Home » The Counterintuitive Reason Why Rust Can Actually Be Good For Car Culture

The Counterintuitive Reason Why Rust Can Actually Be Good For Car Culture

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I realize this is going to sound a bit insane, but after living in Detroit for a decade and then moving to LA, I’ve come to a rather counterintuitive conclusion that rust can actually be good for car culture. I know, I know!  The notion that the brown cancer that sends precious automotive gems to the junkyard far too early can somehow be an advantage to car culture is truly absurd, but hear me out! It’s all about making car culture inclusive and accessible to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Like, I said: hear me out.

I’ve now been attending LA car shows regularly for nearly a year, and I have to say: Car culture here is strong. Like, really strong. The variety of vehicles one can see in LA is probably unparalleled anywhere on earth, Detroit included. Do you like French cars? You can expect to see Citroen DSes not just at car shows, but driving on the streets. You’re into Italian stuff? LA has plenty of Lancias and Fiats and Alfa Romeos roaming around. The JDM scene here is unbelievable, and American muscle abounds. There are low riders, off-road machines, resto-modded everything, supercars, all sorts of electric cars — the list goes on and on. LA has it all.

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And there are, of course, plenty of normal, non-exotic older cars that have withstood the test of time. You wanna find a clean 1998 Chevy Astro van? They’re all over the place, probably hauling things to small businesses. Ditto with Toyota Previas. Are you looking for a rust-free Jeep Cherokee XJ? They’re literally used as commuters and shop vehicles. What about, say, a Ford Pinto? Someone at Galpin daily drives one:

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And look at this old Ford LTD that’s just being daily driven:

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The point is that high-volume “normal” cars like the Astro, Previa, Pinto, LTD, and Cherokee are still fairly plentiful in LA, as they haven’t yet rotted to the ground. As a result, if you attend a car show here in SoCal, you are unlikely to find such machines: You will almost exclusively find rare, often expensive cars. That’s the one thing that sticks out to me about LA car shows: There’s often an undertone of wealth at car shows. That’s not to say that car shows are exclusionary; no, there are plenty of “show up at this place at this time in any car”-type car shows, but cars that get reactions and that make a car show special in LA are the rare ones, and those are often expensive. So if you want to get into the car hobby and attend car shows with your own vehicle, you have find something unique. It can be done on the cheap, but it’s got to be the right car — a Holy Grail that’s rare, but maybe not valuable.

A good example is this Dodge Dakota convertible, whose owner was thrilled to show me his burgundy-interior, five-speed gem, which he noted was actually quite cheap. It’s a great example of an inexpensive and yet special car.

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[Editor’s Note: I just want to differ with David here a bit. I lived in LA for almost 20 years and went to many, many car events with all kinds of car people, and there is not “often an undertone of wealth” as David says. It’s there in places, sure, but I had friends bring old Citroëns and Ramblers and beat-t0-shit Soviet Bloc cars and other deeply strange things – but they were strange and valueless. Scarcity does not equal wealth. What gets rewarded is how interesting the car is, not how expensive. So, sure, lots of stuff was hard to find, but that in no way means that those cars were valuable to, well, pretty much everyone other than the owner drinking in all of those baffled smiles and head shakes like they were tequila shots. – JT]

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[Response to Editor’s Note: Like I said with the Dakota above, some inexpensive cars — if they’re rare enough — do fit into car shows in LA. My point is that a rust-free Toyota Previa with faded paint does not. In Detroit, it does. -DT]. 

But in Detroit, having a machine worthy of a car show is easy.

You can show up to a car show in one of the aforementioned “normal, non-exotic older cars” like a Chevy Astro or Toyota Previa or Jeep XJ or definitely a Ford Pinto, and you will get lots of attention. That is, if your vehicle is rust-free.

Yes, I realize that the entirety of my point here is that in Michigan the bar for a “decent” older vehicle is so low that just showing up in a rust-free older car means you’ll get plenty of attention at car shows, but that’s just the reality of it, and it makes car shows extremely inclusive. In California if you want to attend a car show and fit in, you have to find something rare or exceedingly low mileage/minty, but in Detroit all you have to do is grab a vehicle that has either been garage-kept or that spent most of its years south of the Mason Dixon line, and you’re officially part of the club.

I used to love ogling at rust-free “normal” 1990s cars in Detroit. “Damn, this Crown Vic is MINT!” I’d say. “Hot damn, where did you snag this minty Jeep Gladiator?” I’d inquire, eyes agape. The owner would then regale me with a wonderful story about how they found it in South Carolina or in some local garage with only a few miles on the odometer. The car probably only cost them a few grand, and yet it was the highlight of the local car show, with the owner chatting with impressed car-nuts, making friends, feeling like they belong.

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I’ll also note that rust has allowed me to own cars that I would otherwise never have been able to afford. An FC-170 without rust?! Forget it; that’ll break the bank!:

Rust is still a bad thing overall, of course — I’m not saying it’s good! But it sorta does lower the barrier to entry into car culture in the rust belt, and it does let you own cars that you can’t otherwise afford…and I kind of like that.

 

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Oldskool
Oldskool
4 months ago

There is Detroit (along with surrounding car birthplaces), and there is the rest of Michigan. Shows in Detroit areas might be more accepting of rust free run of the mill cars because they were built there. But for the rest of us Michiganders, unless you got a Muscle type car, old time antique, or something crazy custom and flawless, you won’t fit in. It’s coming around a little, but I got a feeling it will take another 20-30 years, until us 80s/90s kids are the new retired generation. My rust free 80s Cutlass wagon gets tons of great comments in the general public like gas stations but that’s about it. I’m thankful for the handful of shows like Radwood, Back To The 80s, etc. where the cars we grew up with are celebrated. I went to 3 such shows this summer, one in Minnesota.

But rust, yes car ownership in the north revolves around it. I keep nice summer cars and sacrificial winter beaters. Knowing how to weld and fabricate has saved me so much money. When I see pictures of junkyard cars in the south, I just shake my head. Rust free straight body, junked for a dead fuel pump. Like what, they just got tired of the car? Up here, that’s a non issue if the body is straight and rust free. You can bolt in parts forever if you can keep the rust at bay.

Aaron Vienot
Aaron Vienot
4 months ago
Reply to  Oldskool

If someone junks a rust-free car outside of the rustbelt, it’s never just the fuel pump. That may be what pushed it over the edge, but since vehicles don’t degrade into a pile of the ore from whence smelted after 15-20 years, they get run with poor maintenance for a long time until a critical failure occurs. Then someone finally decides it’s not worth fixing all the things that are wrong, because there are three more on Marketplace for the same price as the repair estimate.

Very different dynamic than the rustbelt, where none of those four vehicles exist anymore, and your choice is between a new car or someone’s 12yo rust beater that may, or may not, pass safety by this time next year.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

Hence the VW motto: In bod we rust.

Flyingtoothpick71
Flyingtoothpick71
4 months ago

I agree with a lot of people where the rust sucks. But in my experience(and this may just be me) I have more connection with my bug that I have been repairing rust on and gotten driving again than I did the quite rust free c10 I had. I’ve spent more time and care on the car and it is more valuable to me. now I don’t have experience with north midwest rust, that’s a monster I have yet to face, but I think you get more connection with a car you spend that time on. you have more of a story with the car and that is one of my favorite parts of the car community. the car doesnt have to be perfect or quite expensive, just a story.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
4 months ago

Let’s not forget about ole Gil. The wolves at ole Gil’s door.
Now let’s talk rust proofing. These cars will rust up on ya like… shut up Gil, close the deal close the deal…

Morgan van Humbeck
Morgan van Humbeck
4 months ago

He’s a rust apologist! Get him!!!

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago

I thought that this was going to go down some path of rust removing the bad stuff or rust means strong aftermarket parts support or something else but not what this was about. Well written and we all know David is the rust expert.

W124
W124
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

I too was expecting one point being that rusting gives people better availability to used techical components when bodies rust away around otherwise good cars.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
4 months ago

Nope, sorry, love ya bud but this is wrong. Rust is in fact, bad, and there are plenty of people, places and events in SoCal that fully appreciate the un(der)appreciated and the weird. Torch is precisely correct in his take.

Also, what may go on at a few events is by no means the entirety of car culture. People in SoCal have some delightfully weird / exotic tastes that get expressed on a daily basis and shared during random encounters in gas stations, parking lots, or on the street because THEY CAN DRIVE THE DARN THINGS ANY DAY THEY PLEASE rather than waiting for two days of good weather in the summer. I of course exaggerate to make a point, but it’s a valid point.

W124
W124
4 months ago

Where I live (in Finland) we have long winters, lots of snow and ice, road salt and high overall humidity around the year. All the cars I’ve owned have been more ore less pain in the ass to work and own when it comes to parts underneath, like brakes, suspension etc. Even if the body is galvanized, all the bolts, nuts, suspension and break parts will rust, seize and and come off in pieces.

But when I had my first imported California only car, holy Moses. It felt wonderful how all the bolts opened, screws unscrewed and parts separated in a peaceful manner, like intended. That car was a 1965 Buick that was over 40 years old even then.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
4 months ago
Reply to  W124

I live in Minnesota and the rust makes everything so hard to work on. 6 months of winter and road salt does evil things to car parts.

Mantis Toboggan, MD
Mantis Toboggan, MD
4 months ago

It’s got to be the wealth in LA as well as the climate that makes for such a variety. Plenty of other places do not have snow and thus don’t salt the roads. Many of them have cities nearly as populous as LA. They don’t have cars like Fiats and Lancias just driving around town as a common sight. Although LA being a destination for so many people may have something to do with it as well.

In my area I’ve pretty much stopped going to car shows. There’s only so many American muscle cars and their late-model heirs I can look at with any interest after seeing them for literal decades. I can’t bring myself to get excited about bolt-on plastic chrome from AutoZone. Nor do I care how many speakers or what size amp is in the back. I think the last time I went to a car show there were over a hundred cars and the only ones I remember were a Shelby Cobra replica and a DeTomaso Pantera. The last one made my day as it is a car I’ve dreamed of since childhood and will probably never own unless I get a body shell and commit all my free time and money to rebuilding it. I bet that longitudinal ZF transaxle is hard to find. I wonder if an LS/LT engine bolted to a C7 Corvette transaxle would fit? There was a surprising amount of room in the engine bay.

Inthemikelane
Inthemikelane
4 months ago

There may be room in the engine bay, but the interior space is disappointing and ill conceived. I loved the look of the Pantera when it came out, and just by shear luck, a friend looked at buying a used one and offered me to test drive with him. Barely fitting in the passenger seat was one thing, but trying to drive it was difficult due to the huge transmission tunnel that made me have to bend my leg around it to reach the gas pedal. Five minutes I was done. They are beautiful cars, but to me, not so much fun to live with.

But you do you, and if that’s what floats your boat, I respect that. I’ve got some weird car fetishes of my own, Citroëns and Saabs, old pickup trucks, fill my car dreams.

Mantis Toboggan, MD
Mantis Toboggan, MD
4 months ago
Reply to  Inthemikelane

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to sit in any of the ones I’ve seen but I think I can fit. I’m 5’6″ and around 160lbs so I fit most places, just not most adult clothing. I’m not sure what the purpose is for the big tunnel in the cockpit. The trans is behind the engine, which is behind the driver. The linkage can’t be that damn huge and complicated. Maybe it’s a structural reinforcement. And, yeah, it’s mostly the look of it. I saw a picture of one in black with the huge wing and widebody fenders when I was a kid and my mind immediately flashed to Magnum, P.I., Miami Vice and Hawaii 5-0, those shows. I thought if the heroes drive Ferraris and Lambos this car must be what the villains drive.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
4 months ago

I’m going to have to check this against car shows in Oregon. I went to one a couple of years ago and saw everything from a slightly tired Fiat X1/9 to fully done up street rods and rat rods. The one that stuck was a BMW E30 because to me they are still ordinary cars because I grew up with them. But then I realized it was 35 years old and no longer common.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
4 months ago

David Tracy you are not supposed to drink the bong water! Now I will give you a bit of agreement in that due to lack of rust regular cars are more common and so not as common at car shows. HOWEVER, the reason they are popular in Detroit and other salty lands is 99.9% in Detroit have rusted to dust so the last one standing is a unwanted cheap enigma. I prefer cars and car shows that have a majority of the ” Yeah I would like to own/drive one of those” as opposed to I can’t believe anyone gave a shit to save one of these but kudos for being able to.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
4 months ago

Carved watermelon, and what-not induced self reflection.

Racecar_Steve
Racecar_Steve
4 months ago

I understand the point David is trying to make that “normal” older cars in good condition are less rare, and therefore perhaps less “special” at car shows in SoCal. However, I’d counter that due to the breadth and variety of vehicles available here in Southern California, and the fact that rust isn’t an issue we really have to deal with, finding obscure and interesting projects is far easier here than in a state where just managing to find a rust free 10-year-old pickup is a miracle.

I was on craigslist just yesterday and came across several rust-free projects that were all less than 5 grand, ranging from a ‘68 Cadillac Deville, a ’75 Dodge Dart Swinger, and even a ‘53 Citroën Traction Avant for crying out loud. Plus, the year-round temperate weather out here likely contributes to the prevalence of “driver quality” classic and/or obscure cars that have been kept on the road as dailies.

I’ll concede that some of the cars and coffee type-events in more affluent areas do come across as just parking lots for wealthy dudes with 6 figure rides, but I think Jason is right that there are plenty of more “common man” meetups with all types of cool rides that are not necessarily “valuable”, and therefore don’t carry that rich-guy undertone.

Racecar_Steve
Racecar_Steve
4 months ago
Reply to  Racecar_Steve

I’d add that I don’t mean to come across like I’m knocking the car scene in other states, and I really admire the people reviving and keeping old iron going in places that deal with snow and salted roads. I lived in the southeast for close to a decade, so I definitely got a taste of the car scene in other places. I just have to fundamentally disagree that rust makes anything about the car hobby better.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Racecar_Steve

It’s super depressing to imagine going to a car meet and have to ooh and aah over an Olds 88 or a 1985 Cherokee just because they haven’t dissolved into a pile of orange flakes. If I’m going to a meet or a show, I want to see something cool, whatever the value, not something that’s only cool by virtue of being drivable.

A milliom-mile 280SEL diesel in chocolate mousse brown you couldn’t give away is cool. A still-running Altima, nope.

Last edited 4 months ago by Harvey Park
Pickup_Man
Pickup_Man
4 months ago

I’ll disagree with all of this, nothing good has ever come from rust. Rust destroys perfectly good vehicles and drives prices of clean versions up and further out of reach for those who may not be able to afford one.

A clean yet mundane car still costs more than a rusty version so there’s still an undertone of “wealth” in seeing one at a midwest car show, the barrier to entry is just lower. Imagine how much cheaper something like a Pinto or LTD would be if none of them rusted to oblivion, they’d be practically free.

“Rust can get you into a vehicle that you’d otherwise not be able to afford”, Sure, it may get you into one sooner compared to saving up for a clean version, but no one has ever bought a rusty vehicle, fixed it up, and come out ahead vs starting with a clean example. I’m guilty of doing this myself, it’s just a way of life in the midwest, but again, imagine if zero Jeep FC’s had ever rusted away, if every example was as clean as the next and the only differences were mechanical and cosmetic. Maybe the price floor would be a little higher, but the ceiling would also be much lower and I’d be willing to bet any given model of car would be far more accessible to anyone.

This is all hypothetical though, rust is a reality of life, and in this cruel reality, maybe you’re right.

Racecar_Steve
Racecar_Steve
4 months ago
Reply to  Pickup_Man

I completely agree with you here. When I was living back east, I paid more money for a rusted to hell C-10 cab than I did for another cab that I bought when I moved back west that was so rust free, it even had its original paint on the rockers. Rust does nothing but lower the pool of good candidates, make what is available more expensive, and ultimately just add time and aggravation to getting/keeping projects on the road.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Pickup_Man

> “Rust can get you into a vehicle that you’d otherwise not be able to afford”,

Just punch through the door and you’re in!

John Beef
John Beef
4 months ago

I’ve lived in AZ since that ’98 Astro rolled off the line, and it’s shocking when I see a car with visible rust. Peeling clear coat is probably as common here as rust is in Detroit.

Richard Odenweller
Richard Odenweller
4 months ago

Sorry David. You just haven’t lived out west long enough yet. I grew up in the suburbs pretty near where you lived in Troy. I moved to AZ in the 80’s and then CO in the 90’s. Car culture is more than car shows. It’s the driveway mechanic actually wrenching instead of fighting to get that rusty bolt off. It’s the body guy prepping his car for paint instead of filling gaping holes in the sheet metal. Rust is what stops you from doing the things you really want to do.

Sklooner
Sklooner
4 months ago

Rust is what turns an hour long brake job into three days of hammering and replacing bits that broke when you tried to remove them

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
4 months ago

That LTD looks like something The Dude would drive. You would never see that in New England!

And I enjoyed the point-counterpoint Editor’s Notes. Was waiting for someone to be called an ignorant slut 🙂

KITT222 aka The Vibe Guy
KITT222 aka The Vibe Guy
4 months ago

I’m on David’s side with this one. The fact that things survive in rust-prone areas is significant, and on its own is worthy of asking, “How?” It’s easy for a special car to survive without being rusted to pieces, but a random Astro that in great shape? That takes commitment to taking car of it. It’s an immediate show of enthusiasm for one’s machine, and makes the car and the owner more interesting. See the Detroit Diplomat… Thing looks like crap, but the interior and undercarriage aren’t bad at all. And we Detroit Autopians enthuse over it whenever we see it. Getting excited over this stuff is A Good Thing.

Racecar_Steve
Racecar_Steve
4 months ago

I can see where you are coming from here, where a “regular” old car that presents well in an area like Detroit can be exciting because it indicates an unusual level of dedication and enthusiasm. I’ve never lived in Detroit, or anywhere in the Midwest, but I can say living out west that I still get intrigued when I see “regular” cars that are exceptionally well taken care of. Even though rust may not claim as many vehicles here, you can still tell when someone has gone above and beyond to take care of something, and I’d argue that those cars still shine above the rest of the regular cars that may be in decent shape, but are clearly not labors of love.

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
4 months ago

One of the joys of Engand (we are Jollye and Olde bye defaulte) is that ANY car over thirty years old is seen as miraculous.

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
4 months ago

Only one person could have written this article, I would have been disappointed with any other byline.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
4 months ago

David, I think there might be fog on your poly carbonate lenses. Don’t feel bad. That happens everywhere.

Automotiveflux
Automotiveflux
4 months ago

Isn’t this just an example of a diverse car culture across the country? I’d argue that both types need to exist in a healthy community.

Data
Data
4 months ago

Call the doctor, Hollywood Dave is reverting. We need an intervention stat!

For the record, I think the move was good for David. His apartment looks nice and clean. He’s driving around in a BMW and loving it. He has pets. Rumors of a lady friend. We joke about David going Hollywood, but it seems have been a really good move for him.

ColoradoFX4
ColoradoFX4
4 months ago

It’s pretty clear from this defense of rust that DT suffers from Stockholm Syndrome.

A. Barth
A. Barth
4 months ago

it’s all about making car culture inclusive and accessible to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds

Rust can also lead to good content. 😉

And welding is a superpower.

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
4 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Indeed. Basically the only reason Youtube gets to advertise to me is because I really enjoy watching people bring rusted garbage back to life.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
4 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

You’re absolutely right. If welding is a superpower, welding well is straight up plot armor.

pliney the welder
pliney the welder
4 months ago

approves this message .

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

You don’t need rust to exercise that power. Laurence and crew down in Dubbo weld like mofos

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