By James Raia
Many RV travelers may be accustomed to driving past fields of junked cars on country roads. But in the chaos of crunched metal, cracked rubber and shattered glass is also history and sometimes rare riches. They’re piles of nirvana for automobile aficionados.
“Junkyard,” the coffee table book subtitled “Behind the Gates at California’s Secretive European-Car Salvage Yard,” (Motorbooks, $40, or at Amazon) defines the latter. It’s history and mystery with acres of abandoned vehicles in fields and warehouses and purposely collected behind high walls in Southern California by the now-deceased Rudi Klein.
Originally published in Germany in 2017, the new English-translated volume is the collaborative effort of German photographer Dieter Rebmann and journalist Roland Löwisch.
After 20 years of negotiation to gain access to the collection and its elusive owner, the photographer-writer team has documented many of the riches. But the identities of plenty of other vehicles in the museum of vehicular clutter in the unincorporated community of Florence remain unknown.
The book, as its authors detail, is important because Germans love stories about Germans, cars and abandoned places.
“The cars in Klein’s junkyard were dream cars before — even in Germany,” said Löwisch via email. “You don’t find any Porsche 356s in a German junkyard, no Rolls-Royce or Jensen, Maserati or all that stuff. These cars never lost worth in their lives. So Klein’s place in L.A. was very special.”
According to the authors, Klein didn’t plan to amass a collection. Rather, he “stockpiled stuff that other people were throwing out” in a business called Porche Foreign Auto Dismantling. The “s” was left out of the spelling of the car’s name on purpose, so as not to upset the name-protective manufacturer.
Klein, a young butcher in Rüsselsheim, Germany, moved to Canada at age 25 and then to the United States. He soon bought his first crashed car, a Mercedes 300SL. With a friend, Klein opened his first “breaker’s yard” (auto garage) and began to acquire unique cars. He purchased Burt Lancaster’s 280-series Mercedes-Benz, a Rolls-Royce convertible once owned by Tony Curtis and a Ferrari 250 LM owned by Sonny and Cher.
During the first oil crisis in 1974, Klein purchased many expensive cars, notably Porsche and Mercedes-Benz models. Twenty years ago, when he finally allowed the book’s authors to visit, the eccentric, often-grumpy collector had amassed thousands of vehicles, one-of-a-kind rarities to stacks of Porsches. A Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II rested on top of a Maserati, with oddity complemented nearby by a 1952 Adenauer Mercedes 300, a Dino Ferrari, a Mercedes 220 Coupe, an Aston Martin Vantage and two Packards, among other vehicles.
Klein died of heart failure on Oct. 21, 2001, at age 65. His sons, Jason and Benji, run the business today, but it’s vastly different from their father’s heyday. Some vehicles have been sold, and the once-massive museum has shrunk and received a makeover.
Plenty of mystery remains. Visitors are no longer allowed, and only Klein’s sons know what never-revealed vehicles remain in some of the establishment’s old barns.
James Raia, a syndicated columnist in Sacramento, Ca., publishes a free weekly automotive podcast and electronic newsletter. Sign-ups are available on his website, www.theweeklydriver.com. He can be reached via email: email@example.com.