Past Their Prime

A 1959 Oldsmobile and a 1958 Buick... Partners Until The End. 

“This should have happened 40 years ago.”

It was a common refrain that misty, cold October morning at a salvage yard auction in rural McLean County, Illinois.

“Its all junk!” one man exclaimed as he walked down the dead-end road back to his pickup.  Other passers-by shook their heads. Some didn’t speak at all, but their facial expression said enough. Dreams of pulling a diamond in the rough out of a field and restoring it over the wintertime were quickly dashed by the dozen.

This Was Our View of the Gus Miller Yard From the Outside. 

Yet there we were, undeterred by harsh comments. Armed with an auction flyer and a wallet full of cash outside the fenced-off yard, Sarah, Mom and I ventured deep into the Hundred Acre Wood in search of old cars. We heard the rumors about this collection of 1930s-1970s cars going up for sale for several months. Xeroxed copies of a flyer mysteriously appeared at summer car shows, with little detail other than a date, time and location. In other words, it was the perfect auction marketing campaign. The place was packed with bidders.

Legend has it the man who owns this property is a former bar owner named Gus Miller from Heyworth, Illinois who happened to like classic iron in a big way. He would purchase them from police impound lots and auctions. Other came from nearby Illinois State University students getting rid of their college beaters before heading back home. He’d load up the land yachts with empty bottles and trash from his tavern and take them the rural property and use them as storage units. Over the years his collection grew to well over 100 vehicles. While some parts were occasionally sold piecemeal to a select group of friends, many of the vehicles we saw in the wild were in complete original condition. Engines, drivetrains, interior and trim were all still there. But make no mistake, nothing was going to drive off under its own power. Mother Nature had reclaimed most everything from these once proud machines. For whatever reason, the owner had decided to auction off most everything this year.

Cars With a White Painted Number Were For Sale. Yellow Numbers Were Off Limits. 

Men in Black: 1959 Ford and a 1950 Buick.

Cousins From Detroit. 1956 Ford, 1954 Chevrolet, 1953 Buick, and a 1958 Mercury. 

There Was Even a Pork Tenderloin Trailer Smack in the Middle of the Yard. How Central Illinois is That?

Several Space-Age Mopars Were Among the Auctioned Cars. This 1958 Dodge Met Its Fate Long, Long Ago. 

Orphans: A Late 40's Frazer and Nash Share a Quiet Spot.

Most of the automobiles actually had titles. In the state of Illinois, that’s as good as gold. The owner was also allowing buyers a period of one year to claim their winnings from the lot, so timing wasn’t an issue. But instead of excitement and anxiousness at this auction, there was an undercurrent of heartache. The overall somber mood covered everything like a wet blanket. These cars were in such bad shape, that most would prove too far gone to salvage short of trim, some glass, and *maybe* driveline parts. Buyers knew it, and many simply observed while the auctioneer quickly fired off the lot numbers and wrapped up the bidding in record time.

The hammer dropped at around $120 for most vehicles that day. With scrap prices well below $100 a ton, it was depressing to see cars that likely drove into the lot as untouched ‘old cars’ in the 60s and 70s die with all of their jewelry on and fetch slightly over scrap metal price nearly a half-century later.

A Mid-Year 1957 Imperial Crown Coupe Was One Of the First Sights in the Yard. This Example Was in Poor Condition, but Could Yield Many Hard-To-Find Interior & Exterior Stainless Trim Parts to a Restorer.

At least the opportunity was there to save what parts people could. I can take comfort in that. Hindsight is 20/20 and everyone likes to armchair quarterback, but if these were put up for auction even 20 years ago, maybe some of them might have been able to be put back on the road.

Instead I read stories of people winning the high bid, and stripping the parts they needed right then and there and leaving the carcass to continue rotting. People field dressed their purchases. Desperate times call for desperate measures. 

Here are a few of the treasures that were available that day. 


"You can't save 'em all." as my Dad always says.

You sure can't.

But darn it, you can't scrap them all, either.



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