Saturn needed some new models by the late 1990s, and so GM spent a billion or so bucks to make an Americanized, plastic-bodied Opel Vectra and called it the L-Series. The L, which went through a bewildering series of model-name changes during its 2000-2005 production run, never sold very well and more or less sank without a trace. That makes it historically interesting, in sort of a run-up-to-the-bankruptcy way, much like the 2001 Pontiac Aztek Junkyard Find we saw yesterday. Yes, we’re having 21st Century Junkyard Find Week!
It takes a lot for a 21st-century vehicle to make it into this series, and the Pontiac Aztek has no problem qualifying. Here in Denver, you see Azteks all over the place, presumably because they make sense for the outdoorsy lifestyle that’s so big here (you also see a lot of Vanagon Syncros, presumably because there are lots of masochists here). That means that they’re going to break something not worth fixing and show up at the local self-serve wrecking yard, and I will photograph them. Today’s Junkyard Find Aztek is in excellent condition and appears to have every single option available when new, from heads-up display to air-mattress-inflation compressor. Let’s check it out.
The second-gen Chevrolet Tracker, a badge-engineered version of the Suzuki Vitara and the descendent of the Geo Tracker Suzuki Sidekick sibling, was sold all over the world with many nameplates. It was never much of a big seller in the United States, so this ZR-2 is an unusual Junkyard Find.
Now that we’re all about 21st-century Junkyard Finds this week, let’s admire another JF first: the Pontiac Aztek. A popular TV show really ended up muddying the cultural waters around the Aztek, in a process similar to what happened with the DeLorean DMC-12 in the late 1980s, so let’s try to remember back to a time when each of saw our first Aztek and thought what could The General have been thinking?
Since we started out this week with a relatively late-model Junkyard Find, I’m going to jump into the 21st century and share the first Honda Insight I’ve ever found in a high-inventory-turnover, self-service wrecking yard. I’ve seen a few thoroughly stripped early Priuses and didn’t think they were worth photographing, but the tiny two-seater first-gen Insight made the Prius look like a fuel-swilling pig and that makes it a much more interesting car to me. 61 highway miles per gallon, all sorts of advanced aluminum components, and a coefficient of drag of just 0.25… and yet this one couldn’t stay clear of The Crusher.
The final iteration of the Grand Am, which was built for the 1999 through 2005 model years, had all the looked-bad-after-five-years plastic cladding that made 1990s GM cars so forgettable and RAM AIR! GM cars of this vintage are still so commonplace in high-turnover self-serve wrecking yards that it takes something special for me to break out the camera for such a car; in this series so far, we’ve seen this supercharged Grand Prix GTP, this Beretta Z26, this Cavalier Z24, and this Pontiac Sunfire, and now it’s the Grand Am’s turn.
I admit I’ve got a sick fascination with luxury cars sold by companies not (at the time, in this market) known for luxury. There’s the Mitsubishi Diamante, of course, and the Mazda 929, and even the Volvo 262C Bertone (I’m still looking for a junked Daewoo Leganza, but either they don’t exist or— more likely— they fade into the junkyard background so perfectly that I never notice them). The Hyundai XG, well, that’s a perfect example of the “who’s laughing now?” phenomenon; just a decade ago, we all chortled at the idea of a Korean luxury sedan selling in the United States. Today, German and Japanese car-industry execs wake up screaming from Hyundai-themed nightmares. So, that makes today’s Junkyard Find of great historical significance (to me and maybe a dozen others).
Not many cars appear and disappear while leaving as little trace as did the Suzuki Aerio, which was sold in the United States for the 2002-2007 model years. Normally, I ignore such new cars when I’m wandering around the wrecking yards of Denver, but I’ll break out the camera when I find something of historical significance— for example, an example of the final year of the GM J-body’s 24-year run— or when I see a car that doesn’t seem to exist on the street any more. This Aerio is such a car.
It takes something really special about a 21st-century junkyard car to make me willing to include it in this series. The ’04 Pontiac Sunfire we saw recently was the last of the GM J Bodies, which gave it historical significance. The Chrysler “ cloud cars” mostly just serve as crusher fodder… but this one is so amazingly horrible that I had no choice but to photograph it.
Pontiac rolled with the Plastic Cladding Era about as far as it could, even as most other car manufacturers entered the 21st century in a de-cladifying mood. The Sunfire had cheerful molded plastic panels all over the place, but that isn’t enough to give this car the historical significance it needs to make it as a Junkyard Find. No, what made me pick up the camera when I saw this car is that the ’04 Sunfire is just about the last of the J Bodies, which makes it a close cousin to the Cadillac Cimarron d’Oro.
Last weekend, I rode a boxcar to Joliet, Illinois, with the rest of the 24 Hours of LeMons hobos and helped put on the third annual American Irony race. Traditionally, the justices of the LeMons Supreme Court travel around race-track grounds in some sort of Judgemobile appropriate to our exalted station, and this time we had the use of what turned out to be one of the greatest motor vehicles in the entire world: a 2008 Piaggio Ape (pronounced “ah-peh”) 50 Europe with just 21 miles on the clock.
The SUV arms race has been over for a few years now, with four-ton, leather-lined, full-framed trucks no longer appearing to be viable as the middle-class commuter machines they were during the SUV-crazed 1990s and 2000s. Oh, sure, you can still buy the things, but Times Have Changed. If we are to draw a parallel between the Golden Age of the Muscle Car (during which Detroit slapped off-the-shelf luxury-car engines and $27 worth of scoops and graphics on midsize commuter cars and made crazy money) and the Golden Age of the Big-Ass SUV (during which Detroit slapped off-the-shelf pleather and Simu-Wood™ trim and $27 worth of badging on full-sized work-truck chassis and made crazy money), then we are now in the SUV equivalent of about 1976. If so, this means that, in another decade or two, nostalgia for Navigators and Escalades will kick in, just as it did for GTOs and Super Bees in about 1985, and— just as with muscle cars— the love of these absurd luxo-trucks will take on symbolic connotations of past glory, an era before nanny-state killjoys, and so on.
One thing I’ve noticed after decades of prowling high-turnover self-service wrecking yards is the increasing average age of junked Hyundais. The first-gen Excel started showing up in junkyards in large quantities when the cars were about five years old (i.e., the worst car available in North America during the second half of the 20th century), and by the mid-1990s they were all gone. These days, most of the Crusher-bound Hyundais I see are more like 15 years old, about halfway between the average age of junked Chryslers and junked Hondas. The Tiburon has been around since 1997, and this is perhaps the third one I’ve seen in this setting.