CC Road Trip: Cars of the Big Island of Hawaii

Aloha, and Welcome to Hawaii! I recently returned from a week-long vacation on the island of Hawaii (more commonly known as the “Big Island.”) While many people vacation here for the beautiful beaches and sunny tropical weather, I keep coming back here year after year for its unique automotive environment (well, that and the beautiful beaches and sunny tropical weather). Much like the Galapagos formed a unique natural laboratory for Charles Darwin to study evolution, the relatively closed automotive ecosystem of the Big Island (every car has to be shipped on and off) forms an interesting automotive environment worthy of further study.

Parking garage full of rental cars. Yes, this is a color photo.


There are two distinct classes of cars in Hawaii: Rental cars driven by tourists, and cars owned island residents. Tourist rentals are easy to spot: A Late model vehicle (one or two years old, tops), almost always achromatic (white, silver, or gray), in a low trim level made by Chevrolet, Ford, Hyundai, Nissan or Jeep. Toyota is a bit player in the rental car market here, while Honda doesn’t seem to play at all. Still, if I had to pick an archetypal rental vehicle in Hawaii, it would have to be a white Mustang convertible.


Rental Mustang convertibles are like Kudzu in Hawaii: They seem to be everywhere. Truth be told, Hawaii isn’t a great place for a convertible. It is hot and humid, and it rains almost every day at some point (especially on the “wet side” of the island). The mailbox sized trunk won’t handle the large amount of luggage that a week-long trip almost by necessity forces one to bring (And if you are going to the time and expense to fly to Hawaii, you are going to stay at least a week). When I’m on vacation, I want to be comfortable, which is why I always get a closed car. That said, most people don’t have a convertible parked in their garage at home like I do, so renting a ragtop for a one week vacation is the only top down motoring most people are likely to experience.

The other class of cars comprise those owned and driven by the local residents of the Big Island. These are much more interesting than the sterile rental pods, and are what I will spend the remainder of this (and subsequent) articles covering.


2003 Hyundai Accent that probably started life as a rental.


Not that there isn’t some crossover between these two groups: Some rental cars are destined for a second life as a vehicle owned by an island dweller after being sold off by the rental company. Chances are that white Chevy Aveo or Nisan Versa that you see on the road started out life as a budget rental. But there are limits to how many second-hand Mustang convertibles and Jeep Wranglers the big island can absorb (based on my observations, the amount is pretty close to zero). So the vast majority of these rental cars ultimately end up going back to the mainland on the same boats that brought them here in the first place.


The “official” vehicle of Hawaii – a Taco with a ladder rack


Aside from the two small towns of Kailua-Kona on the west coast (population 12,000), and Hilo on the East (population 43,000), almost the entire 4,000 square miles of the Big Island is rural, so pickup trucks reign supreme. The Big Island is sometimes referred to as the Texas of Hawaii, not just because of its relative size (twice the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined), but because of its large cattle ranching industry. Indeed, if I had to pick a prototypical vehicle of the non-rental set, it would be a Toyota Tacoma, with a ladder rack, like the one pictured above.


All three FoMoCo brands under one roof. Wait, what??


The cars of the Big Island are predominantly Asian. Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and Kia rule the roost here, and are all sold from stylish modern dealerships. In contrast, the Ford dealership in Kailua-Kona is an older building, paired with Lincoln, and apparently Mercury as well. I didn’t stop in to check out the new Mercurys.

By far the easiest way to identify local cars is by their cataract-like cloudy headlight covers. You see, the Big Island has a bit of a pollution problem. For once though, the problem is not from your usual man-made culprits, but rather from the active volcano that resides on the southeastern part of the island. This has given rise to some cutesy names for the resulting atmospheric phenomena, like “Vog” (volcanic smog) and “Laze” (haze created when hot lava enters the ocean). Honestly, it is hard to use terms like this and still feel like an adult.


Island ravaged Toyota Corolla


Whatever you call it, the combination of volcanic acid rain, strong tropical sunshine and salty humid ocean air quickly attacks the paint and plastic bits of every car exposed to it. Any car older than about five years that is not regularly garaged or waxed will start to have a noticeably dull finish. Once it hits about 15 years, most of the finish on the horizontal body parts will be gone (as on the car pictured above).

The Big Island has perhaps 20 miles of divided freeways, none of which are limited access. Honolulu (on the island of Oahu) has three “Interstates,” H1, H2, and H3. However, they are all urban and highly congested. Bottom line is that cars here are subject to lots of hard stop-and-go driving. and few easy freeway miles. This, combined with the previously mentioned environmental factors, means that cars older than about 15 years are very uncommon, and cars older than 25 are virtually nonexistent.

So where do all the old cars in Hawaii end up? Come back tomorrow for part 2, for the revealing answer.

Related Reading

Kaua’i Klassics: How About A Nice Hawaiian Poncho?