 12 or so I’ve been getting for the past seven years.”
Right now, the mechanic is doing what the car gods want him to: he’s driving the MR2. “Since I got it running last month, I’ve put 1,000 miles on it. And next weekend, I’m taking it up north on a little 400 mile round trip road trip.”
He says he’s been daily-driving his new sports car for three weeks, and plans to continue to do so until he gets all the bugs worked out, at which point this amazing, low-mileage Toyota MR2 will become a “Sunday fun-day” vehicle. And that’s great, because after sitting in the Arizona sun for nearly two decades, this Toyota MR2 deserves to be driven.
All images by Nick Dawson