LA car hoarder’s legacy chronicled in new book

James Raia

Junkyard: New book details LA collector's car history.

Graveyards of rusty, battered and weed-adorned cars scattered along backcountry roads are a stamp on society’s reliance on motor vehicles. Junkers are junkers, often hoarded and defining automotive blight.

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: New book details LA collector's car history.
Junkyard: New book details LA collector’s car history.

Junkyard, the coffee-table book sub-titled Behind the Gates at California’s Secretive European-Car Salvage Yard (Motorbooks, $40) defines the latter. It’s history and mystery 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.

Car fanciers get access, can’t believe what they see

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 purpose, 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 has 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 and an Aston Martin Vantage and two Packards, among other vehicles.

“I hope the readers will dive into good old times, first because of all the old, beautiful crashed cars, second because the junkyard doesn’t exist anymore,” said Rebbman, also via email. “This book is the only comprehensive documentation about this unique and now really lost place.”

Maybe some readers will remember their own old cars, maybe some will think about the fate of luxury, about the potential story behind each wreck. And there are a lot of details in the pics, so it’s worth taking more than one look into the book.”

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, 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.

Article Last Updated: July 3, 2020.

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