By on February 2, 2011

Going through my old 2X2X2 35mm stereo slide pairs for posting on Cars In Depth (I’ve been messing around with twin-film-camera 3D for about 15 years now), I came across some shots of the ever-varied fleet of late-80s/early-90s Japanese subcompacts I owned during the heyday of San Francisco’s notorious City Tow car auctions.
City Tow has since been replaced by Auto Return, whose auctions are way less fun than the Wild West madness of the circa-2000 City Tow auctions. Back in those days, you’d show up to a grimy parking lot at Pier 70, eyeball a couple hundred towed vehicles in unknown condition (would the car start? were the seats packed with dirty syringes? Who knows?) for maybe 15 minutes, then get to bidding. Crowds of Hunter’s Point gang-bangers kept the auction proceedings lively, and 10-to-15-year-old Civics, Tercels, Corollas, and Sentras usually went for $100 to $300. I had a job not far from Pier 70, so I’d often drop by and risk a couple hundred bucks on, say, an ’86 CRX or ’90 Prizm. You’d pay your money, pay some sleazebag with a trunk full of car keys $35 to find a key that fit your new ride, then pay another dude with a car battery in a shopping cart 5 bucks for a jump start. I’d always bring starter fluid and a bare-bones toolbox, and I never once bought a Toyota, Honda, or Nissan that wouldn’t start (though I did once buy a Tercel wagon that had only third through fifth gears, which made climbing up the steep access road out of Pier 70 a real adventure.

That Tercel ended up being a keeper, after I swapped in a Pick-N-Pull transmission; I’d traded my previous Tercel wagon— that one a 4WD model— to a guy who worked at Alternative Tentacles, in exchange for a bunch of the album inserts of the controversial H.R. Giger artwork used in the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist. Hmmm… wonder if those are worth anything now? The other two cars in the top photo— a ’90 Tercel hatchback and a ’91 Nissan Sentra coupe— didn’t stick around quite as long. Still, I think the early 90s era was really the golden age of Japanese subcompacts; they all had fuel injection, got great gas mileage, and were still small.

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20 Comments on “2000: San Francisco Tow-Auction Cars Fill My Back Yard...”

  • avatar

    Like you, I really liked those boxy Tercel wagons. Must have been the oddly-deep rear side window, kind of its style signature. A friend of mine had a creamy yellow one with a matching plaid creamy yellow interior. The colors actually worked very well and was quite attractive. That little car really ran very well, too. Yeah, the late 80’s-early 90’s truly were the best years for cars like these as you said. The new Tercel – the goofy rounded coupe, 1991? – those were flat-out ugly. I still see one every so often and they’re still ugly, and that wide black rubber gasket around the quarter window is the focal point of the whole car! The wagon pictured may look like that back end was tacked on, but the design worked. They were comfortable to ride around in around town, too, even as a back seat passenger. Nice article!

  • avatar

    “Still, I think the early 90s era was really the golden age of Japanese subcompacts”

    As a 91 sentra se-r owner, I completely agree with the above sentiment.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Wow a blast from the past when automakers believed that almost all of the vehicles should come in coupe, sedan, wagon, and/or hatchback versions.  What a radical idea! 

    • 0 avatar

      “coupe, sedan, wagon, and/or hatchback versions” Yeah, Dan that too!

    • 0 avatar

      Not always a good thing… Remember the GM G body hatchbacks?

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      @Birddog, Are you kidding!  If I could find one of the Cutlass Supreme versions in solid shape (rust free body, clean and solid orginal interior) I’d drop a new SBC and a rebuilt Turbohydramatic in it in a heartbeat!  Imagine how bad-a$$ that sucker would be with a dark paint job, tinted windows, chrome shining, and rubber that fills the wheelwells! 

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The Sentra coupe in the top pic is an ’89 or ’90.

    • 0 avatar

      Is it? I had several red Sentras from that era but don’t recall any ’89s or ’90s. I thought this was the ’91 that had been owned by a trust fund and had $45,000 worth of San Francisco DPT parking tickets on it (the printout that came with each City Tow auction car included a history of the reasons it was towed).

    • 0 avatar

      Yes – that boxy Sentra is a ’90 at latest, according to Wikipedia. ’91 was the first year of the next generation (B13), which was more rounded and, IMHO, resembles its contemporary Audi 80/90, especially in the taillights.

  • avatar

    I also loved those old Tercel wagons.
    My boss here just bought an 89 Integra from an auction last week with no battery and no idea if it would start.  This is not our business–he did it for fun, first time.  He paid $200.  We put a battery in it and it started up.  250k on odometer.  However, the clutch is absolutely fried (only lets out at top 1/2 centimeter of travel and engine revs really high to keep it moving) and the piston rings must be non existent because the trail of oil smoke going down the road is impressive, as is the oil leaking out from the valve cover after driving it around the block.  But damn, it started and did move, which is something to say about the durability of the basic mechanicals.

    Now we don’t really know what to do with it…it’s not in good enough shape to be considered a running vehicle, I wouldn’t sell it to anyone expecting to drive it home. We could part it out but again, that’s not our business.

  • avatar

    We had an ’83 Tercel 5-door and an ’86 Tercel wagon (2wd).  Both were AMAZING little cars.  Slow, but unbelievably practical, roomy and durable.

  • avatar

    I have owned or worked on all the cars you had pictured and I’m still loving my ’85 4Runner. I shouldn’t have sold my SR5 Tercel, neither should have you!

  • avatar

    Missing the Berkeley Barb.

  • avatar

    This post is all kinds of awesome, from the stereo slides to the Frankechrist artwork!

  • avatar

    While technically a tad newer, this is exactly how I feel about the 1997 Tercel parked outside of my office right now.  192k on the odometer, and I still have all of the confidence in the world in it (around town…she’s not the most comfy car out on the interstate).  Option?  yeah…how ’bout an engine, a transmission, brake, tires two doors and a steering wheel?  The windows are manual (yes, Virginia…they do still exist) and the engine is all of 90 or so HP.  But for that, I get stupendous MPG and a car I can leave unlocked anywhere without concern of it being stolen.  That car will remain in my possession until it literally falls apart (which might be a long, long time).

  • avatar

    I always thought the rear styling on the hatch looked rather like an 80s ATM machine on those Tercel wagons.

  • avatar

    I always thought the Tercel wagons , especially the beige ones , looked like pet carriers from the rear .

  • avatar

    Lets not rose tint the past. My 90 Sentra was a raucous  shitbox on the highway with only a 3-speed auto with no o/d [a GLC/323? would have been my smarter choice]. This Sentra’s  rear leg was pinched to say the least. I had oil leaks, an air pocket in the rad and the tranny smelt of Deep Woods Off – oh what could that have poss heralded..? Plus the sheetmetal was sooo miserably thin you only had to look at it to make a dent.

  • avatar

    Going through my old 2X2X2 35mm stereo slide pairs for posting on Cars In Depth (I’ve been messing around with twin-film-camera 3D for about 15 years now),
    Some of Murilee’s handiwork:

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