My family and friends don’t understand why I buy rusty, dilapidated vehicles. “Why not purchase something that doesn’t look like it just came out of a junkyard?” they ask. The answer to that question is complex, and requires an examination of what it is that makes a car beautiful.
The day I sold my clean 1996 manual Jeep Cherokee was the day that—according to some of my friends— I went off the deep end. “Why would he sell the only presentable car in his collection to keep a bunch of rusty piles of garbage?” they asked each other while prepping for an intervention. Meanwhile, I remained confused by why nobody seemed to understand my position.
So many of my friends shake their heads at my “aesthetically challenged” Willys CJ-2A, Jeep J10 and Jeep Cherokee, but in so doing, they assume that the notion of what makes up a “beautiful” automobile is universal. It isn’t.
What makes a car beautiful is a very nuanced thing; to many, it’s a nice coat of paint, body panels that don’t have holes in them and a lemony-fresh interior. But to me, it’s an unquantifiable something called soul. And no cars in the world have more soul than junkers do.
Take my Jeep J10 pickup, for example. I bought the truck from a farm in the boondocks of North Carolina, where the Jeep was totally beaten to crap, with dings along its bed from years of bailing hay, herding cattle, growing tobacco, pulling stumps, building barns, and transporting firewood.
Actually, I made all of those up— who knows exactly where all those dings came from, but that’s the beauty of old junkers: their imperfections provide a blank canvas for imagination to run wild, to envision a rich life that came before.
Flaws like these dings give the car soul, and—in my eyes—soul is the very essence of beauty.
I have never owned a car with more soul than my 1948 Willys CJ-2A. The first civilian Jeep after World War II, the CJ-2A was marketed to farmers, and used to dig trenches, plow fields, and lift heavy equipment.
I bought my Jeep straight out of a barn in rural Michigan from a bunch of shirtless, bearded ranchers, so it is about as legit as CJs come. And that interesting backstory manifests itself in all sorts of peculiar aesthetic “blemishes” that, to me, aren’t blemishes at all.
There’s a Ford leaf spring welded in to fix the broken frame; the camouflage paint job is weird, containing the names Linda Lou and Virgil at the base of the windshield; then, of course, there are the welded sheetmetal panels and the burlap-sack seat covers.
But all that stuff was inconsequential on the farm. What was most important was that this thing ran and drove. It was a workhorse first and foremost, and little things like dodgy patch-jobs, questionable paintwork, or frayed seat-covers didn’t matter as much as whether the Jeep could harvest the field before the crops died.
Despite the fact that I’m getting my butt handed to me by this dysfunctional machine, there’s a certain charm to the rust from the moisture of 69 years on the farm; there’s a sweetness to the thick caked-on mud from bumping through the fields; and there’s even something pleasant about the dodgy repair jobs clearly done by those farmers who valued function over all else. Every “flaw” is a window into the car’s past. In my eyes, each one enriches the car by making it drip with soul and character.
And never more does that soul and character manifest itself in true beauty as the moment I get behind the wheel, smell the moldy seat filler and burning oil, sit my butt on the torn seat-covers, and gaze through the cracked windshield at a hood dented from years of barnyard abuse. The feeling I get when driving a junker is unparalleled by any other automotive sensation.
Another thing that draws me to junkers is the idea of giving these neglected cars a second chance at life. They already have three of their wheels in the junykard as it is. When I bought that 1995 Jeep Cherokee, it had been T-boned into a sign so hard that the rear door was jammed permanently shut, all of the floorboards were rotted out, the clear-coat was toast, and there were dents all over the body. The Jeep was ready to bow out to the scrapyard gods.
But I gave the Jeep a second chance, and it paid me back tenfold. After about $1,500 in parts, the Jeep blew my mind on the 2,000 mile trip to Moab, absolutely beast-mode-ing the trails and out-performing cars 50 times its price. The idea that a vehicle with such potential could be relegated to a junkyard because of a few superficial aesthetic “flaws” (which, again, I think give the vehicle character) confuses me.
Though they may look rough on the outside, many of these junkers have hearts and drivetrains of gold, ready to serve you faithfully for years to come.
So, to everyone who thinks I’m off my rocker, now you know the reasons for my love of crusty, musty, rotten old automobiles. To me, it’s the quirks and idiosyncrasies—the very things that many find off-putting—that bring a car’s rich history to life. And that animated history ultimately gives the car soul, making junkers the most interesting—and most beautiful—cars on the road.
I guess I’m just lucky (or unlucky) that the vehicles I find beautiful also happen to be the cheapest cars out there. My house is quickly becoming a safe haven for misfit Jeeps who want nothing more than a second chance, and I intend to give them just that.