This story originally ran in 2014 on Hot Rod. For more barn find and classic car content, check out Hot Rod Network.
You’ve probably seen images from this place before. Big finned Cadillacs sinking slowly in the loam, a 1967 GTO peering out from waist-high weeds, vines curling around the mirrors and in and out of hood scoops, pre-safety glass windshields starred and fogged from decades of quiet resting in the woods. There are more than six miles of trails in and around the Georgia forest land that houses these picturesque scenes of abandonment, and the owner of it all, Dean Lewis, knows exactly how striking it is.
There is a sign on the fence that reads “CARS, ART, NATURE, HISTORY.” That sums up Dean’s approach to his 34-acre vintage car scrapyard pretty well. Actually, calling it a scrapyard might lead to the wrong impression; maybe “adventureland” would be better. Dean calls it “Photographers Paradise,” and that works too, although you don’t have to be behind the lens to enjoy walking the wooded trails of Old Car City, USA. For a car junkie, it’s a bit like walking the Louvre, if that famous museum had left the Mona Lisa outside for 25 years.
The business started back in 1931, when Dean’s parents opened a small general store in White, Georgia, a tiny town only formed a few years earlier. The Lewis’ added a scrapyard business to the store, and Dean says his childhood was spent playing with cars in that junkyard. His folks had moved out of the junk business by the time Dean got interested in taking over the property in the 1970s, but there were still some ’40s cars sitting around in the woods. Dean started buying cars from auctions and private parties and recycling yards. He expanded so much he had to buy more land to keep everything on. The area became a playground for Dean, his friends, his children, and his grandchildren. A creative group, they’d use scrap metal to build towers and airplanes and other oddities in and around the rusting frames of muscle cars and ’50s classics. Eventually, the place became more of an art project than a working salvage yard, and that’s when Dean realized he could make more money charging admission like a theme park than parting out the displays.
Like all good art, Old Car City is not without controversy. Collectors hoping to score a bargain leave the place grumbling and dissatisfied. “Everything is for sale,” Dean told us, “But only at a price that makes it worth it for me. If I sell this, it’s gone. I don’t have it anymore. I can’t replace it.” The Internet seems split between people who think Dean owes something to the hobby to get these cars in the hands of people who will restore them, and those who think it’s cool just to be able to see a photogenic spot with so many incredible automobiles in one place. Patina hounds and Ruin Porn aficionados will have no complaints about the set-up.
We aren’t here to tell you how to feel, so we’ll just tell you how we felt walking through the abandoned cars and moss-covered engine blocks. It’s incredibly peaceful, a little sad, and very inspiring. A thick layer of pine needles cushions the well-maintained trails, and the light filters down soft and green through the trees. We went on a weekday and wandered for more than an hour without ever seeing another person, our only company the ghosts of the cars’ previous owners, and a brightly feathered bird that watched us suspiciously from his perch on the exposed valve train of a lichened small-block Chrysler. Dean says he’s heard reports of the occasional bear sighting, but the scariest creature we spotted was a spider the size of the previously mentioned small block making a web in the interior of a late 1960s station wagon.
Old Car City is loosely divided by make, here a row of Fords and Mercurys, around the bend a clearing with AMCs and Chryslers, but you never know what you’ll find peeking out from a blanket of leaves, or tucked inside a weathered wooden lean-to. The variety is staggering, we saw special package options we had forgotten about—Hornet Sportabout, anyone? Gold Duster?—as well as high performance cars that we thought had all been restored by now—’68 Super Bee? Olds 442?—it doesn’t even seem possible that these cars ever ended up in a junkyard.
Most of the time, the patina and decay just highlighted the beauty of the car’s original design. Moss creeping over a taillight or ferns wrapping around a door handle draw the eye to styling elements in a way you might ignore if you were looking at a restored car. Every once in awhile we did succumb to the sense of loss that seeing these cars rot away can inspire in the “Save the Whales” side of your brain. The sight of a 1970 Dodge Challenger, its egg-crate grille twisted around a small sapling, its wood-grained door panels crumbling into dust made us miss our own cars, and want to rush home and rebuild a 440 to get ours back on the road before it joins its sister in returning to the earth.
Maybe that’s the real lesson that car lovers should take away from Dean’s place. You are lucky to have your project car, and it’s lucky to have you. Treat it well, don’t let it waste away in your garage waiting for someday. Get it running, get it out there. Do it for the lost cars of Old Car City.
If you’re near White, Georgia (about 1.5 hours from Atlanta), don’t miss a chance to go through Old Car City for yourself. We recommend showing up with good walking shoes, a big memory card in your camera, and a lot of bug spray. Old Car City is open Tuesday through Saturday and costs $20 for admission (or $30 if you plan to take pictures). Don’t forget to check out Dean’s art gallery in the upstairs section of the museum.