Fifty years is a long time to wait. It was long enough for the saplings at Old Car City, U.S.A., to sprout and grow right through Dean Lewis’s wrecked automobiles, wearing them like old clothes; long enough for moss to blanket his 32-acre junkyard masterpiece; long enough for nature to imbue the most coveted artistic touch of all.
It means rust.
Today, Old Car City with its thousands of wrecks rests near the tiny town of White, Georgia, and has plenty of rust. Its beautiful mix of patina and nature has made it a magnet for artists and glitzy photographers for over a decade, providing ideal juxtapositions for models and hotrod magazines. That started about 15 years ago with a helpful suggestion from a visiting photographer:
“I took some pictures out there; you might want to charge folks to come out here and take photos.”
Mr. Lewis replied in his southern drawl, “That’s a good idea, I think I'll start with you!”
Hence, the idea of turning a junkyard into a museum was born, and the rest was history. Now, artists flock from New York, Los Angeles, and across America and pay to shoot at Old Car City. Tourists locally and from as far away as Brazil, Portugal, and Germany frequently visit, seeking escape. Old Car City offers tranquil harmony.
Since 1972, Mr. Lewis has gone from being a seller of scrap auto parts to an artist and a curator. Some now call him the “mayor” of Old Car City. What once was the world’s largest classic car junkyard—boasting 4,400 old automobiles—became a museum and a grand canvas for the artist. “All the other junkyards bought cars that were 10 years old and younger; I would buy 10 years and older cars,” Mr. Lewis told The Epoch Times, speaking of when he first inherited the junkyard.
His 32-acre masterpiece includes 7 miles of trail weaving through wrecks no younger than 50 years. Unlike spotless museum venues, there’s no cleanup at Old Car City. Autumn leaves are allowed to rot where they fall and grass and moss grow on the hoods of old rust buckets. Forty-foot trees noodle through bumpers, engines, and windshields. Some cars have been untouched for over a half-century. Yet the scrapyard has been in Mr. Lewis’s family far longer.
It all started in 1931 when his dad, Walter Lewis, owned the land and ran a convenience store with a gas pump. During the Great Depression, he bought wrecked cars and started selling parts to earn extra coin. By the time his son inherited Old Car City in 1972, they had amassed some 3,300 classic cars. “Probably about 15-20 years ago, my land was full of cars, and I had cars running almost into the road,” Mr. Lewis said. “Luckily, 26 acres came open. … So, I bought that.” As he kept buying more wrecks, Old Car City’s collection grew. “We line them up as they come in,” he said. “We line up General Motors lineup, Chrysler lineup, and Ford lineup. … We put ’em in families.”
It wasn’t long before inspiration struck, and Mr. Lewis had a mind to make it a museum. He knew just the look he wanted for Old Car City; there’s that word again—patina—yet it would take time. “It used to be a plain-Jane cottonfield—there wasn’t a tree in it,” he said. “Then, I started putting the cars in … and I let the trees grow. Heck, I wouldn’t let them cut a tree at all—[not] a little tree, [not] a big tree.”
Marketing was the museum’s next hurdle. Located 2 miles from Interstate 75, he envisioned a billboard luring travelers “to come take a look here at Old Car City,” he said. “So, I went looking for a celebrity car to put on the billboard.”
The crown jewel of Old Car City is the last car Elvis Presley ever purchased. Mr. Lewis had found an Elvis collector in Columbus selling cars and records owned by The King including a 1977 Lincoln Mark V, burgundy on burgundy, with documentation. It now sits (sheltered, of course) in Mr. Lewis’s collection. “It had 63,000 miles on it,” Mr. Lewis said. “He gave it to his personal hairdresser, Lawrence Geller, out of Los Angeles.”
Old Car City had a lukewarm reception from visitors at first. Until Hot Rod Magazine bought exclusive rights to stage photographs premiering the new Corvette model in the mid-2010s. Then the museum went viral. The photoshoot projected it to next-level fame and it’s ridden the wave of free publicity from photographers and magazines ever since.
Despite the fame, though, Old Car City is the same place it always was. Mr. Lewis only hired his grandson to handle social media, while the artist spends his days doodling folksy art on canvases or Styrofoam cups to display in the showroom, adding to the attraction. “I’m a doodler,” he said, adding why he reckons so many artists flock to his automotive work of art:
“Believe it or not, they like the word ‘junkyard.’ That’s what we promote—junkyard—and also patina. You hear a lot about patina.”