Acres of fine European automobiles reduced to rust, rot and twisted metal, piled high on each other in a massive wrecking yard, is the subject of a new photography book named, appropriately, Junkyard.
Perished Porsches, mangled Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Maseratis and other esteemed cars in various states of battered decay fill the pages of this large hardcover book, presenting an artistic but melancholy look at the ruins of hundreds of once-admired and desired automobiles.
The 16½ acres of automotive rubble was the creation of the late Rudi Klein, an eccentric and taciturn German immigrant who compiled this massive junkyard starting in 1967, turning it into a tight-fisted salvage-yard business named Foreign Auto Wrecking, where prices were lofty and you had to catch Klein in a favorable mood for selling anything at all.
Entry to the wrecking yard was strictly verboten, turning the south Los Angeles business – surrounded with high walls – into a secretive place of hidden treasure and, for collector car hobbyists, restorers and collectors, with a veil of mythology and legend.
German photographer Dieter Rebmann and author Roland Löwisch managed to catch Klein on a very good day, not only gaining admission to the junkyard’s hallowed grounds but getting to take photographs throughout the assembled piles of woe.
According to a nicely written and informative introduction to the book by Löwisch, we learn that Klein actually took them on a tour of the inner recesses of his magnificent obsession, into some of the ramshackle buildings to behold such beauties as an alloy-body Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing coupe, a derelict Lamborghini Miura and an ultra-rare 1950s BMW 502, one of two with a body by Autenriech, which the automaker attempted to buy from Klein for its collection. But, no dice.
Some of the cars have celebrity names attached to them, such as Burt Lancaster, Hugh Hefner, Tony Curtis and Sunny and Cher Bono. One of the most-spectacular finds was a 1935 Mercedes 500K Spezial Coupe that was the personal car driven by prewar Mercedes grand prix racing champion Rudolf Caracciola. This car, originally a convertible converted to a coupe after an accident, was restored and shown at the Pebble Beach Concours in 1978.
Klein obtained this gem in 1980, but things quickly went south. The car failed to start for Klein at a Mercedes show, and as legend has it, he was so furious that he trailered it back to his junkyard, where it was “banished to a dark and dingy hut,” Löwisch wrote. “It is believed that he never touched the car again.”
The strangeness of the wrecking yard is a reflection of the owner. Many of the cars were crashed and written off by insurance companies, which then sold them to Klein. He essentially never restored any of them, and one has to wonder whether he just liked having the many pieces of wreckage within his purview.
The photographs are beautifully done and presented more as fine art than an automotive pictorial. A majority of the pictures do work as art, evocatively showing the unique assemblage. Some of the others, however, just look like junk in a junkyard. It helps considerably to have a knowledge of the cars to understand the significance of the photos, even though each picture is nicely captioned.
For me, the plethora of wrecked and rusted Porsche 356s was just saddening, especially when I spotted one that could have been my own little ’62 coupe if it hadn’t survived over the decades.
Published by Motorbooks, Junkyard was previously published in German in 2017. The book has a high-quality feel, brightly printed on heavy paper stock.
One thing that seems odd about the entire endeavor, however: the photography session and the encounter with Rudi Klein happened more than 20 years ago and just now are we seeing the published results.
Klein died of a heart attack in 2001 at the age of 65, and his two sons now run the junkyard, which has been changed and vastly reduced from when Rebmann’s photos were taken. Indeed, the subject of this photo essay no longer exists as it’s shown here.
Still, it’s an intriguing and thoughtful reflection on the ravages of time and nature, and it is gorgeously presented.
By Dieter Rebmann and Roland Löwisch
Hardcover, 368 pages