Tacoma’s Exquisite Old Cars

Tacoma is a weird town, to be sure, but weirdness often carries with it some unexpected benefits. Macho gearhead Nick Martens takes us on a tour of Tacoma’s awesome, ugly old cars in a misguided attempt to communicate the “Tacoma Aesthetic.”

In the past, we may have been less than kind to Tacoma, Washington, the humble town that hosts our university. Kevin highlighted some of the town’s stranger restaurants (e.g. Sar’s Asian Cuisine), and Caitlin went undercover to expose the cadre of weirdos that hangs out at Bertolino’s 24 hour cafe.

Today, I want to give Tacoma its due, to a certain extent. It’s true that we live in an odd city, with relatively high crime, comparatively boring culture, and few distinguishing landmarks. Down here, it’s hard not to envy Seattlites.

However, Tacoma does have its… “charms.” I’ve been living here for the better part of two-and-a-half years, and one thing that strikes me more than anything is the town’s unique aesthetic. It’s by no means beautiful, but it has a gritty, old Americana vibe that you just cant find in slicker, more hip cities. Fans of HBO’s The Wire know what I’m talking about (or, I suppose, residents of Baltimore, where The Wire is set).

A good way to illustrate this “Tacoma Aesthetic” is the cars you can see around town. Please note here that I am not an old car buff, nor a particularly practiced photographer (Canon point ‘n shoot FTW). That said, I have never seen such an amazing collection of dirty, battered ’70s rides than I see daily in Tacoma. Of course, I don’t actually know if most of these cars are from the ’70s, but they feel like the ’70s, dammit, and that’s all that matters.


A few clarifications as we begin. First, I took all of these pictures while biking within ten blocks of my house, which tells you something about the raw concentration of sweet old cars in the area. Second, I tried, for the most part, to leave some bits of Tacoma scenery in the shots to show you how the cars fit into the landscape. Lastly, I blurred all the license plates in case any of my neighbors are fugitives, which, this being Tacoma, is actually pretty likely.


This Datsun is parked just around the corner from me. I hope this gives you an idea of where I’m coming from with these pictures. If you don’t think old, ugly, brown sedans are awesome, you’re probably not going to see the appeal in any of these shots. If that kind of thing floats your boat, though, you better strap yourself in.


I found this GMC Sierra just down the block from the Datsun, as you may be able to discern from the same brown house in the background. This rustmobile has “For Official Use Only” stenciled in barely-legible dark green on the door. It warms the heart to imagine what kind of official use this truck could possibly withstand today. Perhaps transporting sick puppies and ducklings?


A few blocks further down the same street, I ran across these two Chevy trucks. I particularly enjoy the hideous matte-grey paint with pristine white hood on the front truck. It’s like a perfect inverse of a Type R tuner.


Another truck found–this one’s a Ford–and I still haven’t left my original street. This thing is in surprisingly good shape, and there’s a sign in the back window that reads “Parking for Swedes Only.” I guess those Scandinavians know how to take care of an old, American pick-up. Who’d a thunk it?


Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I’m on a different street now, but damn if this isn’t exactly the kind of car I was looking for. As best I can tell, this model is from around 1969, before the introduction of the well-known Range Rover brand.


The amazing thing is that this car actually gets driven. When I went past the same spot again a few days later, it was gone. This car strikes me as the kind of thing a collector would die to own, but, here in Tacoma, it gets put to work. This could be a wholly misguided sentiment, I know, but it’s a cool notion so I’m sticking to it.


What an utterly fantastic face on this Winnebago. I also love the orange extension cord snaking underneath and the bold “W” on the side. I don’t care how crappy the interior is, cruising around in this behemoth would be the sweetest road trip ever. Talk about a chick magnet.


Now this is a terrifying car. The red logo on the grill is a menacing as it is badass. Who would’ve figured that an Oldsmobile would fit into “Death Proof”? Not that you would have noticed it through all the “natural” women’s dialogue.


Two things about this Ford Econoline: 1) Totally rad paint job. 2) Look how fucking long it is! You could fit a ping-pong table back there. Hey, maybe I should make the owner an offer…


There were a lot of VW Buses to choose from, but this was probably my favorite. The missing “VW” badge reveals three modest drill-holes, which the mind closes into a simple “V,” giving the whole face a humble rather than gaudy feel. Also, why don’t they paint cars this color anymore? I want a BMW M3 in that beige.


I don’t know why companies stopped writing their names in huge, bold white letters across the backs of their pick-ups. Not only is it a permanent advertisement, but it looks pretty great, too. The “1 TON” tag in the corner is a nice touch, and you know you’re in Washington when a truck has a bumper sticker reading “I [Heart] Trees.”


Speaking of long cars… holy shit. What could you possibly fill the trunk of this Cadillac with? I mean, before the bottom of the car starts scraping against the road. I have a picture in my head of raising the trunk lid and finding it filled to the brim with styrofoam packing peanuts (or “missing matter” for all you Hitchhiker‘s fans).


This Firebird is winking at me. It’s saying, “Hey stranger, wouldn’t you like to play with my six cylinder automatic?” Frankly, I’m not sure if I’m more disturbed by the car or my imagination at this point. I’m gonna call my shrink as soon as I finish this post.


This is just gratuitous. It doesn’t fit with the tone of this article or of Tacoma even to the slightest degree. That said, it is fantastically gorgeous. I believe it’s a ’51 Packard 200.


Here’s a close-up of the hood. I’m thinking about breaking off that swan ornament and bolting it to my Subaru. The owner might notice that one, though…


Everything about this Ford Falcon is amazing. The color, the grille, the lights, even the wheels. It’s like the VW Bus’s ugly American cousin. I have to admit, though, to being slightly perplexed by the name “Falcon.” Usually I don’t associate agile birds of prey with lumpy vans from the ’60s.


If you asked me why this Plymouth is, by far, my favorite car out of this entire lot, I don’t think I cold explain it to you. The perfect brown paint, the inward-sloping front, the two-tone badge… it all appeals to me on some primordial level.


Here’s the completely unnecessary low-angle shot. I can picture myself in it now, cruising through Tacoma’s industrial zone, Television’s “Marquee Moon” on the ancient, nearly-broken stereo, and finally being content with life. Then it breaks down and spends 90% of its life at the mechanic’s. But that 10%, man, that would be sweet.


20 years ago, this was probably the coolest car in Tacoma. I mean, a Golf painted in German national colors? Hell yes. Today, sadly, it seems to be completely immobile. This is my junior year at college, and this car is always in the exact same place every time I pass it. Perhaps it’s simply a monument to a prouder bygone era.


Now this is a poignant automobile: A beautiful old Mercedes-Benz, with no fewer than three crests on its hood and grill. Aside from a bit of rust around the bottoms of the doors, the pristine white paint is in fine shape, looking a quick polish away from being back to its former splendor.


Of course, the window is busted and covered with duct tape.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.